A Pedacito Of Latte Stones – Icon Of Guam’s Ancient Chamorro Culture
Most cultures have iconic symbols that represent their history. For several Pacific islands, large stone monoliths carved by ancient ancestors are among the most famous of these indigenous emblems.
You are probably familiar with the massive stone heads of Easter Island, and you may have heard of the unique-in-all-the-world stone money of Yap.
The native Chamorro people of Guam and the Mariana Islands revere the less well-known, but no less important, latte stones that are also found nowhere else in the world.
Representative of strength, perseverance, and identity in a place that has been invaded by foreigners for the last five centuries, the latte consists of a pillar (“haligi” in Chamorro) and a cup-shaped capstone with a flat top (“tåsa” most likely from the Spanish taza for cup or bowl.) Ranging in height from 2 to 10 feet, the tallest one still standing is on Guam’s neighboring island of Tinian and is 15.7 feet high.
The pillars were usually set in two parallel rows around a rectangular space in pairs of six, eight, ten, twelve, or fourteen. They often differ in shape, material, and size with some made from quarried limestone, volcanic rock, or conglomerates, while others are made from rough slabs, coral, or boulders rounded by water.
Houses were often set atop the pillars and the space below was where traditional canoes called “proa” were made and stored, or where community gatherings took place. Other buildings made similarly of wood with palm-frond thatch or grass roofs were set on the ground and used for cooking, sleeping, and other tasks.
I went in search of latte recently and discovered a history of the island that is often seen on the surface, but not fully understood, by visitors to this unincorporated U.S. Territory that sits on the edge of the Mariana Trench, the deepest oceanic trench on earth.
The reason for this general lack of knowledge about the indigenous Chamorro culture is in part because Guam has been invaded and governed by foreigners for the last five centuries – first by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 on behalf of Spain, then by the Americans beginning in 1898, followed by Japan’s forced takeover in 1941, and finally its return to American governance at the end of World War II after some of the war’s fiercest battles.
The new book “Latte in the Marianas: By the Community, and For the Community” by Dr. Kelly Marsh and Jolie Liston, notes that the ancestors of the Chamorro people arrived in the Mariana Islands around 4,000 years ago. But it was another 2,700 to 3,100 years before latte first appeared.
These stone columns were in use for approximately 700 years when, 44 years after Magellan’s arrival, Guam was declared by Spain, thus changing the Chamorro culture forever. The use of latte ceased around this time of Spanish colonization.
Those overriding foreign influences are much in evidence in Guam today and also include Filipino, Chinese, Thai, Mexican and Korean infiltration noticeable in the food, celebrations, names, shops, languages, and everyday life.
I began my journey at the urban Latte Stone Park in Hagåtña, the center of government, where eight of the hand-carved stone pillars were moved in 1955. The park is one of 17 sites along the two-mile-long "Hagåtña Heritage Walking Trail," which was opened in 2010. Originally from the village of Mepo' in southcentral Guam's Fena area, these latte were the site of an important event in the modern history of the Chamorro fight for recognition.
The Chamorro were given U.S. citizenship in 1950, but continue to struggle for their rights, identity, and self-determination to this day. In 1991, a group of Chamorro activists gathered in the middle of the park’s latte stones to declare the right of the Chamorro to exist as a nation.
Their leader, Angel Santos, told the group, which became known as Chamorro Nation: "Stay within the latte, this is where the power of our ancestors, the spirit of our ancestors lives and it is important that we share this with them."
It’s thought by some researchers that latte may have been associated with ancestor worship since the Chamorro buried their dead between the stones and on each side of the house, thus creating a sacred space. Over the years, the organization continued to meet there.
Next, I drove south on Route 4 along the eastern and southern shores, turning off here and there to explore the back roads that lead to interior communities, and stopping at some of the many historic sites along the island’s ocean perimeter where Spanish forts were built and battles took place.
Along the way were remnants of ancient latte stones as well as modern representations in bus shelters, government buildings, churches, commercial signs, and highway markers. Latte are also visible in logos, government seals and documents, the 2009 U.S. quarter for Guam and the Mariana Islands, a postage stamp, and the flag of the Northern Marianas.
The following day, I drove north to the 1,217-acre Guam National Wildlife Refuge on the island’s northernmost point overlooking the Philippine Sea and home to indigenous animal species, plants, birds, and the pristine white sands of Ritidian Beach.
As I walked along one of the family-friendly hiking trails that lead through the dense forest to remnants of the ancient Chamorro culture where villages thrived long before Magellan arrived, thousands of blue-banded king crow butterflies, found only in the Marianas and the nearby island nation of Palau, fluttered around me as geckos skittered past and a monitor lizard scurried into its hiding spot beneath the roots of a banyan tree. Soaring overhead were immense limestone cliffs laced with caves that can be explored via a guided tour.
Several days later I continued my journey of discovery by attending a cultural festival at Valley of the Latte Adventure Park, also off Route 4 on the eastern side of the island across from Talofofo Bay. Among the many activities and exhibits was a traditional Chamorro dance performance set against a grouping of ancient latte stones.
The dancers’ rustling grass skirts, shouts, and crack of sticks struck rhythmically against long poles joined the musicians’ drumbeats and chants in telling the stories of their ancestors who once struck out on their own journeys on traditional proa carved in the shade of latte.
For more information about Guam, go to www.visitguam.com.
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