Arts and Culture in Guam
Through the centuries, the island of Guam in the western Pacific has been a crossroads of cultures, at times feeling currents from Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, and other Asian nations. The strongest cultural connections, however, come from Spain, which ruled the islands for three centuries, and the United States, in charge for close to a century. Though at times, Guam faded away behind influences imported from these other nations, the culture of the Chamorro people is native to the island. During the last several decades, interest in Chamorro language, arts, and culture has seen a resurgence, both from the islanders’ pride in rediscovering their heritage, and in their discovering that what makes them unique is also of great interest to visitors. At present, Chamorro culture is a powerful strand in the island’s cultural life and development. This may be seen, among other places, in the creation of dance programs based in local history, an interest in local art galleries and folk arts, and a growing live theater scene featuring plays in both English and Chamorro.
The Guam Symphony, based in Hagåtña, is a group of both professional and amateur musicians. As was the dream of the founders more than forty years ago, almost all the symphony’s members now come from Guam. The symphony and its associated chorale present several programs a year and support the visits of guest artists. Each year, the Guam Symphony also presents the well-loved island tradition Musikan Famagu’on, through which fifth-grade students are introduced to the instruments of a symphony orchestra. Cantate is a choral group that includes classical, jazz, and world music in its programming.
In 2009, the Guam Ballet Company presented a performance based on an indigenous legend of two lovers. Organizers were working to revive interest in classical ballet in the island community.
As a crossroads of the western Pacific, Guam has seen many sorts of dance reach its shores, from classical forms of Indian dance, to a Spanish waltz known as the batsu, to the so’tis, which recalls the polka. A rhythmic dance featuring dancers tapping coconut shells together, an import from the Philippines is also performed in Guam. The native Chamorro people had their own styles of rhythmic dance before these influences arrived, and they were described by early Spanish missionaries in the 1600s.
These dances have mostly been lost to history, but in the mid 1980s, Francisco Rabon began working to create dances based on original Chamorro culture, using historical documents as sources. He did not present these as dances handed down across time or as exact recreations of ancient Chamorro dances, but rather as a way for Chamorro people to express pride in their culture and heritage. These dances typically depict ways of life in ancient Chamorro culture. Rabon and his students and followers have created dances centering around three parts of Chamorro history: the ancient periods, the Spanish period, and contemporary times. Many school groups and others have become involved in this aspect of Chamorro culture, with performances presented to islanders and tourists alike. In 1999 Rabon formed a coalition of groups practicing this sort of dance. He named the coalition Pa’a Taotaotano, which means "The Way of Life of the People of the Land" in the Chamorro language.
The Isla Center for the Arts in Mangilao is a part of the University of Guam. Its collections focus on the arts of Micronesia, as well as bringing arts from the outside world to Guam. In response to reviving interest in local culture, the museum has a number of mini exhibits that travel the area.
The War in the Pacific National Park is composed of seven sites across the island associated with the role of Guam in World War II. In addition to historical sites, gun emplacements, pillboxes, and a memorial wall at Asan Bay, visitors to the parks’ locations may explore Guam’s landscape, seashores, and nature.
Hagåtña’s Guam Museum, which is currently under renovation, is a source for information about the history of the island, and its collections comprise materials from the ancient days through the three hundred years of the Spanish period, to the American period and current times.
As with other aspects of island life, contemporary music on Guam has been influenced by flavors of other cultures, most often rhythms of Spanish and Mexican music mixed with familiar western Pacific and Chamorro beats. The music created has much in common with island sounds from the Caribbean and the Pacific. Historically, songs were not written down but passed on through oral tradition, andChamorro music of old was primarily a vocal music, with percussion from hand claps, shaken gourds, or coconuts tapped together, and very little else in the way of instrumentation. Today, percussion and voice are still at the forefront, though percussion is more likely to be a drum kit than a set of coconuts, and the musician may be playing a guitar. Johnny Sablan’s Dalai Nene was the first Chamorro album, released in the mid 1960s. Guam has a record company, Napu Records. Popular local artists in Guam include singer Daniel De Leon Guerrero and singer and songwriter J.D. Crutch.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
The University of Guam’s Island Theatre presents plays ranging from Broadway hits to works by contemporary Spanish and Indonesian playwrights. Musicals and Shakespeare also turn up in the playbill, performed by companies featuring students from the university’s theater program. The GATE Theater in Tiyan and Southern High School Performing Theater in Santa Rita are also well-known venues on the island for live theater performances. Local churches also have also hosted community plays, many of those unpublished, and many in Chamorro.
Plays were not a part of the indigenous Chamorro culture (that function was filled, perhaps, by dance and storytelling), but today there is an active Chamorro presence in live theater. There are records of plays being presented in Chamorro from the late 1960s, but the plays themselves do not survive. Guahu Taotao Tano’ (I am a Person of the Land) presented at the Festival of the Pacific in Tahiti in 1985 is the first full-scale Chamorro production known. It was written by Robert Underwood. Peter R. Onedera is considered one of the most influential playwrights on Guam. He regards writing plays as an extension of the Chamorro tradition of storytelling, and has written more that 75 plays, working in the Chamorro language and in English.
FILM AND TELEVISION
Films made in Guam include military documentaries such as Return to Guam (1944). Other documentaries related to the aftermath of World War II in the western Pacific, a few feature films (notably 1967’s Son of Godzilla and No Man Is an Island of 1962), and more recently, films having to do with the island’s indigenous ways of life, history, and contemporary culture, such as Under the American Sun (2008), Chamoru Dreams (1996), and Pattera: Midwives of Guam (2003).
Actor Donovan Patton (b. 1978), one of the hosts of the children’s television program Blue’s Clues(1996–2006), was born on Guam.
The Spanish and the Americans who came to control Guam across the centuries do not seem to have written much about their experiences. The Chamorro culture, like many neighboring areas in the western Pacific islands, was an oral one, so not much was recorded. There are a few early reports from Spanish missionaries, the occasional history accompanying a guidebook, such as The Island of Guam: Description and History from a 1934 Perspective by Evelyn Gibson Nelson, and a few wartime recollections from soldiers who fought on Guam or were stationed there. The online encyclopediaGuampedia, which focuses on Chamorro culture, lists more than 70 local authors. However, these appear to be academics who have published works related to their fields.
Guam-based photographer Tim Rock published a coffee table book of photographs called Guam’s Ocean in 2008.
The Isla Center for the Arts in Hagåtña exhibits both historic and contemporary art. The Guam Gallery of Art, also in Hagåtña, is a privately run gallery where a number of local artists exhibit their work. Filamore Alcon, an abstract artist who uses traditional materials and also works in computer-generated art, owns the gallery. David Sabian paints scenes of life in the islands in ancient times. Moe Cotton, from Tamuning, paints both realistic and fantasy works that often incorporate island mask motifs. Viktoria B. Sayrs paints tropical landscapes featuring vibrant colors. Her mother, Alma Vander Velde, also lived and painted in the western Pacific for more than fifty years. Judy Flores is a painter, batik artist, and illustrator who has studied the art of Micronesia at the doctorate level.
Christine Choe is a painter and sculptor who focuses on the island’s natural beauty. She has sculpted works featuring the endangered species of the area.
More than 100 sites on Guam are listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Several of these are sites with latte stones, an ancient sort of pillar used in building houses as far back as 1,500 years ago. The stone shape, a tapered pillar with a capstone, has become an unofficial symbol of Guam. The island has a park in central Hagåtña featuring latte stones that have been moved from other locations. The stones can be found at original locations as well, many in the northern part of the island.
The Tailafak Bridge, built in 1785 along the Camino Real, the old Spanish coastal road between Hagåtña and Umatac, is still in its original location. It is rare for Spanish architecture on the island, much of which was destroyed or damaged when the island was shelled during World War II, to survive. TheDulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica in Hagåtña was first constructed in the 1660s, and was damaged during World War II. The current building, on the same site as the earlier church, was built in the 1950s. Several forts from the Spanish period dot the island’s shores. Fort Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, south of Umatac, and Fort Santo Angel, at the northwest side of Umatac bay, are two of these, built some 50 years apart. Other war structures, fortified caves that the Japanese constructed during their occupation of the island in the 1940s, may bee seen at Latte Stone Park in Hagåtña and elsewhere on the island.
The latte stone house is the best-known form of traditional architecture. Eight to twelve stones are used for each house, lined up in parallel rows of four to six. The stones range from 4 to 16 feet (1.2 to 4.9 m) high and weigh 40,000 to 60,000 pounds (18,150–27,200 kg). The houses built on top of the megaliths were typically long and narrow.
Modern houses on Guam are normally concrete structures able to withstand typhoons. Many families live in rural clan compounds where many members of the extended family live in close proximity. The immigrant population dominates the urban areas, living in apartment complexes and condominiums.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ARTS
Weaving is a craft that goes back through history on Guam and is still practiced today, for both utilitarian reasons and to make goods to sell to tourists. Leaves of the island’s plants are the primary material, and motifs often include natural subjects such as seabirds and turtles. Gef Pa’go, in the southern part of the island, is a center where several master weavers demonstrate their craft, which they most often learned from family members.
Blacksmithing, which was an important part of island life and work from early days through the Spanish period and the pre-war American period, is now rarely practiced on the island.Carving,however, is an ancient tradition that has survived the centuries. Using readily available materials including bone, stone, and wood, modern carvers often still incorporate ancient motifs into their work. Carved sticks, bracelets and necklaces, baskets, flower crafts, and woven shapes with shells and shell necklaces are among the craft items made by artists on Guam.
HISTORIC ART MOVEMENTS
As is the case with many indigenous peoples, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in roots and heritage among the Chamorro on Guam, and also among visitors to the island who want to know more about the culture. Artists across genres from playwriting to visual arts to dance share this interest, and express its impact through their works.
-World Trade Press