I watch my dad soak the achiote seeds,
mix the reddened water with cleaned rice,
then place the pot on the stove. Boil, simmer,
and stir, so it doesn’t burn. The recipe
ingrained in his palms.
Red rice is the heart of Chamorro cuisine.
It’s the first dish on the table at every fiesta,
every rosary and funeral. Every Chamorro fills
at least half their plate with red rice, with meats
stacked high atop the starchy mattress.
Chamorros were the only Pacific Islanders who
cultivated rice in the tropics. Rice was once ceremony,
wealth, medicine, and trade. Our ancestors called it:
fa’i (rice growing in a field), fama’ayan (rice field)
timulo (harvested, unhusked rice), tinitu (husked rice),
chaguan aga’ga (wild rice), pugas (uncooked rice),
and hineksa’ (cooked rice). Each word echoes
like an impression of a grain of rice on a shard
of ancient Chamorro pottery.
When Spain colonized Guam, they brought corn.
Titiyas, our word for tortillas, largely replaced rice.
When Japan colonized Guam during World War II,
their military forced Chamorros to cultivate rice fields
and feed the occupying army. When the US returned,
cheap imported rice from Asia and California flooded
the paddies of our stomachs. Today, a large bag of
Calrose sits in every Chamorro home.
Calrose is Calrose is Calrose is Calrose.
My paternal great-grandpa was from
a coal mining family in Lee County, West Virginia.
His white last name is “Hughes.” One day, a mine
collapsed and almost killed him, left a black scar
on his forehead. He escaped the mines by joining
the military, eventually being stationed on Guam
and marrying into a Chamorro family.
Yet he refused to eat rice with his dinner,
would insist on potatoes and bread.
To him, rice was breakfast food that should
only be eaten with milk, butter, and sugar.
Everyone thought he was a strange American.
Achiote, like my last name, Perez,
is not endemic to Guam. During the Spanish
colonial era, traders brought the plant
from Mexico because its attractive pink flowers
made it popular in colonial gardens.
Achiote is native to Central and South America,
and was used by the Mayans as a food spice and dye,
as body paint for war and rituals, as medicine.
Annatto, in English, a poor man’s saffron, lipstick tree.
My grandma grows achiote in her yard.
She would deseed the red pods
and dry them in aluminum trays
beneath the territorial sun.
Her fingers stained red for days.
When my family migrated to California,
we drove to three different stores until
we finally found achiote at a Mexican grocery:
Mama Sita’s Achuete powder.
It came in plastic yellow packages,
which resembled the bright sun
on the flag of the Philippines,
where two of my paternal great-grandfathers
are from. Their last names are Eclavea & Untalan.
They were arrested by the Spanish
during the late 19th century, exiled
to Guam as political dissidents,
and eventually married into
I ask my dad: “If the rice is from California
and the achiote is from the Philippines,
then what makes this dish Chamorro?”
He pauses for a moment before he replies:
“It’s Chamorro because we’ve passed it down
for generations, because we’ve made it
with our own hands.”
Whenever I make red rice today,
I think of the red border
of the Guam flag, the blood
of my relatives, my native genealogy
dyed by migration, war, coal, rebellion,
and empire. I think of my dad.
How when the rice was ready,
he would salt it and call me
over to taste. And I’d always
reply, “It’s perfect.”
This poem was published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamorro from the Pacific Island of Guam. He is an associate professor at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa.