Guamanian Americans

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Author: Jane E. Spear
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 7,849 words
Lexile Measure: 1420L

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Guamanian Americans

Jane E. Spear


Guamanians are residents of the island of Guam, a U.S. territory. The term Guamanian is also often used to refer specifically to Chamorros, the indigenous people of Guam. All Guamanians are U.S. citizens, whether they live on the island of Guam or in one of the fifty states. The island of Guam is the southernmost of the Mariana Islands, a chain of volcanic islands in the west central Pacific. Located about 1,400 miles east of the Philippines, the island is the peak of a submerged mountain that rises 37,820 feet above the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the greatest ocean depth in the world. The island of Guam is approximately 30 miles long and varies in width from 4 to 12 miles, making it the largest component of the Marianas chain. With a total landmass of 212 square miles (excluding reef formations), Guam is about the same size as the popular Texas tourist destination Padre Island.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Guam's population was 159,358. The population includes Chamorros (who account for less than half of Guam's residents), Filipinos, Micronesian Islanders (mainly from Chuuk, Palau, Pohnpei, and Yap), and North Americans. The majority of North Americans living on Guam are either U.S. military personnel or support staff stationed on one of the island's many U.S. military establishments. Because Guam is a former Spanish colony, the majority of islanders are Roman Catholic. The other major denomination on the island is the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, whose members account for one-fifth of the population. The island's gross domestic product (GDP) in 2005 was $2.5 billion, ranking it 167th among the world's nations. Tourism, particularly among the Japanese (who make up 75 percent of all visitors to Guam) is the basis of the local economy, aided by the island's many U.S. Defense establishments and personnel.

Since 1898, Chamorros have arrived on the United States mainland in small numbers, primarily settling in Hawaii, California, and Washington state. These numbers increased after World War II, when Chamorros began migrating to Washington, D.C., where many worked for the Department of Defense as well as other areas of the defense and diplomatic establishments. More recently the need for access to quality healthcare has become a major cause for migration to the mainland and Hawaii—a response to the continuing lack of healthcare options on the island. Educational opportunity has also emerged over the last two decades as a cause for migration, with increasing numbers of young Chamorros attending universities and colleges in the United States.

The 2010 U.S. Census shows that 88,310 people living in the continental United States and Hawaii reported themselves as either Guamanian or Chamorro. An additional 59,488 reported Guamanian or Chamorro heritage in combination with one or more other races. While many immigrant Chamorros have continued to settle in Hawaii, California, Nevada, and Washington State, the last twenty years has seen an increase in Chamorro communities in Texas and Florida. Cities with significant Chamorro populations include San Diego and Sacramento, California; San Antonio and Killeen, Texas; and Jacksonville, Florida.


Early History What little is known of the precontact inhabitants of the island comes mainly from local tradition and myth, preserved in part by the writings of later Jesuit missionaries and visiting scientists. The limited archaeological and historical evidence has indicated that the ancient Chamorros, the earliest known inhabitants of the Mariana Islands, lived there as early as 1755 BCE. Evidence further suggests that they were of Mayo-Polynesian descent and originated in Southeast Asia before migrating to the island on fast, seafaring ships.

To form a picture of Chamorro society before the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, modern archaeologists have developed a chronology based on the latte-stones unique to the island. Consisting of a head and a base shaped out of limestone, the latte-stones were used as a part of the raised foundation for a magalahi, or chief's house. By means of carbon-dating to determine the age of various latte-stones, scientists have broken the history of the Chamorros into three periods: “Pre-Latte” (2000? BCE to 1 CE), “Transitional Pre-Latte” (1 CE to 1000 CE), and “Latte” (1000 to 1521). This portion of Guam's history, before arrival of the Spanish, is referred to as “precontact.”

Throughout these periods the Chamorros developed a subsistence culture based on agriculture, hunting, Page 264  |  Top of Articleand fishing. In this matrilineal society, men were traditionally warriors, fishermen, navigators, and builders of homes and canoes, while women took responsibility for much of the daily management of household resources. Despite the small population, class struggles were a frequent part of the island's history—particularly between the more prosperous Matao, who dominated the coastal villages and fishing areas, and the Mana'chang, who lived in the island's interior.

Life on the island changed when Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed at Umatac Bay on the southwestern coast of Guam on March 6, 1521, following a ninety-eight-day voyage from South America. One member of Magellan's expedition described the Chamorros as tall, big-boned, and robust, with tawny brown skin and long black hair. The Chamorro population at the time of the first Spanish landing was estimated to be 65,000 to 85,000. Spain took formal control of Guam and the other Mariana Islands in 1565, but until the first missionaries arrived in 1688, the island was used only as a stopover point on the way from Mexico to the Philippines. By 1741, following periods of famine, Spanish wars of conquest (which had been triggered by overzealous missionary efforts to eliminate preexisting Chamorro religious beliefs and practices), and the introduction of new diseases by the explorers, the Chamorro population had been reduced to just 5,000.

During the Spanish administration, Guam was treated as a part of the Spanish Crown colony of the Philippines. However, while trade quickly developed among Guam, the Philippines, and Mexico—both of which were Spanish colonies—the Chamorros in Guam never experienced the economic progress that Spain sought to cultivate in their other colonies. Jesuit missionaries, the social and religious arm of the Spanish explorations, did teach the Chamorros to cultivate maize (corn), raise cattle, and tan hides, which allowed them to survive at subsistence levels throughout the Spanish rule.

Modern Era In 1898, after ruling Guam for more than 375 years, Spain relinquished its control over the island to the United States, which had defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, a short but bloody conflict. As a condition of the Treaty of Paris, designating the end of the war, Guam was ceded to the United States and placed by U.S. president William McKinley under the administration of the Department of the Navy. The new government immediately sought to Americanize their new colony, consequently introducing advancements in agriculture, public health and sanitation projects, modern education, and more professional management of land, taxes, and public works.

This period of growth was curtailed by the beginning of World War II in the Pacific. As part of their campaign following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese occupied dozens of islands throughout the Pacific, including Guam. The island—an important strategic and logistical point in the central Pacific—was renamed “Omiya Jima,” or “Great Shrine Island.” Throughout this occupation, Chamorros remained loyal to the United States, even though their loyalty cost the islanders dearly. Active resistance and civil disobedience by the islanders increased the brutality of the Japanese occupation, which then spurred the islanders to even greater resistance. An end to this bloody cycle of violence and retribution came on July 21, 1944, when U.S. forces officially reclaimed the island. However, operations against the last of the Japanese invaders continued for three more weeks and claimed thousands of lives before Guam was again quiet and restored to American control. After this, and until the end of the war on September 2, 1945, Guam was used as a command post for U.S. Western Pacific operations against the Japanese.

On May 30, 1946, the United States reestablished its naval government on the island and began rebuilding Guam. The capital city of Agana, heavily bombed during recapture of the island, had to be completely rebuilt. With the advent of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, a major U.S. military build-up also began on the island, which was soon to become a major strategic base for U.S. forces in the Pacific. As a result of this build-up, massive tracts of native Chamorro farmland were confiscated in order to build military bases, and mainland Americans, many of them connected to the military or to the larger defense establishment, began surging into Guam. As the island became a strategically important U.S. base, its political status also began to evolve. In 1950 President Harry S. Truman signed the Organic Act, which established Guam as an unincorporated territory with limited self-rule, and all residents of Guam were given U.S. citizenship. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy lifted the Naval Clearing Act, finally allowing domestic and foreign entry into the ports of Guam, which had formerly been accessible only by U.S. Navy permission. Consequently, new Asian cultural groups, including Filipinos, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indian, and other Pacific Islanders, moved to Guam, making it their permanent home. The economic future of the island was further developed in 1967, when Pan American Airways began air service from Japan, marking the beginning of the tourism industry, which—along with the U.S. military presence—soon became the backbone of Guam's domestic economy.


While the native Chamorro people were already noted for their seafaring skills and their love of travel and exploration at the time of the Spanish conquest, in modern times there have been three main causes for Chamorro migration to the continental United States and Hawaii. The first has been a call to military service, Page 265  |  Top of Articlea unique result of decades of U.S. Navy presence on the island. The other two—economic and educational opportunity—are common goals for migration and immigration to the United States. The earliest group to leave Guam for the United States were the “bayineros,” young men who signed on as crew for the whaling ships that prowled the central Pacific during the nineteenth century and often stopped at the island. Many of these men eventually settled permanently in Hawaii and California, the two states that remained for many years the centers of Chamorro migration and settlement.

The aftermath of World War II on Guam spurred large-scale migration from the island. World War II in the Pacific had a deeper effect on the island and its inhabitants than any event since the arrival of the Spanish centuries before. It brought a great increase in the settlement of non-Chamorro peoples on Guam and also offered larger numbers of Chamorros the chance to leave the island and seek opportunities in the United States. During the 1930s and the war years, many Chamorros joined the United States military, particularly the navy. A significant number of these men eventually settled around U.S. naval bases in the California communities of Vallejo, Alameda, Long Beach, and San Diego. Once in permanent residence in the United States, many Chamorro sailors and soldiers began bringing their spouses and children to join them. In many cases, parents and unmarried siblings also arrived, increasing the number of natives who left the island.

Chamorro migration increased substantially after the war. Faye F. Untalan, a professor at the University of Hawaii, Manoa (and later at the University of Guam), spent thirty years collecting data on Chamorro immigration and found three main reasons for this postwar increase. According to Untalan, the assignment of families to nuclear-type homes built on Guam after the war changed familial land holdings, separated extended families, and eventually weakened the family structure. Secondly, wage-based work replaced the traditional agrarian economy, permanently altering both the island's economic system and traditions of land use. Thirdly, the development and improvement of native education provided Chamorros with increased access to higher education and professional training in the United States.

Another wave of migration began after 1962, as a result of the devastating Typhoon Karen. Many islanders, particularly those with family already in the United States, were frustrated by the slow pace of rebuilding and enticed by the opportunities to be found in the United States. Many of them moved to California, where they became farm and agricultural workers. While some grew disenchanted with the migrant lifestyle and chose to return to Guam, many more stayed in the United States permanently. In addition, the closure of Pan American Airways facilities in Guam, together with other changes in the travel industry on the island during the 1970s, led many former airline and travel industry employees to migrate to the United States. Some settled in New York to continue working for PanAm, while others moved to California to seek employment with airlines and tourist industries serving the Pacific Rim.

Since the 1960s a growing number of Chamorros have migrated to the United States in search of improved health care and medical facilities. Modern concerns about proper health, along with the financial ability to pay for health care and the lack of quality health care on the islands, have led many to leave Guam for Hawaii and other U.S. states. This is true even among Chamorros covered by military insurance, since the lack of health care facilities on the island forces them to seek care elsewhere.

It is difficult to track the numbers of Chamorros living in the continental United States and Hawaii before 1980. Prior to that time, there was no specific census category for Chamorro or native Guamanian, only a blanket category for Pacific Islanders. This problem was compounded by the fact that the term Guamanian has no ethnic, racial, or cultural meaning among the native Chamorro population, making self-identification difficult. Only with the U.S. Census of 1980, which for the first time included “Chamorro” as an identifier, did it become possible to start collecting specific information on the numbers of native Guamanian migrants.

In 1980 the census concluded that there were 30,695 Chamorro in the continental United States and Hawaii, with the majority in Hawaii, California, and Texas. By 1990 this number had grown to 49,345, and by 2000 it was 58,240, almost twice the 1980 number. These numbers reflect an increase of 23.6 percent every ten years. While California, Hawaii, and Texas contained the highest number of migrants, Florida showed the largest population increase (40 percent) between 1980 and 2000. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimates for 2006-2010, the states with the largest numbers of Americans of Chamorro or Guamanian descent include California, Washington, Texas, Hawaii, Nevada, and Florida.

The census numbers for these three decades noted several things about the Chamorro population. First, the migrant population was young, with a median age eight years below that of the general population. Second, Chamorro family size was larger, and the number of families with children under the age of eighteen was much greater than in the general population. Third, Chamorros appeared to be a highly mobile group, with the majority of those surveyed having been born outside the state in which they were in residence, and with more than half living in states other than the three (California, Washington, and Texas) that had the largest Guamanian or Chamorro populations.

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The Chamorro population is not large, so the steady loss of natives from the island to the continental United States and Hawaii initially raised concerns about the effect on traditional Chamorro language, customs, and culture. But even though large numbers of young, educated Chamorros have left the island, many migrants have continued their cultural practices.


Chamorro, the ancient language of the Chamorros, and English are both official languages in Guam. English is prevalent as a result of decades of U.S. political and military control as well as American policies instituted in the 1920s that included banning the native language and burning dictionaries. Since the 1950s the majority of Chamorros have grown up as U.S. citizens speaking English as their first language. To combat the decline in Chamorro language fluency, educational and cultural organizations have made vigilant efforts to ensure the survival of the language. On the island itself, groups such as the University of Guam's Micronesian Language Institute work to study and spread the native Chamorro language. In the United States the Guam Society of America is responsible for heightening awareness of the language domestically. At least 5,000 years old, Chamorro belongs to the western group of the Austronesian language family, which includes the languages of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Palau. Since Spanish and American influences merged on the island, the Chamorro language has evolved to include many Spanish and English words. In addition, other immigrants to Guam brought their own languages, including Filipino, Japanese, and many other Asian and Pacific Islander tongues. One of the most important Chamorro expressions is Hafa Adai, which is translated as “Welcome.” For the hospitable Chamorros, nothing is as important as welcoming friends and strangers to their country and to their homes.


About four-fifths of the Guamanian population, both on the island and in the United States, are Roman Catholic. The Chamorros began converting to Catholicism—usually involuntarily—in the seventeenth century, when the first Spanish missionaries arrived on the island. As with other indigenous cultures that were converted to Catholicism, the Chamorros often incorporated their native religious practices, such as ancestor veneration, into their practice of Catholicism.

Congregationalists arrived on Guam in 1902 and established their own mission, but they were forced to abandon it in 1910 for lack of financial support. The following year, Americans with the General Baptist Foreign Missionary Society moved into the abandoned Page 267  |  Top of ArticleCongregationalist mission. In 1921 the Baptists built Guam's first modern Protestant church, on a grander scale than the previous missions. A Baptist church constructed in 1925 in Inarajan was still in use in the mid-1960s. After World War II, the Seventh-Day Adventists established missions in Guam, led by a U.S. Navy chief, Harry Metzker. The Seventh-Day Adventists, who were well known in the twentieth century for their attention to health and well-being, also set up a clinic in Agana Heights. The Adventists soon became the second-largest denomination on the island, representing approximately one-fifth of the island's population.


Under Spanish rule, the native Chamorros were expected to adopt Spanish customs and religion. Yet despite the best efforts of Spanish officials and Jesuit missionaries, the islanders managed to maintain their own identity, even as the population diminished throughout the years of struggle with their Spanish conquerors. What emerged during the years of Spanish control was a unique hybrid, combining elements of Catholic Spanish culture with native traditions. This hybridization was extended in the twentieth century to encompass American culture. Throughout this process of adoption and adaptation, native Chamorro culture and traditions have remained at the core of Chamorro identity, both on and off the island.

The philosophy of inafa'maolek, entailing striving for the ideal of harmony and interdependence among humans and with nature, shapes Chamorro behavior. A strong system of reciprocity, known as chenchule, also guides Chamorro society.

Traditions and Customs Ancient Chamorro legends reveal the heart and soul of native Guamanian identity. Chamorros believe they were born of the island itself. The name of the city of Agana, known as Hagåtña in the Chamorro language, is taken from the tale of the formation of the islands. This ancient Chamorro legend tells of the island's beginnings, when Fu'una used parts from the body of her dying brother, Puntan, to create the world. His eyes were the sun and moon, his eyebrows were rainbows, his chest the sky, and his back the earth. Then Fu'una turned herself into a rock, from which all human beings originated. Agana, or Hagåtña, means blood, and the name represents the lifeblood of the larger body called Guahan, or Guam. In fact, most names for places on the island refer to the human body: Urunao, the head; Tuyan, the belly; and Barrigada, the flank.

Kostumbren Chamorro, the core of traditional Chamorro society, was centered on the idea of respect—respect that extended to elders, to people in authority, to members of one's clan, to nature, and to the supernatural. Accordingly, customs included kissing the hands of elders, fishing conservatively from the ocean so as to not deplete its resources, and requesting permission from spiritual ancestors upon entering a jungle. Activities such as canoe-making and preparation of herbal medicines were prized because they could be handed down from generation to generation.

Another traditional activity is the chewing of betelnut, also known in Chamorro as pugua or mama'on. The seed commonly referred to as “betelnut” is actually the seed of a palm tree called areca catechu, which is chewed wrapped in the leaf of the betel vine. Both substances are stimulants. Chamorros and other Pacific Islanders chew betelnuts like Americans chew gum. Each island has its own species of betelnut tree, and each species has a different taste. Chamorros prefer the hard red-colored nut variety called ugam, due to its fine, granular texture. When that is out of season, the coarse white changnga is chewed instead. This practice, which was traditionally passed from grandparent to grandchild, is included as a part of any social event, and friends and strangers alike are invited to partake. The changes produced in tooth enamel by chewing betelnut helps to prevent cavities, and archaeological investigations of prehistoric skeletons show that ancient Chamorros had betel-stained teeth. Chamorros usually chew betelnut—at times mixed with powdered lime and wrapped in the peppery leaves—after a meal.

While betelnut chewing continues in Guam and has increased in other Asian nations, use by Chamorros has decreased because of a lack of domestic availability, changing ideals of beauty and hygiene, and a greater knowledge of the health risks associated with its use. Studies have shown that consistent use can be linked to higher risk of several forms of cancer as well as prenatal complications, similar to those reported for mothers who consume alcohol or tobacco during pregnancy.

Cuisine The original diet of the Chamorros was simple: fresh fish, shrimp patties, rice, coconut, ahu (a dessert soup made with young coconuts), bananas, breadfruit, taro, and other tropical fruits and vegetables. With the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, many staples of Latin American cuisine, such as tamales and empanadas, were adapted to include native ingredients and flavors, and these remain staples of Chamorro cuisine. As Asians settled on the island in the twentieth century, Chinese and Japanese food combined with the existing native ingredients, as well as with newly introduced ethnic cuisines like Filipino, to provide a variety of foods that are unique to the island. A popular example of this fusion is lumpia, a combination of beef, pork, and shrimp fried in a pastry, which reflects the influence of Chinese and Filipino cuisine.

Modern staples of Chamorro cuisine include grilled fish such as tuna, barbequed meats, and many varieties of kelaguen, a dish made from chopped broiled chicken, lemon juice, grated coconut, and hot peppers. A hot sauce native to Guam, finadene, Page 268  |  Top of Articlemade with soy sauce, lemon juice or vinegar, hot peppers, and onions, is a favorite accompaniment to any savory dish. In addition, the coconut has remained a major element in Chamorro cuisine, which uses coconut milk as a cooking agent for braising meats and coconut meat as a basis for many of the island's most popular desserts and sweets, including cookies, puddings, and candies.

Many of these dishes, particularly kelaguen, have also become staples of Chamorro celebrations, both on the island and in the continental United States and Hawaii. Served with fish, barbecued ribs and chicken, and the Filipino noodle dish pancit, these dishes are often seen alongside traditional American fairground staples such as hot dogs, popcorn, and nachos at festivals and celebrations.

Traditional Costumes Early Spanish explorers who met the indigenous Chamorros described them as tall and somewhat fair, with long straight black hair often reaching the waist. Men, who were often bearded, wore no clothing at all, except in battle, where warriors wore a vest of matted pandanus, a palm-like tree common to the Pacific Islands. Women did not cover their upper bodies, but after reaching the age of eight or ten, wore a thin strip of bark called a tifi to cover their pubic area. Both sexes wore large pandanus hats, called batya, and covered their skin in coconut oil as protection against the sun. Inexplicably from the Spanish point of view, native women dyed their teeth black and red with the juice of the betel nut—something seen as a sign of beauty among the islanders. On special occasions native women often wore grass skirts with pandanus belts adorned with shells and inscribed baby coconuts. Both sexes also wore garlands of fragrant flowers on ceremonial occasions.

With the arrival of the Spanish, several changes occurred among the natives, including the limited adoption of European dress, the adoption of a topknot by men, and the bleaching of women's hair by prolonged exposure to the sun. Beyond this, little changed in the style and type of native dress. The Spanish-influenced mestiza, a style of dress consisting of a blouse with butterfly sleeves and a long skirt, was adopted in the nineteenth century. Today it is considered a traditional Chamorro costume and is worn for ceremonial occasions; mestizas made of lace are often used as wedding dresses.

While most modern Chamorros of both sexes have adopted Western styles of dress, some native traditions, including wearing garlands of flowers, have remained a part of ceremonial life. Crafting and wearing traditional jewelry has not only remained a part of native culture but has also become a major part of the island's tourism industry, serving as an important source of income for Chamorro craftspeople, who market their creations to the island's visitors.

Dances and Songs The simple, rhythmic music of the Chamorro culture tells the stories and legends of the island's history. Native instruments include the belembautuyan, made from a hollow gourd and strung with taut wire, and the ancient nose flute, which made a return at the end of the twentieth century. The Chamorros' style of singing was born from their workday. One popular form, the kantan, starts with one person giving a four-line chant, often a teasing verse directed at another person in the group of workers. That person picks up the song and continues in the same fashion, creating a musical dialogue that sometimes lasts for hours. The folk dances of the Chamorros portrayed legends about the ancient spirits, such as the doomed lovers who leaped to their death off Two Lovers' Point (Puntan Dos Amantes) or Sirena, the beautiful young girl who became a mermaid.

The official song of Guam, written in the twentieth century by Ramon Sablan in English and translated into Chamorro by Lagrimas Untalan, speaks of Guamanians' faith and perseverance:

Stand ye Guamanians, for your country
And sing her praise from shore to shore

For her honor, for her glory
Exalt our Island forever more

May everlasting peace reign o'er us
May heaven's blessing to us come

Against all perils, do not forsake us
God protect our Isle of Guam

Against all perils, do not forsake us
God protect our Isle of Guam.

More than three hundred years of colonial rule and Christian interventions against native culture caused a decline of traditional dance. However, since the 1980s the recreation of traditional native dances has become an important element in the effort to restore and protect native Chamorro culture. In Guam's public schools, classes and extracurricular activities involving traditional dance have become popular among all students, regardless of ethnic background. Additionally, groups specializing in traditional dance are popular and much sought-after elements of the tourism industry.

Traditional dance has remained one of the major elements in the festivals and celebrations of Chamorros living in the continental United States and Hawaii—especially among Chamorro students at American colleges and universities, who use native costumes, songs, and dances to celebrate their cultural heritage. Francisco B. Rabon, who founded the Taotao Tan'o Cultural Dancers in the 1980s, was awarded the title of “Master of Chamorro Dance” by the governor of Guam in the early 1990s in recognition of his work reviving native Chamorro dance. Rabon has noted that he was not exposed to indigenous forms of dance on Guam but rather encountered them, particularly Hawaiian hula, when he attended college in Page 269  |  Top of Articlethe United States. This inspired him to re-create dance as ancient Chamorros might have practiced it.

Holidays Guamanians are U.S. citizens and therefore celebrate all of the major U.S. holidays, especially patriotic holidays such as July 4. Liberation Day, July 21, observes the American landing on Guam during World War II, which marked an end to Japanese occupation. The first Monday in March is celebrated as Guam Discovery Day, and in addition there are many civic and regional festivals each year. The official festival season is from April to October, when many villages in the southern part of the island hold their annual festivals. One of the most popular, the Malojloj Fiesta in the town of Inarajan, involves three days of celebrations featuring native Chamorro food, beer, music, and dancing. In a unique blend that illustrates the complex culture of modern Guam, native foods such as fried lumpia and coconut are served alongside traditional American fairground food like popcorn and nachos, and American fairground contests, like climbing a greased pole, occur alongside traditional Chamorro competitions and games such as coconut husking and grating.

The feasts of Catholic saints and other church holy days are observed by Chamorro Catholics. Each of the nineteen villages on Guam has its own patron saint, and each holds a fiesta, or festival, to honor the saint's feast day. The entire village celebrates with a mass, a procession, dancing, and food. The continuation of these religious festivals has become a hallmark of many Chamorro communities in the United States, where celebrations such as Sacramento's San Roke Fiesta and San Diego's Santa Rita Festival carry on the tradition.

Health Care Issues and Practices Access to quality health care, particularly for cancer treatment, has long been a concern of many Chamorros, and in the last few decades of the twentieth century, it became a major impetus for the migration of natives to the continental United States and Hawaii. The lack of modern medical facilities on the island in the years following World War II severely limited islanders' ability to seek medical treatment and general healthcare. Even Chamorros covered by military or government benefits often had to travel to Hawaii for treatment during this time, and the cost of travel and accommodations frequently caused severe financial hardships. Many Chamorros chose to migrate—initially to Hawaii, and later to other states—in order to gain access to healthcare. This trend has continued in the new century as increasing numbers of natives, still limited by the lack of healthcare on the island and now with the financial ability to afford quality healthcare, have chosen to leave the islands for Hawaii and the mainland.

A specific health issue for Chamorros is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Lytico-bodig is the native term for the condition, which affects muscle control and is inevitably fatal. The incidence of ALS among Chamorros is disproportionately high when compared to other cultural groups, and natives of Guam share a specific strain of the disease that is now called “Guamanian ALS.” Although one hypothesis has connected ALS among the island-dwelling Chamorros with specific environmental factors, no definitive explanation has been identified. Guamanian ALS has increasingly attracted scientific attention, in part because there are possible connections between this form of ALS and more prevalent diseases, including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, and other types of dementia.


Chamorros in the United States and on the island have traditionally viewed the family as the center of cultural life, and they have extended that idea to encompass the surrounding community, emphasizing interdependence (the Chamorro concept of inafa'maolek) and cooperation among everyone in the community. Because Chamorro culture was traditionally matrilineal, women remain central to the organization and survival of the group. Since ancient times, women have exerted great authority over the household, including managing the family purse strings. In modern culture, especially in the United States, where education has offered Chamorros a greater opportunity to improve their economic status, these lines have blurred. Contemporary Chamorro women and men work together to support and manage the family.

The influence of American society, with its focus on the individual and the nuclear family, has begun to erode the traditional Chamorro concepts of kinship and interdependence—a process accelerated by the increase in economic opportunity available to both native and migrant Chamorros. Despite these pressures, Chamorros have maintained the time-honored practice of demonstrating respect for elders.

Gender Roles Precontact Chamorro culture had a balance in gender roles, with authority inside the clan vested in both the oldest son and the oldest daughter. Women traditionally held power in the household, while men were responsible for hunting, fishing, and public duties. The influence of the Spanish and the Catholic Church during three centuries of colonial rule slowly changed this system, particularly in the public sphere, where a clearer division of responsibility emerged, with men dominating political offices and women leading social, religious, and cultural organizations.

This trend continued under American influence, as men were selected over women to hold positions in any public capacity, whether in government, business, or the church. Women have retained control over the household through their control of resources, including the salaries and labor of family members and control of land tenure, which was passed through the female line Page 270  |  Top of Articleuntil the militarization of the island after World War II removed much of Guam's land from public use and ended the agricultural basis of the island's economy. In recent times Chamorro women have found greater acceptance as elected officials and leaders of government and civic organizations, although men still outnumber women in positions of political leadership.

Education The public school system on Guam is modeled on the American educational system, with a single unified school district, the Guam Department of Education, operating elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and an alternative school. The combined institutions serve more than 30,000 students. All of these schools are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, with classroom teachers certified by the Guam Department of Education. Primary instruction is in English, but the curriculum includes classes in Chamorro language and culture.

While these schools often share the same problems as mainland American schools, including high dropout rates, violence, and gang activity, the main problem has been funding. The public school system depends on income taxes and revenues gained from the travel industry, making school finance dependent on fluctuating cycles of tourism and changing economic conditions that can negatively affect wages. This instability makes long-term planning for the school system difficult.

Higher education institutions on the island include the Guam Community College, a two-year school providing undergraduate transfer courses, adult education courses, and vocational training, and the University of Guam, a four-year university offering bachelor's degrees and a limited number of graduate programs leading to a master's degree. Like the public school system, the University of Guam is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Access to mainland schools and universities has long been a cause of migration for Chamorros, who see education as an avenue to better career opportunities. Several universities in the Western United States and Hawaii, including the University of Hawaii, Chaminade University, and the University of Washington, have traditionally hosted significant numbers of Chamorro students. These students' efforts are often actively supported by their communities through organizations that award grants and scholarships to Chamorro students.

Courtship and Weddings In traditional Chamorro society there were a large number of traditions, rituals, and ceremonies surrounding courtship and weddings. Arranged by clan elders, marriages were an opportunity to increase social and economic status through the binding together of clans. As a result, young women from good families and girls who already had children commanded a larger

A Guamanian American family gathers in a courtyard. A Guamanian American family gathers in a courtyard. BLEND IMAGES / ALAMY

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dowry than others. If the prospective groom's gifts were acceptable to the clan, then the marriage could go forward. Children were no bar to marriage and were an accepted occurrence in pre-Catholic Guam, where a small population based on extended family groups produced a different cultural climate than that found among Western cultures. These attitudes persist today, despite more than 300 years of Catholic influence.

Once the marriage was agreed to in theory, both families began a series of rituals leading up to the actual wedding. These rituals included mamaisen saina, the formal visit of the groom and his family to the home of the bride, the fandånggo, or groom's party, where the family of the groom welcomed the arrival of a new daughter, and the komplimentu, a return visit to the bride's home to express appreciation for the family of the bride's presence at the fandånggo. Only after these rituals had been completed could the inakkamo', or wedding ceremony (expenses of which were shouldered by the groom's family) occur. Once the ceremony was completed, both families returned to the home of the bride's family for the formal amotsan nobia, or bride's breakfast, a solemn affair attended by the couple's parents and godparents.

While some of these traditions have been maintained among modern Chamorros, those wishing to marry have increasingly begun to opt for civic ceremonies or American-style weddings. Increasingly, the primary responsibility for developing and carrying out the wedding plans has shifted from the clan elders and parents to the bride and bridegroom themselves, and the traditional rituals of mamaisen saina and komplimentu have become increasingly rare. These have generally been replaced by bridal showers and joint receptions, often held at a hotel or other public space. Wedding expenses also are being divided evenly, rather than the groom's side shouldering the financial burden.


Half of the modern economy on the island of Guam has emerged from American military establishments and related government services on the island. For years a majority of Guamanians have been employed by the U.S. government and military, serving as cooks, office personnel, and in other administrative positions, with many advancing to the upper levels of government salary tracks following years of service. Since the 1960s the tourism industry has been the second largest employer on the island, creating a substantial number of jobs in travel- and tourism-related industries, including airlines, hotels, and restaurants. Between them, these two employment categories account for 64 percent of the Guamanian workforce. Other industries that contribute to the domestic economy include

A Guamanian American during basic training for the United States Army at Fort Jackson in 2007. A Guamanian American during basic training for the United States Army at Fort Jackson in 2007. SCOTT OLSON / GETTY IMAGES

agriculture (mostly for local consumption), which employs approximately 26 percent of the workforce, with the remainder employed in commercial poultry farming and in small assembly plants for watches, textiles, and light machinery.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, unemployment in Guam was relatively high (about 11 percent), and roughly one quarter of the population lived below the U.S. poverty line. In 2005 the per capita income in Guam was about $15,000, and in 2007 the total labor force on the island was approximately 83,000. Although there is little statistical data on Chamorros living in the continental United States or Hawaii, it is generally believed these groups are only slightly better off than their island counterparts. Chamorros, like other Pacific Islanders, tend to have slightly higher levels of unemployment than the general population and a larger percentage of families in poverty.

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Because of its history as a U.S. territory, Guam has a complex political story, the dominant theme of which has been a quest for self-determination. Ceded to the United States by Spain after the latter's defeat in the Spanish-American War, the island was deemed to be unincorporated territory of the United States—a nebulous status that gave the U.S. Congress unlimited authority over the island. This privilege was upheld by several Supreme Court decisions. As a result, the development of native political institutions was sacrificed in favor of U.S. strategic and national security interests. This continued after the liberation of the island from the Japanese in 1944, fueling local dissatisfaction and agitation. The desire for Guamanian self-determination was partially recognized in 1950, when jurisdiction over the island was transferred from the U.S. Navy to the Department of the Interior, and a new political system was authorized. Under this structure, the island would have a governor appointed by the president of the United States, a popularly elected unicameral (single-body) legislature, a locally elected judiciary, and, perhaps most importantly, U.S. citizenship for all residents of Guam. The right of citizenship had previously been reserved for Guamanians naturalized in the United States or who had served in the United States military. A further step toward self-determination came in 1968, when the Elective Governor Act allowed for popular election of the island's governor.

Despite these changes, Guam remained in a unique and somewhat undefined political state. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, support grew among Guamanians for an enhanced political status that would make the island either a state or a commonwealth. The idea of enhanced status became the central focus of Guamanian politics, both domestic and national. Those in favor of such a status for the island maintained that the political status of Guam had not significantly changed since the ceding of the island to the United States over a century ago. Successive U.S. administrations, however, actively opposed any changes to Guam's legal status, arguing that Guam lacked the economic self-sufficiency to deserve enhanced status, especially in view of the island's economic dependence on federal and defense spending.

Notwithstanding these setbacks, many Guamanians continue to work for an enhanced status for the island, and various groups advocate for formal statehood, union with the state of Hawaii, union with the Northern Mariana Islands as a single territory, or independence.

Military Because of their long relationship with the American military, Chamorros are well represented in all branches of the military as enlisted men, officers, and support personnel. Currently 14 out of every 1,000 Guamanians join the U.S. military, the highest enlistment rate of any state or territory. One native Guamanian, Peter A. Gumataotao, achieved the rank of rear admiral in the United States Navy and command of an aircraft carrier strike group and its attendant ships. In addition to those in the services, many Guamanians have also worked for the United States military and diplomatic services in civilian roles.


Military Rear Admiral Peter A. Gumataotao is a senior United States naval officer who was commander of the U.S. Navy's Carrier Strike Group Eleven, an aircraft carrier battle group built around the USS Nimitz.

Politics Manuel Flores (Carson) Leon Guerrero (1914–1985) was both secretary of Guam and acting governor of the island. In 1963 U.S. president John F. Kennedy appointed Guerrero the governor of Guam, a position he retained until 1969. In 1967 Guerrero established the Guam Tourist Commission, paving the way for the growth of the tourism industry, which has become the basis of the island's economy.


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Marianas Variety Guam Edition

One of the island's two daily newspapers.

Jon A. Anderson, Editor in Chief
215 Rojas Street, Suite 204
Tamuning, Guam 96913
Phone: (671) 649-4950

Pacific Daily News

One of the island's two daily newspapers. Also publishes the online publication Joint Region Edge, an authorized publication for U.S. Service personnel and their families.

David Crisostomo, Editor
P.O. Box DN
Hagatna, Guam 96932
Phone: (671) 472-1736
Fax: (671) 472-1512

UNO Magazine

A lifestyle magazine focusing on Guam, launched in 2010.

Lana Lozano Denight, Editor in Chief
P.O. Box 192
Hagatna, Guam 96932
Phone: (671) 635-2379
Fax: (671) 637-5832


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Guam Humanities Council

Founded in 1991, the Guam Humanities Council (GHC or the Council) is an affiliate of the National Page 273  |  Top of ArticleEndowment for the Humanities (NEH). It is a nonprofit organization committed to promoting public humanities programming for the people of Guam.

Kimberlee Kihleng, Executive Director
222 Chalan Santo Papa
Reflection Center, Suite 106
Hagåtña, Guam 96910
Phone: (671) 472-4460/1
Fax: (671) 472-4465

Guam Society of America

A nonprofit organization founded in 1952 and based in Washington, D.C. Its purposes are to foster and encourage educational, cultural, civic, and social programs and activities among its members; and to foster and perpetuate the Chamorro language, culture, and traditions. Any Chamorro (a native of Guam, Saipan, or any Marian Islands) or any person who has a bona fide interest in the purposes of the society is eligible for membership. The society sponsors events and activities throughout the year that include Chamorro language classes in the D.C. metropolitan area, a Golf Classic, the Cherry Blossom Princess Ball, and Chamorro Night.

Mike Blas, President
P.O. Box 1515
Washington, D.C., 20013
Phone: (571) 209-7185

The Guam Women's Club

Founded in 1952, the Guam Women's Club is the oldest women's civic organization in Guam. A volunteer nonprofit organization, the club's stated mission is to investigate, discuss, and seek improvement of conditions within the Territory of Guam that affect the general welfare, education, and health of the population.

P.O. Box 454
Hagatna, Guam 96932
Phone: (671) 647-2351


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University of Guam Richard Flores Taitano Micronesia Area Research Center (MARC)

Multifaceted research arm of the University of Guam that includes the Micronesian Language Institute and the Chamorro Language and Cultural Center.

John A. Peterson, Director
University of Guam
UOG Station
Mangilao, Guam 96923
Phone: (671) 735-2150
Fax: (671) 734-7403


Gailey, Harry. The Liberation of Guam. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1998.

Cunningham, Lawrence J. Ancient Chamorro Society. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1992.

Kerley, Barbara. Songs of Papa's Island. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Maga, Timothy P. Defending Paradise: The United States and Guam, 1898–1950. New York: Garland Pub., 1988.

Quinene, Paula A. Lujan. Remember Guam. West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2009.

Rogers, Robert F. Destiny's Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

Rottman, Gordon L. Guam 1941 & 1944: Loss and Reconquest. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2004.

Sacks, Oliver. The Island of the Colorblind. New York: Vintage, 1998.

Souder-Jaffery, Laura M. T., and Robert A. Underwood. Chamorro Self-Determination: The Right of a People = I Derechon I Taotao. Agana, Guam: Chamorro Studies Association, 1987.

Goetzfridt, Nicholas J. Guahan: A Bibliographic History. Honolulu: The University of Hawaii Press, 2011.

DeLisle, C.T. “'Guamanian-Chamorro by Birth but American Patriotic by Choice': Subjectivity and Performance in the Life of Agueda Iglesias Johnston”. Amerasia Journal 37, no. 3 (2011): 61–75.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300082