Master blacksmith and artisan

Joaquin Flores Lujan (1920 – 2015), commonly known as “Tun Jack” and “Kin Bitud” to family and friends, is part of a legacy of more than 100 years of CHamoru blacksmiths.

Lujan was born in 1920.  He began his training from the age of nine under the guidance of his father, Mariano Leon Guerrero Lujan, a renowned toolmaker.  The older Lujan had been taught by an uncle who, in turn, had been mentored by Tun Jack’s grandfather.

For generations the Lujans have produced high quality, fire-forged metal work, such as the machete (a heavy knife), teras pugua (betel nut scissors), the fisga (a pronged fishing spear), the si’i (a tool for preparing weaving materials), the so’soh (used to extract coconut meat), the kamyo’ (coconut grater), and the fusiños (a garden hoe).  These traditional metal tools were commonly used in Guam and the Marianas, particularly for daily tasks such as harvesting crops or preparing family meals.  Because of their quality and rarity, some items manufactured by Lujan are prized as family heirlooms and are passed down from one generation to the next.

Lujan was the only child in his family to learn his father’s blacksmithing skills.  After World War II, Lujan was the sole link to Guam’s blacksmithing tradition that spanned as far back as the Spanish era.  Because of the expertise and patience necessary to produce quality tools, blacksmithing was not a preferred occupation for many CHamorus.  Lujan, however, continued to have an appreciation for the craft and understood its significance as part of CHamoru culture.

The war years

On 8 December 1941, news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hit the island, causing panic in the streets. This was compounded when word travelled around the island that planes had bombed Sumai. Most CHamoru families left their homes in villages such as Hagåtña and headed for ranches or the jungle. Lujan and his family stayed in their home in Anigua.

Early on the morning 10 December, there was a banging on the door of the Lujan home. Lujan checked and saw that it was one of his friends from Anigua, who was working as a policeman. The officer did not order them to evacuate, but rather asked Lujan to come out into the darkened night. 

Lujan asked if they were safe in Anigua.

No one is safe anywhere. They say the Japanese are coming any moment now, I just caught some boys looting from the warehouses in Hagåtña. You should go home and be with your family. I stopped them, but then realized they were right to take it. If we don’t take it, the Japanese will. No one is there. Our families need that rice. If you come with me, you can take as much as you can carry. If anyone stops us, I’ll say we are on the Governor’s orders.

CHamoru policeman

As they entered Hagåtña, they saw others with the same idea, carrying whatever they could from the stores. When the looters saw the police officer in the dark, many of them paused for a moment, before continuing on with their arms and hands overflowing with canned goods, kerosene, rope, nets and any other supplies they could scrounge in the dark. Lujan and his friend each took two 50-pound sacks of rice and began to slowly carry them back toward their homes. They heard firing in the distance to the north. Lujan was worried some sailors or Marines might see them and arrest them. But no one stopped them. 

As they walked along the beach, they noticed movement in the water. They heard the whine of boats and more gunfire. Lujan quickly forgot about sailors finding him and began to worry about the invisible ships approaching the shore. This was the Japanese invasion! He and his friend, with strength they did not know they had, began to run, still lugging the hundred pounds of rice atop their shoulders. 

When Lujan returned home, his father chastised him for going out and also for stealing the rice.

Båba i bidå-mu, lao guaha maolek lokkue.

They hid the rice carefully, vowing to save it for an emergency, which there were no shortages of during the occupation. 

Japanese general visits

Several months into the Japanese occupation of Guam, Lujan’s blacksmith shop in Anigua was visited by a Japanese general. Before the war it was common for people to stop by the shop. But things were not business as usual during the war. Imports into the island had stopped. Most CHamorus were put into work crews in order to feed the Japanese. The major villages emptied, as CHamorus hid on ranches to escape the watchful eyes of their new occupiers. The English language was banned and Japanese was taught in schools. The Japanese pushed families out of their homes to turn them into quarters for Japanese troops.  

When Lujan saw the Japanese general at the entrance to their shop, he froze, fearful that this could be the end. Earlier that year, two CHamorus had been accused of hiding weapons and helping the American holdouts and were executed at Pigo Cemetery. Along the walls and tables of the shop were metal tools, all of which could be used as weapons.

This general had moved into the Dela Cruz home across the street in Anigua several weeks earlier.

When the general handed the machete back to Lujan, he remarked on the good quality. He told the blacksmiths that the work they were doing was important, and he encouraged them to continue to do it so that the CHamoru people could sustain themselves in hard times like this. As a result of the general’s order, the Lujan family was exempted from working in the fields. Instead, they were left alone to keep making tools and trading them to farmers for crops and livestock. 

Despite being spared the forced labor that most other CHamorus had to endure, the Lujans still suffered. They went hungry some days and sometimes gave tools away to those who couldn’t afford to trade for them. Their newfound friend, the Japanese general, gave them some protection, but not enough. Several times while returning to Anigua from their lancho in Tutuhan, they were stopped by Japanese soldiers and had their crops seized. On one occasion, Lujan was beaten. 

In the final months of the occupation, no one came to trade for tools with Lujan’s family. The Japanese were becoming increasingly violent and brutal as American military forces pushed their way closer and closer towards the Marianas.

Eventually, American planes appeared overhead and the bombardment began. The US intended to soften Guam up prior to their invasion, and normally densely populated locations such as Hagåtña and its neighboring areas were hit the hardest.

Went north instead of to Manenggon

Lujan’s family stayed in their house in Anigua until they could see American ships off the coast and their bombs, which were relentless. Because of their connection to the Japanese general, they had avoided the march to Manenggon that so many others were forced to take. But, as the bombs continued to fall, they wondered if the general had really done them a favor. 

The general’s aide appeared just a few days before the American invasion. He had a Jeep and orders to drive them north, away from the fighting, where they could find shelter and safety until the battle was over. Lujan’s family, as well as some neighbors, piled into the car. They sped north, driving along the tinchera, or what is today known as East Agana.

On that long strip of beach, they saw the American fleet off Guam in all its menacing glory. Although they had hoped for months for an American return, in that moment the ships didn’t seem to carry much salvation. The Americans seemed determined to pulverize the island. Lujan’s family braced themselves as they drove along the beach and bombs hit near them. They had a large wooden cross with them. Several hands all reached out to touch the cross, and prayers were thrown into the air as if to protect them from the bombs. As one of Lujan’s sisters said later, it worked. God heard their prayers, and no bombs hit them as they drove.

They were taken to Mogfog, Dededo and dropped off in the jungle. The Lujans asked the aide if he would stay with them and hide. He said no, he would return south to take his place at his general’s side, and, if necessary, die with him. Before he drove off, he gave them a message from the general, an apology in fact, he said, 

My general said that, for what this war had brought to your island, and how it has destroyed such a beautiful place, he apologizes. It will soon be over.

Japanese military aide

The general did not survive the war and was killed early in the American invasion. The Lujans said he didn’t truly support the war, but only fought out of a sense of duty to his country. His gesture of driving them north to safety must have been his way of thanking them for helping him feel connected to his family while he was away. 

They spent days in Mogfog, foraging for food and living in bokkongo or man-made holes. When the American troops reached Lujan and his family, they gave them food and water and told them about the refugee camps which had been set up back in Hagåtña. They were in high spirits and prepared to head back home.

By the time they got to the refugee camp, thousands of other CHamorus had already been liberated, and so the camp was crowded with stations for food, building supplies, shoes, and other things needed to help get life started again. The Lujans rushed to get food and water first. They had been eating in very lean fashion for years and were astounded to see huge trays and pots of food. 

Lujan gathered up some eggs, bacon, and powdered milk, and, with everyone else, began to eat as quickly as they could. They all soon regretted eating so much so fast, as their swollen bellies began to ache.

Hagåtña had been almost completely destroyed. They had little hope that they would be able to return home, especially after seeing the wanton destruction as they had come north from their bokkongo’. Much to their surprise, their house in Anigua had survived the war and was still standing. Once they moved back in, life could return to normal. 

The war changed everything

Except – everything had changed after the war. The island changed, and Lujan changed. In the rebuilding years, some villages disappeared, and new ones appeared. CHamorus, seeking new opportunities and worried about another war on the horizon, migrated to the US in increasing numbers. Much of the island became locked behind military fences, as new bases appeared in the southern, central and northern areas. The farming lifestyle that had sustained CHamorus for hundreds of years began to disappear, in part because of the loss of land, and also because of new employment opportunities with the formation of the government of Guam and the installation of the new Navy and Air Force bases. 

With changes everywhere, it was only natural that Lujan’s life would change as well. Like many in his generation, he felt new desires to Americanize, to give up the simple life of blacksmiths, fishermen, and farmers, and work for wages instead, to gain more independence away from the land and networks of reciprocity.

Even though the art of blacksmithing had helped Lujan and his family survive the war, Lujan wanted more out of life and hoped to leave blacksmithing behind. Although he wasn’t able to serve in the Navy, he did serve for a short time in the Merchant Marines and also drove a taxi. After the Organic Act was signed, he started a career with US Immigration and married Elizabeth D.L. Flores Lujan (familian Kabesa), who had been his classmate before the war. Together they raised a family.

Back to blacksmithing after retirement

Upon his retirement, he returned to blacksmithing, proudly demonstrating his skills and craftsmanship at schools, festivals and public events.  In 1985 he began his apprenticeship program, beginning with three apprentices, all members of the Guam Fire Department.

Over the years, Lujan was featured in television programs, newspapers and magazines, and eventually invited to exhibit and demonstrate his work in Australia, Taiwan and the continental United States.  The Consortium of Pacific Arts and Cultures included his pieces in their “Living Traditions” exhibit of crafts from the Pacific Islands region.  He was recognized for his work in the preservation of CHamoru culture and was awarded the Governor’s Art Award several times.

In 1996, he received the Maga’lahi Lifetime Cultural Achievement award and the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award.  The NEA fellowship granted Lujan national recognition as a traditional artisan, and in fact, Lujan is the only person from this region who has received this honor.

Lujan’s skills as a traditional blacksmith reflect a strong attention to detail and quality.  He put his name on every piece he made, inscribing his initials to ensure authenticity.  One of his challenges was dealing with the availability of cheap, factory- or machine-manufactured tools that unscrupulous people try to pass off as Lujan’s work to make a profit.

Despite the challenges of the counterfeit products, Lujan was selfless in his desire to preserve the art of blacksmithing, and was willing to train those who want to learn.  He was featured at regional cultural arts events, such as the Festival of Pacific Arts (FestPac) and the annual Micronesian Island Fair in Guam.  Over the years, he trained more than a dozen apprentices in the hope of preserving the traditional art of blacksmithing.  In his last years his apprentices included his grandson Jeremy Lujan Bevacqua, and his first female apprentice, Nathalie Pereda.

On 29 April 2011, Joaquin Lujan was recognized, along with three other distinguished CHamoru artists—master carver Robert Taitano, master weaver Philip Sablan, and tattoo artist Maria Yatar McDonald—as a Master Folk Artist by the Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency (CAHA).  As part of this recognition, Lujan conducted the CAHA Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.  His grandson, Dr. Michael Lujan Bevacqua, was his first student in this apprenticeship program, carrying on the Lujan legacy of metal blacksmithing.

Joaquin “Tun Jack” Lujan passed away 20 March 2015 at the age of 94.

By Tanya M. Champaco Mendiola

For further reading

“Artists Directory.” Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency (CAHA).

Guam KAHA. ‘Kahan I Kutturan Guahan’: A Tribute to Masters of Chamorro Tradition.” Pacific Daily News. Last modified 20 December 2002.

Joaquin Flores Lujan.” 1996 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow.

Onedera-Salas, Selina. “A living legacy: Tun Jack’s resolve to keep blacksmithing craft alive is as strong as steel.” Pacific Sunday News, 1 May 2011.

“Picturing Guam Teachers Resource Book.” Humanities Guåhan, 2011.

Sweeney, Ronna. “Blacksmith Jack Lujan keeps Chamorro heritage alive.” KUAM News, 26 August 2007.

Thompson, Erin. “Keeping the fire burning: Preserving traditional arts in the modern age.” Pacific Sunday News, 22 August 2010.