By Manny Crisostomo
Alaina Aflague Arroyo’s earliest memory of Brigida Duenas Manibusan, her great-grandmother, was when she was 5 years old lying next to her in her bedroom.
“She would always pray the rosary, every single night,” Arroyo said. “We would just be lying in bed and she would have the rosary wrapped around her hand and I could hear her whispering the rosary to herself before she went to sleep. I always fell asleep before she finished.”
Arroyo also recalled that her great-grandmother, whom everybody called “mom” was a huge fan of professional wrestling and WWE.
“She would always say, “oh, måtai” when she would watch it. Which was funny because we would tell her like ‘Mom, they’re just faking it, they’re just acting.’ She’s like, ‘No, no, they’re real’,” Arroyo said.
“So it was always fun especially because it was like me and my brothers and my cousins and we’re just sitting in front of the TV in my great-grandma’s room watching wrestling and hearing her commentary in the back.”
The 24-year-old, second-generation, stateside-born CHamoru is getting her master’s in international and multicultural education from University of San Francisco this month.
A borderline Gen Z and Millennial generation, the San Francisco resident has an accomplished academic career and equally impressive record of CHamoru advocacy and activism kindled by her great-grandmother’s love of family and island, and forged by her CHamoru families in the U.S. and on Guam.
Her tight-knit multigenerational CHamoru family lived near each other in the San Francisco Bay Area town of San Ramon. Arroyo grew up down the street from the house where her great-grandmother, moved in with her grandparents, her aunt and cousins after her husband passed away.
“So after school, it was just me, my two brothers, my two older cousins and my great-grandmother, until everyone got home from work. Which wasn’t until like 6:30-7:00,” she said. “I would do homework in the kitchen, and my great-grandma would be cooking or I would help. And then by the time everyone got home, we all ate dinner together.”
The family matriarch, Brigida San Nicolás Dueñas, is familian Kantun from Inalåhan who was born in 1929 and survived but was scarred by the Japanese invasion.
She married Frank Balajadia Manibusan, familian Betut, from Santa Cruz, Hagatña, and they moved to the U.S. in 1951 when he was in the Navy.
The couple moved back to Guam in 1961 but migrated back to the Bay Area in 1968 with all of Brigida Manibusan’s siblings and their daughter, Darlene Dueñas Manibusan Aflague.
Darlene’s husband, Anthony Blas Aflague, joined the extended family in 1972 after finishing his tour of duty during the Vietnam War. The Aflagues had two children including Lyn Aflague, who is Alaina’s mom.
Alaina Arroyo got to be around her great-grandmother for her entire childhood, inhaling memories, lessons, culture and love. She was 18 when her great-grandmother died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 86.
“She was a very soft-spoken woman but strong at the same time, she was very fierce and just very calm, like a calming energy,” Arroyo said. “We didn’t have too many in-depth conversations about being CHamoru. Because I was pretty young and my consciousness wasn’t really where it is today.”
Thankfully Brigida’s stories growing up in pre-war Guam in the south, and the pain and trauma from being a war survivor reverberated down the bloodline to her daughter and granddaughter, who are now passing it on to Alaina.
‘Fight for our island’
“I grew up understanding and being taught that my great-grandfather was in the Navy and was present for Pearl Harbor and that my great-grandmother was a war survivor and in the southern part of the island,” Arroyo said.
“What has given interest in our island and advocating for our people is my great-grandmother’s stories, and I know those stories based off of other relatives of mine, not solely from her. It makes me want to fight for our island, fight for our people, but also, just recognize all that our people have endured, and to really create a space and to normalize conversations on the fact that we’re capable as a people to move forward in a way that suits us best. And the only people who can decide that are CHamoru people.”
Her empathy for the suffering of the CHamoru people was triggered not only by her great-grandmother’s stories but the political awakening, advocacy and activism that came during a two-month long immersion on Guam in 2016, less than a year after her great-grandmother died.
On island for the 2016 Festival of the Pacific Arts, “that was the first time that I’ve been indulged in not only what it meant to be CHamoru, and the different pieces of CHamoru traditions, and CHamoru culture and heritage that we had to share with other island nations, but also got exposed to and be present in the history, the stories, the heritage of other islands who are our cousins, our brothers and sisters of the Pacific,” she said.
“Coming from the states, and being CHamoru, that was really life-changing. I don’t know if I would have experienced something like that out here.”
She was also introduced to a lot of people from Independent Guåhan by her aunties and got the opportunity to go to sacred ancient CHamoru sites on military property.
‘It healed me’
One of the sacred sites she visited was the ancient village of Haputo located on military owned land on the northwestern coast of Guam, near the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station in Finegayan.
“I walked into the jungle from the beach and saw a latte stone, it was just perfectly standing,” Arroyo remembered. “It was beautiful. It felt like history was coming to life in front of my face, something that is seen as so ancient, so thousands of years ago, was right in front of my face.
”Growing up, I’ve just heard so many (latte) stories, especially from my mom. We always had latte stones symbolism around us, whether that was from a necklace, or from a tee shirt, or on my tattoo that I got when I was 18.
“I could describe it as it felt like a family member who I was meeting for the first time, but who had passed away a long time ago.
“It did a lot for me, understanding who I am as being CHamoru, but also it healed me in certain ways that I didn’t know I needed.”
That transformative experience was bittersweet as she questioned militarism and the military’s role in restricting access to sacred sites like Haputo.
“There was just so much restriction, and so much buildup. That it made me angry, it hurt me how so many CHamorus haven’t had those opportunities,” she said.
“I think that really just changed the trajectory of my life, ‘’ she said of her Guam experience attending FestPac, meeting Independent Guahan organizers and seeing firsthand military restrictions on sacred sites.
After returning to the states she helped organize campus events acknowledging and celebrating Pacific Islanders and Indigenous rights.
She was part of a delegation of six young CHamoru women who testified before the Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee) of the United Nations.
In 2017 she testified about how militarism and how military recruitment on Guam has been a contributor to essentially forced migration from our island, which then creates this duality of being minorities in our own homelands.
And in the following year, “I spoke on healing trauma, and the lack or complete closure of access to our sacred sites, by military force can be a contributor to a barrier to collective healing as a people, and how, without having access to our sacred sites, it can be difficult for us to connect to our ancestors.
“Because at the end of the day, that’s our home, and that’s where our ancestors are. And that’s literally where we’re from. So when harm is done to our island, then harm is done to us.”
‘Be a resource’
Now in her final days as graduate student, Arroyo summarized her master’s thesis as “native Pacific Islander student experiences at the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on community action toward representation and self-determination through education.”
“Ultimately, long, long term, what I really hope to do is I just want to be a resource for Pacific Islanders,” she said of her future goals.
“Take any knowledge that I have and learned from and be a resource, especially to students who are just, you know, trying to figure things out, navigating and learning their own identities.”