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Pacific cousins at crossroads of history

By Virgilio A. Reyes Jr.

If there is any close relative in the Pacific for the Philippines, it is the island of Guam, also known as the Southern Marianas Islands. Its original inhabitants, the Chamorros, came from the same Austronesian stock as the Filipino indigenes, and the island became known to the West simultaneously with us.  

Mingling easily with native Chamorrans, Filipinos, who at 27 percent of the population, are a strong presence in present-day Guam, brought about by intriguing coincidences of history.

Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the land of the Chamorros on March 6, 1521, just 10 days before his landfall in Homonhon. He and his crew were welcomed with alacrity by the local inhabitants, who had (for the Spaniards) the unnerving cultural habit of helping themselves to whatever seemed to be available on board itinerant ships. 

WARM WELCOME. Guam’s lush green terrains, low mountains and rolling hills, and azure skies are no different from Philippines’ with which it shares historical ties. (Photos courtesy of visitguam.com)
Rather than focusing on the fact that the natives had also been eager and generous in providing  Magellan’s starved crew with much-needed victuals and water, the commander chose to besmirch them with the name “Isla de Ladrones” or Isle of Thieves, what was later replaced in the 17th century by a more charming reference to the Queen Regent of the Hapsburg family, Mariana. Hence, Marianas, now divided into the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas and Guam.

I had occasion to visit this storied island in July 2018, when COVID-19 was not even a glimmer in the eye of the Hunanese. I had long wished to explore Guam’s historical ties to the Philippines; now was the time to do this. 

I was aware that Guam was a way-station in the 250-year Galleon Trade that had been plied between Manila and Acapulco during the Spanish period. Our second canonized saint, Pedro Calungsod, was martyred in Guam together with Spanish Jesuit priest, Padre Diego de Sanvitores in their missionary efforts to convert the natives in 1672. This was a full century after the Legazpi landing in 1565, meaning that Christianization took place much later in Guam than in the Philippines.

I also knew that many of our rebels, notably Gat Apolinario Mabini, had been exiled to these climes by either the Spanish or the Americans in their respective colonial regimes. I also had a long-lost distant relative, Cesar Pereyra y Reyes, who had retired to this island after working in the United States. I was fortunate to interview him on our family history before he passed in 2019. 

Moreover, I was welcomed with hospitality by the staff of Philippine Consul General Marciano de Borja and his deputy, Mark Francis Hamoy, who was my wise Baedeker.

Guam did not disappoint. The lush green terrain is no different from ours, dotted with magnificent beaches, exotic ferns, and swaying coconut trees. Its low mountains and rolling hills are identical to ours, and its azure skies clear as in our provincial sites. Typhoons also periodically upset the calm of this verdant paradise.

What does strike one in its capital is the absence of colonial buildings dating from the Spanish era. Agana—or Hagatna in Chamorro—took a major hit from the Japanese. Its modern reconstruction of the Cathedral Dulce Nombre de Maria, though beautiful in its own way, has little to remind us of what it must have looked like in colonial times.  

Gone is the colonial  plaza around which the principalia would have had their houses “under the sound of the bells” and where the main church and the ayuntamiento, or principal civil building would have stood. In vain does one look for the equivalent of our bahay na bato, which one saw in their historic prints and photographs. To find a Fort Santiago, one would have to go up to the hills to discover their own Fort Soledad.

What impresses in Agana’s center is a modern square brightened up with bougainvilleas and punctuated by remnants of old Hispanic-era walls, as well as a splendid museum that records Guam’s history, spruced up with Yankee-style flare and efficiency.

It is interesting that on its outskirts, Guam has only the most modest of monuments to Magellan’s landing but still officially marks March 6 as Discovery Day in his honor. Compare that to the drama of the clash between Magellan and Lapu-lapu marked by separate monuments in Mactan and Cebu (Magellan’s Cross). Yet March 16 is not marked as a significant date in Philippine history except by historians. Lapu-lapu has obviously won the day in the Philippines.

Fort Nuestra Señora de la Soledåd located atop a steep bluff called Chalan Aniti in Umatac. (Photo courtesy of guampedia.com)
Fort Nuestra Señora de la Soledåd located atop a steep bluff called Chalan Aniti in Umatac. (Photo courtesy of guampedia.com)
With just around 1,000 miles of distance between them, Guam was effectively part of the Philippines during the colonial era. Under the tutelage of the friars, both emerged with Catholicism as their main religion, mixing native beliefs with European doctrines. Spanish was their administrative language and bore a strong influence on their present-day respective idioms. About 50 percent of modern Chamorro is derived from Castilian.

Guam also emerged as the place of exile for perceived dissidents and rebels from the Philippines. Hence, it was that in Spanish times, prominent Filipino recalcitrants were exiled here. This practice would find its most significant expression in American times by the exile of the Malolos Congress’ architect, Apolinario Mabini, and high military officers of the Revolution to Guam in 1901.

Today, we have a 1961 monument to Mabini, whose dedication reads: “On this site, Asan Point, Apolinario Mabini, immortalized in Philippine history as the Sublime Paralytic, the Brain of the Philippine Revolution, and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the First Philippine Republic under Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, together with 51 other Filipino heroes, among them Generals Artemio Ricarte, Pio del Pilar, Mariano Llanera, Colonel Maximo Hizon, Pablo Ocampo, Maximo Flores, Pancracio Palting, and Maximo Tolentino.”

It further notes that they were quartered in what was formerly a leper hospital and were only returned to the Philippines in 1903 when they swore an oath of allegiance to the United States, except for General Ricarte. 

Performances using traditional instruments are highlights of cultural presentations in Guam, such as the Festival of the Pacific Arts held every four years. (Photo courtesy of visitguam.com)
Performances using traditional instruments are highlights of cultural presentations in Guam, such as the Festival of the Pacific Arts held every four years. (Photo courtesy of visitguam.com)
We may take note that Mabini himself was to die shortly after he returned to his home country.

Following the script of the Philippines, Guam came under American rule and was to suffer a devastating Japanese invasion during the Second World War. Like the Filipinos, the Guamanians were to be treated harshly by the Japanese due to their loyalty to the United States.

Even today, with a huge U.S. military base occupying one third of its territory, Guam suffers the peril of close identity with the United States. Kim Jong-Un has threatened to lob a nuclear missile at this vulnerable island, not an idle threat. A similar menace had been aimed at Hawaii, which actually experienced a false nuclear alert. Now it is claimed that even China has practice videos for a nuclear attack on Guam.

Guam remains in the crucible of modern history, coping with climate change, economic distress (since it is dependent on tourism and the U.S. military base, both affected by COVID-19), and the exodus of its youth to more hospitable climes. Chamorro as a language and culture is a threatened species.  

Marking the 500th year of Magellan’s arrival in 2021, Guam may well reflect on future options for its inhabitants for the rest of this century.

Topics: Pacific , Guam , Southern Marianas Islands , Chamorros
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