‘Heart of the Marianas’


What began as a spark of inspiration one afternoon during my 4th-period class grew into one of the greatest learning experiences for my students and me. On Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022, over a hundred U.S. Government & Economics students from Marianas High School visited the Governor’s Office and Legislature, both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Our mission was to visit both the Executive and Legislative branches and learn first-hand from our elected officials about the important work of running our Commonwealth government.

When we met Gov. Ralph Torres in his conference room, he greeted us and welcomed us to take a seat at his table. My students were feeling shy, but once settled, he briefly introduced himself and talked about how he got started in his 15-year political career. He brought up Article 12 of the CNMI Constitution, which limits the permanent and long-term land acquisition of fixed property to those of Northern Marianas descent. He asked students their thoughts about it, then explained the importance of protecting and preserving the land because it is one of our natural resources that cannot grow. He gave examples of a few Pacific nations’ approaches to land rights and ownership, then provided various solutions for any of Article 12’s disadvantages. Then we proceeded to an open forum where students could ask him any questions they had. A few of my students’ questions resembled those asked in the gubernatorial debate. However, many questions were on various topics that the students care about, such as public services, infrastructure, economy, public parks, his career accomplishments, and challenges, as well as controversial issues. Gov. Torres took his time to answer every question as best as he could, even the ones that were controversial and that students felt too shy to ask. For questions about public services and projects, he provided clear and concise information and timelines. He was very helpful, open, and frank. Finally, Gov. Torres shared some advice that helped him succeed as the youngest governor in the United States and Commonwealth history: “Follow your passion in life and don’t let anyone stop you from doing it.” He also stressed the importance of establishing a positive support system to help the youth succeed: “Surround yourself with positive people and include your family on your journey.”

After the forum, we all took a group photo with the governor while a couple students in our school’s video production class were given a tour of the media room. Finally, staffers gave everyone a red lunch bag filled with a donut, egg sandwich, chicken kelaguen wrap, and water. This meant a lot to me as a field trip coordinator because I was concerned about any thirsty and hungry students. Acts of kindness such as this show a person’s heart and Gov. Torres was kind, hospitable, and generous to all of us. By the end of our meeting, my students’ faces were full of smiles as they shook hands and took selfies with the Governor before heading out the door.

On the short walk to the Legislature, my students walked with a bounce in their steps, full of excitement and appreciation. The truth is that after all these years of conflict, controversy, and criticism within our government, in our community, and in the media, these young people finally found a sense of clarity and understanding because they had the opportunity to ask questions, listen, and learn Gov. Torres’s perspectives directly from him. These perspectives were unfiltered from third-party perspectives. Gov. Torres was head-of-state for nearly half of their lives, so it was very important for them to find closure at the end of his administration. Finally meeting him and learning firsthand about his work and contributions to our Commonwealth was a great relief for the youth because they were able to form a more accurate and open-minded perception of him.

As we entered the House of Representatives, House Speaker Edmund Villagomez warmly welcomed us and gave an introduction to the meeting that was taking place. Students were interested to witness our elected officials hard at work amending the Whistleblower Protection Act. Rep. Celina Babauta welcomed us, announcing our visit and informing us of the work that their committee was doing. Rep. Tina Sablan was passionately focused on the task at hand, providing amendments to the legal counsel. After some time, Youth Congress coordinator Luis Castro arrived to escort us to the Senate where there was a meeting in session regarding pensions. Earlier that morning, Senate President Jude Hofschneider welcomed the first group of students to the Senate chamber where he and Sen. Vinnie Sablan, Sen. Karl King-Nabors, and Se. Justo Quitugua gave an informative talk and answered any questions the students had. A few of those questions were related to Article 12, the districts of the CNMI, and various aspects of the tourism economy. All students were very engaged and intrigued by their new mentors who they had followed in the news for the past year and more.

After observing the Senate meeting, we made our way back to the House of Representatives chamber during recess, where we had the opportunity to meet and take photos with our representatives: House Vice Speaker B.J. Attao and Reps. Celina Babauta, Sablan, Donald Manglona, Edwin Propst, Vicente Camacho, and Richard Lizama. Students took photos with Sablan, whose gubernatorial campaign inspired young women to consider a career in politics. After greeting our representatives and taking photos, we bid farewell and began to board our buses to depart for our school campus.

After meeting with our elected officials, it was apparent that they are all very dedicated and hardworking people who do their best for our Commonwealth. My students and I all feel a sense of gratitude that, despite their differences, they all took time from their busy schedules to educate and inspire our youth. During a class discussion after the field trip, one of my students said, “There are two sides to every story. It’s nice to know Gov. Torres’ perspective.” This student was one of two students whom I sent to the Close Up Youth Summit earlier this semester. At this weeklong summit, both young women successfully conducted research, drafted, debated, and passed a legislative proposal with the guidance of Sablan, the 2022 Democrat gubernatorial candidate. Another student reflected, “The most precious lesson that I learned was never to let anyone stop me from pursuing what I desire. The amount of criticism directed at Gov. Torres was a lot; however, he taught us to never give up. With this experience, I became more open-minded about the government.”

In one class discussion, my students brainstormed the top qualities that make good leaders: 1) Open-mindedness to understand others’ perspectives without judgment, 2) Empathy to understand others’ life experiences and to treat them with kindness and respect, and 3) Compassion to show mercy, grace, and charity to others. Furthermore, my students also listed the following traits as hallmarks of a good leader and positive role model for their generation: loving, honest, loyal, understanding, accepting, positive, values equality, friendly, selfless, determined, demonstrates a good example, uplifts the human spirit, and respectful. When I asked my students who their role models are, many mentioned family, peers, personal connections, and social media influences. With all that is happening and continues to occur in our Commonwealth, my students have expressed that they are having trouble finding good role models. One student said, “We can find them if we look hard enough.” However, I believe our youth should not have to look hard to find good role models.

As a mother, teacher, advocate, and citizen, I am writing this letter from the depths and sincerity of my heart, with the unanimous agreement, support, and consent of my students. This letter is a call for all of us to open our hearts so that we may transcend contempt and resentment toward forgiveness and unconditional love. Our youth are observing all that is occurring in our Commonwealth and they yearn for reconciliation, peace, compromise, cooperation, stability, positivity, and progress. They desire respect, acceptance, and inclusion, regardless of a person’s background, beliefs, political party, or past. We need a change, but the change we truly desire will not come from a change of officials who sit in political office or transferring of power from one party to another. Elected officials will always change and unenlightened people will always battle over money and power. Our history has shown that this cycle is not the solution for the repeating cycle of dysfunction. The change we need to make is within each and every one of our hearts. There exists good in all, just as there is a shadow, and the way we see our world is colored by our perceptions. In order to find the truth, we must keep an open mind and an open heart to rise above clouded judgments. We must be compassionate so we can live in the spirit of inafa’maolek, which means making things right with harm to none. As the dawn of the New Year is upon us, I pray we can all find it in our hearts to learn the lessons of the past, forgive ourselves and each other and move forward together in peace and unity. And when I say “unity,” I truly mean “all of us” because we are all One. Uno Hit!

In closing, I would like to share a personal memory with all of you. About a year ago, someone told me, “The future of the Marianas lies within your heart.” Since that time, these words have had a profound impact on me. I did not understand what this person saw in me. How could the future of the Marianas lie within my heart? I am one person who has gone through many struggles in life, just like many of you. Although time has passed, I never forgot these words. However, as I was writing this letter, I realized the deeper meaning of these words. I realize my greatest power is the infinite wealth of love and harmony within my heart that I can share with others. Now, it is my turn to pass on these profound words to each and every one of you because you, too, have great potential and hold the key to our future.

“The future of the Marianas lies within your heart.”

May we move forward with guinaiya yan hinengge—love and faith—for a better and brighter tomorrow. I wish you all a warm “Felis Pasgua & Añu Nuebu,” full of love, happiness, and peace. Sen dangkalu na Si Yu’us Ma’åse yan Ghilissow ngelúgh for reading this letter with an open mind and heart.

Candice Muña is a teacher at Marianas High School.


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