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Poetry, Politics, & Why I am Not an Activist

By Craig Santos Perez

decolonize

i’ve never considered myself an activist; if anything, i think what i do is ‘literary activism’ as i try to raise awareness of the struggles of my people through my poetry. in 2007, i became involved with a chamoru activist group called famoksaiyan. at first, i held writing workshops during the group’s annual conferences. but in 2008…

i was part of a delegation of chamorus who testified at the annual meeting of the United Nations Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee), which focuses on the 16 remaining non-self governing territories. here is a picture i took right before i presented my testimony:

& here is an excerpt from my testimony:

October 7, 2008

Hafa Adai distinguished members of the United Nations Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee) and Chairman, H.E. Mr. Jorge Arguello,

My name is Craig Santos Perez and I’m a poet and native son of Guam. I represent the Guahan Indigenous Collective, a grassroots organization committed to keeping Chamoru culture alive through public education and artistic expression. I’m here to testify about the fangs of militarization and colonialism destroying the Chamoru people of Guam.

These fangs dig deep. During and immediately after World War Two, brown tree snakes invaded Guam as stowaways on U.S. naval cargo ships. By 1968, the snakes colonized the entire island, their population reaching a density of 13,000 per square mile. As a result, Guam’s seabirds, 10 of 13 endemic species of forest birds, 2 of 3 native mammals, and 6 of 10 native species of lizards have all gone extinct.

The U.S. plans to introduce—this time intentionally—a more familiar breed of predators to Guam: an estimated 19,000 military personnel and 20,000 of their dependants, along with numerous overseas businesses and 20,000 contract workers to support the military build-up. Add this to the 14,000 military personnel already on Guam, and that’s a combined total of 73,000—outnumbering the entire Chamoru population on Guam, which is roughly 62,900.

This hyper-militarization (continuing a long history of militarization on Guam), will severely devastate our environmental, social, physical and cultural health. Since World War II, military dumping and nuclear testing has contaminated the Pacific with PCBs and radiation. In addition, PCBs and other military toxic waste have choked the breath out of the largest barrier reef system of Guam, poisoning fish and fishing grounds. As recently as July of this year, the USS Houston, a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine home-ported on Guam, leaked trace amounts of radioactivity into our waters.

The violation doesn’t end on our shores; the military also occupies and infects our ancestral lands. Currently, the U.S. military occupies a third of the island, and the impending build-up has interrupted the return of federal excess lands to original land-owners and threatens to claim more lands for live fire training. Not only has the U.S. continued to deprive us of our right to land, but they also pollute these lands. Eighty contaminated military dumpsites still exist on Guam. The now civilian Ordot landfill (a former World War Two military dumpsite) contains 17 toxic chemicals. The same 17 pollutants are also found in the landfills located over the island’s aquifer at Andersen Air Force Base in northern Guam.

While the U.S. military erodes the integrity of our land, expectations from the military build-up have more than doubled real estate prices and tripled home costs. Even our ancestors are being affected: a $30 million expansion of the Guam Hotel Okura has excavated an ancient Chamoru cemetery. More than 300 ancestral remains have already been unearthed.

U.S. colonial presence has not only damaged our bodies of land and water, but it’s deteriorated our physical bodies as well. The military used Guam as a decontamination site during its nuclear testing in the 1970s, which resulted in massive radiation and agent orange and purple exposure. Toxic chemicals have snaked into our bloodstream, causing disproportionately high incidences of various kinds of cancer and neuro-degenerative diseases in the Chamoru people.

Like the last totot (Marianas Fruit-dove) on Guam being slowly swallowed by the brown tree snake, Chamorus are being disappeared. Diseases have killed most of our elders: only five percent of the island is over the age of 65. Young Chamorus are joining the U.S. military and dying in America’s wars at alarming rates. In 2005, four of the U.S. Army’s top twelve recruitment producers were based on Guam. In 2007, Guam ranked No. 1 for recruiting success in the Army National Guard’s assessment of 54 states and territories. In the current war on terror, our killed-in-action rate is now five times the US national average.

In terms of population, Chamorus constituted 45 percent of Guam’s population in 1980; in 1990, 43 percent; in 2000, 37 percent. In devastating contrast, the planned influx of non-Chamorus will increase Guam’s overall population by about 30 percent, causing a 20-year population growth over the next five years. History repeats itself: more foreign snakes, fewer native birds.

The U.S. Pentagon is currently conducting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)/Overseas Environmental Impact Statement (OEIS) for the build-up.

The door of the Second International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism in the 21st Century will not be open for much longer. And even though powerful snakes block our passage, we are willing to struggle for our rights—but we need your help.

The Fourth Committee must give top priority to the fulfillment of our inalienable right to self-determination, as affirmed by General Resolutions 1514 and 1541, and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

*

last thursday, famoksaiyan held a screening of a new documentary “The Insular Empire: America In the Mariana Islands,” and i was part of a discussion panel after the screening. i include below the speech i gave at this panel, which picks up from where my UN testimony left off:

Chapter One, Verse Three of the Book of Revelation reads: “Blessed are those who read aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is at hand.”

The original name of the book of Revelation, “Apokalypsis,” means to uncover or make manifest.

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 requires federal agencies to examine the environmental effects of their proposed actions. On behalf of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy prepared the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) to assess the potential environmental effects associated with the military buildup on Guam. Released last November, the DEIS is a nine-volume, 11,000-page document.

Since the plan for the military buildup was established in 2006, and re-affirmed by the Obama administration in 2009, much has be concealed from us. Now, the veil has been lifted and we see the true meaning of Apocalypse.

For too long, we have embraced the U.S. military as our liberators, our savior, our holy father. What we have been shown through the bleak vision of the biblical DEIS is that the U.S. military is a devil in uniform, tempting us with false promises of wealth and prosperity.

These devils are also in the details. According to the DEIS, the height of the buildup will bring more than 80,000 new residents to Guam: 8,600 Marines, their 9,000 dependents, 7,000 transient Navy personnel, 600-1,000 Army personnel, and 20,000 foreign workers. This will increase Guam’s overall population by about 30 percent, causing a 20-year population growth over the next five years.

Like the invasive brown tree snakes that colonized Guam’s environment and decimated our native bird population, and like the invasive coconut rhinocerous beetle that is currently destroying our trees, the invasive human species of the U.S. military will only lead to further environmental and cultural devastation.

According to the DEIS, the military will take at least 2,300 more acres of land. The limestone forest that stretches from Marbo Caves to Pagat Caves will be used as a firing and bombing range. Mount Humuyung Manglu, where thousands of island residents pilgrimage every year on Good Friday, will also be used as a firing range. In addition, the construction of permanent military facilities and infrastructure will desecrate ancient burial sites, eliminate hundreds of acres of jungle and medicinal plants, and deny access to sacred sites and fishing grounds. Construction at Finegayan will decimate the endangered ifit trees—Guam’s official tree used for timber and crafts—and remove dukduk trees, traditionally used by canoe builders. Four- and two- lane roads in the north will be widened to six- and seven-lane highways, removing jungle for road work and to house many of the 80,000 new people.

According to the DEIS, the construction of a deep-draft wharf in Apra harbor for the passage of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, which will bring 5,600 additional people to Guam while ported 63 days a year—will rip 2.3 million square feet of living coral reef from the ocean floor. The damselfish, clownfish and butterfly fish—all attached to their territory in Apra harbor—will die. So will the 6-foot blue elephant ear sponges that brighten the coral. The birthing area for scalloped hammerhead sharks will be disrupted: they give birth directly in the carriers’ path into the wharf. The green sea turtle, Hawksbill sea turtle and Spinner dolphin—all protected by federal law—will be killed. The dredging will also destroy a mangrove forest.

According to the DEIS, The total amount of hazardous waste produced by the increased military presence will equal 8 tons per year. Add that to the eighty contaminated military dumpsites that still exist on Guam, there is no doubt that the abnormally high cancer rates among Chamorros will continue as our exposure to radiation and other toxins continues.

While destroying our land and water, the military buildup will erode our social systems. According to the DEIS, there will be a twenty percent enrollment increase in the civilian public schools, yet no supplemental funding is being provided to prepare the already struggling public schools for such an influx. Additionally, health care and social services will be overrun.

According to the DEIS, the surge of Marines and laborers will lead to an increase in crime, fights, alcoholism, drugs, rape and prostitution. One reason why Okinawans have protested for so long to get rid of the U.S. military is that more than 5,000 military crimes against the Okinawan people have been reported since 1972, including rape and sexual assault; this does not include the thousands of crimes against women that remain unreported. Do we want a 12-year old Chamorro girl to be kidnapped and gang-raped by three U.S. servicemen, which is what happened in Okinawa in 1995. Do we want a 14-year old Chamorro girl kidnapped outside an ice cream parlor and raped by a Marine, which is what happened in 2008? Do you want these sexual predators snaking through our island?

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Japan last year to re-affirm the plans for the military buildup, my hope that the Obama administration would stop this buildup was lost. I happened to be in San Diego at the time, where I visited their famous zoo. As I walked through the gates, the first cage I approached shockingly housed the ko’ko’ bird, or Guam Rail, a virtually flightless bird that used to populate Guam before the brown tree snakes came. I tried to call out to the bird, but it stayed hidden in the shrubbery of its cage. The ko’ko had no impact statement, no warning of its tragic future.

The U.S. military tried to bury us under 11,000 pages of apocalypse, hoping we would drown in a sea of text. But they didn’t know that even though the ko’ko’ couldn’t fly, it could dive deep and use its wings to swim through water. And we too have dove into the dark depths of the DEIS, and we have risen with new wings.

Instead of the DEIS marking the end of our people, it has ignited our strength and united so many of us. Despite being caged by colonialism and militarization for so long, we are rising up. We are Guahan. When we do finally achieve sovereignty, we will look back at this time as a pivotal point towards our decolonization. We reject the future the military plans to cage us in. The voice of a decolonized Guahan has become too strong.

The phrase “fatal impact” was once invoked to describe what would happen to indigenous peoples who came into contact with Europeans: we would be doomed to extinction. But our indigenous brothers and sisters continue to survive and struggle, flourish and fight. The Native American poet, Joy Harjo, once wrote: “No story or song will translate the full impact of falling, or the inverse power of rising up. Of rising up.”

As a Chamorro in the diaspora, I’ve been inspired by my Chamorro brothers and sisters on island—from so many different walks of life—who are organizing, mobilizing, and protesting against the buildup. I’ve been inspired watching video clips on YouTube of poets, professors, mothers, fathers, youth, veterans, military family members, senators, boonie stompers, drag racers, grandmothers and grandfathers testifying at the DEIS hearings throughout the island.

In many of these testimonies, we witness a moment when the speaker’s voice breaks. It’s that moment right after the first few words are spoken, when the speaker struggles to hold back their tears. This is not a moment of weakness; this is a moment of empowerment. Many people who have never spoken up before—who never had a public voice—have been compelled to speak. If we listen closely, we can hear our ancestors’ voices breaking through the silencing history of oppression to rise up on the waves of our own voices as we rise to protect and reclaim our island and our people.

The DEIS has opened our eyes, has revealed one endangered island, one colonized vision, one dark future. We can’t seek to “stretch out, spread out” the military buildup as it will only stretch out and spread out our freedom. We can’t ask President Obama to create a “truly beneficial buildup” because any buildup will continue to breakdown our homeland.

The DEIS has opened our eyes, has revealed our voices rising to shape another future: one island free from the military, one vision of sovereignty, one decolonized future.

*

Comments (19)

  • On February 24, 2010 at 11:29 am Wendy Babiak wrote:

    Powerful! More power to you, Craig. Here’s hoping your words bear fruit.

    • On February 24, 2010 at 3:04 pm pam lu wrote:

      Hear hear. This is good work you’re doing, Craig. More power to you and your activist group(s).

  • On February 24, 2010 at 1:41 pm Koohan Paik wrote:

    Hi Craig,

    UN testimony. Panel speaker at “Insular Empire” … You seem like an activist to me!

  • On February 24, 2010 at 10:33 pm Linda Rodriguez wrote:

    Bravo, Craig! Let us know how we can help with this effort.

  • On February 25, 2010 at 2:53 pm j. wrote:

    thank you craig. (some non-activist you are.)

    this is a good reminder to me that, simply put, there is nowhere to hide. not long ago we could say “oh i don’t agree with anything that’s going on, so i’m going to live in a remote area (guam sounds nice) and live out my days away from this devastation.”

    but farmed fish escape and mate with wild ones.

    and if there is no place to hide it means we need to willfully engage our dark places, inside and out.

  • On February 25, 2010 at 9:23 pm Jerry Bolick wrote:

    You set the standard for the engaged non-activist: commitment and integrity, the drive to move beyond political agendas, toward genuine human concern.

    With palms together…

  • On February 25, 2010 at 9:48 pm Lucas M. Rivera wrote:

    Craig,

    With all due respect: what does this have to do with poetry? I would like to know how you combine (if that is an accurate term) these concerns and analytics to your process of writing. These are certainly emblematic statements of a politically embedded individual but I don’t see the poetics of the matter.

    Sincerely, Lucas M. Rivera

    • On February 26, 2010 at 2:08 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

      Whether and how the poet should, ought to, is obliged to, or had better not engage, in the sense of meshing one’s gears with a larger historical process, goes to the root of the largest poetic debate of the last century, and I’m grateful to Craig for rearing its ugly head again.

      Questions of engagement divided Octavio Paz from Ernesto Cardenal, Pablo Neruda from Vicente Huidobro, today’s great Mexican poets (David Huerta) from the great Chicano poets (Juan felipe Herrera), Robert Duncan from Jack Spicer.

      The great Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas (b. 1917), whom I translate (From the Lightning, Green Integer, 2008), took me to his summer cabin in the foothills of the Andes above the Río Renegado a few years ago. The eighty-something poet and I went wading down in the stream canyon. There was an unsightly eucalyptus branch blocking the current. Together we wrestled the muddy, dripping thing on shore. “!Eso sí es lo que me gusta!” cackled the poet. “That’s what I like! ¡La poesía impura! “Impure poetry!”

    • On March 5, 2010 at 1:23 am Vanessa Warheit wrote:

      I’m no academic (or activist – put me in the same camp as Craig I guess)… but listening to Craig’s speech after my film screening, I was truly, deeply moved. Not just by the content of what he was saying, but by the way that he said it. Craig’s command of the English language (and how sadly ironic is that, to have him using the colonialist’s language so beautifully) builds meaning in layers, infusing what could be simple political statements with beauty and magic to make them appeal not only to the intellect but to the heart and the soul. That, to me, is poetry. (Maybe you just had to be there.)

      • On March 5, 2010 at 10:52 pm Henry Gould wrote:

        Actually, it’s name is “rhetoric.” & rhetoric is indeed a fine art, which Craig seems to have mastered. This is not meant as any kind of slur or dismissal of Craig’s political or ethical values or commitment. I just wouldn’t call it poetry.

        • On March 5, 2010 at 10:55 pm Henry Gould wrote:

          p.s., typo : shd read “its name is rhetoric”

        • On March 9, 2010 at 3:40 pm Colin Ward wrote:

          The only thing more tragicomic than poets denying the death of poetry is their complaints about difficulty in finding jobs teaching it–as if these two facts weren’t causally connected.

          -o-

    • On March 9, 2010 at 5:53 am Lawerence Duponcheel wrote:

      Poetry is Dead, My Friend. Our words and thoughts have been consumed and replaced with nightmares, day-mares, and sometimes tears. We were raised on Cold War Propoganda and now we are made to live out the Nixon doctrine, all the while Nukes pointed at our heads and awaiting the inevitable (a large Militay build-up). All people who value their freedom as Americans (and Democracy as a whole) should respect the sacrifices the people of the Marianas have made, and continue to make in order to protect their freedom. Meanwhile, our pentagon is not even secure. This build-up is stupid and unnecessary. Our people are the endangered species. War Sucks!, Soldiers are kool! Biba Marianas!
      Dankulu na Si Yuus Maase Craig, Lawerence Duponcheel

      • On March 9, 2010 at 12:48 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

        ya, ya, ya, poetry is dead. it has to die. and keep dying, to be renewed. and thank god it keeps dying. when it stops dying we’re in trouble…

  • On February 26, 2010 at 1:29 pm pam lu wrote:

    On the other hand, I don’t know how parsing through & responding to an 11,000-page bureaucratic document that details the logistics for an impending occupation of one’s home does not qualify, in the larger sense of alert consciousness that underpins “culture,” as a poetics.

    While reading Bhanu Kapil’s personal blog, I came across the following quoted passage which I feel like reposting here b/c it offers another take on the poetry vs. politics (i.e., everything else) discussion that’s been happening throughout the threads here. The passage is taken from Forthcoming, by Jalal Toufic (the highlights are my own):

    In countries such as Bosnia, Lebanon, or Rwanda, that have suffered a brutal “civil”-war, one encounters myriad cases of traumatized survivors. Many of these survivors seek psychiatric treatment to regain a cathexis of the world, including of tradition and culture in general. But that subjective working through cannot on its own succeed in remedying the withdrawal of tradition, for that withdrawal is not a subjective symptom, whether individual or collective, and therefore cannot be fully addressed by psychiatrists or psychoanalysts, but demands the resurrecting efforts of writers, artists, and thinkers. Without the latter’s contribution, either the psychiatric treatment fails, or else though the patient may leave ostensibly healthy, he or she soon discovers that tradition and art are still withdrawn.

  • On February 26, 2010 at 2:35 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS

    Under the golden canopy of those noble words – “culture”, “poetry”, “poetics” – we are empowered to talk about EVERYTHING UNDER THE SUN. & the canopy fills up, & we talk about everything under the sun : everything except poetry-in-itself. & poor little Poetry gets crowded over to the edge of the tent, & then finally out the door… She’s become a mere stand-in, nothing In Herself – only a synonym for “everything under the sun.” Because Poetry-in-Itself, under this canopy of ours, is the Only Taboo. “There’s no such thing,” the Hybrids shout.

    But there’s another (possibly happy) ending to this tale : little Poetry the Refugee makes her way over to the actual Printed Page of POETRY MAGAZINE! & there finds refuge… while the rest of us, under the tent, discover we are just a mirage – a walky-talky advertisement for her glorious Publication!

    & I hear the ghosts of Harriet Monroe, & Ruth “Circe” Lilly, having their latest laugh…

  • On February 26, 2010 at 2:58 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    It being nothing more or less than a mode of communication, poetry is never about what it’s about.

    -o-

    “Is about as insane
    As those who wave lanterns
    At runaway trains”

    – John Stewart, “Runaway Trains”

    • On February 26, 2010 at 3:06 pm Henry Gould wrote:

      Poetry communicates itself. It’s one of the plastic arts.

      Everything else is the appetizer, or dessert, or utensils, or menu. You want the full meal. Don’t forget the candles.

  • On February 27, 2010 at 3:32 am Sean Labrador y Manzano wrote:

    Craig,
    I remember those brown snakes. They were in the bushes where I lived. Meaning, the perimeter of the house. My neighbor macheted a snake after I chased it into the bushes. Yes, I was in fifth grade and chasing a snake I knew wasn’t supposed to be there. And of course we had talked about why I was living in Guam in the first place–my father was in the Navy. Not seemingly destructive, there were overwhelming populations of helix snails and frogs. Meaning despite best efforts to eradicate the brown snake, and its supposed lack of primary food source (flightless birds), the snakes were well fed. Anyways, for anyone interested in appreciating the population density of say Naval Air Station Agat do a Google Earth search. When I lived there military housing could easily rival any suburban development with lots of open space. Now with the transfer of troops from Okinawa and Japan, and the families–you have to worry about the open space. The irony of military bases is the acres and acres of untouched and unused open space–often where endangered species thrive. With the help of Google Earth, I have seen my former home, its been razed, in favor for maximum density. And sadly I can’t tell if the open space that was near my home has been flattened for additional housing. If base restructuring cannot be stopped, then at least defend the open spaces found on military bases. FYI–this is why I vote NO on every development plan offered to voters of Alameda in regards to how to commercialize and residentialize the former Naval Base. There are at least three endangered species that call the former Naval Base home. See you around CAL. Wish I had seen you read at UCSC.


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 by Craig Santos Perez.