Touching Lives through Tradition

May 23, 2017 Lacee A.C. Martinez


IT HAPPENS ONCE A WEEK at the Sagan Måmi day center in Tamuning. Traditional guåfak woven mats are rolled out and Guam Behavioral Health and Wellness outpatient consumers gather in a circle. On the mat they sit, stand, and chant songs in Chamorro.

Terilynn Francisco, a psychiatric social worker in the adult counseling program, runs the Chamorro Chant Therapy group, one of several others she leads for the department. With its Chamorro-based curriculum, Chamorro Chant Therapy stands out from its western-based counterparts.

It's a program Francisco built from the ground up, breaking barriers between western models of therapy and traditional values held by consumers. "There's been a huge movement in the social work profession and in social services overall for more culturally competent programs because culture is a huge part of a person's recovery. Culture is a huge part of our lives; behaviors are dictated by value systems and beliefs. This plays a huge role in how people understand and interpret mental illness," she explained.

Francisco, too, is someone who identifies with the benefits of chant. She has committed 10 years of her life as a principal chanter with the I Fanlalai’an Oral History Project, a traditional chant reconstruction and research group. It was a means to learn more about traditional Chamorro culture and ultimately contribute to the movement of cultural perpetuation. “Professionally I’m a social worker, then I found therapy. That’s how I merged it at first. Chanting is my own healing for intergenerational trauma experienced as a Chamorro woman,” she added.

After four years working within mental health treatment she moved on to developing chant therapy. She launched a pilot program and continuously studied western therapy treatment models and Chamorro cultural value systems. She even traveled to New Zealand, and attended a conference where she researched first-hand how other countries with indigenous populations integrate culturally based programs into their western institutions and practice settings. "I really had to reflect on my own values as a Chamorro woman, and how to incorporate that into this curriculum. An example is chenchule', reciprocity. If I wanted to get consumers to invest in this new treatment model, what was I willing to invest in myself so there's more of this spirit of inafa'maolek, togetherness, and trust? Chenchule' is about being part of a social system of trust,” Francisco said.

Applying chenchule' is one example of the need to break the barriers between the western system of practices and traditional values. Accepting gifts are standard examples of crossing boundaries within the western profession. "These things don't really work for Chamorros because of chenchule'. If you ask someone to come in and sit with you for six sessions of psycho education, how to live their lives, what's happening to their bodies, they're going to want to give back to you in some way. You have consumers who want to give you mangoes or bonelos manglo because there's this need to reciprocate and have this kind of connection. You receive it and share with your colleagues so you're not breaking your therapeutic alliance by rejecting them," Francisco expounded.

The program has a no-exclusion criterion, as long as participants are outpatient consumers at GBHWC. So it often draws others of different cultures, despite the chants being sung in the Chamorro language.

"There's space where they can share, and I have Korean consumers who will sing Korean lullabies. I have other feedback from a Filipino consumer who stated she was born and raised on Guam, and this is her only opportunity to learn chants in Chamorro. It's really an open space of healing and connection."

Music, the second component of the program, is what helps bridge the gap between the cultures. "There's space where they can share, and I have Korean consumers who will sing Korean lullabies. I have other feedback from a Filipino consumer who stated she was born and raised on Guam, and this is her only opportunity to learn chants in Chamorro. It's really an open space of healing and connection," Francisco said.

Chanting, showing support for each other, and even performing at GBHWC events help to build self-esteem within participants. "They've also commented on what an impact it's made evoking memories they have from old caregivers or from their parents and grandparents. They really attach themselves to chants about families like 'Nånan Nanå-Hu,' a chant honoring our mothers and our mother's mother,” she added. The program has gained so much traction that a separate cycle has been added for day-treatment consumers at GBHWC in Tamuning.

Despite having a mere two years of government service under her belt, Francisco nabbed GBHWC's 2016 Employee of the Year award, as well as the Government of Guam's 2016 Merit Cup. And in March, the National Association of Social Workers, Guam Chapter honored her as the Social Worker of the Year.

"Western treatment services and cultural practices are very challenging things to fully integrate together,” Francisco mused. “I didn't realize this is something that would be fully accepted and supported by the overall community, not just social services, but by other professionals. For myself, I didn't realize what would be the impact when I first started. Running it for a year and a half now, seeing improvements in consumer social supports, in consumer overall improvement in symptomology, and really, the community's general interest in the program really shows the need our people have for these types of culturally based services," she concluded.


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About the Author

Lacee A.C. Martinez

Guam born and raised, this contributor has an affinity for island life, people, food and culture. Got a story idea? Email her at

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