Guamanians in Las Vegas stay hopeful in midst of North Korean nuclear threat

Updated August 12, 2017 - 11:15 am

A man with a silver earring and puka shell necklace walked up to the Red Rice restaurant on South Eastern Avenue in Henderson late Friday afternoon. Under the restaurant’s red lettering were the words. Flavors of Guam.

It was still smoky inside from the lunch rush as the owner, Carmen Tenorio, took his order. The man, a regular customer from the island of Saipan, 45 minutes south of Guam, asked her, “How are they holding up at home?”

Tenorio shrugged. “You know, what do you do?”

He was referring to Tenorio’s family in Guam — a small slice of American land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The island, home to United States’ military bases, was forced into the spotlight Wednesday after North Korea threatened to strike Guam with four missiles that would create “an enveloping fire” and “signal a crucial warning to the U.S.” The Pacific Daily News reported Friday that North Korean missiles can reach Guam in 14 minutes.

After the news broke, some Guamanians living in Las Vegas are keeping close contact with their family on the island — praying and hoping for the best in the midst of the threat.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” Tenorio said. Her youngest son, 19-year-old Christian, said that for the family back home, “it’s scary; their lives are being jeopardized.”

“As an island, we stay strong,” he said. “We’re confident the United States will defend the nation, but my whole roots, my whole culture could be destroyed.”

Tenorio, 56, and her husband, Frank, opened Red Rice three years ago. Most Guamanians are ethnically Chamorro — the indigenous group that has lived on the island for thousands of years. The Tenorios wanted to bring the traditional Chamorro culture to Las Vegas.

The restaurant’s walls are covered in carved wood maps of Guam and charts depicting the territory’s staples. Frank, 59, flips chicken and ribs on the grill, his rough hands from years in construction grasping a pair of silver tongs.

“Let’s keep Guam in our prayers,” he said. “There’s no place like home.”

Carmen stirred the rice while standing in her sandals. She was born and raised in Guam and moved to Hawaii in 1981. She returned to the island in 1993 so her sons could be raised in the culture. They moved back to the mainland 10 years ago.

In Guam, the roosters wake you up, she said. Neighbors are family. Growing up, Carmen raised chicken and pigs. She grew fruits and vegetables. In the village of Merizo, there’s one gas station. The tallest building is a two-story house. Families pick bananas off trees.

“That’s home,” she said. “That’s what we look forward to.”

‘All we can do is have faith’

Helen Cruz left the island 25 years ago. But the 62-year-old North Las Vegas resident remembers a threat that faced the island as she was growing up: typhoons. The Guamanians were prepared for that, she said. They had extra water, food, generators. They used rain water to cook.

But how can they prepare for mass destruction?

Her 65-year-old husband, John, who was born and raised on the island, said his family “never expected anything like this.” He said they were hoping for masks and other equipment to protect themselves from the destruction stemming from nuclear bombs. So far, they aren’t equipped with that.

“All we can do is have faith in our military, have faith in our president, and have faith in God,” he said. “That’s all we can do.”

Both of their fathers were in the Navy. The couple met in grade school in Guam, and were married there years later. John spent 22 years in the Army. For the couple, Guam is home.

While the couple estimates between 8,000 and 10,000 Guamanians live in the Las Vegas Valley, John acknowledged that for many other people, “It’s just a dot on the map.”

As the couple continues to reach out to family members, their relatives try to make light of the situation.

“They say, ‘We’re doing OK,’” John Cruz said. “‘If you call us next week at this time, and if we answer the phone, that means we’re still here.’”

Resilience and strength

Henderson resident Angela Castro was born and raised in Guam, where her father served in the Air Force. She described the island as a paradise that is safe and secure. A place where you can ask your neighbor for sugar. A place where everybody respects and takes care of one another.

“You’re going to watch Guam on the national stage and everything that makes us unique and makes us an island of warm and friendly people,” Castro said. “You’re going to see all of their strengths and the island strengths come together.”

The people and Guam’s military defense are resilient, she said.

“You feel like you know everybody and everybody is related to everybody,” Castro said. “That’s our culture. That’s who we are. And North Korea and this threat is not going to change the essence of our island and what makes us who we are.”

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @brianarerick on Twitter.

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