Get to know Guam: Merizo where water, pride abound
Editor’s note: The U.S. territory of Guam is comprised of 21 villages, many with their own distinct character, history and points of interest. Stripes Guam and Guampedia have joined forces to present this weekly feature on each of them in the hopes that it will help our readers get out – and get to know – our gracious hosts. To learn more about Guam’s people, history, culture and places, visit: guampedia.com
Always known as a place for fishing, the village’s original name, Malesso’, derives from the Chamorro word lesso’, a juvenile stage in the growth of rabbit fish.
Juvenile rabbit fish, or mañåhak in Chamorro, run in schools at certain times of the year in the bays and inlets of the village. Their arrival is always an occasion of great excitement, as groups of people large and small work nets to gather the local delicacy.
While there are few accounts of the pre-Spanish colonial era on Guam, Merizo’s abundance of fresh water, its protected lagoon, extensive reef and shorelines, and its fertile valleys suggest that the area likely sustained a large population. By 1833, however, the population was estimated at only 318. By this time, disease, calamity and the Spanish-Chamorro wars had reduced the native Chamorros.
Despite the dramatic decrease in the Chamorro population during the Reduccíon (efforts to subdue Chamorros into accepting Christianity and Spanish rule), the population of Merizo was significant enough for Father Diego Luis de San Vitores to order the building of the fifth mission on Guam in Merizo in 1672.
No trace of the original mission structures exists today. The recently restored Malesso’ Kombento, home to the parish priest, and the Kampanayun Malesso’ (Merizo Belltower), both Spanish-era structures, as well as the new church dedicated in September 2002, attest to the church’s enduring place in village life.
In March 1721 a drunken British privateer captain, angered over soured hostage negotiations, brashly tried to steal a Spanish supply ship anchored in front of the village in the Mama’on Channel. The British ship ran aground. The beleaguered crew, fired upon from shore cannons at close range, finally wrested the vessel off the reef and escaped after a fifty-hour battle that killed two of them.
Life in Merizo went on more or less quietly through the turn of 20th century, even as American naval rule replaced the Spanish on Guam. That would change in the dawn of World War II. During the Japanese invasion of Guam in 1941, a contingent of 5,000 Japanese invasion troops actually began coming ashore at Bile Bay on Merizo’s western shore. Finding no road to Agat, the soldiers re-boarded their boats and headed north to join their comrades.
The Japanese occupation of Guam set Merizo on a course that, in July 1944, would make the village a locus of infamous brutality and stirring heroism. Almost four years after the Japanese invasion and occupation of Guam, their situation began to grow desperate as American ships bombarded the island in preparation for the July 21 landing and retaking of Guam. The Japanese troops stationed in Merizo rounded up two groups of thirty Chamorros each. Forty-six Chamorros were slaughtered with grenades, bayonets, and sabers.
At Tinta, in the Geus River valley, some escaped death by lying still under the corpses of their relatives and friends, while others were able to flee. Not one of the thirty in the second group survived the massacre at Faha, just behind the village cemetery. Each year in July, people hike for prayer services to the original massacre sites in remembrance of the forty-six villagers. Similar massacres took place in Fena, near the present day Santa Rita, and Yigo.
When word of the massacres got to villagers, who by that time had been marched inland to a camp, seven Merizo men killed ten Japanese soldiers and drove the rest from village. This left Merizo the first village on Guam to be liberated, and the only one to be liberated by the Chamorros themselves.
At this point, a group of six Merizo men paddled and sailed a canoe out to a U.S. warship. The crew picked up the Chamorro men, and the six served as scouts in the effort to retake Guam.
The Merizo Belltower, or Kampanayun Malesso just across the main road from the Kombento, dates to 1910 and the tenure of Father Cristobal de Canals. It was ncluded in the National Register of Historic Places and restoration efforts took place in the early 1980s.
This nineteenth century building was restored in 2000 to its original design under a grant from the Guam Preservation Trust. It is the home of the parish priest and a museum.
Merlyn G. Cook School
Now a youth recreation center near the Merizo Pier park, the building originally housed a naval radio facility in the early 1920s. Named in 1931 for the Guam Public School System’s first leader, it served as the village schoolhouse for a decade in the late ’20s and early ’30s. The Guam Preservation Trust restored the building recently so that it could be used again by village residents.
Santa Marian Kamalen shrine/park
Across the street from the kombento a small park with a marble statue of Santa Marian Kamalen. There is a plaque explaining that according to local legend, the site is where a fisherman from Merizo was fishing in the bay, between Merizo and Cocos Island, when he spotted a statue of the Virgin Mary being carried by two golden crabs.
The narrow, mile-long island, originally called Dano, lies about two miles off the village along Guam’s southern reef line, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and Cocos Lagoon on the other. About a third of the island at the west end is a government-owned public park, and once was the site of a U.S. Coast Guard LORAN station. Camping is permitted. The other two-thirds is a privately owned day resort. The Rothschild family, of banking fame, once owned the whole island. They were copra traders in pre-war Guam.
Currently, the small island is being looked at as a refuge for ko’ko (the Guam rail).
Malesso’ Fiestan Tasi
Malesso’ Fiestan Tasi, or Merizo Festival of the Sea, is an annual event held in November that celebrates the importance of the ocean in Chamorro Culture. Thousands of people gather in Merizo to enjoy the various water races, a fishing derby, an ocean parade filled with decorative floats, Chamorro cultural displays and arts and crafts, concession stands and southern hospitality.
Merizo Pier and Small Boat Ramp
This public facility fronts Mama’on Channel, the main pass into Cocos Lagoon.
The Priest’s Pools are natural freshwater pools in the Pigua River hidden in the hills of Merizo.
Merizo Martyrs Memorial School
Constructed in 1966, this is one of the public elementary schools on Guam. The school sits between the Merizo Community Center and the Office of the Mayor of Merizo atop Pigua, a high spur of land that forms one side of the Geus River Valley.
San Dimas Catholic Church
A new church building was dedicated Sept. 29, 2002, replacing a dilapidated tin-and wood structure that had served parishioners as a church for more than a decade. Mass and festivities honoring Merizo’s patron, San Dimas, occur annually on the third weekend of April.
Did you know?
In 1946, the first woman was elected to the Guam Congress. Rosa Aguigui Reyes, from Merizo, served in the congress – an advisory body to the island’s naval governor – and was also a longtime educator. She died January 2007 at the age of ninety-one.
This village at a glance
- Population: As of the 2000 U.S. Census, the population of Merizo was 2,163.
- Village officials: Ernest T. Chargualaf, Mayor 2009 – Present; Sherry L. Chargualaf, Mayor, 2007-2008; Sherry L. Chargualaf, Acting Mayor, September 2006 – December 2006; Rita A. Tainatongo, Mayor, 2001-2006; Ignacio “Buck” S. Cruz, Commissioner/Mayor, 1985-2000; Jose R. Tyquiengco, Commissioner, 1981-1985; Ignacio “Buck” S. Cruz, Commissioner, 1979-1981; Joaquin Q. Acfalle, Commissioner, 1977-1979; Francisco C. Chargualaf, Commissioner, 1952-1976; Jesus C. Barcinas, Commissioner, 1944-1952; Juan E. Lujan, Commissioner, 1931-1941; Ramon P. Cruz, Commissioner, 1922-1930; Prudencio Gogue, Commissioner, 1917-1921; Jose Ada Reyes, Commissioner, 1915-1917; Jose Lujan, Commissioner, 1910-1914; Jesus C. Barcinas, Deputy Commissioner, (no dates provided). (Provided by Konsehelon Mahot Guåhan/the Mayor’s Council of Guam.)
- Village description: Merizo skirts Guam’s scenic southern shoreline on a long strip of land between mountains and sea.
Cocos Lagoon, several miles square and enclosed by a large triangle of reef, extends about three miles out from the village. Cocos Island Resort draws day visitors to the small, densely vegetated, low-lying strip of land along the lagoon’s southern exposure. The lagoon is distinguished from the deeper water outside the reef by an array of vivid blues and greens that signify shallow water over sand flats and protected coral gardens. Mama’on Channel, the lagoon’s deep main pass, runs west to east past Merizo Pier and the village boat ramp, gradually shallowing as it cuts farther into the lagoon.
Fiestan Tasi (Festival of the Sea) is held annually in Merizo, and celebrates the importance of the ocean to Guam’s past, present and future. It often includes boat races and other water sports competitions and exhibitions. Dates of the festival vary from year to year.
On the other side of the winding main coastal road, Route 4, several rivers flowing to the sea from the nearby mountains cut lush valleys through dry savanna foothills. Much of the population lives in these rural valleys, which are mainly residential areas dotted with a few farms and ranches, shadows of the community’s agrarian past.
So far, residents have viewed cautiously any prospect of extensive development, and the village remains primarily residential. Commerce is limited to the privately owned Cocos Island Resort and its ancillary vendors, and to a few small village-based retail stores, a gas station, and a branch of the Bank of Guam.
In May, swimmers travel from all over Asia to join local swimmers in the Cocos Crossing, a 2.2-mile race from Cocos Island, on the southern edge of Cocos Lagoon, across the lagoon to Merizo Pier.