This past summer, I wrote an essay for the anthology CONVERSATIONS AT THE WARTIME CAFE: A DECADE OF WAR 2001-2011, edited by SEAN LABRADOR Y MANZANO, to commemorate 9/11. Throughout this week, I will share this essay with images here on my blog.
“Surviving Our Fallen: Chamorros, Militarism, Religiosity, and 9/11” (Part 1)
i lina’la’ tataotao
On September 11, 2001, I was twenty-one years old, a senior in college, and studying Italian Renaissance art and literature at the Studio Arts Center International (SACI) in Florence, Italy. A semester abroad.
We were learning how to say where we were from in Beginning Italian Language when the news interrupted. Many of the students from NYU and Cornell desperately tried to call their families. I knew no one in New York, so I followed other students to an English Pub, where they were showing the BBC. Some cried, some screamed at the television, some stared openmouthed. And then
the second plane. Bodies
i lina’la’ tataotao
One of my goals for the semester abroad was to read Dante in translation. On the morning of 9/11: “Canto I” of the Inferno:
Just as a swimmer, who with his last breath
flounders ashore from perilous seas, might turn
to memorize the wide water of his death—
So did I turn, my soul still fugitive
from death’s surviving image, to stare down
that pass that none had ever left alive.
The next day, an Italian guard with a machine gun manned the door of SACI. Italian police at McDonalds. American flags hung in many businesses as signs of solidarity and mourning. Many Italians stopped some of my white classmates in the street to express their sorrow. A candlelight vigil was held for the victims near the Duomo.
The BBC newscaster compared the attack to Pearl Harbor.
What most of the world doesn’t know is that my homeland, the Pacific island of Guåhan (Guam), was bombed by Japan on December 8, 1941, around the same time as Pearl Harbor (but in a different time zone). Guam had been a territorial possession of the United States since the Spanish-American war of 1898. Colonized American soil.
On December 8, many residents on Guam were attending mass to observe the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. A rosary and novena are said and a procession is held to honor Guam’s patron saint: Santa Marian Kamalen, also known as Our Lady of Camarin. She protects Guam and the Chamorro people.
Two days later, around 3,000 Japanese soldiers landed on Guam. At the time, the Governor of Guam was U.S. Naval Captain George J. McMillin; he signed a letter of surrender shortly after the invasion. To signal that Guam had fallen, Japanese soldiers placed an American flag on the ground and shined flashlights on it. The first American territory to fall into enemy hands.
The Japanese military occupied Guam for three years.
In my first book of poems, from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008), I wrote about my grandfather’s experience during the war in a poem titled “from ta(la)ya.” He was fifteen years old during the occupation and was forced to spend three years in a forced labor battalion, building an airstrip and military encampments.
In Chamorro, “taya” means “nothing,” and “talaya” means a “throw fishing net.”
In the poem, I sit with him in his kitchen when he lived in Fairfield, CA, as he talks story about his childhood before the war, when he learned to weave and use the talaya. He shows me how to weave the invisible net with his hand. He stands in his kitchen and demonstrates how to walk through the tides, how to minimize your shadow depending on the angle of the sun. He calls the mesh of the net “eyes.”
At one point, he looks at his hands and looks surprised they are empty.
Even though Americans would “never forget” 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, most Americans never even knew about the invasion and occupation of Guam. They have no memory of our suffering, of land theft and labor camps, of torture, rape, beheadings, death marches, and mass killings. The occupation is something we will never forget, something that shaped an entire generation and the generations that followed. Genealogical trauma.