The earliest information known about the Ancient Chamorro style of divorce comes from the notes of Fray Juan Pobre de Zamora. Zamora was a Spanish Catholic brother who jumped ship on Rota in 1602 in an early attempt to Christianize the Chamorro people and stayed for seven months. He had visited Guam once before in 1594 when he was first assigned to the Philippines, and came back a third time in 1609 on his last trip to Manila from Acapulco and Spain. A Spaniard named Sancho who had been in the Marianas for several months due to a shipwreck helped him to understand the language and the people.
Zamora used his knowledge about the Chamorros for sermons and lectures once he returned to Spain. Among Pobre’s accounts was one concerned with a woman’s decision to divorce her husband:
When a man and woman marry and live together in a house, although they may have been married twenty or thirty years, if the husband is unfaithful to his wife, or takes a mistress, and if it should anger his wife, she will leave the house, taking the children and all the household furniture and effects, and will go to the house of her parents or of other relations where she will remain. During all this time, the children will not acknowledge their father, even though he might pass very close to them. Before the wife will return to the husband, his relatives will have to go to great lengths because it is easier to obtain the husband’s pardon since this sin is considered less serious for the women than for the men.
Other early accounts by Luis de Torres, a government officer of Chamorro-Spanish descent, as told to French scientist Louis Claude de Freycinet who visited Guam in 1819 say that if a husband committed adultery, the wife and her family had the right to kill her unfaithful husband. But what she was more likely to do was gather her friends who adorned themselves as men and made fun of the man. The wife and her friends might destroy the man’s garden and house and had the right to do so as well as take his possessions as these items were given to the woman when she married.
If a wife committed adultery, however, the penalties were less severe. The husband’s relatives would usually insist that he forgive her though he may have lost status for doing so. If he chose to banish her for having an affair he could not take the children from her. The children belonged to the mother.
Father Diego Luis de San Vitores started a Catholic mission on Guam in 1668 and the conversion of the Chamorros to Christianity began. Once conversion took place Catholic rules regarding matrimony became the norm.
Though discouraged by the church, Chamorros still divorced or at least stopped living together if for some reason they no longer wished to be together. However, the cultural practice of the children belonging to the woman remains today, for the most part.
For further reading
Cunningham, Lawrence J. Ancient Chamorro Society. Honolulu: The Bess Press, 1992.
Driver, Marjorie. 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.
Freycinet, Louis Claude de. An Account of the Corvette L’Uranie’s Sojourn at the Mariana Islands, 1819. Supplemented with the Journal of Rose de Freycinet. Translated and prefaced by Glynn Barratt. Saipan, CNMI: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation and the University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesia Area Research Center, 2003.
Thompson, Laura M. Guam and Its People: With a Village Journal by Jesus C. Barcinas. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947.