HISTORY is by its nature a troubling thing. Humans tend to want to look forward, especially when there is a mess behind them they would rather not deal with. One very clear local example of this is the complexities and contradictions involved in Guam’s colonization and the forced introduction of Catholicism to the island.
Not many people noticed I’m sure, but last week we marked the 330th anniversary of the killing of Pale’ Diego Luis San Vitores by Maga’lahi Mata’pang of Tumon. For those who don’t know who San Vitores is, you should take a Guam History class. For those of you who did and still don’t know, you should have paid attention. San Vitores is arguably the most influential person in Guam’s colonial history. If he did not exist, Guam and Chamorros would have a very different history.
San Vitores is the priest responsible for bringing Catholicism to Guam. By the 1600s, Spain had connected the Americas and Asia via the Pacific and established a presence in the Philippines. They had visited Guam many times, but had not colonized it. Why not? Guam had only “savages” with no precious minerals or spices. The Spanish could stop there to get fresh water or food if they wished, but didn’t need to invest resources in conquering Guam in order to make use of its location.
San Vitores stopped in Guam on his way to serve in the Philippines in 1662. When he saw the Chamorros living in blissful ignorance of God, he swore that he would return one day to save their souls. He lobbied hard for years against multiple levels of bureaucratic inertia before his wish was granted. Luck was on his side, and as the church histories state, so was God. In June 1668, the first Catholic mission arrived in Guam officially beginning Guam’s colonization.
Things progressed well at first. San Vitores had learned to speak Chamorro from a Filipino who had been shipwrecked on Guam years earlier. Chamorros were amazed to hear a Spaniard speaking their language. They were also excited to meet Spaniards who weren’t just interested in taking food and water but actually wanted to give Chamorros things. First and foremost they offered “I chalan i langhet” or the road to heaven. The fact that they were also handing out pieces of metal, which Chamorros were very interested in obtaining, didn’t hurt either.
Once Chamorros realized that the Spanish intended to radically alter their culture and control their lives, they started to resist and fight back. To the credit of San Vitores, he was primarily a pacifist. As he was organizing the oppressing of a people and the suppressing of so much of Chamorro culture, he did try his best to avoid violence or outright war. Sporadic fighting took place for years until the first large scale battle of the Chamorro Spanish Wars took place in 1671. Two thousand Chamorros, initially mobilized by Maga’låhi Hurao, attacked the Spanish in Hagåtña. The siege lasted for weeks before a typhoon and a Spanish counterattack rebuffed them.
Eventually by 1672, one Chamorro, a maga’låhi from Tumon, whose name continues to live in infamy locally, Mata’pang, decided to attack San Vitores directly. San Vitores visited Mata’pang’s home in order to baptize his young daughter. Mata’pang refused and threatened to kill the priest if he didn’t respect his wishes. In his zeal San Vitores baptized the child anyway. Mata’pang, with the help of his friend Hirao, attacked the priest and his assistant, killing them both.
The last words that San Vitores uttered “Si Yu’os Ma’åse Mata’pang,” meant at that time “God is merciful Mata’pang” but today they would be translated as “Thank you Mata’pang.” The historical explanation for this transformation of meaning is that with his attack, Mata’pang was granting the priest’s most ardent wish, namely that he be able to give his life in spreading God’s seeds in savage lands. This simple changing in meaning reflects the way the legacy of San Vitores has become embedded in contemporary Guam. Some on Guam hoping to challenge that colonial history have started to use the phrase “Saina Ma’åse,” meaning “the elder is merciful” as an alternative.
For his martyrdom and his role in bringing Christianity to the Marianas, San Vitores was beatified and became “Blessed Diego of the Marianas” in 1985. For his role in killing San Vitores, the word Mata’pang has become associated with many negative social traits, such as being obnoxious, uncouth, ignorant or just plain stupid. Despite the fact that Catholic is an integral part of Guam today, one helped oppress an entire people, indirectly leading to the death of tens of thousands by war, disease and other trauma. The other was a brave defender of his people in a time of terrible crisis. History can be so unkind.
Dr. Michael Lujan Bevacqua is an instructor at the University of Guam. He may be reached at mlbasquiat[at]hotmail.com.