Maria Anderson Roberto, born in 1880, was a Chamorro woman who had been employed as a chaperone for the Native Nurses program on Guam from 1914 to 1924 during the early United States Naval administration of the island. Her work with US Navy medical officials, her eventual contraction of Hansen’s disease while employed at Naval Hospital, and her departure to the Culion Leper Colony in the Philippines, reflect the larger political, cultural and social complexities and contradictions of life on Guam as a new American, military territory in the early 20th century.
Little is known about Roberto despite the significant role she played as a part of the Native Nurses program on Guam prior to World War II. What is known of her tragic story has been gathered through Naval accounts and oral histories. Written accounts by American nurses who worked alongside Roberto, as well as by manåmko’ (the elderly), shared their experiences and attitudes pertaining to Naval Health policies, particularly policies related to Hansen’s disease and the Navy’s Native Nurses program.
In essence, the United States Navy, in addition to other changes to the social and cultural fabric of life on Guam, undertook efforts to transform Guam’s healthcare system which was reliant primarily upon the wisdom of local herbal healers (the suruhånu), traditional massage techniques, Catholicism, and women’s health remedies that were administered by midwives (pattera). Services provided by local healers had evolved into a unique brand of healthcare tailored to the Chamorro people’s indigenous heritage and their contact with Spanish customs. Unlike Western healthcare, traditional healers did not operate within a formal structure that required monetary compensation. Instead, Chamorros who sought traditional care paid practitioners with other valuable commodities, such as rice, produce, and livestock. Traditional healers also held no formal licenses and were not required to adhere to established guidelines. Concern regarding the lack of a formal structure, a formalized payment system, and licensing or certification programs prompted the Navy to create, promote, and in some instances, enforce policies and programs that discouraged traditional methods and guided the local population toward Western models of care and healing.
The suruhånu and the pattera were held in high esteem by the native population. While traditional healers of both the male and female sex existed, the level of respect shown toward female healers was most apparent to the Navy. As the Navy sought to secure a safer environment for American families and servicemen working on the island, they began to stress the importance of Western health practices and regulations throughout the island. Fears of contracting exotic diseases and the desire to contain epidemics motivated the Navy’s campaign against the loosely structured health care system implemented by Chamorros prior to World War II. In order to advance their argument in favor of the American health regime, suruhåna and pattera were the focus of many early efforts to influence healthcare preferences in Guam.
The Navy began the Native Nurses program in 1907 in order to provide Chamorro midwives with a type of “systematic instruction” that the Navy believed would create an improved rate of mortality during births and prevent the spread of various infections and diseases. The Native Nurses program was promoted as an opportunity for Chamorro women to learn a new skill, help others in need, and establish an income that could be used to help their families within the new military economic model. The Navy struggled to attract Chamorro women to the program due to cultural norms and strained relations between Americans and locals.
In her tribute to Roberto, Della V. Knight, a Navy nurse who worked closely with Roberto, explained that women on island were “anxious to do this work, but there was an objection on the part of some parents.” Chamorros, being heavily influenced by Spanish occupation, subscribed to many beliefs and practices regarding the protection of the reputations (and bodies) of unmarried women.
The Native Nursing program required that women leave their homes and board at the Navy hospital, and work alongside American men (all of which was unfamiliar and uncomfortable for Chamorro women). Unmarried Chamorro women, in those days, required a chaperone while away from their homes. The chaperone was usually a male within the family or an older female. Enrollment and interest in the Navy’s nursing program was low due to social scrutiny that could arise from ignoring such widely held cultural practices. Knight explained that in order to ensure the program was more successful, it became clear that the Navy would “have to first obtain a chaperone for the native nurses.”
Knight and another nurse, Elsie Brook, describe Roberto as coming from a “better class” of Chamorro women and was appealing because of her position within the Chamorro community, as well as her fluency in both Chamorro and English. According to local historians, affluent families from the Hagåtña and Sinajana areas were influential, making Roberto an ideal candidate for convincing local families of the program’s legitimacy. Families could trust a woman like Roberto to watch over the reputation of their daughters. In her book on Naval Health policies, Dr. Anne Perez Hattori explained that the employment of Roberto “had been an important concession made by health officials, who realized that their nurse-training program would suffer from a lack of participation without a culturally appropriate Chamorro matron to live at the hospital and look after the nursing students.”
Roberto played the role of both chaperone and surrogate mother for women enrolled in the program, keeping a watchful eye over romantic indiscretions and behavior that would have been frowned upon within the Chamorro community. Knight described, with amusement, an incident wherein Roberto disciplined a young woman and a “native policeman” who had been caught flirting.
Indeed, Roberto was described as a woman who was received with the utmost respect from the women under her charge. She was also remembered by Naval employees for her physical attributes. Roberto was tall, well-built, and graceful, which, in addition to her fluency in English, likely would have contributed to her popularity within the Naval medical community stationed on island.
Roberto was employed by the Naval government for ten years, from 1914 – 1924, before her contraction of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) at the Naval Hospital. Roberto’s contraction of Hansen’s disease was met with great sorrow by both Navy personnel and the Chamorro community.
Hansens’s disease and differences in Chamorro and Naval practices in interacting with individuals afflicted with leprosy had become a source of great tension between the Navy and the Chamorros. The Chamorro people wanted to care for relatives who suffered from the disease, providing them with affection and allowing them to remain part of their daily life without added social stigma. However, Western medical circles at the time saw the need for those suffering from Hansen’s disease to be separated from the rest of the population in order to contain the illness. Fears of contracting Hansen’s disease by Americans stationed on the island were high.
Naval officers, such as Governor Richard Leary, General Mack Stone, and Lieutenant Vincedon Cottman, wrote in great detail about the discomfort they felt regarding the presence of Hansen’s disease on the island. On a more global scale, encounters with Hansen’s disease in the Pacific by American servicemen had prompted confinement areas throughout the Pacific, with the leper colony in Moloka’i, Hawaii being the most widely referenced.
Chamorros struggled to accept the Navy’s policies regarding the care of Hansen’s disease because they entailed the seclusion of individuals and the separation of their familia, the extended group of relatives who are viewed as essential to caring for a person in need. Within her summary of Naval accounts discussing leprosy, Hattori highlighted the great concern Navy officials felt when they found that Chamorros had been allowing lepers to live in the “midst of a friendly community.” Upon finding individuals suffering from Hansen’s disease, Naval officials forced immediate confinement. Confinement, however, was not easily accepted by Chamorros, who often hid relatives who had (or may have had) the disease, fearing separation. Confinement areas in scenic locations were viewed by the Navy as a benevolent way to confront the threat of the disease.
Unfortunately, different cultural understandings of benevolence made Navy areas of confinement places of particular horror for Chamorro people. Despite being located in places Naval officers considered picturesque and calm, Chamorros residing within the leper colonies experienced great emotional trauma. Chamorros were reported to have attempted escape on several occasions. Despite barbed wire, an enforced curfew, and armed guards, family members were consistently finding new ways to see their loved ones.
Cultural and economic difficulties in sustaining the confinement areas on Guam caused the Navy to seek alternative options. In December 1912, the Naval Governor received official orders to transport lepers on Guam to Culion Island in the Philippines. Roberto was one of the unfortunate Chamorros who was forced to leave her home en route for Culion after becoming a victim of the dreaded disease. After ten years of serving as a well-respected chaperone and translator for Chamorro nurses within the Navy’s Native Nurses program, Roberto was deported in 1925.
Her departure was described with great sorrow by both Chamorros and Naval nurses. Roberto was credited for having held together the Native Nurses program. The care she provided to her young charges and children within the hospital made her beloved by many. Navy nurse, Elsie Brook, explained that a large portion of the island had come to say farewell to Roberto and the Chamorros who were to be taken to Culion. Brook wrote that “great indeed was the grief of all who were associated” with Roberto “at the Naval hospital and, in fact, all over the island.”
Roberto’s fate upon reaching Culion, like the others who were sent to the Philippine colony, has remained shrouded in mystery. Naval accounts described Culion as a place where Chamorro Hansen’s disease sufferers struggled to adjust. Despite the perceived similarities between Filipinos and Chamorros held by Navy officers, it became apparent that Chamorros in Culion experienced a great deal of depression and stress being away from their island and surrounded by foreign languages, such as Tagalog, French, Polynesian languages, English, and Spanish. Hattori describes the reports of George W. Calver, a naval officer sent to investigate the Culion colony. In observing the lepers in Culion, he wrote that the Chamorros “found communication with the rest of the colony difficult and as a result felt the isolation more severely. Again transplanting of these natives into an entirely new environment caused considerable homesickness.”
The fate of Chamorros deported to Culion has been difficult to determine for a number of reasons. In addition to the lack of records regarding Culion and the absence of individually marked graves, the lack of news reported to family members on Guam regarding their deported loved ones could have been the result of the great sense of shame many Chamorros associated with the disease. The creation of Naval confinement policies created an atmosphere of inhibition and fear regarding having a loved one afflicted with the condition. Upon traveling to Culion in search of information about his grandfather, who was also deported after contracting Hansen’s disease, Speaker Antonio Unpingco could only find a mass grave. He returned to Guam from Culion without a date of expiration. One can only assume that the absence of information regarding Roberto’s fate is the result of similar circumstances.
Roberto was viewed by some Chamorros as a Navy collaborator, a woman who assisted the Navy in promoting a health care structure that undermined traditional ways of healing and caring for individuals in need. However, Hattori suggests a more likely explanation for Roberto’s willingness to participate within the Navy Nurses Program. She explains that Roberto was probably “motivated by the desire for material advancement in a military economic system that otherwise constricted opportunities for women.”
Regardless of the motivation for promoting and participating within the Native Nurses program, it is clear that Roberto was an exceptional woman who made a profound impact on the lives of those with whom she came in contact. In all the accounts written about her, little is said regarding her contraction of leprosy. Instead, she is written about as an intelligent, dignified, and beautiful woman who made it possible for two cultures to better interact with one another in order to take care of those in need.
For further reading
Brooke, Elsie. Maria Roberto: A Further Tribute. US Naval Medical Bulletin 23, 1925.
Cruz, Karen A. The Pattera of Guam: Their Story and Legacy. Hagåtña: Guam Humanities Council, 1997.
DeLisle, Christine Taitano. Delivering the Body: Narratives of Family, Childbirth and Prewar Pattera. MA thesis, University of Guam, 2000.
Hattori, Anne. Colonial Dis-Ease: US Navy Health Policies and the Chamorros of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.
Knight, Della V. “Maria Roberto – A Tribute.” American Journal of Nursing 22, 1922.