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Manaotao Sanlagu: Albert Van Meter

Eight miles from Disneyland I pulled into a nondescript tract house to what this mahålang CHamoru would describe as the second happiest place on earth. I could hear CHamoru chants coming from the side of the house and was greeted by the sight of Kutturan Chamoru dancers practicing.

I passed the dancers on the patio to a large outside CHamoru kitchen and could see red rice, chicken kelaguen, pancit and latiya on the two oversize tables. The smell of barbecue chicken lured me to a huge backyard but was distracted by a familiar looking hålom tåno’ (jungle).

I ignored my hosts and started wandering through trees and bushes of mångga, bilembines, alageta, åtes, papåya, kalamanse’, aga’, cherimoyas, åbas, mansanan pao take’, lemon China, lemon adamelong, camachile yan donne.

“I really want this to be just like back home,” said former Agat resident Albert Van Meter of his little låncho on the back end of his quarter-acre lot in the Southern California city of Cypress.

My glee and delight at Van Meters’ låncho transports me back to my childhood days wandering through the rural backyards and jungles of Guam. I am not alone in being wonderstruck, said Van Meter.

“The manamkos (CHamoru elderly) would come back here and be amazed and say ‘leche Albert na tinanom’ (holy crap Albert your plantings!). And it brings them back (to Guam) and I love their appreciation of that.”

This is no scattered or wild tinanom of fruta yan gollai siha (the planting of fruits and vegetables), as Van Meter has been for the last 25 years sculpting a vision of a supersized garden or a mini plantation filled with Guam-specific produce.

In addition to the Guam-centric plantings, he has grapes, white peach, persimmons, pears, pomegranate, grapefruit, naval and cara cara oranges, seasonal vegetables and a few cannabis plants.

He is disappointed that he can’t grow pugua’, pupulu, lemmai yan niyok, owing to the Southern California winter’s cold spells.

“This is my tåne’ (to be busy or occupied with) right here, this is what I am going to do when I retire, take care of these plants,” said Van Meter, 66. “I just give it away, this is my passion, this is part of my culture, if I have something I’ll give it to you, this is us.”

Van Meter hopes to retire next year from the job he took after retiring from Sony, where he worked for 28 years as a facilities manager. His wife, Teresita, has worked at the same Sony facility for 34 years; she loves working there and has no plans to retire.

He said he left Guam when he was 14 years old and lived with family in Long Beach. He went back home after high school graduation, worked at Bank of America, met his wife and had kids.

Their youngest at the time was having skin-related health issues and so he moved the family back to Southern California in 1984.

“It was a good move because after a few months of being here with the weather, it just went away,” he said of his son’s ailments.

His youngest and only daughter, Tarra, was born stateside and has been dancing with Kutturan Chamoru Foundation in Long Beach since she was 8 years old.

After graduating high school she accompanied the cultural group on a trip to Guam to perform.

She was so taken by her experience being back home, “she came back and said, ‘Dad, I want to go back and stay in Guam,’” he recalled. “I said, girl, I just bought you a car.”

After living in Yigo for eight years she came back stateside in 2015 with a family of her own. Her then 5-year-old daughter, Teiya, was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a type of brain cancer, and was receiving treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.

Teiya, now a “warrior princess” cancer survivor, is in remission and thriving — and even started performing with Kutturan Chamoru at the same age her mother started.

Albert and Teresita Van Meter opened their house for the Long Beach-based Kutturan Chamoru under the tutelage of Heidi Chargualaf-Quenga for weekly practices. Several of the dancers drove from as far away as San Diego.

“They come and dance and socialize and bring that family, like back home, tradition,” he said. After the practice I joined the Van Meters, Heidi, and the dancers at the outdoor kitchen, said grace and ate a modest CHamoru fiesta meal.

With the sun setting behind his sanlagu CHamoru låncho, Van Meter pulled down a branch and picked some gada’ mångga (young mango), then headed to his favorite donne (pepper) bush and picked a few of those super hots.

He filled a small baggie with salt from the outside kitchen. These are ingredients of the tokcha’ snack of my youth — a small plate with salt and the peppers mashed and mixed together and the green unripe mango that you tokcha’ (spear) to soak in salt and pepper concoction.

Sorry, Mickey, but this is the happiest place on earth.

Manaotao Sanlagu is Manny Crisostomo’s ongoing visual documentary of CHamorus from the Marianas living overseas that is featured weekly in the PDN. If you or someone you know would like to be part of this documentary or wish to support this project, contact Crisostomo at The project is sponsored in part by Brand Marinade, a CHamoru-owned creative agency in the San Francisco Bay Area.