Several years ago, Rlene Santos Steffy was called away from a golf course to sit in a government office with other members of the press. As a meticulous journalist, she pulled out her voice recorder to keep accurate notes. To her surprise, however, she was told to put it away. Everyone had agreed the meeting was "off the record," she was told.
"I almost laughed out loud," Rlene recalls. "I had to decide, am I going to sit there and be part of this charade or am I going to do what I've been trained to do, and get out of there because that was not a good thing? I put my recorder respectfully in my bag and I walked to the door."
To report truthfully, Rlene won't entertain secret meetings and anonymous sources. "I'm a lone ranger sometimes," she says. "But you know what? I have my integrity to deal with. And that to me is everything. There's a cost for that, and I'm willing to pay for it."
That's a glimpse of Rlene's backbone, nurtured by a father who raised her to be independent, and strengthened by a code of ethics she follows as a journalist. It's guided the 62-year-old through a career that spans four decades in every nook and cranny of Guam's media.
These days, Rlene isn't your typical journalist who reports on the latest happenings of the island. Instead, she works as a research associate for the University of Guam's Micronesia Area Research Center. And as an ethnographer/oral historian, she's catalogued thousands of interviews with Chamorro war survivors throughout the region and others to produce multiple critical documentaries. One of her latest projects, I Tinaotao Marianas (The Peopling of the Marianas), is entering another season on TV after a successful launch in 2014.
"When I identify myself, I continue to say that I am a journalist, first and foremost," she says. "My interest in all the work I do stems from that journalistic perspective. As the result of my eagerness and my desire to learn about yourself as people of the Marianas, I have been able to utilize the skills I use in the media since I started working at KUAM in 1978."
Raised on Guam, Rlene describes her upbringing as being Chamorro-centric with modern American ideals. Her father was the leader of the household who understood the power of literacy and encouraged his children to be critical thinkers who were proficient in English.
"My father didn't want us to be subject to abuse, violence, or dictates or because we were fearful of being approved of…He wanted us to question why we are doing things and to know we had the right to question things,” she reveals. “The most empowering word in the English language my parents taught us was 'No.' If it doesn't make you comfortable, if it's not something you want to do, if it's not right, the correct thing to do—say no at all costs."
Before putting that into practice in her career, she tested it early, rejecting her family's traditional Catholic beliefs. "It didn't resonate with me very well, and I had no real interest in religion as a child," she says. "At third grade, I just stopped going to confession, and I stopped going to church. I just told my parents I'm not going to go anymore. At a very young age we were encouraged to think for ourselves and decide for ourselves."
Religion didn't click for her until 1980 when she began to study the bible with the Jehovah's Witnesses. Scripture anchors her marriage to husband Bob Steffy and family life with her children and their children. In between researching future projects and conducting interviews, she gets to play grandma and babysit. But Mondays are reserved for door-to-door ministry, a place she uses a skill that's literally helped open doors.
"I quickly learned when I knocked on a Chamorro door, I could hear them," she says. "The drapes move or they'll start to shut the door when you get there. We'd walk up to the door and knock, and when I speak in English, nothing happens. I decided one day I'm going to speak Chamorro."
Just as many of her peers whose parents were war survivors, Rlene couldn't speak much of the language. She'd try anyway. "It would make them feel comfortable because I'm one of them," she says. "They'd slowly walk to the door and open it. I would share with them what I'm there for. Whether they open it further and get into a discussion, that's fine, that's all we're doing. We're just encouraging people to read the bible. But I found that I felt the need then to connect to my language."
She'd build on her skills with each visit, but proficiency didn't come until she began interviewing Chamorro war survivors in 2004. "At first it was very awkward, they knew I was struggling, but they never laughed at me," she remembers. "They waited for me to formulate it in my mind and articulate it to them."
Being the meticulous journalist that she is, she'd go over recordings and home in on words she didn't understand. With thousands of interviews done, Rlene evolved into a fluent speaker. "Now that my mom is 85, and now that my mom is beginning to forget, it is a valuable tool for me because I'm pulling her memories out in Chamorro of things that happened in the past," she says.
“The most empowering word in the English language my parents taught us was 'No.' If it doesn't make you comfortable, if it's not something you want to do, if it's not right, the correct thing to do—say no at all costs."