By Manny Crisostomo
For the past 25 years Heidi Chargualaf-Quenga has been volunteering all her free time directing the Kutturan Chamoru Foundation in Long Beach, which she provides tuition-free dance, language, music and immersion classes on culture and traditions to CHamorus and non-CHamorus.
The 48-year-old Long Beach accountant seemed predestined at a young age to be a tireless champion of preserving and perpetuating the CHamoru culture.
She remembers that as a 4-year-old, a Nobenen Niño in Maryland where her mother started tearing up as they sang.
“They were singing the songs in CHamoru and I looked over and I remember my mom was tearing up. I wanted to know what that was, what made her feel that way when she heard those songs,” she said. “The earliest memory I have of feeling the sorrow, the longing, the mahalang feeling.”
Her parents Johnny Concepcion Chargualaf, familian Karabao, and Grace Perez Mandell Chargualaf, familian Goyu, named her Heidi when she was born in a U.S. Army hospital in Heidelberg, Germany.
“To me it wasn’t abnormal to be CHamoru living in other places because we are always surrounded with family, extended family and other CHamorus that were in the military,” Chargualaf-Quenga said. “Wherever we lived on different bases, whoever was CHamoru, migrated to my parents because they are fluent speakers and my mom is an excellent cook.”
Chargualaf-Quenga was 7 when she visited Guam for the first time, and “it was culture shock but I felt right at home, it was always that feeling of where grandma and grandpa were, where my family was that’s home.”
When the family was stationed in North Carolina, she went to a Liberation Day event and met CHamoru cultural dancers and was taught how to do the bailan palitu, or stick dance.
“That was probably the moment where I was like, I need to know more,” she said. “It was that feeling like when I went to Guam (the first time) and I felt connected.”
'Fueled the fire'
As a student at San Francisco State University, she was inspired after meeting “other Pacific Islanders (who also) grew up knowing their culture and their language,” she recalled.
“We started a Pacific Islander club but no one knew organized dance, no one knew any ceremonial songs. So the CHamorus that were there, we started to look and research and I took it upon myself to do it more than others.”
She eventually met her husband, Joey Quenga, and they moved to Long Beach where he is from.
In Long Beach her mother-in-law, Regina Atoguie Quenga, and Glenn Taitano Bernardo started a dance group called Kutturan CHamoru and she said she was literally pulled in.
“From them (Quenga and Bernardo) it just fueled the fire in me to just teach and learn more and pass it on,” she said.
She is now president of the group, which officially became a nonprofit in 2008 and changed its name to Guma’ Kutturan CHamoru Foundation.
She also learned from Master of CHamoru Dance Frank Rabon.
“I went under his wing and learned and worked through translations with him and just learned what was happening on the island,” Chargualaf-Quenga said. “A lot of the lessons that I teach is what we are doing today and what we learn today is not for us, it's for those yet to come.”
Under Rabon’s tutelage for over a dozen years, she completed all the levels in her rites of passage Chalan Lina’la’ (Aplok, Manha, Ma’asun, yan Faha).
In 2019 at the Che’lu Festival in San Marcos, California, Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio presented her a Guam Legislature resolution recognizing her as a “fafa’nå’gue,” or CHamoru traditional arts instructor, and another resolution commending Guma’ Kutturan CHamoru Foundation for its commitment to perpetuating the CHamoru culture.
As a program through the city of Long Beach, Kutturan CHamoru Foundation has not charged tuition since their inception in 1993.
“We started to grow with our dance, but not everyone wants to learn to dance or sing our songs, so we started language,” she said. “We also started a CHamoru immersion camp that we do at Cal State Long Beach or UCLA, and it’s tuition-free as well. We have 30 to 40 students from all over the states that come, and get immersed in our culture.”
Over the past quarter century, Chargualaf-Quenga has taught CHamoru dance to legions of students — CHamorus and non-Chamorus, young and old. She helped them raise funds to travel and perform all across the U.S., Asia and Guam.
The trips home to Guam have been memorable.
“I had the opportunity to bring home kids that have never been home for the first time. The shock, the surprise and even the tears that they have when they get there and just seeing them like, ‘Wow this is where I am from, where my ancestors are from,’ is a feeling I can’t explain because it is just amazing to see it,” she said.
'A lot of hats'
She still has more to do perpetuating the CHamoru culture in dance and language, teaching and empowering kids, helping elderly CHamorus with health concerns, assisting CHamoru business entrepreneurs and supporting area artists from the Pacific region using the platform of the Kutturan CHamoru Foundation and its reach in the Southern California area.
“I am wearing a lot of hats,” she said, reminding us that she still has her day job as an accountant.
“I needed a slogan, I needed something to help me with all these things going in my head,” she said. She reached out to Fran Lujan, director at the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum in Long Beach and they came up with, “In our movements we reach for our roots,” and the CHamoru translation:“Gi kinalamten-ta ta hågu'i i håleta.”
“It’s true no matter what we do, no matter where we are at, through action, through movement we are reaching for our roots, our ancestors. We are a reflection of our ancestors.”
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 sanlagu.com. The project is sponsored in part by Brand Marinade, a CHamoru-owned creative agency in the San Francisco Bay Area.