What counts as “culture?” Is it simply the “original” culture, as we understand it, or should it include the cultural features introduced over time?

Many of the cultural innovations, of course, are the result of technological changes. Automobiles, electrical power lines, and instant communications have greatly altered the face of society here on Guam and everywhere else in the world. But there are other innovations that groups of immigrants bring with them and which sometimes become a standard cultural feature in their new home. Should we reckon this a cultural loss or a gain?

Very few Americans in the early 1800s would have even heard of St. Patrick. Who would have suspected that by the end of that century Saint Patrick's Day parades would become a big yearly event in most major American cities, along with the green beer and the ever-present shamrock? We have the heavy Irish migration in the midcentury to thank for all that. Irish were never known for their cuisine, but Italians certainly were. As Italians came to the U.S. in numbers, they brought their foods with them – spaghetti, lasagna and dozens of different pastas – all of which found their way onto the menu of the standard American restaurant, even as pizza became a fast-food favorite.

That parade of cultural innovations is even clearer in an island society like Guam’s. The original settlers here in the Marianas may have settled along the shoreline, lived in raised houses set on wood posts, and drawn stick-figure drawings on the walls of caves. But eventually a new group settled that built sturdier houses inland and introduced the limestone structures we call latte. By the time the Spanish came to stay, the islands had already undergone some major cultural changes.

With the Spanish, the cultural changes continued. The family retreat to the lanchu might have had its roots in earlier cultivation practices, but it became something of an institution after the arrival of the Spanish. The barbecues, the work together, and the family unity that this signified seems to have developed in time. Then, there was the custom of the family rosary upon the death of someone – another long tradition on the island. Cockfighting came from Mexico by way of the Philippines soon after the Spanish arrived, but it remained a favorite pastime nearly up to the present. Even the caribou cart – that favorite postcard image and symbol of old island life for much of the last century – was a late Spanish era introduction.

When the U.S. took control of the island in the beginning of the 20th century, the parade of changes continued. Local village authority and its importance was certainly not new to the island, but the mayor (or "commissioner”) may have gained new status when the formal title was bestowed on the head of the village. That, too, might have become a strong cultural image over the years.

If any of this sounds reasonable to you, we would have to conclude that culture changes over time. That much may be obvious, but even more important is that the images of that culture also change over time – a point that I tried to make in last week’s column.

Guam may not have a St. Patrick’s Day parade, but it does have many cultural features that have been introduced by migrants. They include not just cockfighting, but contemporary sports like basketball, football and soccer. The features also include the rosary for the dead and a host of other religious and social practices that are now a standard part of island life. As for the Guam cuisine, I leave that to others who have a better appreciation of the menu items and where they originated.

But to go back to our original question – Is all this cultural flux loss or gain?–I think my own answer is obvious from what has been described above. What’s yours?


Father Fran Hezel is a former director of the research-pastoral institute Micronesian Seminar. After serving as Jesuit mission superior in the Micronesian islands for six years, he continued heading the Micronesian Seminar until 2010.

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