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12 23Sat04192014

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Back Letter to the Editor The promise of latte stones

The promise of latte stones

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OUR ancestors built some of their houses upon rows of stone structures known as latte, composed of a haligi (pillar) and a tasa (capstone).

This architectural innovation protected the house from floods and pests. If the latte were tall enough, work could be performed beneath the house. Sometimes, the dead were buried beneath the house. Latte stones anchored the house to the land, to the familial creation of Puntan and Fu'una. Thus, each latte stone reflects Fu'a rock.

The "Latte Period" of Chamoru history lasted from around 800 AD to 1521 AD. Many latte stones constructed before Spanish colonialism remain today. The ancient village of Me'pu, now within the confines of Naval Magazine, contains many latte stones. Civilians can visit during the Fena Massacre Memorial Ceremony, when the Navy allows civilians to enter the base and memorialize those who died at the site during the Japanese military occupation of World War II.

To many, latte stones symbolize Chamoru ingenuity, perseverance, and strength. The latte stone image appears on bus stops, souvenirs, postcards, jewelry, government documents, license plates, tattoos, and even on buildings. Like other Chamorus, I feel a sense of pride when I see latte stones and their representations, both at home and in the diaspora.

However, latte stones also symbolize something else to me: houselessness.

Guåhan's homeownership ratio among locals is one of the lowest in the U.S. – about 50 percent. The military buildup will amplify this state of houselessness. The buildup will bring an influx of renters and homebuyers who receive federal housing allowances (ranging from $1,900 to $2,700 per month, depending on one's rank) in addition to an allowance for utilities and maintenance (around $1,200 per month). Military personnel will also have access to special home purchase loans. The average military allowance exceeds the current average rental and mortgage rates on Guåhan. The housing and rental markets respond by raising prices to match these allowances. In 2012, military housing allowances will go up an overall average of 2 percent.

How can local civilians compete with those armed with federal housing allowances? Recently, Public Law 31-166, the "First-Time Home Owner Assistance Program Act," was signed into law on Guåhan, which would provide financial assistance (around 4 percent) towards the construction or purchase of a home that costs less than $250,000. While I applaud this bill and Sen. Pangelinan's continuous efforts to support the people of Guåhan, the military buildup will create a housing situation in which there will not be any homes that cost less than $250,000.

A recent article in the Hawai'i Star Advertiser noted Honolulu is one of the least affordable cities in which to rent or own a home. Many "tent and tarp cities" have sprung up in parks, on city sidewalks, and on beaches here in Hawai'i. Some of these houseless people have jobs but simply can't afford the military-inflated rent. Many landless Hawaiians, like landless Chamorus, are being economically coerced to leave their homelands in search of affordable housing. Just as Spanish military conquest destroyed our ancestors' houses, the U.S. military conquest is destroying any chance for Chamorus to fulfill the promise of latte stones: a house.

In Cecilia Perez's short story, "Signs of Being—A Chamoru Spiritual Journey" (1997), the speaker describes a trip to the neighboring island of Luta (Rota) with a friend. While there, they walk through a latte quarry site.

The speaker’s friend leans down to a fallen tasa and asks: “Guella yan Guello, hafanati un na’fonhayani che’cho’-miyu? What happened to make you leave your work?”

The speaker believes the fallen latte stones hold the answer to her friend's question: “It is from within the row of latte that we feel our strength. It is the severed capstone that gives us their message, 'Ti monhayon i che’cho. We will not rest until the latte is whole.'"

Craig Santos Perez,
Honolulu, Hawai’i

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