Roldy Aguero Ablao grew up in a small village in Guåhan (Guam) and moved to Seattle in 2000 to study at the University of Washington. Their artistry is difficult to encapsulate—it spans fashion, performance, photography, craft, and curation, all of which champion their CHamoru heritage. Their work is fearless, expressive, and spectacularly queer. In our interview, we talk about culture, place, and belonging as a queer artist from Guahan.

Hafa Adai, and happy Pride Month! Can you tell me what celebrating Pride means to you?

When I first moved here in 2000 from Guåhan (Guam), as a spritely 18-year-old fresh from Catholic School, there was such a freedom and curiosity here that was really exciting. Walking through Capitol Hill in the early 2000s, seeing the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence tower over you as they smile and walk by, or folks in leather and lace and chains, the music, the energy, the secret spots—it was all really indulgent. I remember sneaking to cruising areas with friends in Volunteer Park (but too shy to do anything), or hearing about bathrooms where you could sit and wait for a sexy connection, or phone numbers that you would call just to talk and hear another queer person's voice. There was such a yearning for myself to explore a part of myself that I never could.

So being in Seattle, here in Duwamish Territory, has helped me learn more about sexuality and gender and desire, which has definitely influenced the ways I am learning to love myself more and show up in the world as a queer person. Being LGBTQIA is tough, and there are many moments that it is scary to be ourselves. But I know deep down, that being queer saved me, allowed me to understand myself beyond what was told to me, offered me and others the ability to find power and permission to transform ourselves, become alchemists of our experiences, to create new realities because that is what we want to see. We create the worlds we want to live in not just for ourselves, but for those after us. I think that is what pride means to be, it’s a world where we can exist in all our multitudes, in sacred belonging. 

Roldy Aguero Ablao

Can you give me a little background on your CHamoru roots and how it informs your perspective on the world and in your creative practice?

I was raised on Guåhan (Guam) in the Marianas Islands, to a CHamoru father and a Korean mother, having lived on the islands until I was 18 before moving to Seattle. While living on the island, especially before the 2000s, there weren’t many places that taught or celebrated CHamoru culture. The Marianas were colonized and Catholicized by Spain in the 1500s, under rule by Japan in the 1940s, and then Americanized as an unincorporated territory of the United States (along with Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands). So the islands have undergone various cultural identities over the years.

When I was growing up, and for my parent's generation, it was about being American, speaking good English, and going to college in “mainland”. But getting here, to Seattle, it was a different story. Here I wasn’t really American, I was “the island kid who spoke good English,” who wore shorts and slippers even when it was cold, who didn’t know where to fit. But it wasn’t until I started working at the Wing Luke Museum that I began to discover that there was more to myself than what the history books have told me. I remember, as a kid, even today, whenever I would open a book I would look for Guam in the index, hoping to find more stories about this place I grew up. Mostly it was one or two lines, always connecting Guam and the islands to war and the military. As a kid, that was disheartening, to know that this is what the world knows and thinks of you—a component for war. Really, what I was looking for was representation, to see myself in the world. Which is why I am so grateful to have worked at the Wing. It was the first place that asked me to look at my family and my history for belonging, to think about those who came before as guiding points for future travels, to honor the past in ways so others can learn and connect with stories, personal stories. 

Through my work there and afterward, I was able to meet many more people who look at culture as a place of inspiration—people who have inspired and guided me to become an archaeologist of my own history. I also found many artists who helped to inspire me to continue exploring this type of work—Yuki Kihara, Rosanna Raymond, George Nuku—who continually explore culture and place with their work. This is my hope for myself, and for my practice, to continue to imagine place and play.

I remember a Maori weaver once told me that as indigenous people, we have to continue to talk ourselves into the future because we are always seen in the past. I think about that a lot when I create, when I try to weave various visions together in space and time, using my body as a place to store them. In some ways, I haven’t existed before, so all I have is the future to imagine myself, which is why I used photography a lot in archiving my journey in culture and gender, until I find something that fits. But for now, it’s mostly play, using whatever I could find and make, to create lush jungles and ethereal coral reefs of home, reminding me that I am part land, part sea, all ancestry. 

Roldy Aguero Ablao

I’d love for you to explain the vision and the meaning of your interdisciplinary CHamoru arts collective, Guma’ Gela’.

‘Guma’ means house or home while ‘Gela’ is a pejorative meaning gay, which we are reclaiming. We were also inspired by wonderful Pacific Artist Collectives in Aotearoa (New Zealand), like the Pacific Sisters, FAFSWAG, and the SaVAge K’lub, who all use art, culture, and the body to interrogate, radicalize, and decolonize a Pacific experience. It was here that we decided to come up with our own version of what it means to be CHamoru with our motto: Part Land, Part Sea, All Ancestry, helping to guide and inspire many of our works today. 

At first, it was a place for friends to hang out and talk about what it means to be CHamoru, Gela’, queer, and trans, by practicing language and learning stories of home, sharing our personal histories with each other. We eventually wanted to develop deeper connections to ourselves and the islands, creating what you see today—a collective of queer and trans CHamoru storytellers made up of illustrators, make-up artists, poets, performers, photographers, musicians, singers, songwriters, weavers, and designers. In a sense, we are like a traveling fiesta, an island breeze that brings the best parts of it wherever we go—the music, dance, fashion, food, gifts—while also honoring the native/indigenous lands we are also on, too (Coast Salish Territory in the Pacific Northwest).

Currently, we have an exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum that just opened this month, just in time for Pride. We ended up choosing 13 artists to feature, inspired by the lunar calendar, as a way to weave together our varied and layered stories, exploring love and grief and family and place in tender and surprising ways. Many artists even explored new media for this exhibition, like musicians doing fiber art or weavers/jewelry makers creating installations/site-specific work to expand and celebrate their stories. The space was also inspired by our motto, with three areas each representing the land, sea, and ancestry. The first feels like a home, like the land we grew up in, filled with mementos of home, while the interior areas feel more corally, like being in the reef or the Marianas Trench. The center, connecting the two, is a space for ancestry, held together by two altars dedicated to the land and sea, a place to see yourself in multitudes. In a way, we wanted to explore and imagine abundance, to see our lands and seas as places of rest and rejuvenation, and to create a space that could hold our younger queer selves in love and tenderness.  

Roldy Aguero Ablao

And you live in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, right? It’s my favorite part of Seattle and it’s been wild to watch it change over 20-plus years I’ve been here. What have you observed recently?

I began working in the C-ID, at the Wing Luke Museum, around 2008. Before that, I never really ventured into this part of the city. When you are a student, you sometimes feel like you are in a bubble. Also, it took a bit to get here on the bus. But when you graduate with no family around, you are left to explore by yourself, which was a bit intimidating. Since I didn’t have a car, I wanted to live close to where I work, so I was lucky enough to land a spot here, in an affordable housing unit which is definitely a lifesaver. The city is expensive for many, and as an artist, it can get challenging, so I was grateful to find a place that allowed me to walk to work.

When I used to work at the Wing, we would do walking tours of the area, exploring parks and streets, looking at places of history or moments of story. Like how Jackson Street was once known as Skid Row because of the ways logs would skid down them during the early 1900s. Or that Tai Tung is the oldest Chinese restaurant in Seattle, where Bruce Lee used to eat at. Or that there was a vibrant Filipino Town there, where Carlos Bulosan, famed Filipino American writer who wrote America Is in the Heart, once called the Eastern Hotel home. This is why I love it so much, as one of the historic neighborhoods in Seattle—it is still living and breathing, with many who want to protect and uplift the stories that live there. One of my favorite facts of the C-ID is that there is a neighborhood bureau that oversees all businesses who want to take up shop there, making sure the neighborhood is able to stay cultural and historic, and once McDonald's wanted to have a restaurant there, but they said no. I love that. Although Mcdonald's sponsors a summer festival there, which I think is kinda funny and ironic, but hey, free fries for the aunties there? I’m down for that. 

I’ve been the recipient of my share of free fries too! Do you have a favorite C-ID restaurant?

That is a hard one. Living and working in this neighborhood over the years has really made me try everything, but also go back to the same thing too. Like the Szechuan Noodle Bowl. I love their dumplings and their green onion pancakes. Really flaky and crispy. The dumplings are handmade too, sometimes in the restaurants while you are eating, which I love. Or the scallop and egg fried rice at Hong Kong Bistro—I was introduced to that by a friend a bit ago and now it's a staple wherever I go there with friends. Or World Pizza, which is a vegan pizza place near the Wing, which has a seasonal pizza with fresh sliced peaches, which is salty and sweet and really tasty. But a quick pinch is Uwajimaya’s deli and hot food area. They have Spam, egg, and rice or Portuguese sausage egg and rice bowls, which is such island food that I love seeing and getting there every so often. 

If you are interested in more food in the C-ID, the Wing Luke Museum has food tours that happen every two weeks on Friday that explore several different restaurants in the neighborhood based on theme. Like a rice tour or a BBQ tour, it’s a fun way to explore the area while also learning about history and place too, all through food! The next one is coming up on July 17.

I was totally mesmerized by your weaving stories on Instagram. I hope everyone goes and watches them. It feels like a love letter to Guam and Seattle when you decorate a street pole or railing with woven ornamentation. How did this idea come to you?

When I was back there this past summer, I was a part of this amazing CHamoru artist residency, composed of 13 artists from the islands and in the diaspora. Over the years, we met over Zoom and explored CHamoru dance and chant, something we had lost due to colonization by the Spanish, but is being revived and remembered today. So last year was when we all got to be on the island together, to physically share space and spirit, on the lands of our ancestors. Being there felt like a spiritual recharge, helping me to find purpose in being an artist but also as a visitor too, since I don’t live there. Whenever I visit a place, one of my meditations is picking up trash when I can. For me, it's a way to honor the land that is there and to show some gratitude for holding me, even for just a moment. So I would do that while on the island, whenever I could. But I felt like I wanted to offer more. 

At this time, I was collecting agkak (pandanus leaves) and other natural materials to take back with me to Seattle, as a way to remember and carry the land back with me. I was also learning how to do simple weavings too, like making bracelets or bookmarks, taught by weaver friends here in the area. I was also interested in the idea of public art and guerilla art too, thinking about how art could be more accessible, especially for those living on the island. Being in Seattle, I remembered all the quilt-bombing that was happening on trees and poles, which I thought was always fun to see and always wanted to try it. So these public weavings were a combination of all of these, as a way to remember place, to celebrate and adorn it, but also create a ceremony around it too. When I would weave, I would mostly be alone, offering food and chant to the spirits of the land before starting, and just sit there, being as present as possible. Sometimes it was challenging, in the public spaces where people and cars walk by you. But other times, it felt magical.

This one time, I woven around part of a fence, at a viewing point on the island that is about to be taken over by the military. It was hot that day with slight breezes that come and go. I remember sweating and feeling tired—but feeling good that I was able to finish. But once I did, when I looked out over the green jungle, towards the blue ocean, I could see a rain cloud coming my way. I could see the blur of the water and the trees as the cloud moved closer and closer until I was gently showered in a warm summer rain. After weaving for about an hour in the hot sun, this felt like such a relief, but also felt like a thank you too, from someone, from the island, for being there, and praying in this way. 

Roldy Aguero Ablao’s group show Guma’ Gela’: Part Land, Part Sea, All Ancestry just opened at Wing Luke Museum and runs through May 12, 2024 in the George Tsutakawa Art Gallery. You can follow Roldy on Instagram at @hafaroldy.