Interpretive Essay: Angel L.G. Santos
|Editor’s note:||This entry and tribute to the life of Angel L. G. Santos is provided specially to Guampedia by Chamorro scholar and activist, Dr. Michael Lujan Bevacqua.|
In 1993, Angel Leon Guerrero Santos, the spokesman for the Chamorro activist group Nasion Chamoru was invited to Hawaii to join a gathering of indigenous people who were putting the United States on trial. Native Hawaiians organized the proceedings on the 100-year anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Santos and other people were invited to provide testimony on how their communities had been affected by US policies. At the tribunal Santos shared stories of cultural and linguistic genocide and massive land-takings to build military bases. The Chamorro people who have existed for 4,000 years were close to non-existence because of US influences and policies.
On that day and in so many other moments, Angel Santos was not just speaking for himself, or even his family. He was speaking for generations of Chamorros who endured colonization under three different masters, but have yet to be allowed to choose their own destiny and decolonize. Although many on Guam felt that Santos dwelt far too much on the past, in truth, all that he did was for the future and the generations of Chamorros still to come.
In recent Guam history, Angel Santos represented a strong and courageous dissenting voice. On an island that has trouble negotiating its complicated and tragic history, he worked hard to remind people about how justice is not accomplished by forgetting what happened; it is accomplished by seeking reparations and preventing future abuses or injustices from taking place. He also reminded people that the Chamorro culture and language persist, even in the face of colonial policies and influences.
For someone who became synonymous with radical activism, the early years of Angel Santos might seem strange. He came from a poor family that sometimes lived off of government welfare. He had a close relationship to nature and enjoyed spending time in Guam’s jungles. He was a dedicated altar boy in the Catholic Church. While living in Long Beach, California he had a fond memory of being in church when Chamorro Bishop Flexberto Camacho Flores performed a mass for off-island Chamorros.
Santos was also a dedicated Boy Scout. He took his pledge as a boy scout seriously and was fond of reciting it, even into his final years.
As an altar boy in St. Jude parish in Sinajana, he was given the honor of standing guard over the casket of a 22-year-old Chamorro soldier who had died in the Vietnam War. At 10 years old Santos was conflicted over what this body beside him represented, and the meaning of his death. As he continued to question himself he also sought answers from his parents:
“Why did he have to die so young, what did he sacrifice his life for? And when my parents told me that he died for my freedom, and for the democracy of all people throughout the world, I made my promise to myself, and to that soldier, to that warrior…that I want to be like him. I, too, if called up, will spill my blood and die just like him.”
This sense of patriotism increased as Santos got older. While in high school he joined the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC), and at the age of 18 he signed up for the US Air Force. He received many honors and awards as he moved up the ranks of service. In all, he served honorably in the Air Force for 13 years and was stationed in Texas, Mississippi, California and Guam.
In 1986 Santos rushed his two-year-old daughter, Francine, to the emergency room at Guam Memorial Hospital. The doctors examined her and had terrible news—she was suffering from cancer. A nueroblastoma, a tumor the size of a baseball, had developed between her kidneys and liver. She was airlifted to Tripler Army Hospital. After a year of unsuccessful treatment, Francine died on 6 January 1987.
Santos was tormented by the early death of his daughter and sought answers from anywhere to explain why she died. By chance in 1990, Santos received a distressing possible answer to his questions. While working as a clerk at Andersen Air Force Base, Santos received a copy of a report regarding tetrachloral ethylene levels in the drinking water in Northern Guam.
These reports were stamped with “Confidential – Not for Public?” Mike Symar, a US Congressman from Oklahoma, had researched the issue of contaminated drinking water and so the report surfaced. From 1978 to 1986 the Department of Defense hired a private company to conduct tests on the water in Guam’s Northern Aquifer, which supplies most of the water to the northern part of the island. The company found that the amount of tetrachloral ethylene in the water was at dangerously high levels.
This information was not released to the public, however, and instead the Defense department chose to bury it. Santos initially could not understand why. The water on the military bases which occupied much of the land on the northern part of Guam, therefore, was also contaminated. Although the Department of Defense knew that it was potentially dangerous, it had not even informed its own employees and their dependents. Santos had been stationed at Andersen on two occasions during the 1980’s and he was never warned about the potential danger.
By his own admission, up until the tragic loss of his daughter Santos knew very little about Guam’s history and its political realities. In his search for answers for what happened to his child, he also started to learn more about the island and its history. He came across old documents, such as governors’ reports from the pre-World War II/US naval colonial period (1898-1941). He was offended to learn how the Navy treated Chamorros during that time, passing laws without their consent, and going so far as to interfere with their language and culture.
The land loss that many Chamorros experienced after World War II, when the Navy took much of the best land on the island in order to transform Guam into a new fortress, was something that deeply affected Santos. But as he researched more about Guam history, he began to make more connections about the relationship between Guam and the United States. He felt that although the colonial relationship between Guam and the US had changed in some ways with the passing of the Organic Act in 1950, it still remained very much the same. The legacy of the abuses of the Navy were still felt by the people—through loss of language and culture, loss of land, and ill effects on local bodies and health.
Santos, though, found new strength by reading and learning about the struggles of ancient Chamorros. In particular, he was deeply moved by the fight of Maga’låhi Hurao, who in 1671 mobilized 2,000 warriors to try to expel the Spanish from the Marianas Islands. He felt that Chamorros today needed that deep strength that Hurao exhibited. He would quote often from Hurao’s speech and had it recorded in the archives at the Guam Legislature.
During this period Santos achieved a new consciousness. He had joined the military to fight for democracy and defend freedom, but now he realized that he was not truly free. His island was a possession of the United States and he believed his people were sick and suffering because of this association. From 1990 when he left the Air Force with an honorable discharge, he began to look for allies who shared his critical consciousness.
Santos met others who were like-minded in their feeling that Guam needed radical change, and they formed a small group known as the Chamoru Chelus or the United Chamorro Chelus. They reached out to other activist organizations such as Guam Landowners Association, the Organization of People for Indigenous Rights (OPI-R), and even the Chamorro Artists Association. This new coalition was diverse in its interests, but all tied together by a desire to take action to protect Chamorros.
Some were worried about the endangerment of Chamorro language and culture. Others were looking for ways to reconnect to their ancient ancestors and to the land. There were Chamorros who wanted to protest the way they were treated while they were in the military. Many were upset over land-takings by the US military or how the military was blocking access to their ancestral lands. Finally, many members simply wanted to be proud to be Chamorro and were tired of feeling like they needed to hide their language and culture in order to not offend others.
This group eventually evolved into Nasion Chamoru or the Chamorro Nation. The Chamorro Chelus were formally created on 21 July 1991, the anniversary of “Reoccupation Day” (commemorated as Liberation Day, 21 July 1944), when the United States returned in World War II to retake the island from the Japanese. Nasion Chamoru took this as the date of their creation.
Santos would act as the spokesperson for the Tribal Council of Nasion Chamoru (the leadership of the organization), but would be known commonly as its first maga’låhi (literally, the eldest son in a high-ranking clan, but largely used in reference to a chief, leader). Nasion Chamoru became infamous in the 1990’s as the first direct action Chamorro activist group. They held sit-ins, organized protests, squatted and trespassed on federal lands. A core principle of Nasion Chamoru was the belief that Guam should become independent from the United States. Santos published several flyers and leaflets that outlined his plans for an economically self-sustained Guam.
As the head of Nasion Chamoru, Santos was instrumental in the eventual implementation of the Chamorro Land Trust Act. The Land Trust Act was initially passed in 1975 to provide land leases for landless Chamorros. It was not implemented immediately, however, due to fears that the law was racially discriminatory since only those who are “politically” Chamorro could qualify for land leases. On 28 April 1992, Nasion Chamoru held a month long sit-in in the grassy area in front of the Government of Guam Complex in Adelup to bring attention to Chamorro land issues. The group also sued the government to implement the Chamorro Land Trust Act. On 8 June 1992, Judge B. J. Cruz ruled in their favor. In 1993 the Chamorro Land Trust Commission held its first meeting.
As part of Nasion Chamoru’s activism, Santos and others began to squat on the lands that formerly belonged to their families but were now considered federal properties. Many families had lost lands after World War II and had not been properly compensated for them. Some had been willing to give up their lands, but only for a short period. They had hoped that after the war was over the military would return their lands to them. Federal law required that any excess lands that the military did not need, should be returned to the public and not held indefinitely with no purpose.
In 1993 Santos began to “illegally” occupy the land that the Navy had taken from his grandfather in Mogfog, Dededo. Santos disputed the Navy’s ownership of the land and attempted in court to get it back. He was arrested for trespassing. Although the Navy had two options for how to pursue legal action against Santos—a criminal trial, whereby local residents would judge Santos, or a civil trial where a single judge would determine everything. The Navy chose the civil option.
Santos was frustrated that over the years, long after the end of World War II, the lands of many Chamorros had sat unused but also un-returned for decades. He and others from Nasion Chamrou tried to draw attention to this continuing injustice by occupying those lands. Santos attempted to build a temporary structure on one of those properties.
One day while he and several other members of Nasion Chamoru were unloading their materials, they noticed movement in the jungle around them. Before they knew it, dozens of armed soldiers in full uniform were approaching them. Santos and his friends prepared to be arrested for their protest. Instead they were surprised when the soldiers came forward, introduced themselves as members of the Army reserves and respectfully requested permission to practice war games in the area. Santos and his friends were taken aback by the symbolism of the moment. They were fighting to take this land back and in that moment, it was as if the military was acknowledging that Santos and his friends were the true owners.
As the case progressed the Navy was instructed by the court not to interfere with the occupation by Santos. Eventually a makeshift wood and tin structure was completed. When the news announced that a typhoon was approaching Guam he abandoned it, thinking it would be destroyed. However, the typhoon-changed course and no significant damage was done to the island. When Santos returned to his structure, though, he found it completely gone. The military had violated the federal judge by clearing away the structure, as it was impossible the structure had been destroyed by the typhoon. Santos returned and began construction on a concrete structure instead.
Angel Santos lost in his attempt to regain title for his grandfather’s land. The court reasoned that the statute of limitations had long since expired. US District Court Judge John Unpingco ordered Santos to vacate the property and he quickly complied. However, Santos would return years later to challenge the federal government’s ownership again.
“Radical” and “Racist”
In 1993, as part of a protest of military training flights that were flying over heavily populated areas, Santos and four companions climbed the fence at Naval Air Station in Tiyan. While being arrested by military police Santos spat on their captors who were using excessive force while handcuffing them. This act made Santos notorious around Guam for many years after. Some came to define him solely through this act of disrespect. He already was thought of as a troublemaker, but now he was known as taimamahlao, without respect or shame.
In the multicultural landscape of Guam, Santos was often vilified for speaking openly about issues of race. He felt that since World War II Chamorros had become ashamed of their ethnicity and identity, and believed that instead, they should embrace their history, language and culture more openly. Chamorros had remained passive for so long, Santos believed, and they needed to stand up and fight against that which ailed them.
In the early days of Nasion Chamoru, Santos spent time in the tourist district of Tumon advocating for war reparations for the Chamorro people. The group held signs written in Japanese that reminded the Japanese of the atrocities their country committed during World War II for which many Chamorros had suffered.
Santos also called for a limit to immigration into Guam, as Chamorros were now becoming a minority in their homeland. US immigration laws had allowed many to settle in Guam in order to obtain US citizenship. This, combined with a steady out-migration to the US for better opportunities, was changing the island’s population and leading to Chamorros losing economic, cultural and political power. In 1991 Santos wrote that the “American Indians are now 1/3 of 1 percent of the United States because of US immigration laws. What will happen to Chamorros?”
Santos also criticized the policies of the United States in terms of the compact agreements they had made with the decolonized neighbors of Guam in Micronesia. These compacts allowed other islanders from the former Trust Territory to travel to Guam freely and be eligible for various public services. The US had promised to reimburse Guam for the costs incurred by these migrants. During a meeting of the Association of Pacific Islander Legislatures (APIL) in 1995 Santos told the leaders of other Micronesian islands to remind their residents that Guam is not a “welfare haven.” In this speech and in other public statements he sometimes would admonish migrants from other Micronesian islands who came to Guam in order to live off of government programs.
Although many people were not aware of it, Angel Santos took great pains to make clear that he was not a racist and wished no ill will of anyone. He said,
“We’re not racist. We’re nationalists and there is a big difference. We are not anti-Filipino or anti-Korean or anti-American. We’re pro-Chamorus, and there is a big difference.”
Since the 1970s it was unusual for public leaders to be openly critical of US immigration policy and discuss the minoritization of Chamorros due to the influx of other ethnic groups. Most politicians would not touch this issue if they expected to win elections. Nevertheless, Angel Santos, in spite of his position on US immigration policy, made the transition to public servant when he was elected to the Guam Legislature in 1994.
Santos ran for office in response to a challenge by Judge Unpingco, who had presided over his 1993 case. The judge had told Santos that if he, the defendant, “wishes an opportunity to challenge the title of the United States, the defendant must work with the legislative branch of government for the passage of a statue that would allow him to do so.”
As an activist, Santos had tried to work outside the system, but he made a decision as a senator to try to change things from within the government. Although he was well known as a critic of US policies and the federal government, Santos also regularly criticized the corruption of the local government. For example, he was critical of the Chamorro and non-Chamorro elites whom he claimed controlled the island’s media and economy.
While the public perception of many was that Santos was a “racist” who only cared about Chamorro issues, Santos actually campaigned hard on a platform of human rights. He believed protecting Chamorro rights was something that benefited everyone; fighting against inequality in Guam and for low-income families benefited everyone. Many non-Chamorros were attracted to his message of seeking justice for all, not just Chamorros. For example, as a senator he organized protests on behalf of Filipinos who had approached him because of the ways they had been wrongfully targeted by landlords and been evicted.
A high point of his time in the Legislature was when he helped draft the rules and regulations for the Chamorro Land Trust Commission to finally carry out the Chamorro Land Trust Act, passed in 1975.
In 1998 he ran for governor as a Democrat, with Jose “Pedo” Terlaje, the Mayor of Yo’na (Yona), as his running mate. Their campaign was built around the slogan “Hita,” the Chamorro word for “we.” In Chamorro there are two forms of “we” —the inclusive (you are including those you are talking to in your statement) and the exclusive (you are excluding those you are talking to). Hami is the exclusive, hita the inclusive. Hita was chosen because it communicated both that his campaign had a Chamorro core to it, but it was still open to everyone. Santos was not running a “Hami” campaign where only Chamorros and those like him were included. His campaign was primarily a grassroots effort and despite doing very well in proving himself articulate and intelligent during debates, he did not make it past the primary elections.
As both an activist and an elected official Santos took seriously the issue of environmental damage caused by the US military presence on the island. He took on this issue not only because of the role it may have played leading to his daughter’s death, but also because of the hazardous dump sites and explosive ordnance that the US military had left around Guam after World War II. One such site was owned by Santos’ uncle in Mongmong. Santos conducted several studies and held hearings, all of which pointed to the detrimental affects on the health of the land and the people after years of militarization on Guam.
Inmate # 01949 – 093
On 6 January 2000 Angel Santos was sentenced to six months in federal prison for his crime of trespassing on federal property in 1999. Santos had lost his 1993 case over his grandfather’s property in Mogfog, but nonetheless had returned to the land on several occasions, violating the judge’s ruling.
Six months was the maximum possible punishment for a crime that is considered a Class B Misdemeanor, and, as Santos asserted, “is the equivalent to a speeding ticket.” Judge John Unpingco argued the maximum penalty was necessary because Santos was a “law-breaker” and a “danger to society.” He hoped that by punishing Santos to the full extent of the law it would deter other activists from protesting and breaking laws the way Nasion Chamoru had.
In his appearance before the judge for sentencing, Santos appealed Unpingco’s decision and argued that he should be allowed to remain on Guam while awaiting his appeal. The judge stated he needed a few days to make a decision. That night, however, Santos was taken by US Marshalls from the Department of Corrections in Hagåtña to a holding cell in the PDN Building nearby. No one would tell him what was going on and where he was being taken. Santos was worried that he was to be killed or taken off-island secretly. His arms and legs shackled, Santos prayed trying to calm himself, “Dear God, grant me the courage to face my oppressor, give me the strength to endure the pain, and fill me with serenity to accept the suffering…all for the sake of humanity…and into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
Just a few hours later Santos was escorted onto a commercial airline flight and taken away to federal prison, even before the judge had responded to his request to remain on Guam.
After years of protesting, campaigning and struggling on so many issues, Santos found his imprisonment peaceful. He missed his family and island terribly, but his incarceration gave him time to reflect on things and he used the time to read and to write. He composed a short autobiography titled, “Who Am I?” and even wrote some poetry. In July 2000 he returned to Guam.
Upon returning from federal prison Santos was once again elected to a seat in the Guam Legislature. He was much more low-key than in previous years, but he continued to champion Chamorro issues and land issues, and to speak out in favor of Guam’s decolonization.
It was during this period that he began to attend religious services and prayer meetings at the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Santos had gone to the SDA clinic in Tamuning for medical treatment and was intrigued by the doctor who asked to pray with him after discussing his medical condition. Santos wanted to learn more about the SDA faith and found himself attracted to what he perceived as the more holistic religious experience of Seventh-day Adventists who not only emphasize prayer, but also exercise, eating right, not smoking or drinking and doing all things in moderation. Santos believed that this was the type of change that Chamorros needed—to not only have lands returned, but to take care of their language, culture, environment, and even their bodies and health.
In December 2002, then Speaker of the Guam Legislature Antonio Unpingco announced Angel Santos was very ill. Until that announcement, it was only rumored that Santos was sick. On 6 July 2003 Angel Leon Guerrero Santos passed away. He was 44 years old. Years later rumors continued to circulate about what illness actually killed Angel Santos—had he been poisoned in some way while he was in federal prison? The Pacific Daily News, however, announced that Santos had died of Parkinson’s disease.
A 24-hour wake or bela was held in the field in front of the Governor’s Complex at Adelup. This had been the site of the sit-in that Santos had organized in order to protest for Chamorro land rights in 1992. Poor people of all ethnic backgrounds who had been helped by Senator Santos while he was in office attended. Chamorros who had land leased to them through the Chamorro Land Trust or had land returned by the US military came and paid homage as well. Condolence messages were sent from native peoples across the Pacific and the United States.
Angel Santos Latte Stone Park
On 30 March 2005, Latte Stone Park in Hagatña was officially renamed Senator Angel Leon Guerrero Santos Latte Memorial Park. The park had been a favorite spot for reflection and mediation by Santos. The large latte that stand in the park are originally from the Fena area, now known as Naval Magazine—a site filled with the artifacts and remains of ancient Chamorros, but is now off limits to the public. Santos felt a strong connection to those latte and it was at this site that the birth of the group Nasion Chamoru was announced. It has become a regular location for Nasion Chamoru meetings and vigils to honor the late Maga’låhi Santos.
In his short life Angel Santos changed Guam and the consciousness of its people, both Chamorro and non-Chamorro in very profound ways. He helped pave the way for other Chamorro activists to follow by making it more socially acceptable to protest and speak out publicly. He helped inspire people to be more proud of their Chamorro heritage, become more vocal on Chamorro issues, and with Nasion Chamoru, pushed to the forefront of public consciousness issues of political status and decolonization. Thousands of landless Chamorros have been able to lease land through the Chamorro Land Trust. Hundreds of families have received land taken after World War II, that was returned as excess lands by the federal government.
After his death, fellow Senator Mark Forbes summed up the legacy of Angel Leon Guerrero Santos as follows:
“He left a legacy. It may not be a legacy of stone or a legacy of steel. He didn’t build bridges or buildings, but he built a monument in the heart of every single one of his people…His legacy will survive so long as there is a Chamorro mind to remember, so long as there are Chamorro voices to sing, so long as there are people who are met with injustice who look for someone to fight against that injustice—so long as that is the case, then Angel Santos will live forever.