Wednesday, October 12, 2016


Saipan community leaders in the 1950s

We can safely say that before there were Chamorro politicians, there were Chamorro community leaders.

That is not to say that individual Chamorro men, and women, did not somehow promote themselves, no matter how gently, to be considered for higher status. But the aggressive campaigning we see today for the people's votes is something new to the Chamorro experience, and goes against the older Chamorro way of doing things.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, our ancestors did not elect their community leaders. Instead, each community recognized those who were already, in some way, leaders. Of course, these leaders had to come from a certain class. The mangachang could never be leaders of the whole community. But men from the other two classes (achaot and matua) could. Men could rise to the higher status by proving themselves worthy of it, and men could lose their status in the community by way of failure. It was, in a sense, a meritocracy.

What was most important was that other recognized community leaders supported one of their number to assume primacy. A smaller circle of leaders, then, determined who would rise even higher. This would become a pattern that lasted even into Spanish times.

Under the Spanish, the outward form of government changed and the Chamorros were excluded from real power, but the inner workings of social leadership among the people continued to be a kind of meritocracy. Leaders were acknowledged, not elected. Village officials formed a small cadre of leaders who were easily admitted into, and just as easily released from, this small pool of overseers. A man acknowledged for his intelligence and talent would be coaxed into taking a higher role in the village, acting as a liaison between the villagers and the Spanish authorities. The principalía, or village elite, would vote on a short list of three nominees for village leadership, but the actual appointment would be made by the Spaniards. If a man grew tired of community leadership, he could simply make it known to the others and chances were people would allow him to gracefully exit.

In Guam, separated from the rest of the Marianas by the Americans in 1898, the old Spanish idea of a group of acknowledged local leaders, or principalía, continued for a time. Certain individuals just presented themselves for leadership and were acknowledged by the others as leaders, without a general election in place. To a certain extent, some of them simply claimed leadership, as in the case of the Chamorro junta or executive committee which assumed government control in 1899. Not everyone, though, recognized their authority. Notice, though, that even here Chamorros did not assert themselves politically without the backing of the elite group, continuing the pattern of old.

Eventually, with the American Navy firmly in charge, Chamorros were appointed, then elected, to a Guam Congress who had the power merely to express opinions. But it was at this stage that the scene was being set for future politics. From the 1930s, members of the Guam Congress were elected by the people, and, though there was no massive campaigning as we see today, the island's future politicians were being formed and developed. At this early phase, though, men who showed some leadership made themselves available to the voters, especially when encouraged by others who were recognized as community leaders. That idea of a small group of community leaders carried on into the early American years. "Campaigning" was done on the level of discussions among people. Who was good? Who would look after the local people's interest? Political ads, rallies and meetings were still to come in the future.

In the Northern Marianas, no voice was given to the local people by the Japanese. Appointed, then elected, Chamorro and Carolinian councilors did the bidding of the Japanese government. Under the United Nations trusteeship, the United States was tasked with the job of preparing the local people for self-government. Local leaders, therefore, were asked to step forward and make themselves available for elected office as mayors and council members. Though the Trust Territory government (and even for some time, the US Navy) ran the show, local leaders were sought and groomed. But the older Chamorro principles were still in play. Active self-promotion was frowned upon.

What, then, were those traits that made Chamorro leaders acceptable to the general public? According to an anthropological study of Saipanese community leaders in the 1950s :

1. Passivity. In the sense that he will not promote himself for leadership. Instead, he will let others nominate him and campaign for him among people. Otherwise, if he asserts himself, others will say "Malago' gue' mågas," "He wants to be the boss." The aspiring leader just acts like one, and let's the others do the promoting. In fact, the prospective leader is already promoting himself by acting like a leader, and not by campaigning to be one. In a sense, if no one was interested in pushing you forward as a leader, there was already an election that way.

2. A good public speaker. This probably goes back to pre-European times when our ancestors enjoyed public debates and admired the eloquent. Our people enjoy hearing good speakers, who argue points well and say things well.

3. Able to take bold stands, especially in defense of the public interest.

4. Good in English. This was necessary because our leaders had to speak to the political masters, the Americans, in their own language. Chamorro leaders who were successful in getting the Americans to see things from the local perspective were greatly esteemed by the local people.

Guam in the 1950s and 60s continued to exhibit, to some degree, the old pattern of the small group of elites picking candidates. From my living sources who were active in politics at the time, the party leaders would meet and discuss who would be interested, who would be available and who would be viable as a candidate for the Legislature. Then these names became the official candidates of the party. It was more or less decided by the elite group themselves.

Today, we have all the marks of a modern, American-style electoral campaign. It's now a whole different ball game. Today we have person seeking the office, rather than the office seeking the person. Now we have people claiming to be leaders, and voters electing them with the hope that they'll prove themselves to be leaders.

At least in the 1950s, 60s and a little into the 70s, party politics changed things even more. Because of party loyalty, many voters cast their ballots for candidates strictly because of party affiliation, and not necessarily on the person's qualities. Strict party loyalty is now largely a thing of the past, and politics has become as individualistic as the rest of society at large.

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