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Notes from FestPac: The friends we made, the songs we heard and the struggles we shared

Johanna Salinas, center, with fellow FestPac delegates from other islands. Photo courtesy of Johanna Salinas

By Johanna Salinas

The 2016 Festival of the Pacific on Guam gave me a sense of deep connection to my culture, my ancestors and my fellow islanders as a delegate. I had a déjà vu during the recent 2024 FestPac in Hawaii as part of the Guam delegation, representing the literary arts.  

Sleeping in UH Manoa dorms — no aircon, no fridge, no microwave and no internet — I surely felt connected to my ancestors. The Wi-Fi password assigned to Guam delegates did not work. Forced into digital detox, I found a golden opportunity to connect with my emotions while enduring my sweat and interact meaningfully with my fellow delegates from other islands. (Their Wi-Fi password worked.)

I shared the dorm with artists and dancers from Papua New Guinea. After a long day of panels and performances, we would share stories of our islands over hot tea in the hot lobby.

The lobby became an impromptu office for some of us who needed space to paint or write at night without disturbing our roommates. Those nights were always filled with the best snacks and the best laughs.

We, Guam delegates, talked about having the last K-Mart in America and the best Donki store in the world. Our friends from PNG told us their government warned them not to say “Free West Papua” or display the Morning Star in Hawaii.

But Manu Mayan, a political scientist, was not afraid to say “Free West Papua.” He was the lone literary delegate from his nation. We called him “Manu, Solo Man of the Solomons.” Manu enlightened me about the atrocities faced by Melanesians at the hands of Indonesia. Manu and his Fijian colleagues told me not to visit Bali, not to eat Indonesian curry. If a coffee product says “Made in Indonesia,” it may be from West Papua, they quipped.

Guam delegation to FestPac 2024

I also made friends with Tialuga Seloti of American Samoa. A professional storyteller, Auntie Tia does not want to be held back by a word count or a time limit. She has represented American Samoa in six FestPac events, but regrets skipping the one on Guam. She applauded my angsty poetry and encouraged me to dance at the luau despite my shaky elbows and offbeat feet. Auntie Tia gifted me with kindness and respect. I gave her a decolonization booklet from Guam. She said she had never seen anything like it before, which surprised me. Another American Samoa delegate told me that the territory does not have as prevalent education on political status as Guam.

I made friends with Libby Gray, a Maori musician who creates music with her jewelry. Her book “Hineraukatauri” depicts a chrysalis entering a spiritual metamorphosis to become an instrument. The illustrations in her book reminded me that our Pacific gods were not slender or buff like those in Greek mythologies. Our gods were sometimes curvy and proud of their curves.

Then there’s Karlo Milla from New Zealand. As a Tongan-Samoan living among Maori, her poems serve as a map guiding readers across her home island. She truly inspired me with “Weapons of the Moana” about the atrocities facing the Pacific Islanders today. She dedicated her poem to Lionel, a young Kanak who was shot by French police in New Caledonia. The French territory was unable to send its delegation to FestPac. Her work served as a reminder that while we were celebrating and rejoicing in Hawaii, there were fellow islanders who could not join because of unrest in their respective nations.

The festival was capped with a poignant note about the political unrest across the Pacific.

As Hawaii Gov. Josh Green and First Lady Jaime Kanani Green began their speeches, a soft Olelo Hawaiin chant began to fill the back of the stadium. Across the crowds, signs suddenly appeared, reading “De-occupy Hawaii,’ “Free Kanaky,” “Stop Rimpac,” “Free West Papua” and “Free Palestine.”

As Green and the first lady tried to carry on, some delegates from different nations stood up and started chanting along with the Hawaiian protestors. While Guam’s delegates stayed still and did not join, we showed our support by clapping and nodding along to the demonstrators. There was no violence and no one was arrested.

While, surprisingly, there was no mention of it in the Star-Advertiser the next day, the five-minute pop-up protest stirred a little debate. Some considered it disruptive and disrespectful to the governor and the first lady, suggesting that those who joined the protest be banned from future FestPac events. But sometimes protests need to be disruptive to get a message across.

If anything, it reminded us islanders not to wait till the 2028 FestPac to come together. With the next one scheduled for New Caledonia, we must demand more from our leaders to protect the people. There were all these talks of unity in FestPac but there is no unity if New Caledonia and West Papua were left behind.

I am grateful for the amazing lessons and friendships I gained from Hawaii’s FestPac. While many see this as the “Olympics of the Pacific,” I see this as a coming together of islands. This is not a competition, but rather a cultural reawakening.

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