A year ago I embarked on a journey of chronicling journeys. Along the way I met and photographed nearly 600 journeyers, with 44 of them bravely sharing in detail their inspiring and at times heartbreaking stories that appeared weekly in the print and online editions of this publication.
The journeyers I speak of are my fellow Manaotao Sanlagu CHamorus from the Marianas — all 566 of them that posed in front of my camera in their businesses, homes, backyards and CHamoru restaurants during birthday parties, graduations, funerals, reunions, family get togethers, bbqs and organized cultural events celebrating being CHamoru, such as Mes CHamoru and Guam Liberation Day.
They all left Guam moving to the United States and beyond. Some left as adults for school and work opportunities, or as part of their military obligations or for familial connections or reconnections. A number of them have never been to Guam or the Northern Marianas, what I call the “sanlagu-born generation.”
Over the last half century, the ebb and flow of CHamoru migration attributed to U.S. military influence and educational and career opportunities over time to where we are today, when there are more people of CHamoru bloodlines living in the U.S. and abroad than there are living on the island of Guam.
There are estimates of 180,000-plus stateside CHamorus, and my current tally of 566 CHamorus photographed over the past year is the proverbial drop in the bucket.
A couple of months ago I was documenting a Bailan CHamoru workshop in Oakland, California, where fafa’någue, or certified CHamoru instructor, Heidi Chargualaf-Quenga and four of her trained Kutturan Chamoru dancers walked around the room showing, correcting and encouraging a mix of adults and children moving and dancing to the beat of the drum and the chanting and singing of traditional songs.
During a break, Verna Castro, founder of the San Francisco community-based nonprofit inafa’maolek.us who organized the event, asked me to talk about myself and the documentary.
At that moment I realized I have written about the Manaotao Sanlagu documentary on print and online and shared it in one-on-ones to CHamorus I was interviewing or photographing, but I have never talked about its mission and goals in front of an audience.
I got up in front, nervously tightening my sweaty grip on my camera and I started out explaining mahalang, this loneliness, homesickness, a longing for the familiar that I had. And how that the feeling was common, almost universal — one that CHamorus living away from our ancestral home islands speak about.
I added that a friend of mine told me that the only way to lessen this mahalang, this intense sense of longing was to replace it with a sense of belonging. She told me to find CHamorus, connect with them and be mahalang together — and in the process, find a sense of belonging.
I said that was my motivating desire to find and connect with Mariana Islands CHamorus who uprooted, moved off island and relocated to communities across the United States and around the world.
And when I find them, I will photograph them and ask them to share their story, their migration, their family, their life trajectories and their universal truths. But I also wanted to hear how they observe, maintain or continue practice their CHamoru cultural traditions of kustumbre (communal and familial values), ayuda (consensus building), inafa’maolek (interdependence and unity) and chenchule (reciprocity).
I looked out at the group and I stressed how important it was to me to tell our stories and show our CHamoru-ness to the world and to ourselves.
“So there are about 180,000 CHamourus here in the states and around the world and I have photographed about 350 (the number I had shot at the time) of us so I am almost there,” I said to a room of laughter.
“But I am going to keep photographing CHamorus till the day I die and they bury me holding a camera in my coffin,” I added, shocking myself hearing those words spoken out loud. I have been known for some exaggeration and hyperbole but that dramatic statement I promise you wasn’t premeditated.
I stand by that morbid sentiment, and as I look back on a year I am also anxiously looking forward to getting closer to that 180,000 number, looking for ways to raise funds to travel through the 50 states finding and documenting more CHamorus faces and continue to write stories of life journeys, accomplishment, wonderment, heartbreak, inspiration and CHamoru universal truths we all share.
Speaking of faces and stories we are publishing a book showcasing all the nearly 600 CHamoru portraits and the 44 in-depth narratives that were published this past year in the PDN’s print and online versions, as well as sanlagu.com.
“Håcha na Lepblo, Manaotao Sanlagu: CHamorus from the Marianas” is a12-inch-square 220-page book that will launch in late October or early November but we will showing book previews and taking preorders at sanlagu.com.
“Håcha na Lepblo” is CHamoru for “book one” as we plan for annual or biennial editions going forward.
Brand Marinade, a CHamoru-owned creative agency in the San Francisco Bay Area that has supported the “Manatato Sanalgu documentary” this past year is publishing the book, but we are seeking co-sponsors and donors to help lower the cost and get the book to as many people as possible.
Book profits and sale of merchandise at sanlagu.com go directly to support the documentary travel and other expenses. The PDN gives me a modest honorarium per story and doesn’t cover any expenses. But I am so appreciative of their partnership in providing print and online platforms, and audiences both on Guam and around the world for “Manatao Sanlagu.” They have reported back to me that weekly stories and photos are one of the most widely viewed and read.
And this is as good a time to segue that Manaotao Sanlagu going forward will be on PDN biweekly instead of weekly, giving me time to work on the book, reach out to sponsors, find grants and fundraise.
I am striving to make this a self- sustaining enterprise because there is still a lot of work to be done. In the past year, I have met so many amazing CHamorus and I proudly have shared their stories. There are more of us out there thriving, succeeding and living our best lives, and I want to continue to chronicle their life journeys.
I have spent the last few weeks going over narrative, graphic and photo assets for “Håcha na Lepblo.” There are so many good reads but I leave you with this short passage from a story from Sept. 16, 2021 about Pete Gumataotao, the first CHamoru to achieve the rank of two-star admiral.
We sat down to reconnect and reminisce about our Guam school days that spanned from rambunctious first graders in elementary school to studious but equally prankish Father Dueñas Memorial School brothers.
We also “talk story” about our similar upbringing, about our parents, the familia, the church, life lessons and the culture. And how growing up CHamoru and our roots manifest themselves in our life’s journey. “The fact you and I have this ability to reflect back on that in life just tells you how blessed we are,” Gumataotao said.
Yes, we are blessed.