Guam: What it means to be from a US territory

Many people on Guam, and in other US territories, consider themselves second-class citizens. 

They can’t vote for the president and the one representative each territory is given in Congress also has no voting power, even though most people living in the territories are US citizens, with many also serving in the US military. 

“Most members of Congress, they couldn’t find Guam on a map and they don’t want to because it’s completely off their radar,” Anne Perez Hattori, a Chamorro History Professor at the University of Guam, tells AJ+. 

The indigenous Chamorro people in Guam, located in the Western Pacific, have had their traditional practices stripped away from them over the hundreds of years that they’ve been colonised by the Spanish, occupied by the Japanese and militarised by the Americans.

In this series of Untold America, AJ+ travels more than 9,000km (about 5,592 miles) from California to Guam to examine the island’s traumatic past, and what it really means to be from a US territory.

How the US territory of Guam became a US territory

In Part 1, AJ+ looks into Guam’s history, speaking to Hattori, who explains that due to a 1901 US Supreme Court decision, people living in the US territories don’t have full constitutional rights, even if they are US citizens.

“We’re reliant upon US Congress to determine our rights, and US Congress, it’s this huge body. We don’t have a vote there, so we don’t have bargaining power,” Hattori says.

AJ+ also speaks to survivors of Japanese occupation.

The Chamorro people suffered many abuses under Japanese control. Jesusa “Susie” Arcero was only 11 years old when the Japanese took over Guam in 1941. She explains how she and many other women were assaulted by Japanese soldiers during the three years they controlled the island.

When the US returned to the island at the end of World War II, Susie says many were relieved, resulting in a generation of patriotism towards the US.

But according to the Chamorro people, they’ve also suffered at the hands of the Americans. Antonio Artero Sablan, a Chamorro landowner, says he was repeatedly held at gunpoint by the US military when he would try to enter his family’s land, which was seized by the military to become part of the Andersen Air Force Base. He was eventually given access to the land after staging a series of protests.

Should US territories be independent?

In Part 2, AJ+ speaks to Rodney Cruz, who joined the military when he was 18 years old.

He served two tours in Iraq and suffers from depression.

“Not being able to vote for president is, it’s like a piece of me is missing,” Cruz says, describing what it’s like to not have a say in who the president will be, especially after witnessing death on the battlefield, picking up “the body parts of American soldiers and being diagnosed with PTSD”.

In this episode, AJ+ also meets Chamorro activists who are fed up and consider Guam to be a US colony.

Why is SPAM so popular in Guam?

In Part 3, AJ+ examines the impact of Guam’s dependency on imported and processed foods like the canned cooked meat, SPAM.

The rate of diabetes on Guam is twice as high as the rest of the US, and in 2014, half of the deaths on the island were due to heart disease and cancer.

AJ+ speaks to Franceska De Oro and Hila’an San Nicolas, who are both Chamorro, and are speaking out about the health effects of processed foods on social media and are attempting to live a locally sustainable lifestyle.

What does it mean to be indigenous and from a US territory?

Finally, in Part 4, AJ+ asks people on Guam about the unique experience of being indigenous Chamorro and from a US territory.

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