“Off-Island Chamorros”

“Off-Island Chamorros”

My family migrated to California when I was 15 years old.
During the first day at my new high school, the homeroom
teacher asked me where I was from.“The Mariana Islands,”
I answered. He replied: “I’ve never heard of that place.
Prove it exists.” And when I stepped in front of the world map
on the wall, it transformed into a mirror: the Pacific Ocean,
like my body, was split in two and flayed to the margins. I
found Australia, then the Philippines, then Japan. I pointed
to an empty space between them and said: “I’m from this
invisible archipelago.” Everyone laughed. And even though
I descend from oceanic navigators, I felt so lost, shipwrecked

on the coast of a strange continent. “Are you a citizen?”
he probed. “Yes. My island, Guam, is a U.S. territory.”
We attend American schools, eat American food, listen
to American music, watch American movies and television,
play American sports, learn American history, dream
American dreams, and die in American wars. “You
speak English well,” he proclaimed, “with almost no
accent.” And isn’t that what it means to be a diasporic
Chamorro: to feel foreign in a domestic sense.

Over the last 50 years, Chamorros have migrated to
escape the violent memories of war; to seek jobs, schools,
hospitals, adventure, and love; but most of all, we’ve migrated
for military service, deployed and stationed to bases around
the world. According to the 2010 census, 44,000 Chamorros
live in California, 15,000 in Washington, 10,000 in Texas,
7,000 in Hawaii, and 70,000 more in every other state
and even Puerto Rico. We are the most “geographically
dispersed” Pacific Islander population within the United
States, and off-island Chamorros now outnumber
our on-island kin, with generations having been born
away from our ancestral homelands, including my daughter.

Some of us will be able to return home for holidays, weddings,
and funerals; others won’t be able to afford the expensive
plane ticket to the Western Pacific. Years and even decades                                              might pass between trips, and each visit will feel too short.
We’ll lose contact with family and friends, and the island
will continue to change until it becomes unfamiliar to us.
And isn’t that, too, what it means to be a diasporic
Chamorro: to feel foreign in your own homeland.

And there’ll will be times when we’ll feel adrift, without itinerary
or destination. We’ll wonder: What if we stayed? What if we
return? When the undertow of these questions begins
pulling you out to sea, remember: migration flows through
our blood like the aerial roots of i trongkon nunu. Remember:
our ancestors taught us how to carry our culture in the canoes
of our bodies. Remember: our people, scattered like stars,
form new constellations when we gather. Remember:
home is not simply a house, village, or island; home
is an archipelago of belonging.

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