Friday, March 15, 2019


Francisco Quitugua Tenorio
(pic courtesy of Fred Tenorio Rodriguez)

Around 1975 or 1976, our science teacher at Bishop Baumgartner Middle School, Sister Joan Weisenbeck, told us that we would all have to do something for a Science Fair she was organizing. It could be anything but the topic had to relate to a branch of physical science.

I decided to make a display about Chamorro herbal medicine. You can see that I already had the cultural bug in middle school. Well, herbs deal with biology, so I'm good, I thought.

I turned to my grand aunt, Asunción "Chong" Torres, my grandmother's sister. She was one of the elders in the family who raised me (ma poksai biha) and she was always willing to help me in anything. Sure enough, she took me one day to visit a suruhåno (folk doctor or herbal practitioner). His name was Francisco Quitugua Tenorio, better known as Supiåno, the family nickname.

We got into her car and we drove not a far distance to Chalan Pago. We went into the house of an older man whom I remembered as quite solid-framed. My aunt and he did most of the talking in Chamorro; I just listened. But in time he started getting out some leaves, branches and roots and explaining to me the various uses. I started to write down the information. What plant was used for what ailment. Most of the time it was a mixture of several plants.

Ton Supiåno gave me those plant samples and we went home and I started to put the display together. I got three poster boards and taped them together to form a three-paneled display. I taped or stapled the plants to the board and artistically explained their use on the boards. I also had some things displayed on the table in front of the boards. The Science Fair was just the next day. I think I won a prize.

Sr Joan Weisenbeck, FSPA

I know I pleased Sister Joan, which was important to me because I really liked her as a person and as a teacher.

But my exposure to Ton Supiåno was a new experience for me. For the hour or so I was at his house, I got a glimpse into Chamorro life I didn't see at my own house. The sights and smells of different plants. And the names of these plants!

Lodogao and betbena. But also tomåtes chå'ka, which even at age 14 I understood as "rat tomato," and mumutung palao'an, which I also already could understand as "woman's stench."

At age 14, from Ton Supiåno's explanations, I was seeing how people got sick (I didn't see much of that yet in life) and in so many different ways. And I saw how our people had their own way of addressing illness and using the natural things found right around us. Plants and trees were not just "there." They had practical uses, and maybe even "life and death" uses. The experience taught me that we were resourceful and that we had "our own way."

Ton Supiåno was not my first experience of Chamorro medicine. That happened when I was 5 years old (or maybe even younger but I don't remember) when Tan Romana Ramos, our next door neighbor, would come over with her åmot Chamorro (Chamorro medicine) made from some very bad tasting herbs. I don't even know what illness I had but they would lay me on someone's lap and force open my mouth and Tan Romana would dip a cloth into her herbal medicine and squeeze the cloth into my screaming mouth! Did it taste awful! But the old ladies were happy that I would now be able to live another day!

But Tan Romana was not a suruhåna in the full sense of the term. She was able to make one kind of medicine for children. She was not consulted by many about many health issues.

Later, I would encounter a suruhåna who was more of a makåhna (spirit intermediary) who dealt with spirits and divination, and not with herbal medicine. That was a weird experience.

But Ton Supiåno was my first experience of a bona fide suruhåno, someone the community looked up to as knowledgeable about all herbal medicine and many health concerns. And meeting him was an affirming experience of my Chamorro culture.

1 comment:

  1. I had heard within my families that my(paternal-paternal) great grandfather who had been a goldsmith, was also a 'witch doctor.' I assume that he was more or less along the lines you have explained here. Thank you for bringing this out more as I have never known what to make of it. Other than as intermediaries of the taotaomona, I never really knew what it was to be a folk/herbal doctor on Guam. Again, thank you.