Tan Felisa’s Story
By Alexie Villegas Zotomayor - Reporter
THE Manamko’ Center in Chinatown is a goldmine of stories waiting to be written.
Some stories have time constraints as some say they no longer have many years left in them. Some say they live one day at a time and recollections of their past steadily gallop into oblivion.
Felisa Chargualaf Baza, 81, and Rosa Tanin Castro, 80, are two of the octogenarians at the center and both have interesting stories to share. Both are born a decade before World War II — Tan Felisa on Feb. 26, 1930 and Tan Rosa on Feb. 17, 1931.
Both are born on Saipan: Tan Felisa in Garapan and Tan Rosa in Tanapag. Both studied under Japanese teachers and both speak and read Nihongo. Both lived through the war and stayed at Camp Susupe.
Tan Felisa, who lost her mother when she was barely one year old, says her older sister Maria and her father raised her. She recalls how she would tag along with her to sell bibingka and puto early in the morning before school.
She says before the war, “We couldn’t buy anything because we didn’t have money.”
She tells Variety while her older sister worked, she went to school in Garapan.
She fondly remembers how she would wake up early in the morning, around 5:30 a.m. “Early in the morning, we get up about 5:30 a.m. We go to the Japanese chapel in Garapan where we offer prayers before school starts.”
[According to Don Farrel’s “History of the Northern Mariana Islands,” while all Chamorros and Carolinians attended school for three years of primary education with emphasis on Japanese language instruction, the Japanese students were allowed to obtain an eight-year education like they would in Japan.]
Tan Felisa says, “All the classes had Chamorro and Carolinians only. There was no Japanese.”
In school, she finds joy in learning. “Classroom is good.”
She recalls there were probably between 25-30 students.
“Instruction then was all in Japanese. We had Japanese teachers and we studied writing, arithmetic, and reading,” she says.
Of these subjects, arithmetic was her favorite, especially doing addition and using soroban — the abacus.
Tan Felisa, who could speak a little Chinese and Okinawan too, tells Variety that Chamorros and Carolinians were allowed to obtain elementary education but were not allowed to go further as it was the privilege of those with Japanese bloodline.
[In the CNMI history textbook, it was stated that education during the Japanese period was “segregated” and “discriminatory.”]
“Chamorro and Carolinians are not allowed unless they are half-cast Japanese,” says Tan Felisa.
She tells Variety that at the age of 12 she was through with school.
Just as she was about to graduate, she says war came to Saipan’s shores.
World War II
“When the war started, we were just about to graduate,” Felisa recounts.
She says the sugarcane plantations were bombed first before Garapan. “The Japanese informed us to run away.”
And ran away they did to the caves.
“We hid in our caves — in Kannat Tabla.”
She tells Variety the difficulties they had to go through.
She describes how it was like to live in the cave for several days. “It was terrible.
We neither had water nor food. We were thirsty and hungry.”
She says juice from sugarcane and coconuts, that her father fathered, they used to slake their thirst.
For food, she says they would store breadfruit inside the caves until the cave was bombed and they had to relocate.
“When the bombs came, we didn’t need water and food. We had to run for our lives,” she says.
As war was coming to an end, Tan Felisa was in a cave with her sister when an American soldier found them.
Asked by Variety how she felt then, she says, “I was so scared. My sister — Maria — and I were hiding together when an American soldier caught us.”
She says it was a tremulous moment for them. Although they were glad they were still alive, she says they feared both Japanese and American soldiers.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen to us,” says the octogenarian. “We didn’t know if the war was over. They were still shooting each other.”
For Tan Felisa, everything happened like a blur. She could hardly remember faces at Camp Susupe.
She says she was thankful the Americans took care of provisions. “They gave us cookies and water.”
She rejoices at the thought of war’s end saying it was “freedom for everybody.”
With the march of time, Felisa is glad that she’s survived it all.
Now a widow, her Chalan Kanoa home is an empty nest. “I live alone but my son always comes and checks me all the time.”
A grandmother to 19 grandchildren, Felisa says most of them are on the mainland United States.
When not visiting the Manamko’ Center, Tan Felisa says she spends time at home, planting vegetables and flowers. “I even do men’s job,” she says with a chuckle.
Recently, on the occasion of her 81st birthday, she went to Guam and paid her 86-year-old brother a visit.
“I went to Guam and met my brother. We celebrated together. We danced and had cake together.”
Asked by Variety what she wished for on her birthday, she says, “A good life!”
She says, “I thank God I am still alive.”
Asked by Variety the secret to her longevity, she says there’s no secret as she eats anything she likes. She walks, jogs, and runs, but she says her runs have slowed down over the years.
For Tan Felisa, she cannot tell what tomorrow brings and she says it is all up to God.
Asked if she would like to celebrate her birthday with her fellow octogenarian Tan Rosa and this writer next year — with their birthdays coinciding in the same month — she says in both Nihongo and English, “I leave it all to God if we are going to celebrate next year together.”
With that, she gently takes Tan Rosa’s hand — like an elder sister would treat a younger sister — as they head to the hall where lunch awaits them.
[Next week, Spice will share with the readers Tan Rosa’s story.
Spice is Marianas Variety’s section devoted to people with interesting lives and events that matter on island. For suggestions and comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org]
[This appeared in Marianas Variety — Friday, April 01, 2011]