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Santa Rita Fiesta

A Traditional Guam Celebration

By Toni Dabbs Bells tolled. The local Knights of Columbus, dressed in capes lined with red satin and ostrich feather hats, walked down the center aisle of the Santa Rita Parish Church, followed by uniformed Boy Scouts from the village and white clothed children prepared to take their First Communion. Because I am not a Catholic, I had expected to feel like a fish out of water at the Saturday evening mass that inaugurated the annual Santa Rita Fiesta. And Tony Rabon, Chief of Emergency 911 Communications with the Guam Fire Department, who had been showing me around his island homeland, seemed somewhat surprised that I wanted to include the church service in my visit to the fiesta. But that was my point: I didn't want to be just an observer of the festivities; I wanted to be as much of a participant as a visitor possibly could be. To my delight, I discovered that visitors to Guam are most welcome to attend the dozens of village fiestas held throughout the year, where they can experience the traditions and lifestyle of the island's indigenous Chamorro people. The congregation in the church helped me feel immediately at ease, and Chief Rabon, himself a Chamorro, whispered explanations whenever he noticed a question forming on my face. Although the Chamorro people keep their own language alive, English is the official tongue of Guam, so I had no problem understanding the service conducted by the parish priest or the story of Santa Rita, patron saint of hopeless causes, as related by a visiting priest. I especially enjoyed the small choir, which gave an air of otherworldliness to hymns sung in high, reedy harmonies. After mass, the statue of Santa Rita was taken from the church on a hand-pulled wagon decorated with flowers and candles. Churchgoers and other villagers formed a large procession and escorted the statue through the streets of the village. In front, altar boys, jeans and running shoes visible beneath the hems of their cassocks, carried crucifix and candles, while Boy Scouts bore flags of the United States and Guam. Priests and choir members rode along in a car equipped with a loudspeaker, so the procession had ongoing musical accompaniment.

After a circumambulation of the village of Santa Rita, the procession returned to the church, the statue of the saint was safely stowed inside, and participants patiently waited to follow the priests into the church hall, where a potluck feast was spread across a half-dozen tables. Parishioners had supplied everything from a whole roast pig to a cake decorated with a full-color icing picture of the honored saint. Chief Rabon and I filled our plates and found a place to sit where we could watch the crowd and listen to the small band that had started to play. As I had my first taste of some traditional Chamorro dishes, Joseph Wesley, Mayor of the municipality of Santa Rita, came to welcome me. He introduced me to another guest, Antonio Unpingco, Speaker of the Guam Legislature. Both gentlemen were very gracious, excusing themselves for having to leave early, but each was expected at several private parties before the night was over. Like most Chamorro fiestas, introduced by the Spanish in 1668 and held every year since, this one was primarily a Catholic religious celebration, beginning with the mass, procession and feast on the Saturday night closest to the saint's feast day (May 22 for Santa Rita). But the Chamorro people are very social, so they extend the festivities by inviting friends and relatives into their homes for more eating and merrymaking later Saturday night and all day Sunday. Concerts and cockfights (legal in Guam) sometimes are scheduled in conjunction with fiestas. Most villages hosting fiestas have traditional Chamorro names, but the municipality of Santa Rita is unusual in that it is named for one of its patron saints, Mayor Wesley told me. It also stages a fiesta in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December. Santa Rita was established by Chamorros relocated from their original village during World War II. It has a permanent population of 6,500, but transient military personnel increase its size to 12,000. Located in the southwestern part of Guam, an island in the Pacific Ocean approximately 3,800 miles west of Hawaii and 1,550 miles south of Japan, Santa Rita is one of 19 Chamorro villages that host one or more fiestas per year. Unfortunately, few tourists take the time to attend these events, but as I found out first-hand, the fiestas offer great opportunities to meet Chamorro people and learn about their culture. FOR MORE INFORMATION
Guam Visitors Bureau 1336-C Park Street Alameda CA 94501 phone 1-800-873-4826 or 1-510-865-0366 Photos by Toni Dabbs
Copyright 2001 by Toni Dabbs. This work, including photographs, is protected by copyright and may be used only for personal noncommercial purposes. All other rights are reserved, and commercial use is prohibited without permission of the author.