My grandmother's sister Ana Torres Reyes
with yours truly in 1966
My grandmother's sister, Auntie Ana, lived just next door to us.
She never had children of her own to raise; a story I will relate in a few minutes. But, because of that, I was more or less adopted by her, as well as by my grandmother and two other sisters of hers. Yes, quite the spoiled child.
One of the great things about all my older relatives, or mañaina, was that they all told me stories. Here are some of the things Auntie Ana told me about the war (1941-1944).
Japanese village names of Guam, or Omiya Jima (Great Shrine Island)
Auntie Ana's husband, Uncle Ben, was made soncho, or village chief, of Barrigada (called Haruta Mura in Japanese) during the war.
That was not a position anyone in their right mind wanted.
You were essentially the enforcer of Japanese demands on your own people if you were the soncho.
The soncho went out and told the people what the Japanese wanted. And it was the soncho who got punished if the people did not satisfy the Japanese. If the Japanese ordered ten bags of corn from the farmers, and the soncho only produced eight, it was the soncho, not the farmers, who usually got punished.
That is why, my aunt said, every morning when Uncle Ben would leave the house to begin his work day, she would begin her hours of anxiety and worry. Would Uncle Ben come home with bruises from punches or cuts from whippings? And even when Uncle Ben would come home alright, he would drink to soothe his anxieties, and Auntie Ana was always nervous about that.
So, needless to day, Auntie Ana was a ball of nerves every moment she was awake.
THE DEATH OF LITTLE VICENTE
Some wondered if her nerves and anxieties were part of the reason why she was not able to bear children (except one). She had numerous miscarriages. Of course, the Japanese Occupation lasted only two and a half years, so only a couple or several of them might be due to wartime conditions. Still, there must be some connection.
Her only child who lived for just one day was born during the war. He was sickly the moment he saw the light of day, but lived long enough to be baptized Vicente, the name of his father. There were only two priests on Guam during the Occupation, and one lived far away in Inarajan, so midwives (pattera) or others in the family usually did the baptizing especially in cases of risky births.
When little Vicente died after a day, they put his tiny body in a shoe box and buried him at the farm in Ungaguan, Barrigada where they lived, not far from the other relatives in our clan. No priest, no funeral rites. They just said their prayers. But, little Vicente died an angel, so there was no need for prayers for his soul, which instantly went to heaven. The prayers would have been for the consolation of the parents.
SEWING HIS CLOTHES
UNCLE BEN REYES AFTER THE WAR
And in better clothes than during the war
Auntie Ana was educated in a girls' finishing school in Manila in the 1920s and 30s. She was very good in English and became a school teacher on Guam. But she could also sew and cook. During the Occupation, however, fabric was scarce.
Auntie Ana took me one day to a room where she opened a kaohao, which is a wooden chest traditionally kept by Chamorro families. Important things are kept in a kaohao, like documents, bridal gowns, christening båta or gowns and the like.
Inside this kaohao were Uncle Ben's wartime clothing. Auntie Ana showed me the shirts and trousers which she repaired with her own hands, since new clothes could not be bought. It all looked so antique. I remember how there was no zipper, as they were not in vogue yet. Instead, a man's fly was buttoned, and not all the buttons matched in this case. The stitching seemed rudimentary, but strong. But this was in the 1970s, so 30+ years after the war, so the clothes looked like they could fall apart if handled in any way. I regret that after Auntie and Uncle died I did not look for the kaohao, which then disappeared. I'm usually the one who rescues antique items in the family.
SLAPPED BY THE JAPANESE
My grandmother's sister Rita
Vendor of distilled spirits
I got the distinct impression from Auntie Ana that she did not like the Japanese, due to her wartime experiences. She never said a word against them as a race, but, when she spoke about them, her face said it all.
One of the things she mentioned was the fact that a Japanese soldier could (and did) slap a Chamorro for the slightest of unintentional infractions.
For example, every Chamorro had to bow before any and all Japanese, no matter how low that Japanese person's status was. But if one bowed too low, it was taken as mockery because very low bows were reserved for the Emperor and the very elite. If one bowed only a tiny bit, that was considered an insult as well. One's bow had to match the status of the Japanese person perfectly.
So Auntie Ana's sister Rita, who never married and became the domestic superior of the family home, was once slapped by a Japanese who judged Rita's bow as defective in some way.
Auntie Rita, called Nina by all of us in the family, was also the family techa, or prayer leader for the family rosary and other devotions. A super strict Catholic, she nonetheless sold bootleg liquor during the war! Such were the exigencies of wartime occupation. Someone made the agi or åguayente (aguardiente in Spanish), and Nina sold it quietly to make money for the family. I wonder if Uncle Ben's liquor supply were somehow furnished by his sister-in-law!
FIRST GLANCE AT THE AMERICANS
American troops coming up the road
My most impressionable experience listening to Auntie Ana's war stories happened one afternoon while we were sitting next to the front door of her house. I must have been 15 or 16 years old.
She told me how the family was camped out in Talofofo, not Mañenggon as the majority of the central and northern Chamorro populaton was.
The Chamorros were all quietly desperate, for the rumor had been circulated that the Japanese were going to kill all the Chamorros before the Americans could liberate them and profit from Chamorro guidance in their battle against the Japanese.
But then one day the Japanese guards were all gone. No one knew what happened. And then, Auntie said, people remarked how they saw what look like American soldiers marching toward Talofofo. Minute by minute, the lines of human figures became more clear and distinct. Yes! They were Americans! And as Auntie Ana told me this, I saw tears flow from her eyes.
In that one instant, seeing American soldiers, hugging them, receiving little packets of food from them, hearing the cherished voices speaking in what was once forbidden English while under the Japanese, all her anxieties melted away. She felt safe again.
Liberation? Yes or no?
For Auntie Ana and her contemporaries, it was.
Life goes on and we have perennial issues to sort out. But, just as we like to have our own experiences respected, I wouldn't want to invalidate my auntie's tears.