Craig Santos Perez remembers the day his teacher in California asked students to stand in front of the class and point on a map to where they were from.
The tiny island of Guam was nowhere to be found.
“I felt very invisible,” he said. “I want to write stories that make my people, my homeland more visible … and also write for other migrants like me who maybe felt that same way, who never saw our culture in books or in literature before.”
Today he does just that, and for the third year in a row, the University of Hawaii Manoa professor has been nationally recognized for his poetry about American colonization, militarization and Guam’s often-ignored history.
Like Hawaii — where Perez has lived for seven years — Guam is an island where growth and urbanization is restricted. It’s laid back, but islanders are always aware of the U.S. military presence there, he said.
Like many from the Micronesia region who emigrate to America, Perez said his family was in search of opportunity. They left during a recession in the 1990s.
His high school peers in California assumed he was Mexican. They had never heard of Micronesia or the Chamorro people — the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands, including Perez. Most associated Pacific Islanders with Polynesia or Hawaii.
Now a professor of creative writing, environmental poetry and Pacific literature at UH, Perez draws from those memories and experiences in his series of poetry books titled “from unincorporated territory.” Every book has a Chamorro title.
Perez and his wife, Brandy Nalani McDougall, a Native Hawaiian poet and editor, co-founded Ala Press, the only American publisher exclusively dedicated to Pacific literature.
In 2015, he became the first Pacific Islander to receive the American Book Award for his third book, “from unincorporated territory: [guma’],” the Chamorro word for home. Last year, he was a winner of the Hawaii Literary Arts Council’s Elliot Cades Award for Literature.
Perez hopes the awards will help draw national attention to Pacific literature.
His books have been used in classes at the University of Guam, the University of California Berkeley and the University of Kansas, among others.
When he lived in California, Perez often toured the country, speaking to students who had never heard of Guam or met a Pacific Islander.
Perez met fellow Chamorros in unexpected places, including Kansas and Wisconsin. Sometimes, he’d even discover that they were related.
“It was definitely a strange experience at first, but you start to feel like an ambassador in some ways,” he said.
The cover of his new book, “[lukao],” features two photos. One is of Lasso Fuha, a stone that is said to represent the entity who birthed the first Chamorro people and marks the beginning of Guam’s genealogy. The other is of his own 3-year-old daughter at Waikiki Aquarium — the beginning of Perez’s family.
His latest book is the first of the series to be set in Hawaii, but in it he also writes about the history of Guam, the “rape of Oceania” and asks readers to contemplate where “islands end and begin.”
Perez also touches on lighter subjects that resonate with island readers, like the state’s most treasured canned meat.
“Eight pounds of SPAM die in a Chamorro stomach each year, which is more per capita than any other ethno-intestinal tract in the world,” he wrote.
In his latest book, Perez explores his fears as a parent raising a child in an era of climate change and militarization in the Pacific. But he’s also hopeful that being raised in Hawaii will teach her about indigenous rights, environmentalism and the demilitarization movement.
“Having a little baby, you’re reminded of how vulnerable and fragile life is,” he said. “It makes me feel very worried and anxious, but at the same time it reinforces the urgency that we all need to act and to do what we can to protect the environment and to fight so that we actually care about each other and take care of each other.”