Right to Democracy Completes Pacific Leg of Listening Tour
In the past month and a half, we visited, had meetings and convened our community dialogues in the territories of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and Northern Mariana Islands. I also visited and met with leaders in American Samoa, and the Samoan diaspora in Hawaii and Los Angeles. The opportunity of conversing and sharing experiences with such a diverse group of people reaffirmed the need for Right to Democracy’s mission– to build a movement focused on confronting and dismantling the undemocratic colonial framework governing people in U.S. territories.
My experience in the Pacific territories was one of both learning and recognition. After 30 hours of airplane travel to the other side of the world, I really thought I would arrive at a place completely different from Puerto Rico and the USVI. Of course, the Pacific territories are tropical islands that, even with very slight differences in flora and fauna and amazingly diverse hues of blues in the beaches, feel very much like home. My surprise and amazement came, nevertheless, as I kept meeting and conversing with the beautiful people of each territory. Despite the vast distances from the Caribbean and different histories of each territory, the peoples of Guam, the Marianas and American Samoa still felt like family, people I could hug profusely, make jokes and laugh, identify in hardship and cry with.
To summarize my experience, I can say that Caribbean and Pacific territories share an urgent need for agency and for recognition of our shared colonial experience. When conversing, there were important and emotional moments of recognition as we realized how similar are many of our experiences as subjects of colonial power dynamics. For example, every time the high cost of living came up, the stories of missing loved ones that had left for a better life in the mainland, or the struggles to keep language and identity alive, I felt I could see the Caribbean in their eyes. All of our territories are struggling to achieve sustainable development that is not extractive, and serves and uplifts local community interests and cultures.
In Guam, for example, one of the most salient needs is the area of public health equity, preventive and palliative care. Why are people, especially veterans, elders and disabled, having to leave their loved ones to get the care they need, or to take an 8 hour flight in order to visit hospitals for a simple consultation? The debate of over militarization and its impact on economic, environmental and health sectors reminded me of what we lived in Vieques. Yet the implications of possible escalation of U.S. conflicts with China amplifies the issues in an unprecedented way. Guam is living in the “bullseye” of a possible military conflict, having already experienced first-hand the brutality of what that looks like as the only U.S. community invaded and occupied during World War II.
Very similar feeling is experienced in the Northern Mariana Islands, where there are two HUGE military vessels permanently stationed on the coast of the capital in Saipan, and where Tinian is occupied 2/3rds by the army. I was able to dialogue with groups that are advocating against this over militarization and active bombing in their archipelago, including Guam and other islands in Micronesia. I cried with the people from Tinian, who are still healing from everlasting wounds and illnesses that environmental contamination caused their families due to previous military exercises. Their love and care for nature, and the impetus of preserving their Chamorro and Carolinian ancestral knowledge, made me wish we would have been able to maintain a lot more of our Taíno and African languages in the Caribbean.
American Samoa is another interestingly familiar place. What big, strong and loving people are the Polynesians! I remain in awe at the strength of community, the respect for their ancestors, and the adamant protection of local customs. Yet, in my conversations with people I also identified their concerns of developing a viable economy that would make it possible for loved ones that left to the mainland to return home. Also, there is a need to ensure environmental sustainability and secure their safety amid tensions between the United States and China. So fascinating to see the possibilities of democracy and self-determination in diverse cultural contexts!
This listening tour has been such an important experience for me and Right to Democracy! It is astonishing to see how each of the territories feels so small, even when its people and cultures are so strong and vibrant and we have so much to offer as builders of solutions to world facing problems. It is more than evident the importance of recognizing each other and building a movement – of civil society, community-based organizations, U.S. civil rights groups, academia, philanthropy – to co-create and build strategies to push for a reckoning by the United States of the colonial governance it still maintains, and to break with the impasse created and sustained by the racist and antidemocratic legal framework that permits it.
I am excited next month to convene together people we’ve been meeting with from each territory for a Summit on U.S. Colonialism at the Ford Foundation where we’ll be working together to develop strategies for building a movement to advance democracy, equity, and self-determination for the 3.6 million people living in U.S. territories.
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