Maria Anderson Roberto, born in 1880, was a CHamoru woman who had been employed as a chaperone for the Native Nurses program in Guam from 1914 to 1924 during the early United States Naval administration of the island. Her role was crucial for the success of the program and the training of young CHamoru women as nurses for the naval hospital. Her work with US Navy medical officials, her eventual contraction of Hansen’s disease while employed at the naval hospital, and her departure to the Culion Leper Colony in the Philippines, reflect the larger political, cultural and social complexities and contradictions of life in Guam as a new American, military territory in the early 20th century.

Little is known about Roberto but there are a few accounts by American nurses who worked alongside her, as well as by manåmko’ (the elderly) who shared their experiences and attitudes pertaining to naval health policies, particularly policies related to Hansen’s disease and the Navy’s Native Nurses program.

Health practices in early 20th century Guam

The US Navy, in addition to other changes to the social and cultural fabric of life in Guam, undertook efforts to transform Guam’s healthcare system which was reliant primarily upon the wisdom of local herbal healers (the suruhånu), traditional massage techniques, Catholicism, and women’s health remedies that were administered by midwives (pattera).  Services provided by local healers had evolved into a unique brand of healthcare tailored to the CHamoru people’s indigenous heritage and their contact with Spanish customs.  Traditional healers held no formal licenses and were not required to adhere to established guidelines.

In addition, unlike Western healthcare, traditional healers did not operate within a formal structure that required monetary compensation.  Instead, CHamorus who sought traditional care paid practitioners with other valuable commodities, such as rice, produce, and livestock.  Concern regarding the lack of a formal structure, a formalized payment system, and licensing or certification programs prompted the Navy to create, promote, and in some instances, enforce policies and programs that discouraged traditional methods and guided the local population toward Western models of care and healing.

The native population held the suruhånu and the pattera in high esteem. While traditional healers were both male and female, the level of respect shown toward female healers was most apparent to the Navy.  As the Navy sought to secure a safer environment for American families and servicemen working in Guam, they began to stress the importance of Western health practices and regulations throughout the island.  Fear of contracting exotic diseases and the desire to contain epidemics motivated the Navy’s campaign against the loosely structured health care system implemented of the CHamorus.  In order to advance their argument in favor of the American health regime, suruhåna and pattera were the focus of many early efforts to influence healthcare preferences in Guam.

The Native Nurses program

The Navy began the Native Nurses program in 1907 in order to provide CHamoru midwives with a type of “systematic instruction” that the Navy believed would create an improved rate of mortality during births and prevent the spread of various infections and diseases.  The Native Nurses program was promoted as an opportunity for CHamoru women to learn a new skill, help others in need, and establish an income that could be used to help their families within the new military economic model.  However, the navy struggled to attract CHamoru women to the program due to cultural norms and strained relations between Americans and locals.

In her tribute to Roberto, Della V. Knight, a Navy nurse who worked closely with Roberto, stated that when she first arrived in Guam in 1914, she became aware of the need for more native nurses to help patients in the hospital and at the medical stations in the other villages. She believed that the “better class” women on the island were “anxious to do this work, but there was an objection on the part of some parents.”  CHamorus, being heavily influenced by Spanish occupation, subscribed to many beliefs and practices regarding the protection of the reputations (and bodies) of unmarried women.

The Native Nursing program required that women leave their homes and board at the naval hospital, and work alongside American men–all of which was unfamiliar and uncomfortable for CHamoru women.  Unmarried CHamoru women, in those days, required a chaperone while away from their homes.  The chaperone was usually a male within the family or an older female.  Enrollment and interest in the Navy’s nursing program was low due to scrutiny that could arise from perceived social impropriety. Knight explained that in order to ensure the program was more successful, it became clear that the Navy would “have to first obtain a chaperone for the native nurses.” Knight had heard about Maria Roberto and offered her a position at the hospital.

First nurse chaperone

Maria Roberto was born in 1880 to Felix Roberto and Rosa Anderson. Both of her parents were half-CHamoru. Maria was the youngest of their five children who included Juan Lino, Juana, Andres and Jose. Roberto did not have the advantage of a school education. She did not marry and lived with her brother Andres. She adopted an orphan named Lorenza. It is not clear, but according to Knight, Roberto may have received some initial training in the hospital for the care of sick women and children, but had left the hospital when she adopted Lorenza to make a home for her.

Nurse Knight described Roberto as tall, well-built and graceful, with a good character, keen mind and deep sense of honor. However, when Knight offered the position as chaperone for the Native Nurses Program, Roberto turned the offer down, saying she had an adopted child to care for and “the pay was not sufficient.” Knight persisted and discussed the pay with the Commanding Officer who agreed to provide a better salary for Roberto.

Knight and another nurse, Elsie Brook, describe Roberto as coming from a “better class” of CHamoru women and appealed to them because of her position within the CHamoru community, as well as her fluency in both CHamoru and English.  According to local historians, affluent families from the Hagåtña and Sinajana areas were influential, making Roberto an ideal candidate for convincing local families of the program’s legitimacy.  Families could trust a woman like Roberto to watch over the reputation of their daughters.  In her book on US Naval health policies, Dr. Anne Perez Hattori explained that the employment of Roberto “had been an important concession made by health officials, who realized that their nurse-training program would suffer from a lack of participation without a culturally appropriate CHamoru matron to live at the hospital and look after the nursing students.”

Roberto was employed at the naval hospital from 1914 to 1924, where she played the role of both chaperone and surrogate mother for women enrolled in the program, keeping a watchful eye over romantic indiscretions and behavior that would have been frowned upon within the CHamoru community.  She walked students to and from their homes when they visited their families. Knight described, with amusement, an incident wherein Roberto disciplined a young woman and a “native policeman” who had been caught flirting.

Indeed, Roberto was described as a woman who was received with the utmost respect from the women under her charge.  She was also well respected among the other American medical personnel as her fluency in English made her a valuable asset as an interpreter for delivering instructions or orders. According to Knight, Roberto was skilled in obstetric nursing which was a great help to the doctors. Knight also described how Roberto helped the naval doctors deal with the issue of the pattera:

When the Commanding Officer of the hospital ordered that all midwives pass an annual examination in order to keep their licenses to practice, there was much protest on the part of those who could not meet the requirements of the examination, which was entirely practical. This action on the part of the Commanding Officer resulted in a great decrease in infant mortality and blindness. Again Maria Roberta’s (sic) usefulness became evident, in that she knew personally all the midwives, were they practiced, how they did their work, whether they were meeting in requirements set by the medical officers,–and to Maria these requirements were unconditional. She had a way of appearing just at a time to get first hand information, and, –well, the midqwives knew that nothing stood between Maria and her duty. Knowing this, they respected her.

Tragically, in 1924, Roberto contracted Hansen’s disease (leprosy) at the Naval Hospital.  Roberto’s contraction of Hansen’s disease was met with great sorrow by both Navy personnel and the CHamoru community.

Transfer to Culion, Philippines

Another area of health care, dealing with patients with Hansens’s disease, was a source of tension between the Navy officials and the CHamoru people. The CHamoru people wanted to care for relatives who suffered from the disease, providing them with affection and allowing them to remain part of their daily life without added social stigma. However, Western medical circles believed Hansen’s disease patients needed to be separated from the rest of the population in order to contain the illness.  Fear of contracting Hansen’s disease by Americans stationed on the island was high.

Naval officers, such as Governor Richard Leary, General Mack Stone, and Lieutenant Vincedon Cottman, wrote in great detail about the discomfort they felt regarding the presence of Hansen’s disease on the island.  On a more global scale, encounters with Hansen’s disease in the Pacific by American servicemen had prompted confinement areas throughout the Pacific, with the leper colony in Moloka’i, Hawaii being the most widely referenced.

CHamorus struggled to accept the Navy’s policies regarding the care of Hansen’s disease because they entailed the seclusion of individuals and their separation from the familia, the extended group of relatives. Within her summary of naval accounts discussing leprosy, Hattori highlighted the great concern Navy officials felt when they found that CHamorus had been allowing lepers to live in the “midst of a friendly community.”  CHamorus also often hid relatives who had (or may have had) the disease, fearing separation from them.

The Navy designated confinement areas in scenic locations, such as Ypao in Tumon, and viewed this as a benevolent way to confront the threat of the disease. Unfortunately, these areas of confinement were places of particular horror for CHamoru people, despite their picturesque locale. CHamorus patients experienced great emotional trauma, some attempted to escape on several occasions. Despite barbed wire, an enforced curfew, and armed guards, family members were persistently finding new ways to see their loved ones.

Cultural and economic difficulties in sustaining the confinement areas in Guam caused the Navy to seek alternative options.  In December 1912, the naval governor received official orders to transport lepers in Guam to Culion Island in the Philippines. Roberto was one of the unfortunate CHamorus who was forced to leave her home en route for Culion after becoming a victim of the dreaded disease. After 10 years of serving as a well-respected chaperone and translator for CHamoru nurses within the Navy’s Native Nurses program, Roberto was deported in 1925.

Her departure was described with great sorrow by both CHamorus and Naval nurses. Roberto was credited for having held together the Native Nurses program. The care she provided to her young charges and children within the hospital made her beloved by many.  Navy nurse, Elsie Brook, explained that a large portion of the island had come to say farewell to Roberto and the CHamorus who were to be taken to Culion. Brook wrote that “great indeed was the grief of all who were associated” with Roberto “at the Naval hospital and, in fact, all over the island.”

Roberto’s fate upon reaching Culion, like the others who were sent to the Philippine colony, has remained shrouded in mystery.  Naval accounts described Culion as a place where CHamoru Hansen’s disease sufferers struggled to adjust. Despite the perceived similarities between Filipinos and CHamorus held by Navy officers, it became apparent that CHamorus in Culion experienced a great deal of depression and stress being away from their island and surrounded by foreign languages, such as Tagalog, French, Polynesian languages, English, and Spanish.

Hattori describes the reports of George W. Calver, a naval officer sent to investigate the Culion colony.  In observing the lepers in Culion, he wrote that the CHamorus “found communication with the rest of the  colony difficult and as a result felt the isolation more severely. Again transplanting of these natives into an entirely new environment caused considerable homesickness.”

The fate of CHamorus deported to Culion has been difficult to determine for a number of reasons. The lack of records and the absence of individually marked graves, and the lack of news reported to family members in Guam could have resulted from the great sense of shame many CHamorus associated with the disease.  The creation of Naval confinement policies created an atmosphere of inhibition and fear.

Upon traveling to Culion decades later in search of information about his grandfather, who was also deported after contracting Hansen’s disease, the late Legislative Speaker Antonio Unpingco could only find a mass grave.  He returned to Guam from Culion without a date of expiration.  One can only assume that the absence of information regarding Roberto’s fate is the result of similar circumstances.

Bridge between cultures

Because of her work with the US Navy, Roberto was viewed by some CHamorus as a Navy collaborator, a woman who assisted the Navy in promoting a health care structure that undermined traditional ways of healing and caring for individuals in need. However, Hattori suggests a more likely explanation for Roberto’s willingness to participate within the Native Nurses Program.  She explains that Roberto was probably “motivated by the desire for material advancement in a military economic system that otherwise constricted opportunities for women.”

Regardless of the motivation for promoting and participating within the Native Nurses program, it is clear that Roberto was an exceptional woman who made a profound impact on the lives of those with whom she came in contact.  In all the accounts written about her, little is said regarding her contraction of leprosy.  Instead, she is written about as an intelligent, dignified, and beautiful woman who made it possible for two cultures to better interact with one another in order to take care of those in need. As Knight stated in her tribute to Roberto in 1922:

Service changes make frequent changes of the Navy personnel at this station. It is Maria Roberta (sic) who remains, and who holds together the fabric of the work built up by the Navy nurses.

By Desiree Taimanglo-Ventura

For further reading

Brooke, Elsie. “Maria Roberto: A Further Tribute.” US Naval Medical Bulletin 23, no. 3-4 (1925): 284.

Cruz, Karen A. The Pattera of Guam: Their Story and Legacy. Hagåtña: Guam Humanities Council, 1997.

DeLisle, Christine Taitano. “Delivering the Body: Narratives of Family, Childbirth and Prewar Pattera.” MA thesis, University of Guam, 2000.

–––. Placental Politics: CHamoru Women, White Womanhood, and Indignity under US Colonialism in Guam, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2022.

Hattori, Anne Perez. Colonial Dis-ease: U.S. Navy Health Policies and the Chamorros of Guam, 1898-1941. Pacific Islands Monograph Series 19. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.

Knight, Della V. “Maria Roberto – A Tribute.” American Journal of Nursing 22, no. 9 (1922): 736-738.