Defining Chamorro

December 13, 2016 Amanda Pampuro

I go through life being honest. Most people put up a façade, but I could never do that,” said Leonard Iriarte, CAHA Master of Chamorro Chant and cultural savant. “We always get into trouble because we question others’ works, even our brethren, [but] our organization exists to assist the community to get close to their heritage, and that requires an honest approach to all things we do.”

An energetic man who rolls his own cigarettes, savors a good dark beer poured down the side of a glass, Iriarte speaks a little bit of every language he can, and as a fafa’nå’gue, loves sharing his knowledge with others.

“I feel most inspired on my own land, gardening, or in Hagåtña because I know so much about what happened there,” he said. “I’m inspired by sitting across from an incredible mind, someone I can
learn from.”

In 2014 Iriarte was presented the Guam Masters Award Certificate for his efforts to preserve the Chamorro culture

The son of Juan Leon Guerrero Iriarte, the younger Iriarte spent much of his youth moving around Native American reservations, spending time with Navajo, Lenape, Clamath, and Lakota tribes. At a young age, he learned that indigenous people have specific rights and unique spirits. Thinking he had a pretty firm grip on culture, he attended Festival of Pacific Arts as a teenager, then hosted by New Zealand, and remembered, “I realized how little I knew.”

Surrounded by the vibrant traditions of other Pacific cultures, Iriarte saw for the first time in his life what was missing from the Chamorro canon, and that included performance art. “After that, I took a 28-year hiatus from FestPac,” he said. “I wanted to return with my culture.”

Since founding the independent I Fanlalai’an Oral History project, Iriarte has  represented Guam at the 2004 FestPac in Palau and 2008 festival in Samoa.

“I was interested in Anthropology and the work of Louis Leaky. Actually, it was Louis and May Leaky—he worked with his wife—and I always thought it was great to work with the woman you love,” said Iriarte, who owns the Chamorro daycare Sagan Fina’nå’guen Fino’ with his wife. “My first exposure to the written [Chamorro] word was my dad’s writing. To this day, when I compose, I prefer to compose in Chamorro. It feels more complete that way.”

With the I Fanlalai’an Research Working Group, Iriarte continues his research into history, Austronesian language, and Pacific culture to find what is Chamorro.

Asked what is authentically Chamorro, he said, “Something authentic is body percussion, so we don’t use instrumentation in our chants. What is authentic? The colors black and yellow and red. What is authentic? The poetry of Chamorro chants.

“At the very least we succeeded in defining what is ethnically and culturally ours,” he continued. “We supplement what we know about ancient Chamorros with what we know about other Micronesian cultures and the modern Chamorro people, who are not so different from their ancestors."

Additionally, I Fanlalai’an has resurrected the ceremonial act of blessing places and events with chants. Without a hint of irony, the group calls upon the spirits to bless everything from archeological dig sites to art shows, groundbreakings, and pizza parlor openings. After all, a culture adapts to the needs of a people, Iriarte said. “You could never preserve things as they are; it’s not realistic to think that way.”

He added, “I think the greatest barrier is availability of information to the community, dispensation of analysis. Our perception of ourselves is changing…Cultural development and the arts should grow in an organic way, if they are to benefit the community.

“We have to teach our students to be critical about our community, our politicians, our religious leaders,” he stressed.

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