Decolonizing the Roads: A Eulogy for Unpaved Guåhan



Roads are often simplistically portrayed as links beneficial to all. In a colonial context, they are often used as weapons of segregation and Indigenous dispossession. Kiara Quichocho shares with us the impact that these roads have had on her grandmother and she develops a remarkably lucid vision of decolonization as a more complex endeavor than ‘mere’ anti-colonialism.

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The imprint of the U.S. military occupation (bases and roads) of Guåhan. / Map by Léopold Lambert & Kiara Quichocho (2021).

In my first semester of college at the University of Guam, I took an “Introduction to Sociology” course and studied the major sociological shifts in Guåhan. The island is known as Guam, but in this text I will use the Indigenous CHamoru (the Indigenous people of the Marianas Islands; Guam being the southernmost island of the archipelago) word Guåhan which translates to “we have.” One afternoon, my professor instructed the class to go home and ask an elder in our family, preferably a World War II survivor, what they thought the biggest change to the island was since their childhood. That day, I asked my nånan biha (CHamoru for “grandma”) for her opinion. After a few seconds of indifferent deliberation, she casually replied: “the roads.” Days later, I returned to class prepared with my nåna’s simple yet illuminating response, though I did not consider it illuminating at the time. My professor ended up forgetting about the assignment, so I never got to fully uncover the sociological significance behind it. However, as I navigated my college career and embarked in more intensive studies about Guåhan’s political and colonial history, I consistently encountered that conversation which my first-year university mind had not yet had the capacity to analyze. Now, with as much insight as the education and experiences of a 21-year-old, Indigenous, political science major can offer, I often busy myself with the challenge of deconstructing my nåna’s memory of Guåhan’s roads, and every time, end up discovering a new lesson (to add to the library of lessons) that her life has taught me. This is a rather condensed stroll through the curves of my inherited and learned narratives which have incessantly re-routed my path toward conceptualizing Guåhan’s decolonization; a trek to conceive something that doesn’t exist yet; a conflict between the exhilarating freedom of a blank map to sketch our futures and the constraining futility of those unwritten boundaries built by the spoils of colonization; the ultimate mental collision generated by the demand to rationalize “decolonization” in the most literal sense.

Through the spatial and temporal lens of my nåna’s lifetime as an Indigenous CHamoru World War II survivor and lancheru (CHamoru for “farmer/rancher”), I meander her memories of Guåhan and observe the ones with a will to be remembered in the absence of those stories meant to be laid to rest. I explore the less mainstream notions of decoloniality which, rather than affixes the term “decolonized” to any mere practice of Indigenous identity, acknowledges pre-colonial existences as those that no longer can be revived, but should be revered. I address Guåhan’s pre-World War II unpaved roads as an ancestor deserving of remembrance — a part of Guåhan literally buried by the weight of imported rock and foreign people. This is not to demean the necessity for paved roads or the lives of settlers; it is a eulogy for the landscapes before contemporary Guåhan and a call to use them to inspire a decolonized Guåhan by respecting their death, confronting their replacement, and now, conceptualizing their successors. How can we produce a decolonized Guåhan for our future, while respecting the normalized visibility of colonial life which our elders have so deeply internalized? I have observed that mainstream methods of decolonization attempt to heal the wounds of colonization by vehemently opposing it, incognizant of the need to let the irreparable traumas our elders have endured exist since an opposition to colonial life is an opposition to the only life they have known as well. Before attempting to narrate the remembered and recorded versions of pre-colonial Guåhan’s life, it is necessary to outline the intricacies of the U.S. territorial relationship and the events which birthed the psychological and political stratifications that incentivise its continued existence. Firstly, Guåhan is the southernmost island of the Mariana Islands. Though the CHamoru people are the Indigenous population of the entire archipelago, Guåhan is politically separated from the rest (the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, CNMI) since becoming a “possession” of the United States in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. Meanwhile, the Northern Mariana Islands were sold by Spain to Germany. Guåhan’s political development diverged from the CNMI as it endured military rule by the U.S. Navy, Japanese occupation during World War II, and U.S. administration once again following World War II. Though U.S. rule eventually resulted in a limited U.S. citizenship for the people of Guåhan, the road toward that relationship with their administrative power was ripe with uncertainty and limitations.

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Kiara Quichocho standing outside the District Court of Guam during the Fanohge March for CHamoru Self-Determination — Fanohge translates to “stand” in CHamoru.

In Memory of Unpaved Guåhan ///
My nåna, Teresita “Terri” Cruz Quichocho, was born on June 17, 1940, a little over a year before Japan invaded Guåhan at the height of World War II in the Pacific. She was born to a farming family who survived off the inherited lands of my tåta (CHamoru for “father,” but also used for “grandfather” or “great-grandfather” — as a child, I used to call my great-grandfather tåta) who owned a large piece of land in the central village of Barrigada, the village I was born and raised in. Though she was only a toddler during the Japanese occupation, she often recounts memories of the island that used to be. In an interview with a local news reporter, she was asked about her family’s livelihood as farmers following the war. She said, “we only farm for our usage though, we don’t sell it… we just share it with the rest of the family.” This was the Guåhan my nåna knew and adored; a natural, self-sustaining, and untainted place.

My nåna also remembers how Guåhan changed, how war changed it, and how it was never the same again. Prior to and immediately after the war, Guåhan relied on subsistence agriculture and fishing. Since property rights and a cash economy had not developed yet, the people survived and thrived through bartering and interdependence. This relationship of CHamoru people to their land is indicative of their place-based identity and ecological practices which champion awareness of one’s interdependence with their environment. This relationship was conceived by our ancestors’ relationship to Guåhan before Spanish, Japanese, and U.S. Navy occupation. Our ancestors’ Guåhan was clothed in dirt roads and family farms, embraced by untouched ocean, nurtured by its Indigenous people, and continued to live until it was stricken by the calamities of war and the subsequent necessity to live up to the standards of a North American territory. Through my studies, I’ve found that this is the lived narrative of many Indigenous populations under United States administration. Though Indigenous experiences are not at all synonymous, conceptualizing their plight toward a common administrative power is useful in optimizing solidarity and identifying common barriers to and/or hopes for their decolonization futures.

Now, Guåhan’s central villages are the most developed. Barrigada is urbanized, mainly because it holds two military bases and the island’s only public airport. Sometime after the war, my tåta was told his farmland where he pastured cows would be turned into a military base. He was also offered a small compensation for another portion of his land to be turned into Guåhan’s airport. Refusing was never an option. At this point, cooperation by the CHamoru people with Guåhan’s urbanization felt necessary given that U.S. citizenship was wanted but not yet given by the federal government. When asked about the land that was bought and taken for the airport and military, my nåna said, “we have about eleven hectares in there,” as she pointed to the airport gate in her garden, “and about four hectares across the street that belongs to my father.” Later asked if the lands were still accessible, she answered, “no we can’t, that’s federal government… you go in there and they’ll arrest you.” My family’s remaining property is also bordered by one of Guåhan’s main roads. On one side of our yard, cars speed past at all hours, while the other side is monitored constantly by airport police. Across the road is the large plot of land mentioned earlier which is now U.S. Navy property. Behind the tall sakåti (CHamoru for “sword grass”) is an area used for field training, which I did not discover until I joined the ROTC program at the University of Guam and realized during our field training exercise that I could see our houses through the grass.

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Terri Quichocho picking string beans from the fence in her backyard garden. This fence separates Terri’s land from Guam’s airport. / Photo by Kiara Quichocho (2019).

As war survivors, my tåta and nåna’s generations were vulnerable to the U.S. military, the federal government, and the prominent national security narrative they imposed to incentivise increased military presence, and consequently land taking and urbanization. The changes to Guåhan by institutions like the Department of Defense became necessary for CHamoru survival through those massive socio-economic, political, and cultural shifts from subsistence lifestyles to a cash economy. What began as a project to ensure the island’s security resulted in, now, four generations of removal from prime farmland and inherited lands, effectively obstructing the foundations of Guåhan’s Indigenous ecological practices. Without land, CHamoru people slowly transitioned from a society of sustainable land and sea cultivation, only catching and harvesting enough for their usage, bartering and sharing so all were provided for, to a society of consumption, relying on the importation of goods. To enable the land to breathe again would provide space for the rekindling of Indigenous relationships to the land and sea which foster ecological security.

In my nåna’s case, the conditions placed on her father which incentivised his “acceptance” of land-taking created a generational condition which called for the continuation of her family’s traditional farming practices with “leftover” property, within an import-reliant economy, and with recognition of her need to survive in an evolving Guåhan. When revisiting my conversation with my nåna about the biggest changes in Guåhan, I attempted to unpack her reasoning behind her answer, “the roads.” I then realized that her unique location and existence as a CHamoru and war survivor created a complex web of interests straddled by roads, literally. Her earliest memories of Guåhan were entangled with her family’s farming traditions, her father’s land, and the end of a brutal war. In this time, there were dirt roads, but none that prevented her family from sustaining themselves through farming. As a teenager and early adult, she remembered her father being given a check for his land and constantly reminding his family that he would rather have his land than money. In this time, paved roads were being built, demarcating the part of Guåhan she had left, and the parts that were once her’s. Through this, she continued farming, but with socio-economic conditions that prevented her from doing so for the purpose of sustenance. Now, as a manåmko’ (CHamoru for “elder”), she views Guåhan from the perspective of a lancheru confined by roads. She practices traditional farming with what land she has left, yet the roads which separate her both physically, ideologically, and politically from the land that is rightfully hers, are merely “the biggest change [she] has seen in Guåhan” in her lifetime.

Now, I confront the pursuit of “decolonization” with the Guåhan my nåna knew in mind, but with reservations about how to “revive” her. I mourn for that Guåhan. I’ve observed that the drive for our decolonial movement comes from a longing to meet her again; to somehow resuscitate the island that, though still lush and beautiful, has been mostly buried by paved roads and concrete structures. With that objective, I suppose decolonizing Guåhan would amount to dismantling those roads and structures which suffocate her. To rid the island of and drastically minimize the amount of urban development it has or is bound to endure would create the optimal physical condition for rebuilding pre-colonial Guåhan, however, I believe she would not look as my nåna remembers. Decolonization ought to be a process of conception and reincarnation, creating a new Guåhan inspired by its remembered versions. Though depaving roads and dismantling buildings is highly unlikely, awareness of how those developments have asphyxiated her prompt a certain urgency to conform our future projects to the land and its natural dimensions, leaving space for our people rather than confining them. ■