Thursday, June 12, 2014


Bishop Olaiz with Chamorro faithful.  Åtkos behind, in front of the thatched-roof structure.
Possibly Sumay , between 1915 and 1920.

The custom of erecting arches, or åtkos, at festive occasions undoubtedly has connections with the Catholic missionaries, but this may also be a case of happy coincidence.

Early Spanish descriptions of pre-contact Chamorro culture tell us that our ancestors also built "triumphant arches," according to Father García, but he tells us that these arches were put up in connection with funerals. He also doesn't provide us with a detailed description of these "arches," but he wouldn't have called them such unless they had the general form of an arch.  He also says the Chamorros decorated the streets with garlands of palms.  So I don't think it is far-fetched to assume that our ancestors had something similar to our Spanish-influenced arches; "triumphant" and most likely adorned with palms and other local materials.

The åtkos used to be a prominent feature of any community celebration in the Marianas.  In recent decades, we see them less and less.  About the only time we see them today is at parish fiestas.

But, as the photographic record shows, the åtkos was not just for religious events. Even when a village observed Clean-Up Week, the people put up an åtkos.

Or when a new bridge was inaugurated, an åtkos was part of the happy affair.

The idea was that the åtkos was a way of welcoming visitors from outside the community, such as this arch in Spain welcoming the King and his wife to the town of Ampuero.

Or this one, in the Philippines, welcoming the local bishop to a parish's confirmation.  "Viva Señor Obispo," it says.  "Long live the Lord Bishop."

The åtkos was made from local materials, easily obtained from the jungle.  Bamboo was often used for the frame, and local fruits and vegetables hung to decorate the frame.

This arch in the Philippines shows the same idea, with the added use of modern, store-bought decorative adornments.

This modern-day åtkos in Hågat shows a streamlined design but still incorporating local flora for decoration.

When Felixberto Flores was ordained the first Chamorro bishop in 1970, the Plaza de España was surrounded by modern-style, wooden åtkos, each one representing one of the islands then under the Diocese of Agaña.  There were åtkos for all the inhabited islands of the Northern Marianas, as well as Wake Island.  The one in the photo above is Guam's åtkos.

When St Pope John Paul II visited Guam in February, 1981, a number of åtkos were built around the island, mainly in Hagåtña.  Again, the planners decided on a more modern look for them, but used local materials as much as possible.

Even Guam Memorial Hospital put up an åtkos when the Pope went to visit the patients there.  The signage says, "Bendise ham Santo Papa." "Bless us Holy Father."

A recent revival of the åtkos tradition.  This åtkos was not for a religious event, but rather to welcome visitors to Government House during Chamorro Month.  The åtkos is mainly made of local material : påtma dråba (wood), pugua', påhong, tupu, papåya, aga', niyok.

Let's remind people to build an åtkos for any big, festive event, whether civic or religious, to welcome our visitors and guests to the occasion.

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