Competition for rank and status

As in any culture, Chamorros compete against themselves in various ways, whether at the level of individuals, families, neighborhoods, villages or regions. The forms of competition can range from creative, playful, to political and governmental, or to even violent. People compete with each other for power, influence, resources and finally for fun or for entertainment. Over the past few centuries, these forms of competition in Guam have taken on numerous forms, but have often times been dictated over issues of who has access to or control over newly introduced technology.

In the world of ancient Chamorros, there was no centralized government over all Chamorros or over all islands. Instead the governing of affairs rested at the level of individual clans or families and with villages. All clans were not equal within a village however, and the power and influence that they might have depended upon a set of social forms of competition and gestures of respect, through which they could gain increased prestige and power. Whoever was afforded the most respect and controlled the most resources in a village could be expected to have the most power. Chamorros competed amongst each other in order to gain influence within villages, but also competed in village against village contests. This social competition is called chåmpada in Chamorro.

Great achievements amongst the members of your clan, whether in terms of fishing, fighting, storytelling or any other activity that Ancient Chamorros participated in, could increase the status of your clan and your village. A large catch when fishing, and also displaying gineftao (generosity) by sharing it with others was considered to be a superlative act which could increase an individual’s status as well as his clan’s standing. Great deeds of physical or mental prowess could also have a similar effect. During large celebrations or parties, members of different clans would compete in physical challenges such as afulo’ (wrestling) or could hurl a spear with the best accuracy. For creative endeavors, they would participate in mari (debate), history/storytelling, recitation of clan genealogy or history and kantan chamorita (improvisational singing).

Sometimes competition amongst clans or villages would result in outright fighting or warfare. Warfare amongst Ancient Chamorros was primarily symbolic and ritualistic, and they went to war not with the intent of slaughtering their enemies, but rather outwitting or humiliating them.

Spanish Era changes

With the arrival of the Spanish, these competitions between clans took on a new vicious element. As the Spanish brought with them both new ideas and new technology, Chamorros actively competed for who would have access to the world of the newcomers or have access to their technology. When Catholic Father Diego Luis de San Vitores first arrived in Guam, he was welcomed by the people of Hagåtña, but for the first few months of his stay he was not permitted to leave the village. In the minds of the higher class Chamorros that welcomed him, San Vitores represented a huge advantage in their competitions with other villages and therefore, he should remain theirs.

Although scholars are uncertain as to how rigidly stratified Chamorro society was during this period, we know there were two social classes, the matao or chamorri followed by the acha’ot (both in the upper class), and finally the lower class the manachang. The higher the class the more power and authority they held, especially in terms of controlling or having access to natural resources. For instance, higher caste Chamorros lived along the kånton tåsi (beaches) and the tåsi (ocean) was considered their domain. Lower caste Chamorros had to live inland, unless they worked for the matao, and were prohibited access to the coastal resources.

The arrival of the Spanish Catholic Missionaries and their promises that everyone who followed them was equal in the eyes of their god, represented a revolutionary shift in some of Guam’s social hierarchy. Lower class Chamorros could convert to the new faith, leave behind the social structures of the past, and hopefully increase their lot in life. This was not always the case, however. The Chamorros in Agat, a high caste coastal village, helped the Spanish defeat the Chamorros in Talisay, an inland low caste village.

Even prior to the colonization of Guam which began in the 1660s, whenever errant technology, primarily lulok (metal) would come into Guam it was highly coveted. This technology would be incorporated into existing forms of societal competition and generally gave a huge advantage to those who possessed it. The various types of canoe that Chamorros used could take months or years to carve, for example, using tools made from shell or stone. With lulok however, the time could be sped up considerably, making your clan or family far more competitive.

When the Chamorro-Spanish Wars ended at the end of the 17th century, with the Spanish Catholic missionaries victorious, ideas of value and the means of social competition changed drastically. The Spanish uprooted Chamorros from their ancestral lands, prohibited the beliefs and practices that they deemed either savage or pagan, or could aid in their resistance to the Spanish, and sought to remake their lives. In the public space, they were successful and for centuries after the war ended, things associated with Spain, the Spanish Crown, and Catholicism became the ways in which Chamorros would compete over social standing, recognize someone as being socially superior, or improve their standing and rise in prominence.

There were Chamorros who resisted these shifts for generations after the wars had ended. These Chamorros rejected, albeit quietly, much of the changes in value, culture and belief that the Spanish mandated, but tended to stay away from the villages and the locations that the Spanish enforced as the centers of Chamorro life. Instead these Chamorros usually stayed away on their låncho siha (ranches) or live in the hålomtåno’ (jungle).

As Chamorros adjusted to life under their colonizer, their daily forms of social competition remained the same in some respects, as certain practices were not forbidden or forgotten. Although the navigational culture that was at the heart of many Chamorro lives was forbidden, a strong sense of identity as a lancheru (ranchers or those who lived off the land) or guagualo’ (farmers) soon took over Chamorro culture, as Chamorros began to get the majority of their sustenance from the land. In the same way as with fishing or navigation, Chamorros competed in subtle and overt ways for who was the best lancheru, who could be depended upon to provide for their family, who grew the largest crops and who was the most geftao. The chamorita singing style continued to be prominent, and the chief form of everyday entertainment at work, at social gatherings, or in the home. Being adept at mocking another or creating a na’chalek (funny) verse could still enhance your reputation and give you status within your community as it had in centuries past.

Loud music at parties is also a form of chåmpada. People must know your party is a success.

The major change during this time, however, and one which Guam continues to exhibit until the present day, is that much of the social competition between Chamorros tended to take the colonizer and his influences as their model for determining who was more affluent, who was more sophisticated, who was more stylish, who was more intelligent. A Chamorro’s place, would be seen as high or low, or could be perceived as someone who could advance or go places based on how well he emulated or embodied pieces of the colonizer.

During the Spanish period, speaking the Fino’ Lågu or Fino’ Españot (Spanish language), having a Spanish apuyido (last name), having Spanish håga’ (blood), having fair skin, were all things which could enhance the status of a Chamorro, and give them access to the Spanish government or military on island, but also give one the aura of being more intimately associated with the colonizer than others.

Same value, different expression

Although Guam had been integrated into a new global empire when it was conquered by the Spanish, technology and goods from that empire tended to trickle in slowly. Possessing new items such as modan på’go (fashion), ramenta (tools), lepbo (books) or even musical instruments were all either symbols of someone’s existing prestige or an ownership which could enhance and elevate the way others saw you.

During this period the Catholic faith’s calendar of religious events and its physical sites such as the Guma’ Yu’os (church) became the centers of Chamorro life, so much that the year of Chamorros was primarily structured around the events of life, death, and rites of passage that the church oversaw. The church and its representatives such as pale’ (priests) became further sites whereby Chamorros could compete against each other for status. The closeness to the church, the amount of support a family provided the church, closeness to pale’, even the geographical proximity of the church to your home were ways that Chamorros competed for who was the most religious, who was the most holy.

The Guma’ Yu’os or the various gupot (parties) that were associated with the Guma’ Yu’os became showcases for competition. With numerous families gathered, people of all ages and social classes in one place, one could show off nuebu na sapatos (new shoes), un nuebu na bestida (a new dress) or new alahas plata or oru (silver or gold jewelry). All sitting in the same room, or gathered at the same party, Chamorros could compete with each other for influence and social prestige, through glances and nginangon (whispers).

Change slows in early 20th century

When the colonial guard changed with the Spanish-American War in 1898 from Spain to the United States, so did the hierarchy of value and influence. The change was slow at first as many Chamorros saw their new colonizers as beneath their old ones. Most of what Chamorros knew of Americans came via their interactions with American bayeneru (whalers) during the 19th century, and the characteristics they tended to exhibit were not flattering. To Chamorros at the start of the 20th century, especially Chamorro elites, the United States was an uncivilized, non-Catholic, non-European country, not as sophisticated as the Spanish had been.

Within a generation, however, America and its context in Guam, whether they be the English language, technology and goods from the United States or the edicts of the United States Navy’s colonial administration in Guam, began to impact the Chamorros’ mindset.  During this period prior to World War II, however, the influence of the United States held no where near as much power in shaping Chamorros as the Spanish and the religion of Catholicism had.

Communication and transportation advances

The arrival of the United States in Guam coincided with changes in transportation and commerce in the Asia Pacific region, and resulted in a linking together of different markets and economics from the United States to East Asia in ways that had existed before. This change, combined with the small, but determined efforts of the United States Navy to have Chamorros give up a bartering economy for a wage-dependent one, helped instill – in Chamorros – both a sense of entrepreneurship and a strong consumer desire.

Numerous Chamorro families opened small shops and stores which made access to outside goods from the United States and Asia easier than ever before. Everything from Coca-Cola, to ice cream, to cars, to nuebu na moda (new fashions), were readily available, and possible signs of status. These items proved you to be modern or American and could separate you from others who didn’t have such goods. The Guma’ Yu’os, however, was still an ideal place for the showcasing a new dress or shoes.

Within two generations, the high value of American blood was soon established, just as it had been under the Spanish. Families with a white American father and a Chamorro (or Chamorro-Spanish) mother, were sometimes referred to as “American Bamboo” and were the new elite class on Guam. They tended to be fair, with “unique” hair, usually had wealth and more access to the Government on Guam and to American goods.

Educational advancement became far easier, but was still somewhat limited. Under the Spanish, formal education was only open to a select few. When the pre-war American colonial period ended at the start of World War II, the United States Navy had established a full-functioning public educational system on Guam, from grades 1 – 12. The curriculum was utterly colonial, meaning that it was based on prohibiting the Chamorro language, elevating all things American and molding the Chamorro into a properly civilized subject. Despite this, the system still gave lower-class Chamorros a chance at a formal education, and thus upset centuries of social hierarchy. The claim to be “educated” was something more than just the privileged could now claim. These increased educational opportunities also helped increase occupational opportunities. Any Chamorro who survived the educational system could get a job in the US Naval Government (as a teacher, an officer worker, a civil service worker), which at the time was one of the quickest and most assured ways of improving one’s economic wealth and social standing.

Education, employment and military status

Chamorros had served in the militaries of the Spanish since the 17th century up until the change of colonizers in 1898. Military service had always been a means of improving one’s status and having a regular income on an island which was defined primarily by bartering and subsistence farming. Military service under the United States took these same qualities, but with one new difference that gave those who served even more influence and social standing in Guam.

Under the United States, Chamorros on Guam could join the US Navy, but were only allowed to serve as in menial positions as cooks or servants (such as African Americans), with no possibility of advancement. But in addition to the wages that the job provided, the access that sailors received to the commissary was something that could give him or his family an advantage in the social ways in which Chamorros competed for standing. The first waves of Chamorros who joined the navy on Guam were jokingly referred to as marinan mantikiya (butter sailors) because of the truth that most joined up in order to buy things only sold at the commissary or buy things at cheaper costs. When hosting a gupot that access to cheaper goods could be crucial in providing a savings to one’s wallet and also potentially increasing your social standing.

One way in which military service during this period changed Chamorro society was that it allowed Chamorros to travel beyond Guam’s shores. Chamorros who joined the navy could not only serve on Guam, but could also travel elsewhere across the Asia-Pacific region. If a sailor returned to Guam after seeing what life was like outside of Guam, especially gi lagu (in the United States), he brought with him an identity of having seen and lived America, which all others on Guam only heard about or were learned about in school. For an island which was struggling to figure out its relationship to its colonizer, and to the rhetoric, promises and hypocrisies of this era, these Chamorros who came back from gi lagu were often afforded high social value because of the experience and tales that they brought back with them.

WW II cemented US – Chamorro relationship

Much of the Americanization or privileging of the United States and its influence from the pre-war era was solidified after World War II. Prior to the war, Chamorros had interacted with the United States in a cautious, but accepting way. They picked and chose from what it offered into their lives, and most importantly refused to accept much of the colonial and racist rhetoric that the United States used to govern Guam and argue for the civilizing of Chamorros. Thus, while American influence dictated much of what was perceived as having social value or providing upward mobility before WW II, this did not extend into the hearts of Chamorros, it was not something which pierced them the way Spanish Catholicism had. The US Naval Government referred to Chamorros as stubborn or backwards because of their unwillingness to give up their language, their culture, their way of life, but after the war, this basic resistance appeared to have vanished, and Chamorros found a multitude ways in which they asserted the United States as the center of their lives, as that which determined everything in their lives, most importantly how to live and how to progress.

As Chamorros worked to rebuild their island after WW II, they explicitly modeled themselves after the United States and actively sought to remake their island and their lives with the United States as their guide. The idea of the “American way” as an ideal or a force for social improvement or advancement was now not a piece of colonial rhetoric, but something that Chamorros found a tangible and regular way to put into action. Competition amongst Chamorros now became about who was the “most American.” This is a crucial difference, since before the war, Chamorros competed via possessing or adapting certain ideas or goods, while maintaining a distance from being American. After the war, it was not just about possessing things which were considered to be “American,” but actively giving up things which were considered to be “Chamorro,” which might get in the way of a person’s way of progressing to the point of being American.

Speaking English

Nowhere was this more clear than in the ways in which Chamorros of all classes made very conscious decisions that speaking the Chamorro language lowered the chances for success of their children and that speaking English would open the doors of life for a child. As a result, tens of thousands of Chamorros were intentionally not taught Chamorro, and the result on the vitality of the language has been devastating.

One significant way in which the competitions for status and power in Guam have grown since after the war is the centrality of local politics in Chamorro and Guam life. Chamorros were only allowed to participate in the colonial governments of Spain and the United States in limited, often times tokenistic and pointless ways. After the passage of the Organic Act, a locally elected Guam Legislature was created which held twenty-one seats (it has since been changed to fifteen). In the 1970s, Guam was finally given the right to elect its own governor and non-voting delegate to the United States Congress. The vibrancy of competition on Guam continues as candidates use their families, their skills and their social networks to vie for these slots at governing Guam.

Perhaps as a backlash to the explicit attempts by post-war Chamorros to weed the Chamorro out of themselves and their children, recent decades have seen a sort of revival, a decolonization of values and influence, on Guam. Although the Chamorro language is still visibly declining, attitudes about it have changed. While there is still not enough of a shift of mindsets to start a revival of the Chamorro language, enough of a shift has taken place to where it is something to be celebrated, especially for younger Chamorros, if they speak the language. In contrast to the tens of thousands of Chamorros born after the war who don’t speak the language because it was kept from them, if a young Chamorro speaks the language today it can be considered a point of pride, something which indicates the cultural prowess of your family. Signifiers of Chinamoru (Chamorroness), whether they be tattoos, car stickers, t-shirts or jewelry have also become fashionable and are often worn to indicate a certain level of consciousness, and are now things which Chamorros can use to compete against each other.

By Michael Lujan Bevacqua, PhD

For further reading

Bevacqua, Michael Lujan. These May or May Not Be Americans: The Patriotic Myth and the Hijacking of Chamorro History in Guam.” MA Thesis, University of Guam, 2007.

Cunningham, Lawrence. Ancient Chamorro Society. The Bess Press, Honolulu, 1992.

Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency. A Journey with the Masters of Chamorro Tradition. Hagåtña: Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency, 2000.

Political Status Education and Coordinating Commission. I Manfayi: Who’s Who in Chamorro History: Volume 1.  Hagåtña: Political Status Education and Coordinating Commission, 1995.

Rogers, Robert F. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1995.

Russell, Scott. Tiempon I Manmofo’na: Ancient Chamorro Culture and History of the Northern Mariana Islands. Division of Historic Preservation, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, 1998.

Underwood, Robert.  “The Colonial Era: Manning the Helm of the U.S.S. Guam.” Islander Magazine, Pacific Sunday News, May 22, 1977.