Asking to marry

When a young man and woman were attracted to each other during ancient times on Guam, the man would let his mother know when he wanted to propose marriage. If his mother had already died he would tell his grandmother or another near older female relative who would act as mediator.

This woman would prepare a woven box of betel nut, pupulu (pepper leaf) and lime and take it as a gift to the mother of the prospective bride. There she would hasten to offer what she had brought to the girl’s mother, not allowing time for the usual presentation of betel nut by the host or hostess. This manner of entrance showed the mistress of the house that marriage was about to be proposed.

The mother or mediator would tell the bride’s mother that she had come to ask for her daughter as a wife for her “son” –  a widely-interpreted term designating a younger-generation male in her family.  If the grandmother of the girl was living, the mother declared she could promise nothing without her advice, and the grandmother had to be approached with the proposition by means of the same ceremony. Thus an attempt was made to delay matters until the entire family had had time to consider the offer and allotment.

A short time later the mediator for the young man made another visit to the girl’s house. If the girl had meanwhile shown that she liked him, he was accepted. When both families came to a favorable agreement, they called it magutos i finihu, meaning they’ve confirmed the request to marry their daughter.

From then until the marriage the young man was obliged to serve the girl’s family, who tested his skill in such things as gardening and fishing. The engagement usually lasted from six months to one year before the wedding.

These Chamorro marriage customs survived with minor changes through the Spanish Era and into the US Naval Era of Guam’s history.

Anthropologist Laura Thompson visited Guam in the 1930s. She noted that when both families came to a favorable marriage agreement, they called it magutos i finihu or magutos i kuentos meaning they’ve confirmed the request to marry their daughter.

The engagement is announced three consecutive Sundays at the church. It is made public for people around to hear and to spread the news.

The following is a summarized account by, Concepcion Fejeran Garrido, of how it was done in the early 20th century in Inalåhan, as told to her granddaughter, Eunice Aguilar, in 2004.

A young woman in pre- and post-war Guam were not supposed to meet or be with a boy in public or she was doomed to shaming her and her family’s reputation. Once a boy and girl noticed each other, they might write notes to other secretly through a friend and then meet some place where they would not be seen to say hello but only for a few moments. In public, such as at church or at a party, they could only glance at each other from afar.

If the two decided they liked each other the boy would then have to ask the girl’s father if he could court her. The father would question him intensely and then decide if he would allow the boy to speak to his daughter, along with the conditions set forth by her parents. There were three main rules:

• they were only allowed to meet inside the house, at a time set by the parents;

• the boy could not speak to the girl outside the home because if he did that would be considered dishonorable;

• if the couple were to run away and elope the girl would be disowned and the couple would be disgraced.

Saturday from 7 pm to 8 pm was the typical courting time. When the boy came to the girl’s house he would bring gifts for the family such as firewood, taro, ayuyu (crab) and binådu (deer) meat – a sign of appreciation and respect. The boy was also expected to clean the yard of the woman he was courting and help her father with outdoor house chores.

The girl’s parents were not very hospitable to the boy because they did not want their daughter to leave their home and get married. It was also a harsh way of testing the honesty and honor of their potential son-in law’s intentions.

Many young men and women would break up during this stage of their relationship, deciding that the conditions were too strict or they chose not to marry for whatever reason. But if they made it through this stage then the next step was to ask the girl’s father for her hand in marriage. Fathers would not give up their daughters without a fight, even if they were good-hearted men. The boy had to be patient and steadfast and be sure of his intentions to marry this particular girl.

If the proposal was rejected, he might be told to ask again in a year or two. The father might criticize and humiliate him. But, if the young man wanted this girl as his wife, he would have to endure this and ask again and again until his proposal was accepted.

At that time the father would sit the couple down and talk to them about commitment and their choice to be married. The father might say, whatever problems you may have in your marriage, you have to bear it because being married is not only for today, tomorrow or even a year from now. It is for the rest of your life.

Then the boy would tell his parents that his marriage offer was accepted and his family would gather and come over to the bride’s house to officially ask for her hand. The second meeting (Mamaisen Saina) was to plan the wedding. The third and final meeting was before the wedding to present the gifts and the dowry.

Contemporary times

In modern day Guam young men and women can see each other, though many families try and keep their daughters sheltered and chaperoned when away from the house. Young women will often live at home until they marry, saying their parents will not allow them to live on their own even if they are legally adults.

Once young women are working and have their own source of money and usually a vehicle, they can come and go as they please. Many young women, though, are still pressured by their parents to be home early and stay with their brothers and sisters or cousins when they are away from home to ensure their safety.

When dating, boys usually meet the girl’s parents and ask permission to take them out. Most families prefer that they see each other in the presence of the family, at least for the first several months.

Catholic customs, however, are losing their hold in the 21st century. Many people live together before marrying, some having children and delaying their marriage until they feel ready, or never marry at all.

By Shannon J. Murphy

For further reading

Flores, Judy, ed. Kustumbren Chamoru: Chamorro Life Before and After World War II. A Collection of Oral Histories by Students of History of Guam Classes. Mangilao: University of Guam, 2004.

Freycinet, Louis Claude Desaulses de. An Account of the Corvette L’Uraine’s Sojourn at the Mariana Islands, 1819. Translated by Glynn Barratt. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 2003.

Iyechad, Lilli Perez. “Death: The Expression of Grief.” In An Historical Perspective of Helping Practices Associated with Birth, Marriage and Death Among Chamorros in Guam. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

Thompson, Laura M. The Native Culture of the Marianas Islands. Volume 185 of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin. New York: Kraus Reprint, 1971.