Conference Grants: Sophia Perez at the National Humanities Conference

16 Dec, 2022

Conference Grants: Sophia Perez at the National Humanities Conference

We are pleased to support our students sharing their work at the premiere conferences in their field. Sophia Perez presented on her work with the Northern Marianas Humanities Council on the theme Making the Humanities Local at the National Humanities Conference. From Sophia:

I presented at the 2022 National Humanities Conference in Los Angeles, CA on Saturday, November 12. This annual conference brings together representatives from colleges, universities, state humanities councils, cultural institutions, and other community-based organizations to explore approaches to deepening the public’s engagement with the humanities. While I stepped down as Program Officer for the Northern Marianas Humanities Council (NMHC) in late August 2022, I still presented on Island Time, a two-year program that I directed for NMHC that involved creating a children’s show pilot made for and by the people of the Marianas to teach the Chamorro language.

My presentation was a “Flash Presentation” for a lightning round presentation in which five different humanities council employees gave five-minute presentations (5 slides tops) about a program their council held that falls under the theme, “Making the Humanities Local.” These presenters were selected from a larger pool of applicants who sent in proposals in early Spring of 2022. After the presentations, speakers sat in a panel to answer follow-up questions from the audience.

There were several presentations that resonated strongly with my interest in digital media that empowers grassroots resistance movements. For example, the plenary session titled “From Avant-Garde to Afrofuturism” featured several digital media professors who spoke to the significance of afrofuturist digital work in the larger context of fighting for equality and justice for black Americans.

Here is the script for my presentation:

Buenas yan Håfa Adai todus håmyu - Hello and good afternoon everyone, my name is Sophia Perez and today I’ll be talking about an exciting project that we’re working on at the Northern Marianas Humanities Council. It’s called Island Time, and it’s a children’s show made by and for the people of the Mariana Islands. Island Time teaches the indigenous Chamorro language and celebrates the shared culture of the Marianas community as a whole by bringing together local actors, puppets, musical numbers, and animations.

A little background - The Northern Marianas Humanities Council is based on the island of Saipan, capitol island of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. At NMHC, we understand that centuries of colonialism have taken a profound toll on our indigenous communities, which include both the Chamorro and Carolinian people. Therefore, one of the goals in our strategic master plan is to support projects that promote and perpetuate local indigenous culture.

A little about me, my grandfather is Chamorro and was born on Saipan. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but in 2018 I moved back to Saipan to reconnect with my family and Chamorro roots. I began working as the program officer for the Northern Marianas Humanities Council in 2020, and in early 2021, I proposed developing this pilot episode as an internally funded council program with me acting as a sort of administrator-film director combo, which was kind of unorthodox. But the NMHC board was kind enough to take a chance on this crazy idea. Our budget was around $15,000 and originally we were expected to make a 15-minute episode. Two years later, and as a result of over $70,000 worth of in-kind donations and volunteer time brought forward by many different facets of the Marianas community, we’ve been able to create a 40-minute film with both classic and original Chamorro songs, puppets made out of repurposed and recycled materials, a set built by rehabilitating prisoners on a community center volleyball court, and a professional production company from Guam who flew themselves and their RED cameras to Saipan on their own dime to film the show.

At this point you’re probably like, wait, what’s the show though? Here’s the premise: our protagonist, Fu’una, is a Chamorro teenager whose nåna or grandmother is leaving for a motorcycle road trip across the United States and needs Fu’una to take care of her house and pets. After being thoroughly chastised for not knowing the Chamorro culture or language well enough, Fu’una helps her Nåna into the bed of a pickup truck heading to the airport and when she returns to the house, she’s surprised to find that all of her Nåna’s pets (now puppets) can suddenly talk, build robots, hold political office (Nåna’s pet coconut crab becomes Senator Ed Ayuyu), sing and dance, and even help her with her Chamorro. Our pilot episode, “Inventions,” honors the creations of the ancient Chamorros but also validates the authenticity of modern-day inventing among the Chamorro people.

Here’s the teaser.

When we talk about making things “local,” I think of projects made by the local community, for the local community. That means participation by local leadership, artists, cultural practitioners, youth, and more, every step of the way. In our case, the community buy-in that made Island Time possible has been one of the most overwhelming and humbling experiences of my life, and I wanted to share a little about what went into that with all of you.

Here are our puppeteers, high school students who learned how to act, memorize lines, create props, and puppeteer for this project - the Council ended up giving them service awards for their combined volunteer time of over 1,000 hours. They’re standing in the “art room” of a local artist who hosted rehearsals in her home, allowed us to borrow furniture and decorations for our set, built the puppets, costumes and made props for the show out of repurposed materials she either collected or found. These included old yoga mats, junkyard cash registers, spare ping pong balls and old comforters. The production crew, Mighty Island gave the Council a $15,000 discount for their top-of-the-line production services. Our VFX editor and animator donated over 500 hours and learned how to use several different programs entirely for this show. A local hunter caught us a live coconut crab (once we were granted a permit from Fish & Wildlife). A local medicine man and Chamorro language educator signed off on the spelling and grammar for every animated Chamorro word, and blessed the set at the beginning of production. All the actors were local, recognizable community members and included well-known cultural practitioners, musical artists, a standup comedian, a celebrated chef, a traditional seafarer, the CNMI Senate President, and our leading lady, Shannon Sasamoto, who was Miss Marianas 2019. Many had never acted before, but all rose to the occasion. I’m happy to share that when we premiered the pilot episode of Island Time, our community packed the local theater. Every seat was taken, and there were children sitting in the aisles and adults standing in the back. To our relief, the audience laughed at all the right places, sang along, and some even cried.

During our question and answer portion at the end of the viewing, many audience members were emotional and expressed their excitement to see the Marianas community joking, singing, and thriving on the big screen - they said instead of always watching media put out by other cultures, we can finally watch “us.”

And ultimately that was the main intention of the pilot episode - to show the Marianas community that local people. cultures and perspectives are just as funny and interesting and important as the Eastern and Western cultures that dominate digital media. As a Council, we wanted to do more than teach indigenous languages or “preserve” indigenous cultures. We wanted to prove that the Chamorro culture is still alive, still strong, and still valuable. And I think the way that this show came together without substantial funding is a testament to that vitality and strength. It’s our hope that testaments like these will make it a lot easier to understand the value of practicing the Chamorro culture and learning the Chamorro language.

That’s all I have for now, pretty sure I went over time, dispensa yu and si yu’us ma’åsi, thank for listening!