Thursday, October 27, 2016


Preparing for the evening's fandånggo
Early 1900s

Wedding customs have changed dramatically over the years.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, a fandånggo was the party or dinner held after a wedding, paid for by the groom and his family, including the godfather of the groom.

Only later did I come to learn that, before the war, the fandånggo was actually held the night before the wedding. What stayed true to custom before and after the war was that it was hosted by the groom's side of the wedding party.

Then I came across the word fandango as a Spanish dance. How did a word meaning a Spanish dance become, among the Chamorros, a word meaning a wedding party?


Usually we think of Spain influencing its colonies, but at times it is the other way around.

In the case of the fandango, this seems to be the case.

African slaves brought their cultures and languages with them to Latin America. Many of the dances, music, vocabulary and foods of Latin America find their roots in Africa. Scholars think that the word fandango may come from a Bantu language in Africa, possibly Kimbundu in modern-day Angola.

Fandango came to mean a kind of dance, performed in different styles depending on the country in Latin America. From there, the word went to Spain, where it also described certain dances, which again differed from area to area in Spain. The fandango of Huelva, in Andalucía in southern Spain became one of the best known flamenco dances.

But the fandangos of Latin America continued on their own and are still danced there. The Marianas received a lot of influence from Latin America, especially from Mexico, since, in the early period of Spanish colonization, Spain ruled the Marianas via Mexico. Mexican soldiers moved to Guam in good number. But the Philippines also developed their own fandango dances and Filipino influence on the Chamorros increased in the 1800s.

Safford says that, at a Chamorro  fandånggo (party), a Spanish fandango (dance) was sometimes danced. Somehow I wonder if Chamorros were actually dancing the very technical Spanish version of the fandango dance. Perhaps it was really a Latin American or Filipino version, called by the same name. It is also possible that Chamorros danced both versions; perhaps a Latin American or Filipino version more, and the Spanish flamenco version less.

A Mexican fandango dance

In any event, I think it is very likely that the pre-wedding nighttime party and dance hosted by the groom was called a fandånggo by our mañaina because a dance called a fandango was performed at these parties. What is less clear is which type of fandango dance it was. I think, in time, no fandango dance was performed at these parties, but other dances, such as the båtso (waltz) and square dancing were, as Safford also states.  Up to now, a small number of people can still dance what is called the båtso and even the chotis, but I have never seen anyone, since the 1970s, dance something called the fandånggo. Yet, the name fandånggo stuck.

A Filipino fandango dance
Pandanggo sa Ilaw


No matter the version, the fandango dances of Spain, Latin America and the Philippines more or less had a feeling of flashiness and liveliness.

Among Chamorros, the word fandanggero (someone who dances the fandånggo) came to mean someone who is showy, flashy, extravagant, a lover of good times and a spender of money.

In Spanish, the verb fandanguear (to make fandango) can mean "to live it up," "to go all out" with a party. In some Spanish-speaking places, a fandango can also mean a "wild party."


Tuesday, October 25, 2016


A family I know (San Nicolás, familian Mahange') own land behind the Mañenggon camp, pictured above. In July of 1944, thousands of Chamorro people were huddled by the Japanese into this valley by the river. For several weeks they lived a precarious life, with death hanging over their heads, in physical and emotional distress, until the Japanese quietly up and left, knowing the Americans were just down the road.

To this day, some of the few survivors still with us have a hard time visiting this place. The memories remain with them as vivid and as upsetting as the time they lived there, more than 70 years ago.

It seems more than memories survive at Mañenggon.

A member of this family that owns land behind the Mañenggon Memorial related to me this story :

One weekend the family spent the day at our ranch in Mañenggon. The river flows past our property and there is a little dam and swimming hole beside our place. So I took the kids there to swim.

I was told by the elders to bring them all back to the ranch house before it got dark.

As I noticed the time, and the setting of the sun, I gathered all the kids together so we could start walking back to the family and our cars.

At that moment, I sensed a strange silence in the air. Then, I started hearing people screaming and crying, and then, the praying of the Rosary in Chamorro, but very fast, as if the person praying was in a panic.

No one but us was around, but I heard all of this.

So I quickly got the kids together and got them walking back. It should have been just a few minutes to walk back, but it seemed like forever, till we reached the others.

Monday, October 24, 2016


Two streets in the Marianas are named for the coconut tree's flowering stem which produces the coconut fruit.

The one in Saipan spells it correctly. Hagåmham. The one on Guam forgot to include the initial H. As the language changes here and there for some people, some Chamorros are dropping the H and say agåmham.

Here's how the hagåmham looks like :

Saturday, October 22, 2016


No Chamorro home was ever without biskuchon pånglao.

It was so-called because of the crab (pånglao) that appeared on the wrapping or on the tin can that stored bulk quantities of the biscuit.

Different families ate it in different ways, but nearly every family had them in the cupboard.

Some families ate biskucho every day, while some ate it only rarely.

Some had it for breakfast, especially with coffee. Some would dip the biscuit into the coffee and others would break the biscuit into little pieces and soak them in the coffee. Still others could butter up the biscuit and eat with coffee like one does with toast.

Especially for kids, the biskucho would be broken up and soaked in milk (especially condensed milk;  Carnation) and sugar. Many people call this kåddun biskucho.

Other families would have biskucho mainly for merienda, the late afternoon snack, sometimes with cheese.

After a typhoon....

Finally, some families ate it only after a typhoon. This is where the biskucho came in very handy. It didn't need refrigeration. It could last for years in perfectly fine condition in your pantry, as long as it stayed dry. It was ready to eat. No cooking was needed. It was thus perfect for after a typhoon, when the electricity could be out for weeks, if not months.

The durability of this kind of biscuit made it ideal food for sailors when ships lacked refrigeration. Thus they were called sea biscuits, ship biscuits, Navy biscuits, as well as many other names.

Those tin cans...

A common trait among our people was never to throw things out that can be used later. Such happened with the tin cans of biskucho . Many elders saved them because they were perfect for storage of many things, food or otherwise. I remember them making excellent containers for pån tosta (toasted bread rolls).


It only takes a few seconds' glance to see that the biskucho eat in the Marianas is Japanese, made by the Kaniya Company of Kofu, Japan.

Guam merchants (many of them Japanese themselves) were importing Japanese goods to Guam since the early part of the 1900s. Up in Saipan, the entire island was run by the Japanese, who transformed the island into an outpost of Japanese culture. The same can be said for Tinian and Luta.

So it is very possible that Japanese biskucho was being sold in our islands since the beginning of the 1900s. In Japan, however, biskucho (known as kanpan in Japanese), did not become well-known until 1937 when Japan's war with China forced the government to promote the sale of kanpan among the people, since the nation had to conserve food for the fighting soldiers. That's when the sale of kanpan hit the roof in Japan, and it became associated with the war effort and the people's participation in it.

Since then, kanpan has become Japan's disaster food. Whenever there is a bad typhoon or earthquake and normal food supplies are strained, relief efforts pass out huge quantities of kanpan to the people.

It was also distributed by the Americans to island people in need for food after the war. That's another way the biskucho became widespread among Pacific islanders.


The news from Japan, though, is that Kaniya's kanpan, or biskucho, may be a vanishing piece of food history. The tastes of younger Japanese are changing. People in Japan are switching to a new kind of biscuit which started in the 1980s called CalorieMate. Why? It is softer than kanpan. Kaniya is still baking biskucho and we're still buying them in the Marianas, but if sales of Kaniya's hard biscuits fall, the company may stop making them.

Even if every Chamorro in the world continued to buy Kaniya'a biskucho, and I doubt that would ever happen since even many younger Chamorros think that biskucho is man åmko' food (just for the elderly), would that be enough to save the biscuit from extinction?

The good news is that, even if the biscuit is no longer made, the ones already baked, as long as they stay dry, can last longer than you or I can!


How biskucho is made in Japan.

Friday, October 21, 2016



Absentee, no-show, truant

So now you can use a Chamorro word for the person who is usually a no-show in your life, or in life in general.

I first heard someone use the word fåttista in the early 1990s when she was describing someone who always promised to show up at social events, but most often never did.

The word is Spanish, but isn't used in Spain, according to the Spanish dictionary put out by the most prestigious Spanish language authority, the Royal Spanish Academy (Real Academia Española). The word is used in Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras. In those countries, faltista means someone who frequently is absent from school or work.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


If you owned land by the shore, how far into the water did your property go? How far into the ocean did your rights as owner extend?

According to Elias Sablan of Saipan, there was an "unwritten law" among Chamorros that your property rights went as far as the water line in between high and low tides.

I wonder if this was the case in the rest of the Marianas?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


According to an elderly lady who grew up in Hagåtña in the 1930s, there was a store in the capital city near her home which sold fresh milk. Cattle farmers would bring in the milk and the milk was sold in bottles at the store.

Across the milk store was the home of a family where all the adult women living there were large busted. It seemed to be a trait than ran in the family with the women.

The store had a wooden sign shaped like an arrow with the word leche painted on it, pointing down at the store, to show people traveling on that street that milk was sold there.

One day, when the store ran out of milk to sell, they discovered that someone pointed the arrow to the house across the street with the large-breasted women.

* An older woman, reading this post, confirms that near her house in pre-war Hagåtña was a place selling "mechanical milk."

Sunday, October 16, 2016



I never knew that bamboo came in two genders, male and female.

At least in Chamorro.

There are countless types of bamboo all over the world, but the Marianas only has one predominant variety, the Babusa vulgaris or "common bamboo," prevalent all over the world.

The thorny bamboo, as seen above, is called the piao låhe in Chamorro, or "male bamboo," on account of the protruding stems. They can also be called piao tituka, or "thorn bamboo."

The smooth bamboo, lacking prickly stems, is called piao palao'an, or "female bamboo, as seen in the picture below :


Both varieties, male and female, are useful and were used by our people, but the male bamboo rises taller (as high as 50 feet) and is harder. The male variety, therefore, was prized for projects needing stronger and more durable material.


Bamboo can be used in a hundred or more ways.

Beams, frames, floors, walls, partitions, ceilings, doors and windows. Bridges, ladders, fences, furniture, musical instruments, sports equipment, tool handles, fishing poles. Cups and drinking troughs. Our elders collected sap from coconut trees to make tuba into bamboo tubes.

Bamboo thrives in moist areas, such as along river banks. They can grow as rapidly as 3 inches a day, and fresh cut bamboo can take root just by being stuck in the ground.

The one negative thing about bamboo, but it is significant, is that the fallen dead leaves can form a perfect blanket for snakes to nest under. When you reach a grove of bamboo, be very careful!

Friday, October 14, 2016


In Chamorro, malamåña is worse than taklalo' (quick-tempered, easily angered, irascible).

Malamåña is to be "fierce, savage, ferocious, harsh, brutal, cruel." I have heard it most associated, by our mañaina, with the Japanese during the war.

It comes from two Spanish words, mala and maña.

Mala means "bad."

Maña, which I recently blogged on, means "skill, aptitude, talent."

The Spanish have a saying, "Más vale maña que fuerza."

It means that it is better to be sly (maña) than to be strong (fuerza). Brains over brawn. A guy might try, unsuccessfully, to break down a jammed door. But a clever person can use far less physical force to undo the jam.

To have mala maña (bad skill) means to be deceitful, tricky, cunning.

For whatever reason, some Latino musical groups call themselves Malamaña.

Among Chamorros, mala maña became our word malamåña and somehow we gave it a more intensely negative meaning. Not just "cunning" or "tricky" but downright cruel and ferocious.

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.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


There are at least half a dozen Chamorro dictionaries, both published and unpublished, from before World War II. Some were written by Spaniards, others by Americans, others by Germans and now we have evidence of one put together by a Japanese named D. Kikuchi.

It was published in Japan in 1915, just a year after the Japanese took over the Northern Marianas from the Germans. Kikuchi got to work right away, then, providing the new masters with a guide to Chamorro vocabulary.

It was 64 pages long, and just four by six inches in size. Not very thick of a book, I would say. So it wasn't a very extensive dictionary, but it wasn't just a short word list either.

The dictionary was published by a private commercial company, the Nanyo Boeki Kaisha (South Seas Trading Company) which dominated Saipan during the Japanese era. The NBK leased huge amounts of land and turned them into sugar cane fields. In those early days (1915), the NBK probably had to deal with Chamorros a lot more then than later, when Chamorros became Japanese speaking and a tiny minority in their own land. By 1935, for example, the population of Saipan was 95% non-Chamorro/Carolinian. Japanese, Koreans and Okinawans formed 95% of the island population. A Chamorro dictionary was not of much use by then.

The title of the dictionary was just as is seen at the top. Fino' Japones yan Chamorro. Japonés is the Spanish word for "Japanese," and the J is pronounced like the English H, as in Sinajaña and Joaquín. Chamorros said japonés for "Japanese" in those days. It was only later, under American influence, that Chamorro started to say Chapanis.

The problem is I have never seen a copy of it. I only know it existed because it is mentioned in another book dated 1918.

Perhaps someone in Japan or with Japan connections can search the various leading academic libraries in the government and in the universities of Japan to see if we can find a copy of it.

It is very beneficial to have all the dictionaries that ever existed, even those written out by hand. Sometimes we find an old Chamorro word, no longer used, in just one of six Chamorro dictionaries. If it weren't for that one dictionary that included the word, we would never have known otherwise that the word even existed.

Monday, October 10, 2016


Ana Aquiningoc Sablan (Berete) Iriarte
with her daughter Matilde
and grandchildren Francisco and Catalina


A branch of the Sablans are called familian Berete.


In my experience, Chamorro nicknames usually come in only two categories : the easily explained and the totally puzzling.

Examples of the easy ones are known Chamorro words like familian Chunge' (white haired) and familian Gualåfon (full moon). Some nicknames come from the first names of ancestors like familian Kaila (Micaela) and familian Sinda (Reducinda). Once you see the names of ancestors in these families, it isn't hard to see where the nickname comes from.

Still other families have nicknames derived from a surname associated with the family. The familian Kottes are so-known because at one time their middle name was Cortes (Cortes Torres) and another branch of the Torres are called Agilat because their middle name at one time was Aguilar (Aguilar Torres).

Then there are families whose nicknames come from Spanish words. So, if you are familiar with Spanish, you will understand the nickname rather easily. The familian Seboyas are named after onions (cebolla in Spanish) and the familian Katson are named after trousers (calzón in Spanish). You need to know some basic rules about how Chamorros modify the original Spanish pronunciation to get this, though.

When a Chamorro family nickname includes a letter that is not favored by the Chamorro language, such as the R in Berete, a good guess is that the name is foreign, that is, not Chamorro in origin. That means there's a good chance the foreign word is Spanish.

Some Spanish words are so obscure, though, that these nicknames take a while to decipher. One such example is Kueto. There is a Spanish last name Cueto, but, as far as we can tell, no Taitano was ever married to someone with the last name Cueto. Then, family oral tradition comes to the rescue, as it did with Kueto, because Carlos Taitano, a Kueto, told me that his family got this nickname because his grandfather liked a Spanish song whose title included the word Cueto. He heard this explanation from his elders.


Berete is one of these obscure Spanish words. It's not even Castilian (or standard) Spanish. You won't find berete in the Spanish dictionary.

If you exhaust all the Spanish dictionaries and never find the word you think might be Spanish, it sometimes pays to look up the word in dictionaries of other languages spoken in Spain.

One of these other languages is Galician (or Gallego). It is spoken in Galicia, a province in the northwest corner of Spain. Their language is somewhat similar to Portuguese.

This red-colored portion of Spain is called Galicia

In the Galician language, berete is a type of fish. In English, the fish is called a sea robin or gurnard. Here's what it looks like :

Now keep in mind that this is only a guess, but a guess with some backing. Many Chamorros knew many Spanish words, even words that were not common in most of Spain. There were some Spaniards from Galicia who lived on Guam, like some missionary priests. We even got our word for the farmer's hoe, the fusiños, from the Galician language of Spain, not the Spanish (or Castilian) language.

It is entirely possible that some Chamorro was given a nickname based on a Galician word for this fish. Why? That's almost impossible to answer, unless someone in the family heard the story from long ago.

But since we have no solid proof that the Berete family is so-named because of this Galician name for this kind of fish, we have to leave room for other possible explanations.

Thursday, October 6, 2016


In this new series called "Your American is showing," I want to point out how our American upbringing has influenced the way we attempt to spell in Chamorro.

Since the majority of Chamorro speakers were never taught to spell in Chamorro, many of them resort to their own mental resources deciding how to use letters to express the sounds in their heads, and those mental resources have been shaped by their use of the English language and spelling.

In other words, they hear Chamorro sounds but associate them with English spelling. Such is the case with the Chamorro word masea, which some spell masaya.


Masea in Chamorro means "even though," "although," "even if," "whichever" and similar ideas.

I believe it is a shortening of the Spanish phrase "más que sea," which is also said in Chamorro mås ke sea. That phrase, in both Spanish and Chamorro, can mean "although" and so on.

Some examples :

Mås ke sea håye. Whosoever.

Mås ke sea håfa. Whatsoever.

Masea ti un guaiya yo', lao hu guaiya hao. Even though you don't love me, but I love you.

Masea håye sinedda'-mo gi chalan, saluda gue' kon respeto. Whoever you meet on the road, greet with respect.

The phrase includes the Spanish subjunctive form of the verb ser (to be). We can translate this as the English "could be" or "might be."

Es posible que sea verdad. It is possible that it may be true.

So, mås ke sea can be translated as "that which can be."

Monday, October 3, 2016


"Died by the grace of God and helped by a bad surgeon."

Måña i echura asta la seputtura

The original Spanish wording is "Maña y hechura, hasta la sepultura."

Literally, it means "Skill and form until the grave."

The intended meaning is that a person is the way he is till death. His way of being, thinking, feeling and acting doesn't change. He will take it to the grave.

Måña is the aptitude of the person, what he or she is naturally good at, or likely to think and do with ease.

Echura is the person's outward form, his or her style of doing things, including attire, speech, demeanor.

When you meet someone after thirty years, and he or she is still the same in specific traits that single him or her out, one can say, "Måña i echura asta la seputtura."

Or, no matter how you try to change someone's way of thinking or way of behaving without success, one can use this phrase.

That's just the way he or she is and will always be, till the grave.