Photo courtesy of Gwendolyn Nelson Taimanglo’s personal family collection
Starving for Saina
By Desiree Taimanglo Ventura
Have you ever been hungry but not realized it until food was suddenly placed in front of you? You walk past a table filled with hot food and your senses remind you that your body has gone too long without nourishment. This past week, I realized that my soul had been desperately hungry for something and I wasn’t aware of it until the metaphorical food waltzed right pass me.
My grandmother passed away in October of 2012. Her death was devastating to me, not just because I had lost a grandmother, but because I lost my most accessible resource on Chamoru traditions, oral histories, and Chamoru etiquette. At one time, I had both my maternal and paternal grandmothers, women I could go to for seemingly random questions about family history, cooking, and how things should be done. Like many Chamoru women her age, my mother, as hard as she tries, simply doesn’t have all that information at the tip of her tongue, ready to share. Things somehow got lost or buried with her generation. Information from them is handed down to me fragmented, in little pieces that have many holes I want to fill. Explanations are half-formed, often abandoned, or replaced with “because that’s just how you do it.” If I ask too many questions, sometimes women her age get emotional, upset, or dismissive. I now understand that my questions are sometimes a painful reminder of things they also wish they knew or retained, but didn’t. I have come to understand that when I have those complex cultural questions, it’s annoying because admitting they don’t have the answers is humiliating.
Last week, our college had a guest speaker, Dr. Laura Souder. I have read Dr. Souder’s work, but I had never seen or met her in person. I was facing the back of the room when she picked up the microphone. When she began speaking, I immediately turned around. From her mouth came the loud, sincere, and nourishing sound of our language. Her voice calmed the hundreds of rowdy colleagues that had gathered, and as if wielding magic, her voice managed to put us all back in our seats, ready to listen. Where I work, this often takes a long time to do. There are usually several rounds of asking the audience to be silent until someone finally gets on the mic and firmly tells the room we need to get started. Not this time.
But more than just catching my attention, I realized there was something about the energy and spirit radiating from Dr. Souder that affected me. It wasn’t just her voice, though that was definitely a big part of it. Her pronunciation wasn’t the highly feminized tourist-friendly vocalization of Chamoru words that we now hear on the radio or in Guam Visitor’s Bureau commercials. It was a female Chamoru voice that came from the gut, imposing yet gentle. Many of the Chamoru women in positions of power on Guam right now do not use our language in public forums this comfortably. Sure, there is an obligatory greeting and a few words sprinkled in, but the sustained use of Chamoru during a public speaking engagement is rare.
I stared at Dr. Souder walking up and down the aisle as she spoke, noting her jewelry, her hair, and the way she carried herself. Something inside me was waking up, something I had been trying to put to sleep since my grandmother’s passing. I began twisting the heavy gold bamboo bracelet around my wrist. It was my grandmother’s bracelet. Suddenly, it felt heavier than usual. This woman, she reminded me of my Nåna…and it was painful. In that moment, I realized how long it had been since I sat down with an older Chamoru woman to absorb insight and information on our people and practices. It had been so long since I had been near a Chamoru woman that felt like SAINA. I realized that I was starving for this. My body was reacting to this woman, telling me I hadn’t been fed in a while. I approached her after the lecture, but didn’t end up sharing everything I was feeling. I didn’t want to be creepy. But I found myself wishing I could pack her up and take her home. I wanted to soak up that indescribable energy that she seemed to share with my late grandmother. Why do so few Chamoru women emit that energy anymore? Where can I find it again? How do I keep it near me? I thought of both her and my grandmother that evening, twisting the bamboo bracelet around my arm and fighting back tears.
I told myself that it was partly my fault. If I wanted that kind of wisdom and energy in my life again, I had to do my part to find it or create it. One of the first things I decided I needed to do was start asking questions the way I used to. I asked people my parents’ age a couple things and was disappointed when they couldn’t answer or speak with the same kind of confident humility and knowledge that my grandmother or Dr. Souder could. I mentioned this to a couple of colleagues and friends my age (people in their mid thirties or younger). One of my friends suggested that “people our age just don’t have saina the way our parents did. Our generation has no real saina anymore.” This idea disturbed me. I wasn’t satisfied with it. I asked a few other people my age if they felt the same way. Many of them expressed that while they deeply loved and respected their parents and valued the wisdom they possessed, when it came to cultural and traditional wisdom, they were not very good resources. The general attitude was that conversations with our parents about traditional wisdom and practices were interesting and fun, but they did not feed us the way the same discussions with our grandparents might have. We were still hungry.
I recognized this same reaction, the indescribable hunger, in the sudden presence of authentic traditional wisdom and language in my classroom years ago. Dr. Tina Taitano Delisle visited my remedial writing class and read a poem in Chamoru. In the middle of the poem, two young Chamoru women started crying. The poem was not sad. The poem was happy, but it was read confidently in our language. My female students wiped tears from their eyes and struggled to pull words together. Later, their only explanation for the tears and strong emotional reaction was “my grandmother spoke like that and I never hear it anymore. It just makes me cry. I forgot about the sound and it makes me cry.” The sound of another Chamoru woman speaking our language, handing down information, wisdom, and history, had affected my students in the same physical way. They too were craving for something and not realizing it until it was right in front of them.
Last night, I watched the documentary, “Mothering Guahan,” directed by Leiana S. A. Naholowa’a, for the first time. I was happy to see that Dr. Souder was also in it. Again, when she spoke, I had the same physical reaction. That woman makes me miss my grandmother fiercely. The film featured one woman after another discussing the value and role of the female in Chamoru culture. Everyone who watched it seemed to be sucked in by the stories and sounds of our older women. The stories of our mothers and the wisdom they have to share is something many were longing for. Watching the film reminded viewers of Chamoru women in their lives who passed away, women who were not successfully duplicated by later generations. These women are missed and longed for by current generations in a very profound way.
In the film, Dr. Sharleen Santos-Bamba described the physical reaction she had whenever she heard older women sing and pray in Chamoru. She explained that hearing the same prayers or songs in English didn’t create the same reaction. She wished she heard the sound more often. She said that English was just the language we used to “get by” from day to day; but “Chamoru is the language that soothes our soul.” Was that it? Do we react this way to the presence of authentic Chamoru wisdom because our souls have not been fed? Does getting a taste of it remind us of just how hungry we’ve been?
If our souls are hungry, how do we feed them in this highly westernized, colonized, and quickly changing little island of ours? One way might be to step up to the plate and seek this energy and wisdom more directly. A kind of social mothering can occur. If our mothers don’t have it and our grandmothers are gone, we can seek out women in the community that can help us. I have found that all it takes is asking. I have not yet met an older Chamoru woman (whether I am related to her or not) that is not happy to share what she knows with someone younger. I have also found that when they don’t know, they’re very happy to point me in the direction of someone else that might. When my father couldn’t explain one branch of our family tree, I reached out to a distant aunt who happily and eagerly explained it to me. “No one ever asks me this,” she said. “My children don’t even know this.” All we have to do is ask.
With our mothers, we can seek out information, history, and learn our language together, feeding each other with this shared effort to keep traditional knowledge and energy flowing through our homes. My mother has begun using Chamoru in our home more often and I have started asking her questions that I once reserved solely for my grandmother. I stopped looking at my mother as someone who had nothing to offer just because she didn’t prioritize the information during my childhood. She no longer makes fun of me when I don’t know a word or when I pronounce something wrong. When she doesn’t have the answers to questions I pose, instead of writing her (and the women her age) off as lost causes, I do a little legwork, conduct a little research and share what I find with her. We learn together. We seek together; and when we find things that are new or forgotten, we feed our souls together. I do not accept that we no longer have saina. We can become our own saina; we can become each other’s saina. By doing this, we are trying our very best to make sure our children do not reach adulthood craving food they did not know exists.
Desiree Taimanglo Ventura is a Chamoru author, educator, and activist from Yigo, Guam. She is currently an instructor of English and Communications at the Guam Community College. She has taught Undergraduate Composition at the University of Guam and Rhetoric at San Diego State University. She is also the author of the Guahan Mommy blog, which focuses on issues related to Chamoru women, decolonization, and raising Chamoru children.