A Modern Retelling of CHamoru Legends

Journalist Lindsay Nash wrote an article for the Pacific Daily News about a new book that was recently published…

Stories have the unique ability to connect storytellers to listeners, writers to readers, people to their culture, and the present to the past.

This couldn’t be more true in “CHamoru Legends: A Gathering of Stories,” retold by Teresita Lourdes Perez and thoughtfully translated into CHamoru by Maria Ana Tenorio Rivera.

The Bronze Medal recipient of the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Award for Best Regional Non-Fiction, CHamoru Legends shares stories that have been passed down orally from generation to generation for millennia.

Published by the University of Guam Press, CHamoru Legends is a reversible book featuring the legends in English on one side and in CHamoru on the other. It is the type of collection that can sit proudly on every book lover’s bookshelf — a beautiful volume of oral history and visual art that narrates the CHamoru experience in Guam and across the Northern Mariana islands.

Perez gathered stories from the community — from elders, family, friends, books and old newspapers and settled on 12 legends to share in the collection.

She then sat with Rivera and book editor Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero to talk about each story as she wrote it. They discussed what the legend meant, the intentions of the story, the plot, the lessons to be learned, how the story had changed over time and how it affected each of them.

Later, visual artists stepped in to bring the stories to life through their own interpretation of the legends.

What resulted is a vibrant anthology of the CHamoru experience through history — the first such collection written, translated and illustrated by CHamoru people.

While one cannot escape the effects of colonialism on the CHamoru collective, the stories are told as they have been shared through time, each oral version possibly differentiating from the original, as oral stories often do. Each passing memory is another reflection of the culture and its people, symbols and characters — and the changes they’ve endured.



The legends told in the collection “resonate with many CHamoru people, because we seek to connect with our past and our people, and these stories nurture a sense of belonging,” writes Dr. Sharleen Santos-Bambo in the foreword.

It is that connection that becomes a focus through three reflections in the anthology from the author, who begins by telling a story her Auntie Diddi once told her of a demon dog that jumped out and frightened her and her baby sister, when she was young.

When the author later shared the story with her cousin, the child of that baby sister, the cousin also knew the story, but slightly differently. The demon dog was a witch woman in her version. There never seemed to be an ending to the story. But that didn’t matter.

“…I am sharing it with you as a storyteller who believes our indigenous ways of being and knowing are always linked to the stories we’ve been told and to the stories we tell, whether these stories are our extremely personal and family tales or whether they are the more commonly told legends that we share with our island community,” Perez writes. “We are linked to the storyteller.”


And so the legends begin — first with the tale of the famed siblings, Pontan and Fo’na, and followed by the story of father and son in “The Boy Who Escaped to Rota”; then of love and tragedy in “The Two Lovers”; of mother, daughter and nina in “Sirena”; and of warring families in “The Flame Tree.”

The ancient connects with the modern again when the author pauses to continue her reflections, this time focusing on the “tree of life,” the coconut tree.

She describes how when she left Guam for a stateside school as a college student, the trongkon niyok went from being something that was part of her daily life to a symbol of tropical paradise and grass skirts.

When Perez later returned home, as a mother, she also returned to this tree of life, “this old woman tree” who she believed needed to also be a part of her child’s life.

Leaving the modern world behind, the author continues the retellings, sharing the story of a brother and sister who take in an old woman who transforms into i trongkon niyok; the story of two brother chiefs whose children give their lives to save their people in “The Lemmai Tree”; a story of friendship between the cow and the carabao”; and a story of vanity in “The Ko’Ko’ and the Hilitai”.

The last reflection is perhaps what best ties the past and the present — and the entire collection — together: stories of the author’s own experiences with the spirit world: her auntie’s demon dog, her own ghostly encounters, her grandfather’s sense of Sight.

“How do I begin to tell you of the spirits here, of the taotaomo’na that are all around us, of the abandoned lots or dense jungle areas that are alive with them, of the trees that keep them anchored, trees shrouded in mystery?” Perez writes her in the last reflection.

These spirits, she says, are still here and will be here long after we are gone.

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