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Hard working, long enduring

Ignacia Bordallo Butler (1897-1993) was a Chamorro entrepreneur and business partner with her husband, Chester Butler, who together successfully ran Butler’s Inc.  She is also remembered for her strength in dealing with Japanese soldiers during World War II on Guam.  The Japanese soldiers eventually came to respect Butler for her quiet determination and dignity.

In her later years, Butler established a reputation as the ‘‘grand lady’’ of Guam’s business circle. She was also a respected benefactor of the Catholic Church.

First generation Bordallos on Guam

Ignacia Bordallo Butler was born on 13 November 1897 to Baltazar Bordallo and Rita Pangelinan Bordallo, a daughter of Guam’s large “Kotla” clan.  Bordallo, from Saucelle, Spain, took up residency on Guam, started a cattle ranch and married Pangelinan of Sumay.  The couple had five children – Ignacia, Baltazar Jerome (“BJ”), Delfina, Carlos, and Tomas.  They were fluent in Chamorro, Spanish and English since childhood.  Ignacia was adored by her father, who vowed on the day she was born that his daughter would never be made to wash a dish in her life.  For her part, Ignacia acted as an attentive “little mother” towards her younger siblings.

As per Spanish custom, the elder Bordallo allowed his children to drink wine with their dinners.  He would vary the individual serving amount of the wine according to his child’s age.  While Ignacia originally harbored a strong dislike for the full-bodied taste of the wine, she eventually became accustomed to the drink, her granddaughter, Donna Champion, related.

Ignacia Bordallo went to school in Hagåtña and was then sent to the Philippines for high school and to earn a teacher’s certificate.  She returned to Guam at age seventeen, and soon met Chester Carl Butler, a former sailor from Fort Worth, Texas, who years later became an importer/exporter for the Pacific Islands Trading Company (PITCO).

The romantic match between Ignacia and Chester was not an easy one as Butler was a Baptist and the Bordallos were Catholic.  Family stories recount how her younger brothers would purposefully embarrass her whenever Butler would visit the family.  Revealing his devotion to his future wife and business partner, Chester converted from the Baptist faith to Catholicism to marry Ignacia.

When Ignacia turned eighteen, she and Chester were wed on 8 January 1915 at Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Agat.  As a wedding gift, Baltazar Bordallo purchased a building in downtown Hagåtña, which he originally intended for his daughter to turn into a school house, since she had been educated as a teacher.  However, instead of a school this building became Butler’s Emporium, a dry goods store which was a part of Butler’s Incorporated.

Ignacia and Chester Butler had six children – James, Beatrice (Sister Martha of Jesus and Mary), Clara Mae, Benjamin and his twin Harry (Harry died as an infant),  and Dorothy (Sister Carmencita of the Infant of Prague).

Introduced Coca-Cola to the island

The two worked hard to grow their business.  They received a boost when Chester Butler went to Atlanta, Georgia and obtained a franchise for Coca-Cola, then a new soft drink.  Their Coca-Cola bottling venture was a success and they added modern machinery and Guam’s first automated conveyor assembly line to their soda-making plant.  Soon, Butler’s became synonymous with Coca-Cola.

In the early 1930s, the couple added to their growing business the Butler’s Merchandise Retail Store in Hagåtña, several warehouses, and the Agana Theatre (near the Navy Yard) in Hagåtña, one of only two movie theaters on Guam at the time.

The couple fell into their respective roles as business partners.  Ignacia relied on her attention to detail, a trait which influenced her responsibility to the business’s paperwork.  The two had a unique relationship, differing greatly from the standard expectations of a married couple during the time.

In 1936, they opened Butler’s Emporium in Hagåtña, a dry goods store featuring major US franchises such as the popular picture weeklies Life, Post, Collier’s, Newsweek, and Time magazines, as well as General Electric and Hamm’s Beer. Butler’s Soda Fountain, located inside the Emporium, was a popular ice cream spot on Guam at the time. They also started Guam’s first commercial radio station, K6LG, which was operated only a few hours a day by their son, Benny.

Took charge during WWII

The Butlers saw World War II coming and knew it would affect Guam, though not to what extent. As a precaution they sent their unmarried daughters to California to live with their married daughter, Clara Mae Champion, and sent their money to a bank in San Francisco for safekeeping.

When World War II broke out, Chester Butler was one of about 550 Americans taken to Japan as a prisoner of war.  Ignacia Butler continued to operate the family business with her son, James, during the Japanese occupation.

When Japanese soldiers asked her to make Coca-Cola, she told them she had run out of syrup, although in reality she had plenty in stock hidden in her warehouse. Both James and Ignacia Butler were interrogated various times by Japanese soldiers who wanted to know were she was keeping the business’s money. James Butler was forced to learn Japanese and act as an interpreter for the Japanese on Guam.

Ignacia Butler helped to support the operators of secret radios, at great risk to herself, to help the Chamorros stay in tune with American news reports of the war. She was physically abused, beaten with a rubber hose, however, for her resistance during the war. She was also forced to sell her goods for Japanese yen. The yen currency was a worthless form of payment on island during the war.

In time, though, the Japanese came to respect her strength. Butler’s granddaughter, Donna Champion, writes of her grandmother’s position during World War II:

“I understand that the Japanese assigned an identification number to every person on Guam when they took over the island; however, my grandmother was never given a number. They knew who she was. She was indomitable and, I think, they respected this quality in her.”

Business in ruins

The Butler’s businesses were in ruins from the American bombardment of Hagåtña in 1944. Most of their family land in Agat and Yigo was taken by the reestablished American naval government for military bases. Chester never regained his health after his internment and died in 1952 of pancreatic cancer.

Ignacia took over the running of the business, reconsolidating Butler’s holdings and relocating Butler’s store to its present location in Sinajana. She ran Butler’s as its president until 1982, when ill health finally forced her into retirement. She moved to California to live with her daughter, Clara Mae, and died there on 18 April 1993 at the age of 95. She and her husband are buried together at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Hayward, California.

Legacy of generosity and civic leadership

Ignacia Butler was known among the religious community as a benefactor for her numerous financial contributions to the church and set an example for all Chamorro women as a loving mother, successful business woman and civic leader.

Butler had many stories of her life during wartime. She once hid $3,000 in a coffee can, burying the can under a coconut tree in order to protect the money from Japanese soldiers. After the war, the landscape was bombed and unrecognizable. Butler couldn’t remember where the coconut tree had been.

After wartime Butler’s generosity blossomed. She quietly helped others with interest- free loans so that they, too, could pick up and start over again.

She also became a world traveler in her later years. She visited Europe and visited her cousins in Spain among other places. She traveled to China and throughout Asia, including India, South America (also visiting cousins in Argentina), the Caribbean (cousins in Puerto Rico). She visited the Holy Land and North Africa, and made religious pilgrimages to Lourdes (France) and Fatima (Portugal).

She and her husband, two of Guam’s earliest business pioneers, were inducted as laureates into the Guam Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame in 1996.

By Leo Babauta and Samantha Marley Barnett

For further reading

Butler Family of Guam. Accessed 3 July 2012.

Guam Chamber of Commerce. “Hall of Fame Laureate Profile: Chester Carl Butler & Ignacia Bordallo Butler.” Accessed 3 July 2012.

Political Status Education Coordinating Commission. Hale’-ta, I Manfåyi: Who’s Who in Chamorro History. Vol. 1. Hagåtña: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission, 1995.