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Educator, businesswoman and senator

Cynthia Johnston Torres (1911-2001) of Nimitz Hill was born July 1911 in Hagåtña, Guam.  She was the daughter of two of the island’s most prominent educators, William and Agueda Iglesias Johnston, both of whom are significant figures in Guam’s history.

Her father, William, was an English teacher who was later transferred to Japan as an American prisoner of war during World War II, where he later died.  During his time as an American POW, Johnston kept a diary detailing the discomforts aboard the ship transferring him to Japan.  The diary was returned to his family by another American POW who survived the war.

Torres’ mother, Agueda, was an educator and public servant who is considered a pioneer in local education.  She was the principal of Guam’s first junior high school, the Almacen Grammar School.  Agueda Johnston is remembered as a strict disciplinarian who was constantly engaged in the process of promoting the benefits of education.  William and Agueda Johnston are also remembered for risking their lives in order to protect American radioman, George Tweed, during Guam’s Japanese occupation in World War II.

Cynthia Johnston Torres continued her parents’ legacy of service to the island as a successful businesswoman, an educator, and as one of Guam’s first female senators.  In 1925, Torres’ father left the island on government business, taking her with him in order to enroll her into an all girls’ private school in Coronado, California.  Her sister, Margaret, joined her at the girls’ school two years later.

While in San Diego, Torres was delivered an emergency message to return to Guam via San Francisco.  The sisters were to board a Navy transport headed to the island upon news of their father’s illness.  In an inspirational talk delivered in 1996, Torres described her mother’s reaction upon seeing her daughters return to Guam from San Diego, explaining that she and her sister returned with “short bobbed hair, short dresses above the knees, heavily made-up faces- lipstick – rouge – mascara eyelashes, narrow shaven eyebrows, and of course, smoking and doing that scandalous dance – the Charleston and Black Bottom.”  Agueda Johnston immediately had longer dresses made for her daughters and implemented a new set of rules that were a stark contrast to their lives as young women in San Diego.  Make-up was to be used sparingly, smoking was only allowed in their bedrooms, and the Johnston sisters were not allowed out at night, especially without a chaperone.

In 1932, Cynthia Johnston married her childhood boyfriend, Joseph Torres, a highly respected businessman on the island. They had one daughter, Elaine, and reared several others. Cynthia Torres survived life on Guam during World War II.  During the 1994 screening of the film, “Liberating Guam: The US Comes Back,” hosted by the Guam Humanities Council, Torres shared her World War II experience as a panelist. Torres described being taken from her family’s ranch house and tied to a coconut tree. She received six lashes, then twelve for feeding Tweed when he visited them for canned food and whiskey, and two more hard lashes to motivate her to implicate her mother, Agueda.

Business ventures

After her husband’s death in 1946, Torres took over her husband’s business ventures and quickly became recognized as one of the island’s most successful businesswomen.  Under Torres’ care, her husband’s beer and soft drink company expanded to include the manufacturing of colored cement blocks, a construction company, a dress shop, an ice cream parlor, and a ceramic studio – all of which were under the umbrella of Cyntor Enterprises.  Torres’ business ventures allowed her a great deal of travel, where she often was unwelcome by men who felt she did not belong in the field of business.  However, she was renowned for her acumen, prowess, and the many generous donations she made toward the American Red Cross and the Guam Heart Association.  Her accomplishments within Guam’s business community are of particular significance due to the rarity with which women at the time selected business as a career.

Politics and women’s rights

In 1954, Cynthia Torres registered to run under the Independent ticket for the 3rd Guam Legislature.  Torres, along with a young lawyer, Carlos Taitano, and Lagrimas “Ama” L.G. Untalan aimed to break the block voting system that was still practiced during elections.  With the block voting process, voters marked a box at the top of a list of candidates.  Every candidate on the list would garner a vote if the box was checked.  Torres, Taitano and Untalan believed Taitano would not struggle to be elected, but worried that as women, Untalan and Torres might be considered “too presumptuous to run in a general election against so many men.”  This motivated them to run as Independents.  Untalan and Torres initiated a string of village meetings which were received enthusiastically by Guamanian women.  Attendance at the meetings grew and discussions centered upon women’s rights.  Women at the meetings discussed serious marital problems and many resisted when their husbands discouraged them from attending.

Torres and Untalan encountered many obstacles during their candidacy.  Popular Party officials pushed for the meetings to be held in school buildings where officials held the keys, instead of within private homes.  Untalan and Torres continued to hold their meetings regardless.  Some of the women who attended the meetings were the unfortunate recipients of various types of resistance.  Women had raw eggs thrown at them and at one point, were even accused of selling their bodies for votes.  Reflecting on these events as an older woman in her 80’s, Torres explained how she was accused of being seen at some beach with a couple of Marines and rumored to have the backing of business people who were buying votes by giving constituents goods.  Torres described the accusations as silly, but noted that in those days they did not seem silly because some people believed them.

The events reached an eventful climax.  At Tamuning and Agana Heights meetings some women were reported to have climbed onto the stage and used their umbrellas to beat up a man who was believed to have made the allegations about the two women candidates.  Taitano, Untalan, and Torres were relieved when election day arrived.  The polls were monitored heavily by police, as some women were fearful of casting their votes under so much controversy.  When the votes were tallied, Taitano came in within the top five candidates elected, with Untalan as tenth, and Torres as eleventh.

The resistance and attacks against Torres and Untalan had a surprising effect on voters.  Many women and some of the men who disagreed with the attacks voted in their favor because of their distaste for such disrespectful actions taken against their former teachers.

Torres, Untalan, and Taitano initiated significant political changes once in office.  During their tenure in the Guam legislature, the Territorial Party was formed, which was the beginning of the two party system on island.  Members of the Territorial Party affiliated themselves with the National Republican Party.  Block voting was taken out of the Guam election process, and the doors were opened for women to be elected into the Guam legislature.  As a member of the 3rd Guam Legislature, Torres was a member of the Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Educational contributions

In 1958, Cynthia sold her business interests and left Guam for California, where she continued her education, spending two years at San Diego State University and earning her Bachelor’s degree from the University of California in San Diego, with a minor in school administration and a major in elementary education.  She also earned her Master’s degree in Special Education.

Torres returned to Guam in 1962 and became the consultant, and eventually, the first principal of the only school for the island’s disabled.  At the time, families with special needs relatives often kept their loved ones sequestered at home.  Torres believed that the island was in need of modern vocational programs and education instead of simple custodial care.

While working to help establish the island’s first school for individuals with special needs, known as The New Brodie Memorial School for Handicapped Children, Torres encountered a new set of challenges.  She struggled to convince the island’s legislature that funding should be allocated toward a special needs school.  Torres, however, secured federal funding and was recognized by federal agencies as having one of the most successful programs.

Torres spent fifteen years working to convince island leaders and residents that there was value in special education.  Residents of special needs families report the way in which Torres would go into the village, speaking with families of special needs individuals in order to convince them that it was possible for their loved ones to lead more enriching lives through increased independence, socialization, and education.  Torres retired from the Department of Education after thirty-six years of service.

In 1970, Cynthia Torres was recognized as an “Outstanding Administrator” for the school year 1969-1970.  In May of 1981, Torres was presented with an Honorary Doctorate of Law degree from the University of Guam.  In 1989, Torres was recognized by the American Biographical Institute for her leadership and service to mankind, and honored by the 20th Guam Legislature in 1990, within Resolution 282, for her outstanding record of service and achievement.

Torres served as a member of the Board of Trustees for the Guam Memorial Hospital.  She also served as a member of the Board of the Marianas Association of Retarded Citizens, the Guam Association of Retired Persons, and as a charter member of the Guam Lytico-Bodig Association.

She died on 6 March 2001.

By Desiree Taimanglo-Ventura

For further reading

Recognition of Women’s History Month, and a Tribute to Senator Cynthia Johnston Torres. 107th Congress, 2nd Session, Congressional Record 147, no. 30: E326-E328.