Friday, May 20, 2011

Speaking Impossibility

I often write that I love to collect “impossible things.” Some might call them miracles, moments that take your breath away, things that are so inspiring in the way they defy some expectation or some assumption. Impossibility is a very intriguing concept; it is a way of talking about something you can’t actually talk about. It is a way of attempting to put a face, a name on some fundamental glitch or gap in the human experience, something beyond our ability to comprehend or integrate safely into our consciousness. Impossibility is all about the things which cannot happen, but also about the things we can’t imagine happening. It is a realm of terror and fear, but also of things that inspire us to no end.

The Chamorro language is one place where we see regularly the tragic taking place, as the language becomes less and less spoken, yet also the miraculous, the impossible take place, as people work tirelessly to attempt to bring it back to health. In March I had the privilege of being a judge for the 8th Annual Chamorro Language Competition held at the University of Guam, and this was one such place where I was awed to see the impossible made possible, right before my eyes. What I witnessed there, ha gof pacha’ i korason-hu, it truly touched my heart. This event was attended by dozens of schools from across the Marianas Islands and featured students of all ages and ethnicities, not only speaking and singing in Chamorro, but also displaying it proudly (or sometimes shyly) to thousands of cheering family members. It was not an experience I’ll soon forget.

Although I am a fluent speaker of the Chamorro language, I only learned as an adult through speaking to my grandparents and taking classes at the University of Guam. Like most people in my generation, we have felt so deeply in our lives the pain of language loss and alienation, where we were not taught our native tongue as children. Many might argue that the Chamorro language is esta kumekematai, already close to dying, especially when we see very few young people speaking, using or even proud to know the language. For generations after World War II, the language was slowly stripped of most of its social value, and so we live in a Guam today, where relatively few people, young and old, truly feel that there is any value in learning or speaking Chamorro.

But this is why the Chamorro Language Competition is so important; because it is helping to re-instill value into the Chamorro language, which is part of the sacred heritage of these islands. At the event, you see thousands of children put their time, energy, their hearts and souls into learning to speak sometimes just a few sentences, or the lyrics to a song, or even entire speeches. They display their poems, songs and stories in front of their families and thousands of others in a crowded auditorium. To have so many people gathered together to celebrate the perpetuation of the Chamorro language and to have children compete and brandish their skills to all, is something that a generation ago was unfathomable. It was something that few could conceive of happening or would want to happen. It is so drastically different from just a few decades ago, where the idea of having a Chamorro Language Competition would have been derided and attacked by the community as handicapping our students and their ability to speak English properly. The impossible has happened right before our eyes. The flow of history which was once against the Chamorro language, that made it seem inevitable that it would die and be erased to make way for English, has been slowed and is reversing. We are now not only celebrating the language in word alone, but also through deeds such as this event.

What is most inspirational about this competition is that it is still in its early stages, and it is helping build the foundation for the eventual return of the Chamorro language. The value that it gives even for just that one day, of giving children and families a place where they can feel intense pride at using and hearing the Chamorro language, that can grow into so much more. Should this competition be held regularly, it can be the foundation of more events of the similar intent, providing a space for speaking and celebrating the language.

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