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Manaotao Sanlagu: Columbina Camacho Nelson

By Manny Crisostomo

Columbina Camacho Nelson is living a full rich life.

During a recent visit and with the video camera rolling I asked this saina her age. “Wow, you don’t want to hear that, I am too old,’’ she said between giggles. “I am 94 years old, wow,” she added with a mischievous faux disbelief, a sparkle in her eyes and a smile that lit up the room.

She lives in the home of her youngest daughter, Barbara Nelson Jaye, in Hayward, California, surrounded by photo albums and framed pictures dating back to the early 1900s.

Columbina Camacho Nelson, 94, of Hayward, California, is one of thousands of CHamorus from Guam who uprooted, moved off island and relocated to communities across the United States and around the world. She is part of Manny Crisostomo’s ongoing visual documentary “Manaotao Sanlagu: CHamorus from the Marianas” translated as “our people, the CHamorus, overseas,” featured weekly in the Pacific Daily News.

This spry nonagenarian rattled off the names of her three sons and three daughters and where they live. She quickly recited the names of her nine siblings, who call her “Bung.”

She shared that her father, Jose Muna Camacho, was a Guam judge and her mother, Calalina Eclavea Camacho, was a school teacher. The former Barrigada resident added, “for the people to know they call me familian Lucio, that’s my grandfather.”

During the Japanese occupation in World War II, her family hid at the family ranch in Lalo, on the border of Barrigada and Mangilao.

“We stayed as long as we can, we raised chicken, chickens and hens and we plant food,” she recalled. “When the war striked, some people, you know, came to us to have shelter.”

In the summer of 1948, she was 21 when she married 22-year-old Maite resident George Nelson at the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica.

George Nelson, who a few years earlier had enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, had grown up on Guam; his father was a U.S. serviceman who married a local girl, Potenciana Quitigua.

Five years later, with a toddler in tow, Columbina Nelson boarded the U.S. Navy transport ship General Daniel I. Sultan, bound for San Francisco to join her husband. “I came to California on a boat. My first trip, I came with Bernadette,” she said.

The couple settled in San Leandro and raised their six children. He finished his military duty and started working as a machinist at a San Leandro pistons manufacturing company.

They were both very active in the Guam clubs that were thriving in the Bay Area, with 11 chapters stretching from Vallejo in the north to San Jose and Monterey in the south.

And just like when her family offered shelter to fellow CHamorus during the war in Guam, Columbina Nelson opened her small home in California to those leaving Guam and moving to the states.

“If she did anything that was quite amazing to me, was she was a gateway, my parents were a gateway for people that were coming,” said her daughter Jaye, who grew up watching her parents act as a conduit for uncles, aunts, cousins, kumpaires and kumaires relocating stateside.

“They were coming in waves and we lived in a three bedroom and one bathroom house. I only remember because I had to give up my bed every week, and I’ll sleep on the couch or the floor,” Jaye recalled. “It was kinda like step by step, first they stayed with us, then they got them into an apartment, then they started looking for jobs, and then they figured out where they are going to be on the map in the Bay Area once they got established with jobs.”

I am sure given time Columbina Nelson could probably list all the people she helped or can refer back to the numerous photo albums around the house.

Her daughter Jaye counts 63 first cousins. The numbers would be impressive but not unexpected with the embracing of CHamoru values of inafa maolek, ayuda and chenchule — the caring, the helping and the receiving and giving back.

“They have a large network, they are very social, and they love their culture and they love the people coming in and they would do anything for them,” added Jaye.

And as much as Columbina Nelson was a beacon to those seeking a new life and opportunities stateside, she was also a larger than life matriarch to her six children, 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Her home was filled with the chatter of CHamoru with transient family members, the aroma of island food and the pastries she was famous for, and the sounds of the constant telling of stories, Guam legends, places, and life experiences. It instilled a curiosity and desire in the grandkids to go visit Guam.

In 2015 Columbina Nelson took a trip back to Guam with her oldest granddaughter, Christina Willis, who was born and raised on the East Coast.

Willis, who was 40years old at the time, wanted to see where grandma was from, to learn more about her heritage, and to honor the love of CHamoru food and traditions that her grandmother instilled in her.

“Yes I miss Guam, I miss all the friends and family you know,” Columbina Nelson said, beaming while recalling the memories of trips back home.

But her expression turned melancholic as she surveyed the room and looked into the camera and forlornly said, “My family in Guam are all gone, they pass away.”

She outlived her parents, siblings, husband, and husband’s siblings. She and her husband had a lifetime friendship with Angie Calvo Butler, who met and married Don Brown when he was sent to Guam to help build a radio station. The couples lived near each other in the Bay Area and were inseparable.

The men used to make coconut grinders together that they would sell to the members of the Guam clubs. Years after their spouses died, Columbina Nelson and Don Brown would accompany each other to church and the long friendship blossomed. They got married in their 80s and were active, even traveling to Guam together, until he passed away.

Sixty four years after boarding a ship to America, Columbina took another boat ride to celebrate her 90th birthday.

And while most of her contemporaries have passed, nearly 70 family and friends from all over the country joined her on the California Hornblower yacht on a leisurely cruise around the San Francisco bay to celebrate her life and lasting legacy.