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In Focus

Jillette Leon-Guerrero

By Hannah Putman | HUMANITIES, November/December 2003 | Volume 24, Number 6

For the past year, people in Guam have struggled to rebuild wrecked homes and a shattered economy. The North Pacific island, less than one-sixth the size of the state of Rhode Island, lies in what residents call “Typhoon Alley.” Last December, Supertyphoon Pongsona pummeled Guam with heavy rain and gusts exceeding a hundred and eighty miles an hour, destroying homes, cultural artifacts, and more than a hundred classrooms.

“There’s not a single museum open on the island right now,” says Jillette Leon-Guerrero, executive director of the Guam Humanities Council. “The council lost some exhibits; some were damaged. There’s no way to assess everything that was damaged on the island.”

Leon-Guerrero is no stranger to dealing with the destruction wreaked by typhoons: one hit only four days after she became Guam’s Red Cross Executive Officer in 1997, and another in July of last year.

The Red Cross named the most recent supertyphoon the second most devastating natural disaster in the United States in 2002. It razed homes, uprooted concrete poles, and set aflame a jet fuel tanker that blazed for a week.

The humanities council is seeking to help reconstruct the island. “In communities, people come together and it doesn’t matter who you are, we’ve all had this shared experience. We want to try and nurture that and also to start dialog about how we can rebuild our community,” says Leon-Guerrero.

When Leon-Guerrero became the Guam Humanities Council’s executive director in 1999, the Humanities Council was operating on a rudimentary level. “The office was comprised of a computer in my living room,” she says. She is working to revitalize the island’s humanities programming, beginning with the council’s newest project, “Our Island Home.” According to Leon-Guerrero, the program will encourage Guamanians to explore their culture and to ask questions about their community. “Who lives in their villages, what are their stories, what are their histories, what makes that village unique compared to other places?”

Guam’s population is a mixture of native Chamorro people, who are believed to be originally Austronesian, and other groups that have immigrated to the island. Leon-Guerrero says, “It’s definitely an American culture, but also with that, you mix in the Chamorro indigenous culture, and the Filipino, so it’s a mélange of a lot of different places.”

The project, still in the planning stages, will include public meetings with the mayors in each of the island’s nineteen villages. Leon-Guerrero says they aim to discuss “civic responsibility, the common good, integrity, and responsibility--in the hopes that through these discussions, the residents will begin to organize, and to think about the ways in which they can participate in civic life, and help develop their communities.” One component of the project examines Guam’s political status and the rights of its inhabitants: as an unincorporated territory, Guamanians are United States citizens, but cannot vote for president and have a non-voting member of Congress.

“Guam right now is really in crisis,” says Leon-Guerrero. “Not only did we have the typhoon, but world events have impacted our island.” The nearby SARS outbreak and the Asian downturn have weakened Guam’s economy, she says.

Leon-Guerrero has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Born in Montana, she has traveled the world, and when she met her future husband--a French sailor--she joined him in a spur-of-the-moment excursion to the Micronesian Islands. “With my background in anthropology, I had always dreamed of going there,” she says.