“Juanit” by Chris Perez Howard

Juanit, Chris Perez Howard (University of Guam Press, June 2024) Juanit, Chris Perez Howard (University of Guam Press, June 2024)

After much of the western world let go of its colonies in the years following World War II, the United States did the opposite in Guam: it not only re-occupied the island, but established a (massive) military base there. The culture in Guam is a melange of the legacy of Spanish colonialism (particularly seen in surnames), indigenous CHamoru (Chamorro) people, and American colonization interrupted by Japanese occupation during WWII. With a total population equivalent to that of a middling US city, it is perhaps not surprising that there has been a dearth of literature from the island. 

Yet with a new book set in Guam with CHamoru characters, Chris Perez Howard is setting about to change that. Juanit is the story of a biracial teenage girl set mainly during the years of America’s war in Vietnam and provides a unique look into CHamoru culture and how it’s changed due to American influence.

 

Juanit is the nickname of Juana Ulloa Lambert. Her father, Harold, arrives in Guam as a US Navy civilian in the early 1950s just after the 1950 US Organic Act of Guam that formally made the island a US territory and granted people from Guam US citizenship. Memories of the Japanese occupation are still fresh. CHamorus are grateful to the Americans for liberating them and there is hope at first that this new relationship will work well.

Harold meets his future wife Connie, short for Concepcion, when he’s invited by a local friend to a family party in a small inland community called Talo’fo’fo’. Not unlike the Philippines, most CHamorus have Spanish given and surnames.

Connie and Harold start dating; Harold is respectful of Connie’s CHamoru culture and her strict Catholicism, another Spanish legacy. When the couple decide to marry, Connie’s parents worry Harold will take Connie from Guam. Harold promises to remain in Guam and in return he’s allowed a Protestant Baptist wedding ceremony, not a Catholic one.

 

He made it clear he didn’t want a big wedding and that the pastor was a friend of his, so it meant a lot for him to marry them. To compensate, although Harold thought it was an unnecessary expense, the wedding reception was held at the family house in Talo’fo’fo’, where the couple was prominently displayed at the decorated head table, and the food was blessed by the village priest.

 

Within a year of their marriage, Juana is born and goes by the nickname Juanit. An idyllic childhood is upended when Connie is diagnosed with cancer; she dies within months of telling Juanit.

Harold is ill-prepared to take care of Juanit and ends up sending her to Connie’s parents. Juanit misses her mother terribly, but also feels abandoned. Out of the blue Harold announces he’s moving back to Southern California and will take eleven year-old Juanit with him.

 

Howard uses Juanit’s time in California to show how difficult it is for CHamoru to live in the greater United States. Juanit’s English is accented; she grows frustrated when her teachers can’t pronounce her name. And even though Guam is a US territory, her teachers and classmates know little to nothing about the island. Juanit’s life unravels even more when Harold marries a woman named Thelma, a divorced single mother who never takes to her new stepdaughter. Juanit suffers frequent abuse, yet is blamed and eventually sent back to Guam.

The Guam Juanit returns to is barely recognizable from the one she’d left the better part of a decade earlier. It’s now 1969 and American influence on the island is much more noticeable.

 

There were more paved roads, cars, streetlights, businesses, and houses. Even the village looked different. Her grandparents’ house no longer stood on the property. Rising in its place was Uncle Joe’s single-story concrete home. A lot of the fruit trees and plants were also gone. The Guam she remembered seemed now to have only been a dream. But when she saw the old breadfruit tree in the years, whose limbs she used to climb, and the colorful chickens roaming around it, she felt better.

 

Still, Juanit continues to struggle.

Juanit is a heart-wrenching coming of age tale set in a place which, despite being an American territory, most Americans are still unfamiliar with Juanit’s story can also be seen as an allegory for Guam and the many occupations that have beset the island.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.