Maltese Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from Malta, a European country of several islands with a total area of 122 square miles. Slightly smaller than twice the size of Washington, D.C., the country is sometimes referred to as “the mouse that roars.” It is located 58 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles north of Africa and has three inhabited islands: Malta, Gozo, and Comino. Malta, 17 miles long and about 9 miles across, is the largest of the three islands. Its topography is characterized by a series of low hills with terraced fields. Gozo, the northernmost island, has an area of 35 square miles and is known for its grottoes, copper beaches, and the third-largest church dome in the world. Comino, which is located between Malta and Gozo, has an area of only 1 square mile and its population is small.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Malta's population in July 2012 was 409,836, making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The vast majority, 96 percent, of the population is of Maltese descent, 2 percent are British, and the remaining 2 percent are of various other heritages. The chief languages are Maltese, English, and Italian. The population is predominantly Roman Catholic. Malta's main industries are tourism and the manufacture and export of electronics. It never snows in Malta, and the total average annual rainfall is 20 inches. The summers are warm and breezy and the winters are mild, with an average winter temperature of 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Taking advantage of the climate and Malta's scenic terrain and coastline, a number of movies and television programs have been filmed on Malta, including the movies Popeye, Gladiator, and Alexander. MTV hosts a televised, one-day music festival on Malta called Isle of MTV, which in 2012 had more than 50,000 attendees.
Large groups of Maltese began emigrating from Malta to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, settling first in New York and later Detroit, where they took jobs as automotive workers. In her book Maltese in Detroit, Diane Gale Andreassi explains that
unemployment, poverty, and political frustration were some of the main factors that prompted people to leave their island homes. Detroit was building cars, and people around the world learned of jobs that were available. Detroit became the largest Maltese colony outside the islands.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Maltese population in the United States as of 2011 was 39,457, which is roughly twice the capacity of New York City's Madison Square Garden arena. Immigrants of Maltese descent live in all fifty states, and cities with large Maltese American populations include Chicago, Detroit, New York, and San Francisco. Although working-class Maltese Americans tend to live in tight-knit, ethnic communities, emigrants in professional fields tend to be more dispersed, with settlement patterns related to their respective businesses.
HISTORY OF THE PEOPLE
Early History During the late Stone Age, before 4000 BCE, farmers immigrated to Malta from Sicily. Remains of these early people have been found in the ruins of large structures believed to have been temples, and at least one underground temple catacomb has been associated with the cult of a Mother Goddess. By the year 2000 BCE these early people were replaced by bronze-using warrior-farmers who likely arrived from southern Italy.
Phoenicians followed during the Iron Age period around 800 BCE, and they were succeeded by Carthaginians. During the Punic Wars, Malta became part of the Roman Empire, and its inhabitants were treated well by their Roman conquerors. During this time, the Maltese enjoyed peace and prosperity based on a well-developed agricultural economy. In 870 CE Aghlabite Arabs invaded Malta by way of Sicily, followed by the Norman invasion by Count Roger who brought Malta back into the European Christian fold.
In 1530 Malta became the new home of the Knights of Rhodes, who then became known as the Knights of Malta. They fortified the island stronghold and defended it against a siege by the Ottomans in 1565. They also undertook the building of grand churches and palaces, especially in the city of Valletta, Malta's capital.
Modern Era In 1798 the Knights of Malta were forced from Malta when Napoleon landed with his Republican Army. The Maltese revolted against the French, and with the help of British troops they brought French rule to an end in 1800. In 1814 Great Page 164 | Top of ArticleBritain was officially granted possession of Malta, and the British later built a first-class dockyard there. Malta has limited natural resources, and as a result of economic pressures during the nineteenth century the government sought to reduce the population by encouraging emigration. Many immigrated to other British possessions in the Mediterranean and to the West Indies and Australia. Others immigrated to northern Africa.
Malta's position in the Mediterranean Sea made the islands strategically important to the Allies during World War II, especially for fighting on the African front. This key location also made Malta a primary target for massive bombing by Germany and Italy during the war. For their fortitude and dogged determination in the face of the enemy, English prime minister Winston Churchill awarded the Maltese people a George Cross, Great Britain's highest civilian honor for bravery.
Malta became an independent country and a member of the Commonwealth in 1964. Ten years later Malta became a republic, and in 2004 it joined the European Union. In 2008 Malta adopted the euro, which made the country more dependent on the global economy. Malta suffered financial problems during the worldwide economic downturn of the early twenty-first century, but it experienced lower unemployment than other European countries.
A large influx of Maltese immigration to the United States followed the discharge of skilled workers from Malta's Royal British Dockyard in 1919. More than 1,300 Maltese immigrated to the United States in the first quarter of 1920, and most found work in automobile manufacturing.
SETTLEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES
The earliest Maltese settlers in the United States came in the mid-eighteenth century, mostly to New Orleans. These settlers were often regarded as Italians, and tombstones sometimes mistakenly noted the deceased as “natives of Malta, Italy.” The burial grounds were inscribed with such common Maltese names as Ferruggia (Farrugia), Pace, and Grima. By 1855 there were 116 Maltese living in the United States, and in the 1860s it was estimated that five to ten Maltese came to the United States every year. The majority of the migrants were agricultural workers, and in New Orleans the majority worked as market gardeners and vegetable dealers.
A large influx of Maltese immigration to the United States followed the discharge of skilled workers from Malta's Royal British Dockyard in 1919. More than 1,300 Maltese immigrated to the United States in the first quarter of 1920, and most found work in automobile manufacturing. The Detroit Free Press reported in October 1920 that Detroit had the largest Maltese population in the United States, with 5,000 residents. It is estimated that over the next several years more than 15,000 Maltese settled in the United States. Many of these immigrants intended to stay for a short time and return home, but opportunities in America seemed more plentiful and stable than the uncertainties at home, and many Maltese remained in the United States. By the late 1920s Detroit, New York, and San Francisco all had large Maltese populations. These groups often stayed in tight-knit communities, forming social clubs in their respective cities to maintain their unique cultural heritage.
After World War II the Maltese government launched a program to pay passage costs to Maltese willing to emigrate and remain abroad for at least two years. A surge of Maltese left their homeland, and a reported 11,447 Maltese left the country in 1954 alone. The program resulted in about 8,000 Maltese coming to the United States between 1947 and 1977. In 2000 the U.S. Census reported the number of Maltese Americans as 40,000, and this number grew through 2009 to almost 48,000. By 2011, however, the number of Maltese Americans had decreased to fewer than 40,000, possibly a result of the major economic downturn in cities with large Maltese populations such as Detroit.
Like its people and history, the Maltese language is varied. It is Semitic, chiefly Arabic, written in the Roman alphabet, with words and phrases taken from the Italian, Spanish, English, Greek, and some French. The official languages in Malta are Maltese and English. With Malta's proximity to Italy, many people also speak Italian. Spoken English typically reveals a British influence. Although the main language spoken by Maltese Americans is English, Malta's mix of languages is often reflected in speech at home and at Maltese social clubs and other venues where Maltese immigrants gather in larger groups.
Greetings and Popular Expressions Typical Maltese greetings and other expressions include: bongu (bon-ju)—good morning; bonswa (bonswar)—good night; grazzi (grats-ee)—thank you; taf titkellem bl-Ingliz? (tarf tit-kell-lem bilin-gleez)—do you speak English?; kemm? (kem)—how much? The word sahha (sa-ha) can be used as a greeting, as a farewell, or as a toast—it is the Maltese equivalent of “good health.”
Christianity has a long history in Malta, dating to the Apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked on the island in 60 CE. The hospitality shown to him by the locals was well documented in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament of the Bible. Legend has it that when he was shipwrecked with his crew, the people made a
bonfire to make them warm, and a viper snake came out of the wood and went toward St. Paul. According to the legend, because he was not bitten the people thought Paul was a god, but he told them that “I am not a God, but I came to talk to you about God.”
An important part of Malta's religious history was the period from 1530 to 1798 when it was under the control of the Knights of Malta, a religious and military order of the Roman Catholic church. The Knights of Malta traced their origins to the Order of St. John, which was established in the eleventh century to build a church, convent, and hospital for pilgrims in Jerusalem.
The official religion of Malta is Roman Catholicism and today more than 95 percent of the population is nominally Roman Catholic. Maltese Americans maintain a strong devotion to the Roman Catholic church, typically attending Mass weekly and staying active in their local parishes. One American parish notable for having a large number of Maltese Americans is that of the church of St. Paul of the Shipwreck in San Francisco.
CULTURE AND ASSIMILATION
In part because of their country's small size, Maltese are often confused with other nationalities, specifically Italians. Although the people of the Maltese islands are not particularly well known, there are a number of Maltese influences on United States culture. For instance, many people are familiar with the Maltese, a tiny fluffy white dog, which originated in Malta. The movie The Maltese Falcon, a drama about a detective trying to find a priceless statue, is a classic part of American cinema (the falcon was a symbol of honor for the Knights of Malta). In most U.S. towns and cities, the badge worn by firefighters to identify their company is in the shape of the Maltese Cross, an eight-sided emblem of protection and courage. The history of the cross goes back to the knights of the Order of St. John, who would courageously come to the aid of other knights whose clothing had been set on fire by their enemy. (A military tactic of the time consisted of hurling containers spewing flammable liquid onto enemy fighters and then igniting it with a thrown torch.)
Traditions and Customs Maltese have traditions and folklore dating back centuries. One popular belief was that if someone gave you “the bad eye,” you would have bad luck. To rid the house a bad spirit, some Maltese would undergo an elaborate ritual involving old dried olive branches, which were blessed on Palm Sunday. The Maltese would burn the olive branches in a pan and spread the incense through every room of the house while saying a special prayer to chase away the spirit. Another belief was that women who were menstruating could taint new wine,
so they were banned from the cellar while wine was made. Other beliefs were that bad luck would follow a person who dropped a knife or sighted a black moth. Good luck, however, would come when a white moth was seen, and some people therefore believed that you should never kill a moth.
In the United States, as Maltese assimilated into American society, traditional Maltese beliefs have been gradually forgotten or are related only through family stories.
Matchmaking in Malta traditionally involved an elaborate sequence of events. When a young woman was ready for marriage her parents would place a flower pot on the front porch. A matchmaker would take note and alert the single men about her availability. Interested suitors would then tell the matchmaker they wanted to marry. Next the matchmaker would approach the father of the prospective bride and obtain his blessing. In the United States matchmaking has not ordinarily involved a matchmaker, but in the first half of the twentieth century men interested in marrying a Maltese girl still spoke to the girl's father for permission to marry.
Cuisine Maltese cuisine has many influences, including foods from Italy and other areas of the Mediterranean and from Great Britain. Garlic and olive oil are mainstays. The most popular Maltese dish is pastitsi, which is made from a flaky dough similar to the filo dough used in Greece. A meat or ricotta-cheese mixture is wrapped inside a pocket of the dough, which is then cooked. The meat mixture is made with ground beef, onion, tomato paste, peas, salt, pepper, and curry powder, and the ricotta-cheese mixture is made with ricotta cheese, egg, salt, and pepper. Imquarrun fil forn (baked macaroni) is another popular dish. The macaroni is served with a sauce containing ground beef, tomato paste, garlic powder, eggs, grated cheese, and a dash of curry powder. This dish can be served without baking, in which case it is called mostoccoli.
A mainstay of Maltese cuisine both in Malta and in the United States is rabbit, which can be served in stews, meat pies, or other dishes. Other common dishes include pastas with ricotta and tomato sauce; fish and seafood dishes such as fried cod, octopus stew, and tuna; and stuffed artichoke and eggplant.
For dessert or treats, a deep-fried pastry called imqaret is common in Maltese homes in Malta and the United States. It is made with dates, orange and lemon extract, anisette, chopped nuts, orange rind, and lemon rind. Cream-filled or ricotta-filled cannoli shells are also common. These Maltese sweets are often served at functions such as showers, weddings, and baptisms.
Traditional Dress The traditional attire of Maltese women was the ghonella, or faldetta, a black dress with a black cape and a black veil shaped by a hard board. It was worn by some women in Maltese villages as late as the 1950s. In the United States, Maltese Americans typically wear the same fashions as other Americans.
Dances and Songs The traditional Maltese dance is an interpretive routine called miltija, which describes the victory of the Maltese over the Turks in 1565. Old-time singing was called ghana and involved bantering similar to “call and response” songs of Africa. It was commonly sung between two people who good-heartedly tease each other, using rhyme and jokes in a relay of comments about each other. The singer Joe Grech, often referred to as the “voice Page 167 | Top of Articleof Malta,” won the first Malta Song Festival in 1960, and he has toured worldwide, including in the United States and Canada.
Holidays The Maltese love festivals, and between May and October almost every town and village in Malta celebrates the feast day of its patron saint. The festa is the most important day in each village, where the church is the focal point of the event. The churches are elaborately decorated with flowers. Gold, silver, and crystal chandeliers are placed on display as a backdrop for the statue of the patron saint. After three days of preparation, the statue is carried shoulder high along the streets of the city or village in a paradelike procession, including bands and church bells. Since the Maltese specialize in making elaborate fireworks, colorful displays are part of the party. Cities and villages compete with one another to put on the best show. Maltese in the United States, especially in large communities such as Detroit and San Francisco, privately commemorate and remember the patron saint of their town, but gone are the big festivals and fireworks. Roman Catholic celebrations dominate in Maltese culture among Maltese Americans. Holy days include Christmas, Easter, and an annual observance of February 10, which is the day St. Paul, Malta's patron saint, was shipwrecked on the island.
Health Care Issues and Practices Many people from Malta have been stricken with thalassemia, which is sometimes called Mediterranean anemia. It is an inherited blood disorder in which the body has a reduced level of normal hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. In the United States most cases occur in persons of Maltese, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, or Levantine descent. There are several forms of the disease. The form that occurs most commonly among persons of Maltese descent is betathalassemia, which involves the two genes that produce a component of hemoglobin called beta globin protein. A person inherits one of the genes from one parent and the other from the other parent. When one of the two genes that a child inherits is a mutated gene, a mild anemia usually results; however, when both are mutated, the results can be severe. Betathalassemia is usually discovered during infancy.
Death and Burial Rituals The Maltese in the United States have adopted the tradition of holding a wake when someon dies. In Malta when a person died they were usually buried within twenty-four hours, and very few people were embalmed. In the villages during the early part of the twentieth century, a local person would visit the home, clean and dress the deceased. This person usually was on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Superstition prevailed, and some people were afraid of the undertaker to the point that when village people saw him walking down the street they would walk on the other side of the road. As time passed, however, these traditions faded in Malta and were not followed in the United States.
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY LIFE
Family Life There were many changes in the family structure when the first Maltese immigrants came to the United States. Married men typically arrived without their families. Their plan was to bring their entire family after becoming financially stable and establishing themselves their new country. Frequently, years lapsed before the entire family was reunited. Single men who came to the United States from Malta typically lived with relatives or close family friends who had come to the country earlier. They lived in communities that were heavily populated by other Maltese and often married Maltese women who had come to the United States with their parents and siblings. Downtown Detroit and neighboring Highland Park were once heavily populated by Maltese. However, by the 1970s many the Maltese in this area began moving to Detroit suburbs, a testament to the mass assimilation of Maltese Americans.
Maltese family members were usually very close, and aunts, uncles, and cousins were often regarded as immediate family. Before 1980 most Maltese American families were large, with four or more children as the norm. In later years, however, Maltese Americans, like most other ethnic groups in the United States, began to have smaller families, with two or three children commonly found in each household.
Immigrants and first-generation Maltese could find camaraderie in groups such as the Maltese American Benevolent Society and the Maltese American Community Club in Michigan and the Maltese American Social Club in San Francisco. New immigrants also turned to the Maltese clubs and organizations for information and direction on life in their new country and for meeting other Maltese who could help in the assimilation process.
Gender Roles The constitution of Malta, like that of the United States, holds equal rights for men and women, and the Ministry of Social Development in
EMPLOYMENT AND ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
Many of the Maltese who came to the Detroit area in the twentieth century worked on the assembly line at one of the three automakers, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and Chrysler Corporation. Other Maltese immigrants worked at various jobs on ships, in restaurants and hotels, selling real estate, and in religious orders as priests and nuns. While the auto industry has suffered greatly with the Great Recession of the early twenty-first century, many Maltese Americans still find work in manufacturing, shipbuilding, and other blue-collar jobs in major cities such as Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Other Maltese immigrants are employed in academia, entertainment, finance, law, and politics.
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
The Maltese government is a republic with a president and prime minister. As of 2013 the president of Malta was George Abela and the prime minister was Joseph Muscat. The major political parties are the Malta Labor Party and the Nationalist Party. In Malta the first American consul was nominated in 1796, which made Malta among the first countries to have a consular office of the United States.
Relations with Malta During the first decade of the nineteenth century American ships brought a variety of goods to Malta, including flour, rice, pepper, salted meat, rum, tobacco, and mahogany wood from Boston and Baltimore, as well as dried fruits, cotton, wax, pearls, goat hides, coffee, potatoes, drugs, and sponges from Smyrne and the Greek archipelago. Trade would rise and fall cyclically. Malta's biggest boon of American shipping was during the Crimean War, between 1854 and 1856, when Great Britain and France were fighting Russia. Malta also emerged as a stepping stone in the wool trade between Barbary and the United States because it received wool from different ports in North Africa for shipment to the United States. Later, American tobacco was shipped to Barbary Page 169 | Top of Articleand Sicily through Malta. About 1,500 Maltese were employed in making cigars, which were exported to Italy, Barbary, Turkey, and the Greek Islands. Malta also imported petroleum, rum, pepper, flour, log-wood, pitch, resin, turpentine, coffee, sugar, cloves, codfish, wheat, cheese, butter, and lard. Meanwhile, the island nation exported to the United States goods such as olive oil, lemons, sulfur, ivory, salt, rags, goat skins, stoneware, soap, sponges, and donkeys.
Academia Paul Vassallo, formerly of Marsa, Malta, headed the Washington Research Library Consortium, a group of eight universities in the Washington, D.C., area that have served as a national model to demonstrate how university libraries can keep up with vast amounts of new material. Vassallo, born in 1932, immigrated to the United States when he was fifteen years old, and his mother and siblings lived in the Detroit area.
Joseph P. Borg, born in 1951, has worked as an American financial regulator and as president of the North American Securities Administration Association. In 2011 Borg was listed as one of the top financial players in the United States by Smart Money magazine.
Art The Liberty Bell was made in England in 1751 for use in the State House of the City of Philadelphia. However, when it was being tested the bell cracked. It was recast in Philadelphia by John Pass, a Maltese immigrant, and John Stow; their last names appear on the bell, which is on display at Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia.
Joe Sacco, born in 1960, is a Maltese American cartoonist and journalist known for his book Palestine (1993), a nonfiction graphic novel. He has since published several other works of journalistic comics, including the graphic novels Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992–95 (2000) and Footnotes in Gaza (2010).
Military Joseph Borg went to the United States at the time of the American Revolution. He was described as having been a sea captain who fought in many battles for American independence.
Patrick P. Caruana achieved the rank of lieutenant general in the U.S. Air Force before he retired in 1997. Caruana, a St. Louis resident, was a KC-135 tanker pilot during the Vietnamese War and commanded the 17th Air Division and its fleet of bombers, refueling tankers, and spy planes. During the 1990–91 Persian Gulf War, Caruana commanded the fifty B-52 bombers flying out of Saudi Arabia, England, Spain, and the Indian Ocean.
Music Oreste Kirkop (1923–1998), an opera singer, appeared in Student Prince. Legend had it that he was encouraged to change his name to increase his fame, but he refused to take the suggestion and instead returned to Malta. World-renowned pop icon Britney Spears (1981–) is also of Maltese descent.
Science and Medicine John Schembri, with degrees in electronics, engineering, mathematics, and industrial relations, and became a recognized expert in the design and application of optical-fiber transmissions systems. While working at Pacific Bell he was granted several patents for the designs and applications he developed.
Stage and Screen Joseph Calleia, a Maltese native and actor, appeared in a number of Hollywood movies, including Wild Is the Wind in 1957. More recently Danielle Fishel (1981–) portrayed Topanga Lawrence on the popular 1990s sitcom Boy Meets World and went on to become a host of Style Network's talk show The Dish.
ORGANIZATIONS AND ASSOCIATIONS
American Association, Sovereign Military Order of Malta
1011 First Avenue
New York, New York 10022-4112
Phone: (212) 371-1522
Fax: (212) 486-9427
The Malta Emigrants Commission
Edwin Borg-Manche, Website Editor
Dar l-Emigrant, Castille Place
Valletta, VLT 01 Malta
Phone: (356) 222644, 232545, 240255
Fax: (356) 240022
Maltese American Benevolent Society
Serves social and patriotic needs of Detroit's Maltese population, which is believed to be the largest in the United States. Supports children's services. Offers activities for members and their families.
1832 Michigan Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48216-1332
Phone: (313) 961-8393
Fax: (313) 961-2050
Maltese American Community Club
Phone: (313) 846-7077
John Caruana, President
5221 Oakman Boulevard
Dearborn, Michigan 48126
Frank Borg, President
27-20 Hoyt Avenue South
Astoria, New York 11102
Phone: (718) 728-9883
Permanent Observer Mission of the Order of Malta to the United Nations in New York
216 East 47th Street
New York, New York 10017
Phone: 212 355 6213
Fax: 212 355 4014
MUSEUMS AND RESEARCH CENTERS
Maltese American Benevolent Society
Contains a library covering Maltese issues, concerns, and related information.
John Caruana, President
1832 Michigan Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48216
Phone: (313) 961-8393
Fax: (313) 961-2050
SOURCES FOR ADDITIONAL STUDY
Andreassi, Diane Gale. Maltese in Detroit. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2011.
Balm, Roger. Malta. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald & Woodard, 1995.
Cassar, Paul. Early Relations between Malta and the United States of America. Valletta, Malta: Midsea Books, 1976.
Dobie, Edith. Malta's Road to Independence. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.
Lubig, Joseph M. Maltese in Michigan. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011.
Luke, Harry. Malta: An Account and an Appreciation. 2nd ed. London: Corgi, 1968.
Price, Charles A. Malta and the Maltese: A Study in Nineteenth Century Migration. Melbourne: Georgian House, 1954.