The following is an interview with Lola Quan Bautista, Associate Professor of Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, about her and her team’s 2023 Community Collections Grant project, Celebrating CHamoru Nobenas. This post is part of the Of the People blog series featuring the awardees of the American Folklife Center’s Community Collections Grants program. The Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities to engage with the Library of Congress and to add their perspectives to the Library’s collections, allowing the national library to share a more inclusive American story.
Congratulations to you and your team on the Community Collections Grant, Lola! Let’s first start with learning more about the main focal point of the Celebrating CHamoru Nobenas project.
I imagine a lot of folks have some knowledge of a novena. Essentially, the novena, or nobena, is a devotional prayer ritual based in Roman Catholicism, but uniquely adapted and embraced by the Indigenous CHamoru/Chamorro people of the Mariana Islands and Guam/Guåhan, and among diasporic CHamoru/Chamorro communities throughout the United States.
Initially, I had planned on focusing on the more elaborate events associated with the various feasts or celebrations of the Catholic Church. However, upon my arrival to Guam in summer 2023, I quickly discovered the lingering impacts of COVID, which included cancelled processions, and many folks were still hesitant to gather. Hence, I decided to take a more personal view on the nobena and consider how families make a promesa (promise) to carry out the nobena tradition every year.
How did the project come about, and what is your overall approach?
It started with my mom, Josefina Unpingco Quan. From September 2018 to September 2019, we sort of made a promesa that we would read and record the Nuebu Testamento (New Testament)—all 486 pages—in CHamoru/Chamorro. I think it was the hardest, but the best year of my life! Using my walk-in closet as a recording studio, she not only reinforced how to read and speak the language, but also taught me a great deal about women of her generation, especially aspects of tradition and culture.
That one-year instruction provided the grounding for what happened right afterwards when my mom ushered me into studying the nobena. Compared with bible readings, which I am familiar with from growing up in the church, nobena stories are much less familiar and much harder to understand, especially because some passages are poetic, full of metaphor, or archaic. Yet, because of my mom, I have learned to love the nobena and its practices.
So, I suppose my approach to this project is to sort of replicate this learning experience by thinking of ways to share the nobena traditions with other CHamoru/Chamorro people, and to figure out how to make it more accessible and, of course, more relevant to younger folks. I set out to do this by interviewing and audio-video recording four prayer leaders, who are called techa, audio recording nobena songs, and updating and translating nobena booklets. Except for myself and one techa who live on Oʻahu, the remaining twelve individuals, who were interviewed, and the project team live on Guam/Guåhan, where I travelled over this past summer to carry out the project. Finally, I also am producing a documentary film to share the nobena tradition more widely, especially for those families living in the diaspora, and for younger CHamorus/Chamorros who often are unfamiliar with the nobena practice.
Who is involved in the project?
Thankfully, as part of our team, we have Påle’ Eric Forbes, who is tasked to update and translate two nobena prayer books (Sagrada Family/Holy Family and San Antonio/Saint Anthony), originally published by Påle’ Roman Maria de Vera. Born and raised on Guam, Påle’ Eric is fluent in both CHamoru/Chamorro and Spanish, and was the Capuchin Superior for Guam and Hawaiʻi. Additionally, there are two, young CHamoru men who are assisting with the nobena songs and recordings: Lawrence Borja and Phillip Taitano Quan.
If you are going to study the nobena practice then, of course, you have to focus on the techa. Here’s a snippet from each who contributed to the project:
Teresita Concepcion Flores, CHamoru Studies Instructor at the University of Guam, uses the nobena in the classroom to teach both language and culture. She emphasizes: “Yanggen manhongge hao gi as Yu’os Tåta, ya un sångan gi fino’ CHamoru, komu hågu na CHamoru, mås un siente gi halom i korason-mu./ If you believe in our Heavenly Father, and you say it in the CHamoru language, as a CHamoru, you feel it more in your heart.”
Executive Director of Guampedia, Rita Pangelinan Nauta, expressed how practicing the nobena is a good place “to start feeling, acting, sounding, laughing, and connecting [with] CHamoru/Chamorro. It’s great bonding. It’s really for families who need some spiritual strength, for families that just need some reason to get together.”
Oral historian Malia “Toni” Ramirez and her family have recited the Nobenan Niñu for ninety years. It started with her mother at age 13 who carried the nobena tradition “through wars, through epidemics, through whatever situation Guam experienced.”
Carmen Camacho Rojas is the lead singer for the Nobena Ladies, a prayer group of CHamoru/Chamorro women who meet daily over Zoom over different time zones: 1PM Guam time, 5PM Hawaiʻi time, and 8PM California time. As the lead singer, Carmen has empowered younger women–who previously spoke very little of their language–to take on the role of techa in the online gatherings.
As part of the grant program, your project documentation will become an archival collection to be safeguarded in the AFC archives, and eventually made available on the Library of Congress website. I’m curious about what kind of impacts this will have in the community, and the importance of preserving their sacred traditions.
Today there are more CHamoru/Chamorro people living off Guam than on. And some guesstimates suggest that eighty percent of the CHamoru/Chamorro population do not speak the indigenous language. Therefore, this collection of prayer booklets, interviews, and songs is vital to perpetuate nobena traditions and the language. Additionally, a documentary film brings to light significant events–very often told by women–about the promesa that inspired them to recite the nobena every year.
Hopefully by updating the nobena booklets and also providing English translations, this will motivate and reignite more people to take part in the celebration. Similarly, providing an audio recording of nobena songs along with song sheets makes it easier for non-speakers to engage, especially since many younger CHamorus/Chamorros are initially drawn to the practice because of some familiarity with the songs. Finally, a documentary film highlighting the techa and her promesa to carry on the tradition underscores the importance of CHamoru/Chamorro women transmitting knowledge and language to others–oftentimes from mother to daughter–and just how central they are to the wellbeing of the family and the extended family.
Thank you, Lola. We look forward to working with you on making these important materials accessible to all!
Learn more about Lola’s work and resources by local educators on her website here: http://breadfruiteducational.com Read more about the Community Collections Grants program here, and stay tuned for the announcement of 2024 grant recipients in the coming months!