Codes of conduct

From what is written in historical texts about Guam and the Mariana Islands, Chamorro ancestors disciplined children though not by corporal punishment.  This is possibly because the mores of Chamorro society set up a checks and balances system of acceptable behavior.  For example, a traditional Chamorro core value is that of respetu (respect) of age, status and rank in society and gaimåmålao (to have shame or humility).  Individuals are expected to act appropriately or “the right way” and if they fail to do so this reflects poorly on their family since it will be perceived that they weren’t raised properly.

Inafa’maolek is the guiding value in the island society expressing the intrinsic principle of interdependence that puts emphasis on community well-being over individualism and is meant to ensure proper social conduct.

Spanish Catholic missionary Fray Juan Pobre de Zamora, who visited the (the island of Luta (Rota) in 1602, decades prior to Spanish missionization of the Mariana Islands, provided an account of one of the ways in which parents disciplined their children:

So great is their love for their children that it would take a long time to describe it and to sing its praises. They never spank them, and they even scold them with loving words. When a child is offended and angered by what is done to him, he will move a short distance away from his parents and turn his back to them, not wanting to face them.  They will then toss sand or pebbles on the ground behind him, after he has cried for a little while, one of his parents will go to him and, with very tender words, will take him in his arms and or raise him to his shoulders and carry him back to where the others are gathered.

Social codes via folklore

Locally told stories are also used as a means to keep children in line.  For example, in the story of Sirena, lessons about the importance of performing “family responsibilities” and obeying parents are imparted. Sirena’s mother sent her to complete chores, but Sirena loved swimming and often times became distracted and wanted to play in a nearby river.  One day she was sent to carry out errands, but instead of completing them she dove into the river.  Her mother found out about her disobedience. Enraged that her daughter had again forsaken her chores, she rashly cursed her saying, “since Sirena loves the water more than anything, she should become a fish.” Sirena’s godmother, there when the curse was spoken, intervened and said she should only be half fish. Her mother could not undo the curse, so Sirena’s body began to change and she swam away.

Another example can be found in tales of mythological creatures that will cause children harm or place them in danger if they do not behave.  Duendes are mischievous dwarfs that will lead children (who are tricked into thinking the duendes are also little children to play with) away, never to be seen again if they stray too far from home at night, or if they are found the children may be ill and must be cured by a suruhåna (Chamorro healer).  

In addition to social settings, people must also show respect for the environment.  When a person enters the hålomtåno’ (jungle) or before they relieve themselves in the hålomtåno’ they must ask permission from the taotaomo’na, Chamorro ancestral spirits.  If the taotaomo’na is offended the person may become ill or find inexplicable bruises on his or her body from being “pinched” by the taotaomo’na.

Catholicism, Americanization and discipline

Over time, there have also developed stories that ensure that children behave during the Catholic Easter observance of Lent. In the Chamorro Catholic tradition, the Lenten season is a time for reflection and prayer.  Children are told that the babuin kuresma (a huge Lenten boar or pig) will eat them or bite them if they make too much noise.

Young Catholic Chamorro girls and women were also influenced by stories in order to try to ensure their chastity.  The utak or itak (the white-tailed tropic bird) in times past was regarded with superstitious fear. It was believed that if the bird was seen or its shrill cry was heard it meant someone would die. This belief expanded to mean that an unwed woman in a household was pregnant.  The pregnancy of an unwed woman brought shame upon a family.

Anthropologist Laura Thompson was contracted by the US Naval Government to conduct studies in pre- World War II Guam.  Her research would become a psycho-cultural analysis on the impact of militarization on a culture, and an important informational resource as it documenting life on Guam, the Chamorro culture and its people’s practices.

Thompson wrote that corporal punishment of children at that time on Guam was commonplace and socially accepted.  Forms of discipline were also severe if a child was disrespectful or broke a rule.  The older the child became the stricter the rules, and the more severe the punishment for infractions.  Children, even adult children, did not protest and no one interfered with the disciplinary action of a parent or guardian.

Parents usually exercise personal authority over their children and their prestige is reinforced by the teachings of the church and by the school.  A sharp line is drawn between right and wrong. If a child fails to obey he is teased or ridiculed, or he is slapped or whipped with a switch, a stick or leather strap.

Discipline today

Today, disciplinary action is still prescribed by parents or guardians.  Acceptable forms of discipline, however, have changed with contemporary US legal mandates and society’s perception of what constitutes child abuse. Therefore, punishment meted out today is typically not as severe (or as overt) as it was when Thompson conducted her research.

By Tanya M. Champaco Mendiola

For further reading

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

Driver, Marjorie G. The Account of Fray Juan Pobre’s Residence in the Marianas, 1602. MARC Miscellaneous Series No. 8.  Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, 2004.

Jorgensen, Marilyn A. “The Legends of Sirena and Santa Marian Camalin: Guamanian Cultural Oppositions.” In: Monsters with Iron Teeth: Perspectives on Contemporary Legend. Vol. 3. Edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, Ltd. 1998.

Thompson, Laura M.  Guam and Its People: With a Village Journal by Jesus C. Barcinas. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947.