Pacific Island Mama

May 17, 2022 | 
Asian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month | Equity | Mental Health Awareness Month

My mama is not a clear vision in my mind. I can almost hear her voice when I read old cards and letters. But so much of my pacific Island mama was woven into the larger fabric of her family, a vision of my Tata and Nana, my Aunties and Uncles and cousins that I don’t always see my mama clearly. Instead I see our forever growing island family. I hear the soothing rhythms of Chamorro and broken English spoken by my grandparents and I am immediately caught up in the safety net of their unwavering care, of finadene, red rice, tatiyas, chicken kelaguin,, bananas in coconut milk, and endless laughter, swaying music, family gossip, and arguments and hugs.

I am of mixed blood. Second daughter of an Irish American father who fought in the Korean War and a Chamorro mother from Guam, whose island was captured and occupied by Japanese soldiers during World War II. Both my parents were traumatized by war and they brought that trauma to their marriage and into our home. My father did not understand my mother, her postpartum depression, her nervous breakdowns that led to hospitalizations and shock therapy. He didn’t understand nor talk about his own trauma and he mostly didn’t understand how much my mothers identity was wrapped up in her family and the need for their closeness and support as she struggled to birth and raise nine children.

My mama was beautiful. She loved red lipstick and pencil skirts and her wavy hair and almond eyes betrayed her exotic bloodline. A fair skinned tropical beauty who in the days when ethnicity was reduced to black or white on birth certificates, never saw herself in the neighborhoods and cities my father was continually dragging us to. This lack of connection and isolation only added to her fractured sense of identity and acceptance in this county. She would struggle after giving birth, away from family and supports and slowly dissolve into this confused state of mind that sometimes forgot she was our mother. Sometimes she believed she was still a child under Japanese occupation, at times she was Italian, other times the Virgin Mary. Mostly she was lost and fractured and broken and alone, thousands of miles from Tata & Nana and home.

Returning to Guam in the early 70’s ended my parents marriage but was the beginning of mama’s recovery and a renewal of her faith in Jesus. I don’t remember my grandparents or extended family, talking about my mothers mental health struggles. They didn’t talk about trauma or war or mental institutions. They just were always there. They gathered and cooked, worshipped and prayed, ate and laughed and everyone was always welcome. They didn’t put words to the pain, nor help me process the confusion and heartbreak I carried but somehow the rhythms of who we were as islanders, as family, as a people who gather, where everyone is welcome and included, was enough. Enough for mama who never had another psychotic break after she returned to Guam. Enough to leave a legacy for her children, not of brokenness but of faith, of healing and the miracle of forgiveness.

By Donna L., Director of Prevention Programs

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