When I was a kid, I worshipped two idols: Jesus and SPAM.
Before Catholic mass on Sundays, I wake to the scent of SPAM snaking through my childhood home, in the village of Mongmong, on the island of Guahan (Guam). I fumble out of bed, still half asleep, and stumble to the kitchen, where my shirtless dad is frying SPAM and white rice. With masculine kindness, he offers to make me two eggs, “any style”. I would reply, with confidence, “Fried!”
“Enjoy the Chamorro Special,” he says. “Then go get ready for church.” The Ketchup, Kikkoman Soy Sauce, and Tabasco stand on the table, symbols of empire.
You know what else made me feel special as a kid: Jesus. He was like an American movie star with his white skin and flowing hair. He could have totally been the heartthrob on one of those American soap operas that my grandma watched religiously.
Jesus was also like my cousin (many Chamorros are actually named “Jesus”). Jesus was my cousin because he was the son of God, Our Father. So Jesus was Hispanic because the Spanish colonizers brought Jesus to my people. The Spanish also brought pigs.
In 1898, Our Spanish Father could no longer take care of us by himself, so we were adopted by Our Fatherʻs younger brother, Uncle Sam.
Hormel invented SPAM a few decades later, in 1937. It fed Depressed Americans and the Allies in World War II. After America bombed and invaded war-torn Guam in 1944, SPAM arrived. My grandmother was a young woman at that time; she describes her first taste of SPAM as “manna from heaven”.
Thereafter, Uncle Sam became Uncle SPAM.
SPAM was cheap, convenient, filling, salty, and American—everything a growing native needs on his path to civilization. My grandparents fed SPAM to my parents, and my parents fed SPAM to us kids, and I hope to one day feed my children SPAM while I read the Bible to them. SPAM is now part of our cultural diet and inheritance; SPAM is stapled to our blood.
Plus, the military took so much land that most people could no longer grow their own food. I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of SPAMerica.
SPAM is also popular in Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa, South Korea, the Northern Marianas, the Federated States of Micronesia, and all places with a history of U.S. military presence.
Technically, the US military is an invasive species. Technically, SPAM is a species of invasive foods. Scholars of “culinary colonialism” have a deep respect for SPAM’s adaptability to different cultures and its unsurpassed ability to colonize native bodies.
Some kids remember the first time their father took them fishing. I remember the first time my dad taught me how to open a can of SPAM. SPAM is a Pacific rite of passage.
They say, f you give a Chamorro a slice of SPAM, you feed him a snack. But if you teach a Chamorro how to work in the service economy and buy SPAM from the grocery store, you feed him for a lifetime (however short it might be).Guam is the SPAM capital of the world; on average, each Chamorro consumes sixteen cans of SPAM each year, which is more, per capita, than any other country. A study from the University of Guam showed that sixty percent of all deaths on Guam are related to poor diet.
My dad used to mash SPAM and feed it to me when I was a baby. According to him, my first word was not “mama” or “dada”. No, my first word was: “SPAM”. I think the salt, sugar, and sodium nitrite in the SPAM made my brain develop more linguistically.
Since SPAM was invented in 1937, Hormel has sold over seven billion cans of the fatty foodstuff. In 2011 alone, 122 million cans were sold worldwide. The recession has been a boom for Hormel.
To feed our SPAM hunger, 13,000 pigs are processed each day for Hormel at a factory in Minnesota. You can’t eat the squeal, but can you imagine it?
The “head table”, located at the end of the disassembly line, denudes 1,300 severed pig heads an hour. Then a worker sticks a high pressure air hose into the head and sprays the brains out, creating a pink mist that covers the workers.
Many of the workers are Mexican migrants with false IDs. Forced from their homeland by NAFTA and US food corporations, the workers continuously inhale the pig brain aerosols. As a result, they developed strange and devastating autoimmune disorders. SPAM is so cheap because their lives worth nothing to Hormel, because our lives are worth nothing to Hormel.
HOR-mel rhymes with NOR-mal. The name, SPAM, stands for Specially Processed Army Meat, Salted Pork And More, Super Pink Artificial Meat, Squirrel Possum And Mouse, or Some People are Missing.
I can’t take my eyes off SPAM labels. The blue reminds me of the beautiful Pacific Ocean. The yellow lettering reminds me of the tropical sun. If you bring your SPAM labels to the Sorensen Media Group Offices in Agana, the capital of Guam, you can redeem 12 labels for a SPAM shirt and 9 for a SPAM hat!
Turkey SPAM, smoke-flavored SPAM, hot and spicy SPAM, garlic SPAM, SPAM lite. I collected them like American baseball cards. The most valuable in my collection is the “In Honor of Guamʻs Liberation Dayʻ” SPAM, commemorating the day America liberated us from our savage diets of fishing and raising and killing our own food.
Someday, I shall make pilgrimage to the six-story hydrostatic Spam cooker at the Hormel plant. But not today because I gave up SPAM for Lent.
My uncle won the Guam SPAM Cook-off one year. His success brought great honor to our entire clan and village. He traveled to the 16,000 square-foot SPAM museum in Minnesota. When I die, I want my bones bequeathed to the SPAM museum and put on display. Let the placard read: Herein lies the Last Chamorro Spambassador.
My next book includes a poem titled “SPAM’s Carbon Footprint”, perhaps you have heard of it? The poem is inspired by that scene in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (published in 1939), when the owners come and kick the tenants off the farmland–the banks own the land now! The banks do not love the land. And then those terrifying tractors sweep across the country, destroying everything.
A man driving the tractor is described as a robotic part of the monster. He does not love the land. During his lunch break, the tractor driver stops near a tenant house and pulls out his sandwiches: white bread, pickle, cheese, and SPAM. The tenants, who have not yet moved from their house, come out to see the tractor. Curious, starving children surround the driver. But they don’t speak to the driver. Instead, they watch. They watch his hand. They watch his hand carry the SPAM sandwich. They watch his hand carry the SPAM sandwich towards his mouth. They understand the power of the hand that holds the SPAM sandwich. They will follow and obey his hand.