This Chamorro Life - Carmen Farrell - 06/13/2011
For a long time I’ve been wanting to post some interviews of local Tinian people in order to shed more light on life in the Marianas. There are lots of interesting people here with stories to tell. Recently, I asked three local women to sit down with me to answer some questions about Chamorro culture, life in Tinian past and present, and what they see as the biggest issues in Tinian right now. These interviews represent many conversations I’ve had throughout the past two years but I still found it very insightful to put their words into writing. Please enjoy!
Please note, the interviewees words have been paraphrased by me. I tried to include their exact words as much as possible but I modified some things to make it flow better. Chamorro’s tend to use the present tense when talking about the past, so I changed some grammar to make it more understandable to the casual reader.
My first interview is with a local Chamorro woman named Michaela Sanchez, a retired elementary school teacher and mother of nine. Michaela was born on the island of Yap, but moved to Tinian when she was six.
You grew up in Tinian. How has it changed from when you were a child?
Before there were only a couple of families, now there are lots of different cultures/outsiders. Before we would get spanked in school. Neighbors could scold or punish kids.
Which time period did you like better?
I liked it better before. Everyone respected each other. Now kids talk back, they don’t listen to you if you are not a relative. There was more respect of elders before.
How has the lifestyle changed in Tinian?
Before there was a local baker who made fresh bread and it was cheap. We would always eat local food – fresh cow, fish, pig, turtle, birds, coconut crab. Now we just order food from J.C. Cafe or Dynasty or eat frozen meats. It was easier before because food came from the land. Now everything is money.
What was it like living here during the Trust Territory time compared to when the Mariana Islands became a Commonwealth of the U.S.? [after WWII most islands in Micronesia were part of a Trust Territory of the United Nations. In 1978 the Marianas voted to become a Commonwealth, the only Micronesian islands to do so.]
During T.T. time there was limited money but things were more peaceful. Now there is more money but there are more crises. There used to be Peace Corps teachers here. I became a teacher with only a high school diploma, but eventually they changed the rules so you had to have a college degree. I liked that though, because it pushed everyone to get degrees. Our schools used to only go to ninth grade. If you wanted to go to high school you had to go live in Saipan. Starting in 1987 we got our own high school and the first class graduated in 1991.
What problems does Tinian face today?
The biggest problem is the economy – it’s going down the drain fast. Salaries are the same but costs are going up. C.U.C. [the power company] is so expensive now. It’s too hard.
You’ve spent some time staying in the U.S., you have several kids and grandkids who live there. What’s it like living in the States compared to Tinian?
Well, there’s no place better than home. I like travelling and seeing new things, visiting family, but I like Tinian because you can walk anywhere and go to the beach. In the States you need a car and that’s so expensive.
What was it like raising 9 kids?
In the beginning it was difficult but I had some hired help. It was fun though. Sometimes the road is rough but it’s worth it.
What should people know about the Chamorro culture?
I’m open-minded. I don’t expect people to learn our culture, just to blend in. Religion is very important to us but we respect other religions. People in our culture like to jester and family values are important.
Can you talk a little bit about the Toatoa Mona [ancestral spirits]?
At first I didn’t believe in them but I’ve had some experiences with them. When I go to the jungle I get bruises – It doesn’t hurt but when I walk out of the jungle you can see the shape of hand prints on my body. I went to a local witch doctor who gave me medicine and said not to go in the jungle alone. Now I don’t even go into the jungle. The only thing I believe is that you should ask permission before going into the jungle, especially before you pee or throw anything. You say “Guela Guelu,” which asks permission from the ancestors before disturbing them.
The next interview is with Angie Fitial, the elementary school Chamorro/Carolinian language and culture teacher. She has lived in Tinian on and off for her whole life, with periods of time in the U.S., Saipan, and Guam.
What was it like growing up in Tinian?
I grew up on the farm. We had no running water or electricity. We used a torch and lantern for light and collected rainwater. I prefered living on the farm. I learned a lot of skills like how to cook on the fire, raising animals, and preparing food. In the village things are more formal, there is not as much freedom. You are always at the house except for when you go to church or the beach. The farm had a big space to explore.
How has Tinian changed over the years?
It’s a big difference. Growing up, there was more discipline – we had to show respect. Being a respectful human being was important. As of now our kids are more liberal, they have more freedom of speech. They believe it is their right to talk back to their parents. But that’s not how our culture is. They learn a lot from their technology. Culture has changed because of this. It’s like you are looking at Stateside kids now. They would rather eat pizza than breadfruit – and the parents go along with this because its easier.
How has the influx of outsiders changed things?
I was gone for 10-12 years when I was going to high school and college in the States. When I came back it surprised me. There were more outsiders and intermarrying. Some couples encouraged each other to promote their culture. It doesn’t bother me if that’s what they want, but it does bother me when one spouse puts our culture down. A lot of outsiders don’t respect our culture.
What should people know about Chamorro culture?
In our culture respect is number one. When you come here you should try and learn what we do in the community and interact with us- try our food and go to a function to learn about who we are. Us Chamorros, even if its only a little bit, we will share our food with you. We’ll try and help you out. We want people to blend in and live with us. A lot of you Americans blend in.
What do you like best about Tinian?
It’s small. Right now we’re still safe, except for theft now and then. Families are tight. You can walk everywhere and it doesn’t matter if it’s night. It’s peaceful – not noisy like Saipan and Guam. By 8pm you don’t hear anything but the Geckos. People around here know each other. People are helpful, especially when something happens with your family. Not like Saipan where everyone does their own thing. Everyone knows everything here.
In your experience, what is it like living in the States compared to Tinian?
It’s a big difference. In Tinian we do need money, but we can always rely on family or credit. You really have to control your money there – you have to pay for everything. If we don’t have money here we can go get fresh things. In the States people mind their own business. I appreciate my time in there – I learned about the outside world, learned to be independent, and control money. One thing that made an impact on me was seeing how the elderly are treated in the States. The elderly people really depend on nursing homes and their kids hardly know them. Once kids turn 18 they become independent from their parents. When I worked at a nursing home it was like I was their daughter because I was the one taking care of them. It made me really appreciate my parents.
What will happen with the Chamorro language in the future?
A lot of it depends on the parents. If they don’t take it seriously, practicing the language at the house and using it every day, in 10-20 years this generation will hardly speak it. Once the older generation is gone, you won’t hear Chamorro anywhere. I can teach it in school, but they need to use it at the home. I’m going against a big current. I always encourage parents to speak their native language at home, even if its Filipino. Don’t just speak English.
What are the biggest problems that Tinian is facing?
The biggest is economic. Here in Tinian it was good when investors came like the Dynasty Casino. It gave our students scholarships and funding. But now there are no investors, so no scholarships. Now kids are joining the military so they can survive. Also, our power bill is too high for the salaries we’re getting. People’s hours are getting cut while the cost of power goes up.
My final interview is with Carmen Farrell, an administrator at the elementary school. Carmen lived in Tinian as a young girl, and after years of living in Guam, Saipan, and the States returned in 1987 to settle with her husband, Don Farrell, an American. Carmen assisted her husband in writing several comprehensive history books about the CNMI, which are currently used in the public schools.
Can you tell me a little bit about your family history?
My father worked for both the German and Japanese administrations. He lived on Tinian when there were only a couple of families here, catching livestock and turning it into dried meat to send to Guam. Before the war, all the locals were removed from Tinian and sent to Saipan. My parents met on Guam and had 12 children. I am the third eldest.
How was your family affected by WWII?
My family owned land in Saipan before the war. After the Americans came, the land was confiscated and used for the military. Immediately after the war the sanitary conditions were very poor. There was no access to clean water. For a while my family stayed in a cave and would get water by cutting open a banana tree. My grandmother had been hit by shrapnel and later died because of the poor hygienic conditions. My sister died as well because she developed dysentery. They gave her penicillin but she died from it because she was allergic.
What’s it like living in Tinian compared other places you have lived?
I love living in Tinian. It’s a nice place to raise a family. It’s not a stressful environment. It’s a safe place. There is not much technology for our kids to take advantage of. Our school has limited resources, but that should not be an obstacle to fulfilling their dreams. You will find a way if you want to accomplish something.
In Chamorro society, how would you describe the role of women?
The role of women is to raise children. Men work on the farm or make money, but the woman is head of the household. She is responsible for paying bills, buying groceries, etc. The man gives his paycheck to his wife and she manages all the money. This is still pretty common in today’s society. Also, the ethnicity of a child is decided by that of the mother. It’s a matrilineal society.
What is your opinion of the military build-up on Guam and how it will affect Tinian?
I always have a positive view of the military. I lived with a military family when I went to high school in Guam. They have done a lot for the community. If the build-up is controlled and we can find a balance, it can be workable. But if they’re coming in here and allowing invasive species like snakes and bringing crime, that’s not good. I don’t think the military is ruthless. I think it will help the economy, provide more jobs, improve the school and hospital. They need to honor the expectations from the beginning, but how you do that with the military, I don’t know.
The U.S. military currently has a lease on two-thirds of Tinian. What is your opinion of the lease and it’s effect on the island?
It’s a sad situation. Those are prime lands that could be used for other things like a golf course or something. They should do something with it or give it back. They leased it 38 years ago for a lump sum but the market value of that land is worth much more now.