Maria Duenas Calvo was born in Guam on February 2, 1923, the second child of a large family. She grew up in an age when parents would pull a child out of school to help with chores and the care of their siblings. Maria was in the 6th grade when she was permanently pulled from school, long before many of her siblings were born. Over the years, Maria cared for her brothers and sisters. As time passed, she witnessed her siblings continue with their schooling, far beyond her 6th-grade education.
At the tender age of twelve, she had numerous responsibilities. Her parents operated a general store out of the first level of their home, thus, there was always work. There was also family gardening at the Sabana Ranch, in an era when fresh food was not readily available for purchase. Caring for children, gardening and chores were her life.
Six years later, at the age of 18, Maria witnessed and experienced the traumatic effects of war. Guam was bombed four hours after Pearl Harbor.
The Imperial Japanese forces quickly invaded and occupied Guam. Maria, along with her beloved family, was enslaved in labor encampments – a harrowing time of forced labor. These labor camps included the endless toil of planting and harvesting farm crops, physical and verbal abuse – and maltreatment at the hands of the Imperial Japanese forces.
The people of Guam, the Chamorros, became mere tools to be utilized without regard for their health, safety or well-being.
During the thirty-two-month period of captivity, the people of Guam were forced to endure the hardships of a military occupation. The takeover of the island was intended to be permanent. Social activity was prohibited, schools were closed, and men, women, and children over the age of 12 were forced to work long hours in the fields, to repair or build airstrips and defense installations, and dig hundreds of cave shelters.
Maria, as well as some of her siblings, labored mainly in the rice fields. There were periods when they worked at bayonet point.
Eventually, everyone in her family’s area of the island was forced to move. They could only take with them the belongings that they were able to carry to an encampment in the southern jungles. With inadequate shelter, no sanitary facilities and severely rationed food, hunger and life was difficult to endure.
Through pure tenacity and a will to survive, Maria coped with the trauma and the uncertainty of her life and life around her. She drew from an untapped strength to survive and move forward with her life after Guam’s liberation from the Japanese on July 21, 1944.
It is amazing how strong one can be when there is no other choice.
Maria’s life continued, working a short time as a civilian for the Navy, marrying Elmer and raising ten well-balanced children: five sons and five daughters. With her husband and partner of 65 years, they raised true citizens of the world, who hold high school diplomas and advanced degrees, with occupations that range from U.S. Military Field Grade Commissioned and Non-Commissioned Officers, Registered Nurse, Pharmacist, Civil Servant, Law Enforcement Officer and an Executive Officer within a Fortune 100 company. Maria worked to instill in her children and grandchildren the importance of faith, family and the demonstration of a good work ethic.
She and her husband went on to establish a caring relationship and a debt -free lifestyle legacy for their children to inherit.
Maria’s life is a testament of a young woman who withstood the atrocities of war and lived the remainder of her life in direct contrast to that experience, showering family and friends with life lessons, hard truths, justice, love and her unwavering faith.
In December 1999, Maria shared the message below with her daughter-in-law:
There’s no time for remaining in the past – that will take up too much of your living time. I don’t visit hate, because it only causes me harm. I keep company with my faith. I pray.
I learned early how to take care of myself and my family. You must learn how to care for yourself, how to feed yourself and your children. Learn to do something [a vocational trade] that will allow you to earn real money, so you won’t have to depend on any man [or woman]. I learned to sew, grow food and grow flowers. I could always feed myself and family and provide clothes for them to wear. I am a weaver; I could sell my items to generate income. I did not do foolish things with the money I earned. I saved.
My learned lessons are my gifts to you.
Maria passed away in 2012, but her legacy of relentless hope lives on. Today, her daughter-in-law, Lisa C. Williams, passes this wisdom on in the transformational spirit of Maria Duenas Calvo.