Thursday, April 25, 2013


A comfortable family of Hagåtña

"Few masters, few slaves" was William Edwin Safford's way of describing the egalitarian society of the Chamorros on Guam in 1900. 

Everyone was the same, it could be said; they were all poor!

"Poor" in the sense that no one lived a life of luxury, but few lived a miserable existence.

Everyone had land.  There was enough land to go around, when the entire island had just 10,000 people.  There was so much land that people often farmed land that wasn't legally their own, with little complaint from others.

Very few people had a lot of cash; cash wasn't needed.  There was hardly anything to buy.  And one grew or made oneself what was needed for life.

This meant that class distinctions were not as sharp in the Spanish Marianas as they are today.

Before the Spanish, the Chamorros did have sharp class distinctions, especially between the lowest (the manga'chang) and everybody else, grouped in middle (achaot) and high (matua) classes.  The manga'chang couldn't mix socially with the others; marry someone from the higher classes; use all the tools and implements used by the others.  Even their diet was somewhat different.

Under the Spanish, there certainly were some class differences.  But they tended to be expressed in feelings of cultural status and not in material terms.  A family might have more status because they were more Spanish in customs and behavior, but even they had ranches and farms.  There was no university that only their children could afford; frequent trips abroad that only they could purchase tickets for; large plantations that they hired hundreds of workers for, while they supervised from their porches drinking lemonade. 

The cultural elite in Chamorro society under the Spaniards was a small group indeed.  The several who went to the Philippines for an education; a few who ventured abroad for business or as whalers; some who could speak, read and write excellent Spanish.

Mixed bood alone wasn't sufficient to put you in a high status.  There were a number of Chamorros whose fathers were Spanish or some other caucasian, who didn't rise on the social ladder. 

Between the better-off family in the first photo above, and the more humble family in the second photo below, the material differences are not staggering.

Both houses are made of local, easily procured material, though the first is perhaps sturdier than the humbler home below.

The family above is dressed in finer clothing, but the simpler family below has very similar clothing, though not as fine.

But we're not contrasting a five-star condo above, and a hovel below. Both families spoke Chamorro; went to the same Catholic services; relied on locally-grown farm products and fish; re-thatched their roof regularly; abided by the same cultural norms; dealt with the limitations of travel, education and commerce that prevailed in the Marianas at the time.

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