I was born in Pasadena in 1961 but raised in South Korea and other Pacific Rim locales, finally settling in Hawaii. During my coming-of-age years, between 1971 and 1982, my family lived on a beautiful small island in the western Pacific: lush jungles, remote waterfalls and mysterious freshwater caves. I remember riding horses through abandoned coconut groves and balmy nighttime spearfishing in some of the most abundant reefs in the world.
That place was Guam, at the southern tip of the Northern Mariana Islands, a US colony. Many people think of Guam only as a giant military base, the nexus of US forward operations in the Pacific islands–"the tip of the spear," as the Pentagon calls it. That has certainly become its primary fate. The base occupies fully a third of the island and is off-limits to civilians, including the indigenous Chamorro people, who claim the oldest civilization in the Pacific. Even during my childhood, though I barely noticed it at the time, there was the constant background drone of B-52s roaring overhead to and from Vietnam, and submarines cruising the coasts. Such is the island’s current trauma, after an agonized history that has included repeated invasions and four occupations of varying degrees of brutality over four centuries–by Spain, Japan and twice by the United States.
Despite these serial humiliations, the Chamorros–a unique mélange of Micronesian, Spanish and Asian bloodlines–have always maintained optimism, courage and a resilient sense of humor. So far, they have successfully navigated their delicate existence as traditional peoples on a Pacific island, while also trying to play supportive roles–as nonvoting "citizens" in a US colony, even patriotic active soldiers–for their current master. But now they’re going to need all the resiliency they can muster to deal with the next blow the United States has in store.
I returned to Guam for a monthlong visit with old friends this past November. I was stunned to find the forests of my childhood being replaced by tarmac at an alarming rate; the remaining wild beaches and valleys being surveyed as potential live-fire shooting ranges; and an enormous, magnificently rich coral reef slated for dredging in order to build a port for the Navy’s largest aircraft carrier. I witnessed the rage and hurt, exploding suddenly–and so unexpectedly–from the Chamorro people and other island residents, who have had no say in the planning of cataclysmic changes that will turn their homeland into an overcrowded waste dump for the creation of the hemisphere’s pre-eminent military fortress. My friends told me it’s all part of what’s called the Guam Buildup.
Though technically Americans, people born in Guam have few American rights if they choose to live in their homeland. They can’t vote for president; they have only one, nonvoting representative in Congress, and Congress can overturn any law passed by Guam’s legislature. The island remains one of only sixteen UN-designated "non-self-governing territories"–in other words, colonies. As such, its people have no legal route to appeal any decisions made in Washington. A burgeoning resistance movement is under way, which the military is well aware of. They have hopes that a visit by President Obama, twice postponed and now set for June, will help ease the growing agitation. Given the mood of the people, I doubt Obama can calm anything.