The experience of researching my family tree has made me realize that how or whom we identify ourselves with is a choice based on not always accurate information.
This is not a new or original thought. Numerous movies have been based on the premise of an individual learning that everything that they had been taught as a child was false –they were adopted or their mother was really their sister. Usually the individual goes through a faze of confused soul searching before coming to terms with the consequences of their new reality. The new reality is usually that the individual does not lose anything but expands their perspective to include an identity with the new found “family.”
Why I bring this up is that I’ve been wrestling with the question of Chamorro identity. As a child of a “Chamorro” father and a “European American” mother growing up I had my share of identity problems. Attending grade school in Washington D.C. my classmates didn’t know how to classify me and as children do, I was teased endlessly. Me? I just wanted to be like everyone else. When I came to Guam I fit in better but was still teased as being too “haole.”
Eventually I came to terms with my heritage and became adamant about not denying my mixed heritage. When asked to fill out questionnaires or forms that did not include a box labeled “other” I would write, “which part of me do you want me to deny?” Perhaps it was a little confrontational but I must not have been the only one with this problem as the 2000 census finally included a box for “mixed race.” Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud to call myself Chamorro. I am equally proud to acknowledge my European heritage.
Perhaps it was these early experiences and upbringing that made me tolerant of others different from me. As the product of a mixed marriage I was able to see at an early age the value in each of my parents cultures and adopt what I saw as the best of each. The result is a cultural identity that includes – in my opinion, the best of both worlds.
If you apply this same scenario to the question of Chamorro cultural identity it seems to work. At different times throughout history, Chamorros were “married” to Spanish, Filipinos, Japanese, and Americans in mixed marriages. They took the best from each of these cultures to create a new Chamorro cultural identity. It hasn’t been easy as conflicting values continue to create challenges. But what has emerged is a culture unique to Guam. The culture that has emerged has remnants of all of these cultures as evidenced in the language, food, and cultural traditions. This culture values respect, generosity, openness, family, freedom, humor, community and tolerance of others.
The conflict that I see many wrestle with in reference to Chamorro cultural identity is what defines membership in this group? If the reference I am currently reading is correct, the last pure Chamorro died in 1826. In 1959, Stanford Research Institute concluded that the original strain of the Chamorro was exterminated. What remained was reported as a mixed race called the Neo-Chamorro. Does this mean being the descendent of a person born on Guam before a specific date (say 1950?) can be used as criteria to determine Chamorro identity?
My venture into geneaology and geneteology (Genetic Genealogy) has given me new insight into the practice of names and labels. Genealogy has taught me the impermanence of surnames, Geneteology revealed to me how arbitrary race identity is.
In the search for my ancestors I learned that surnames were not widely used until after the 14 century and then in many cases they changed with each generation. For example in the United Kingdom, a father named John would have a son Paul, whose last name would be Johnson (John’s son). Paul would then have a son Peter, whose last name would be Paulson (Paul’s son). Peter’s son’s last name would be Peterson and so on. In three generations there would be three different surnames.
Then there is the disparity in spelling and placement. In Guam records, I have found my great grandfather’s name listed as “Justo de Leon Guerrero Gregorio,” to “Justo Gregorio de Leon Guerrero” to “Justo de Leon Guerrero.” My grandfathers surname was listed at different times as “Guerrero,” “de Leon Guerrero,” “Leon Guerrero,” and “Guerino”!
Genetic testing has revealed to me how mixed we all are and how truly arbitrary race classification is.