Monday, November 23, 2015


Here is yet another example of how languages, like so many things in life, are forever changing.

In Saipan and, because of its influence, in Luta and Tinian as well, it is common to hear people say paire or pairere (same word, but extended to give emphasis).

But, if you said paire to older people on Guam, you would get an icy stare, especially from the older women.

Here's the reason why. In Guam, the word paire has an exclusively sexual connotation.






How did this difference come about?


From around 1740 to about 1815, Saipan had no human settlement. The island had been depopulated by the Spanish.

So where do the Chamorros in Saipan today come from? There were only two other islands inhabited by Chamorros : Guam and Luta. Tinian also was depopulated in Spanish times (except for a small number of men from Guam who took turns temporarily working on the government cattle ranch there).

So 90% or more of the Saipan Chamorros come from Guam Chamorros who moved to Saipan from the 1850s till the early 1900s. A few people from Luta also moved to Saipan during this time and also during the Japanese period and after.

So the Chamorro spoken in Saipan a hundred years ago was the very same Chamorro spoken in Guam. Thus, at one time, paire meant the same exact thing both on Guam and Saipan - a stud bull, valued by farmers for the breeding qualities it had.


If a certain bull was paire - the best male for breeding purposes - then some Chamorros in Saipan began to apply that idea and word to the best in anything else.

We do the same in English. Literally, a king is the ruler, the top man, of the government of the land. But we also call some people the King of Rock 'n Roll, or the King of Pop, and a certain brand is called the King of Beers.

The use of paire in Saipan to describe someone or something very good, the best or number one became so common that the word lost its ability to make people blush. From Saipan, its use spread to Tinian and Luta.

But not to Guam. On Guam, it retains its original meaning and thus its taboo in public discourse.

Tan Escolastica Cabrera, born in 1930, is from Saipan but she remembers that paire was not a nice word to use in public when she was a child.

In this interview, Tan Esco relates that, when she was a child, paire was used exclusively to refer to cattle, specifically a bull who was good in impregnating cows.

Today is a different story. As Tan Esco says, even Toyota cars are paire!

Pic courtesy of Sam Santos


Now where does the word itself come from?

There are two clues that suggest that the word paire is not indigenous, that is, not used by Chamorros before the Spaniards came.

First, there were no cattle in the Marianas before the Spaniards. Yet, paire means a stud bull (and only that, in its original meaning).

Second, Chamorro doesn't like the letter R. Yet there it is in paire. We often (but not always) change Spanish R to Chamorro L (guitara becomes gitåla, rancho becomes låncho).  Where there is an R, there is a good chance it is Spanish in origin.

But you can search high and low in a Spanish dictionary for paire, and not find it.


This is where having a wide vocabulary in Chamorro is helpful.

We also have the words pairåsto or pairåstro in Chamorro. They're really the same words, but some people prefer saying one over the other. They both mean "stepfather" and come from the Spanish word for "stepfather," padrastro.

Do you see it?

In Chamorro, we change the PADR sound to PAIR, and the MADR sound to MAIR.

Spanish padrastro becomes Chamorro pairåstro (pairåsto).

Spanish comadre becomes Chamorro komaire.

And Spanish padre becomes Chamorro paire.

Paire is simply "the father." The bull that was able to father many cattle.

Thursday, November 19, 2015


Chamorro women (perhaps from Saipan) washing laundry in the stockade
(MARC collection)

Much of Guam history after the war remains hidden.

Take, for example, the stockade built by the Americans for civilians suspected of being pro-Japanese.

The stockade was located in Agaña Heights, along where Naval Hospital is now.

Interned men and women were housed in different sections.

Those interned were local full-blooded Japanese civilians, most of whom had Chamorro wives; Chamorros from Saipan, and even the children of Japanese and Chamorro marriages. There may have been Guam full-blooded Chamorro civilians put in the stockade, too, but I have not heard yet of anyone specific.

The internee put in charge of the women's section of the stockade (called the matron) is still very much alive and blessed with good health. She granted me an interview.

Rosita was the daughter of a Japanese tailor and a Chamorro mother. She was an only-child.

On the sole basis of her being the daughter of a Japanese father, she was placed in the stockade after the American reoccupation. The Americans put her skills to work. She could speak English, Chamorro and Japanese and was dependable and cooperative. So they made her head of the women's section.

She registered anyone who was sent to the stockade. She supervised the women according to the instructions of the Americans, like Dr. Stone, who was the stockade physician. She herself made money as a seamstress for the American officers. Even the Saipan ladies helped her in this and made some money as well.

In all this, she bore no grudges but rather made the best of it. Rosita later on became a school teacher and a techa, leading people in Chamorro prayers.

Rosita spent less than a year in the stockade and was then released.

A good number of Japanese-Chamorros and their Japanese fathers had to be cleared by other Chamorros vouching for their innocence.

The full story of these Japanese-Chamorros has yet to be told.

Watch the interview :

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Languages change.

And it doesn't always take outside forces to make a language change.  Many changes are from within.

One example of this is the Chamorro word fåkkai.

For many years in the recent past, the word has been considered impolite. Older people will scold you for saying fåkkai in public conversation.

Ask an older person today what fåkkai means and they will say it means something along the lines of doing physical harm to someone; to demolish, tear apart and physically undo someone.

Yet....the grandparents of people today who consider the word fåkkai impolite in public conversation used the word without any shame or difficulty back in their day....because that older generation knew the original meaning of the word.

Case in point....Påle' Roman Maria de Vera - a Spanish missionary priest considered more expert in the Chamorro language than many Chamorros of his own day (1915-1941). And it was Chamorro people who said that!

Påle' Roman arrived on Guam in 1915 and immediately began learning Chamorro. And what kind of Chamorro was being spoken in 1915?

Well, suffice it to say that Padre Palomo, the first Chamorro priest, born in 1836, was still alive when Påle' Roman arrived in 1915. Padre Palomo's Chamorro would have been the Chamorro spoken in 1800, what he learned from his parents and grandparents. Padre Palomo was undoubtedly someone Påle' Roman spoke Chamorro with till Palomo passed away in 1919.

Påle' Roman published a Chamorro dictionary in 1932, but he certainly started compiling a list of Chamorro vocabulary many years before.

In that dictionary, Påle' Roman defines fåkkai as "to distribute," "to partition."

One example is taken from the old Chamorro custom of dividing the catch after fishing.

"Ma fåkkai-ñaihon i sengsong ni guihan."

"The people of the village were given a portion of the fish caught."

So clearly was this original meaning of fåkkai in the minds of Chamorros that, in the 1920s or 1930s, Påle' Roman used what many now consider an impolite word in one of his nobenas (devotional prayer book).

"Na' gai fakkai yo' nu i gråsia siha."

"Give me a portion of graces." Or, "Make me have a portion of graces."

And then there's this gem :

"Ha fåkkai si San Roke i guinahå-ña gi mamopble." 

"San Roke distributed his possessions to the poor."

So, this is the original meaning of the word fåkkai. To distribute, to give people a portion of this or that.


So far, we've been dealing with facts. Now we move into speculation.

If fåkkai originally meant "to distribute portions," then that involves the breaking apart of a whole.

The whole catch was broken down into portions in order to fåkkai the fish to the people in the village.

Perhaps this is where people formed the idea that to fåkkai is to break down, to break into parts or portions - no longer in order to distribute, but rather just to tear apart.

Thus, to fåkkai someone no longer meant to give that person his or her portion of something broken down, but rather to break apart the person him or herself.

Some people also use the word fåkkai when referring to mixing, by hand, different ingredients in cooking. This, too, is a breaking down of individual things in order to create a new thing out of the mix.


Whether we like it or not, a huge number of Chamorros have allowed the English language, not only to supplant their own language, but also to influence the way they think about their own vocabulary.

What Chamorro will not chuckle when they hear someone say, "That Mexican restaurant is good. I love their chili." Only the younger, or highly Americanized, Chamorro, will not get the reference.

Because the Chamorro word fåkkai sounds so close to an English curse word, I believe fåkkai gained even more negativity among a new generation of Americanized Chamorros; Americanized in the sense that they let English influence the way they think even about Chamorro words that have no relation to English.

This mind set probably came about in the 1950s, and definitely by the 1960s.


Fast forward to our own times.

In the 1990s, a young man named Roman dela Cruz decided to market a brand of his own creation. It wasn't just clothing; his brand was closely associated with martial arts on Guam and beyond.

He gave the word fåkkai a new meaning; his own. He had a spiritualized meaning in his own mind when he used the word fåkkai in his marketing.

For Roman, fåkkai represents the spirit or soul of the local people - the life force inside us that propels us to keep living and to overcome all challenges and to thrive.

I know this because I asked Roman about it. But I am putting into my own words what I think Roman means. If you want to, ask Roman yourself what he means.

I can see how he could make this connection. By the 1950s, to fåkkai someone was to tear them apart - a show of power. In Roman's mind, fåkkai is that indomitable spirit that empowers us to handle life's challenges. It was a new meaning. And, to symbolize how new it was (and is), he also gave the word his own unique and stylistic spelling : fökai.

Thus we see how languages change.

From "distribution" to "break apart," with an uncomfortable similarity in sound to an English curse word, to "indomitable spirit."

The thing is, no matter what the dictionary says, the meaning of words depends on what the community says.  Even the dictionary will add new meanings to old words because the community has adopted a new meaning to old words like "gay" or "sick." When something is good, some people call it "sick."

And a community does not arrive instantly at an agreement what words mean.

There will still be many Chamorros who will never accept alternate meanings of the word fåkkai; not even the original meaning! For them, fåkkai will always mean only one physically damage someone.

And, believe it or not, there are still older Chamorros, here and there, on Guam and in the CNMI, who still know the original meaning of the word.

And will Chamorro speakers ever adopt, in big numbers, Roman's spiritual meaning of the word fåkkai? Time will tell.

One thing is for sure. His use of the word fåkkai on his shirts and other items for sale have put the word right smack in front of our faces, and has caused a negative reaction in some; bewilderment in others; and (unfortunately) apathy in others. For them, fökai is just cool. Or, is it hot?

Monday, November 16, 2015


When I was in elementary school, I was introduced to yan kin po by classmates.

The Japanese phrase, when written in Roman letters, is jan ken po.

But you know that J becomes our Y. Like Yigo.

I smiled when I read the following anecdote of an elderly Chamorro lady in Saipan.

Three older women sat outside the room where a legislative public hearing was being held on Saipan.

They weren't sure how they would be called in to testify and, as they didn't want to hurt anyone else's feelings by struggling over who would go first, they played yan kin po.

But what made me smile was that the first lady to go in to testify, the winner of the yan kin po, felt she had to tell the politicians this :

"Buenas noches. Man yan kin po hame gi san hiyong håye para u hålom fine'na."

"Good evening. We played yan kin po outside to see who would come in first."

The game started in China, and then spread to Japan.

So it's not surprising it is found in Saipan, where the Japanese ruled for 30 years. I wonder how it got to Guam, and why it goes by the Japanese name for it.

Friday, November 6, 2015


Pugua' (betel nut) has been a part of our culture "since ever since," as the Fokkai saying goes.

Pugua' stains appear on the teeth of many (but not all, interestingly enough) skeletal remains in archaeological digs in the Marianas, going back thousands of years.

Our favorite nut has been used in a variety of contexts and for different reasons over the centuries. It has been used when two families meet to discuss marriage plans for their children. In the old days, families did not cook red rice and barbecue meat every night for rosaries for the dead; they passed around pugua' and all the fixins : pupulu (pepper leaf), åfok (lime) and amåska (chewing tobacco).

But pugua' has also been used in political campaigns; at least, in our post-war period.

In the photo above, Ricky Bordallo, and his running mate Pedro (Doc) Sanchez are seen passing the pugua' and pupulu around as they speak to a voter. Whatever your politics, it must be admitted that Ricky was a consummate campaigner and one of the best orators our Chamorro race has ever produced in our modern times.

When I was active in politics in the late 1970s, pugua' was definitely available at most pocket meetings and rallies, whether Democrat or Republican.

Don Parkinson, a Democrat and former Speaker and Senator, was famous in the 1980s and 90s for passing out pugua' to people and, if memory serves, not just during campaign season. Smart move, I'd say, for a stateside politician.

Today, it seems, pugua'  has become passé among our people, especially the young. There is bad publicity concerning betel nut and its cancer risks. But I also think that more and more of  our younger generations just were never exposed to it, and,  if they try chewing it later in life, find pugua' not to their liking.

In a few decades, I think, pugua'  will disappear from the Chamorro landscape, except for a small pocket of pugua' fans.

Thursday, November 5, 2015



Misen means "abundant" and can be applied to different things, including abundant fluid or liquid.

To'la is "saliva."

When someone salivates when seeing food, s/he becomes misen te'la'-ña.

And you can tell them, "Misen te'la'-mo." "Your saliva is abundant."

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


The Japanese started getting interested in the Marianas in the late 1800s.

Japan did not become open to the world, of course, until after Commodore Perry, in 1854, placed great pressure on Japan to do so.

Sometime after 1866, the Spanish Governor Moscoso brought in Japanese farmers to revive agriculture on Guam, but the experiment failed and the Japanese who did not die on Guam returned home.

By the 1890s, Japanese merchant ships were visiting Guam and Saipan, and a few Japanese were already residing in Saipan.

When the Americans took over Guam in 1898, the Japanese presence on Guam took off. One of the most prominent was J.K. Shimizu, whose boats went up and down the Marianas, taking passengers and cargo.

But quite a number of other Japanese moved to Guam and opened small businesses and worked at their trades. The majority of them married Chamorro women, becoming Catholic, even if at times just in name.

A few of these Japanese married Chamorro women from the higher social classes.

A list from 1914 tells us which Japanese residents on Guam had business or liquor licenses :

JK Shimizu
S. Takeyama
JH Haniu
T. Aso
T. Shibata
E. Yamamoto
Y. Kiga
K. Takahashi
Juan Matsunaga
Taroka Inouye
B. Ochai
I. Kamo
K. Takemiya
S. Sakakibara
T. Ooka
K. Ooka
K. Okiyama
T. Seimiya
H. Yamashita
Y. Sugiyama
G. Okiyama
Y. Arina
Z. Hatoba
G. Takatsu

Those are A LOT of Japanese - just 15 years after the start of the American administration of Guam.

Not all of these Japanese enterprises lasted or worked out. Some of these last names are familiar to this day, some have disappeared. Later Japanese immigrants came and started businesses like Shinohara, Sawada and Dejima.

But this list shows the importance of the Japanese settlers to Guam in terms of our genealogy and in business.