The Malta Independent 25 October 2021, Monday

FIRST: Chasing Malteseness

First Magazine Saturday, 18 November 2017, 11:40 Last update: about 5 years ago

Ann Dingli meets the Latitude 36 team in New York to talk about their documentary – which forms part of the Valletta 2018 Cultural Programme in the run-up to the European Capital of Culture. The team has been travelling across different states, seeking out and interviewing the dispersed Maltese community to hear their personal migratory story.

It is Friday, 29 September, and New York City is humming with activity. It is a bright day - the sun is beating down on hundreds of city-dwellers cascading out of Subway exits and onto the unrelenting avenues. The crisp, white façade of Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic Guggenheim museum blazes into view as it stands stoically on New York's 89th street. Amidst the ice-cream vendors and knock-off art stalls stands a denim-jacketed figure, head bowed in concentration, sketching on a pad that is hardly bigger than his fist.

Sebastian Tanti Burlo' has been recruited by documentary film-maker and oral historian Charlie Cauchi to form part of her team of intrepid documentarians. They've been on the road for around three weeks, travelling around North America and Canada to collect material for Latitude 36 - a project chronicling the stories of Maltese migrant communities abroad. Tanti Burlo' has specifically been brought in to record the process through photographs and illustrations -scouted by Cauchi for his well-known, politically-charged cartoons, and his daringly truthful portraits.

Cauchi and a third team member, Ali Tollervey, who has been brought on board to photograph and film the experience, extinguish their hand-rolled cigarettes and gather up their filming equipment. They still have a week or so left of their tour of America and the travel toll is evident in their initial silence. Cauchi's control over the trio's dynamic is apparent as soon as she opens her mouth: she's directing not just the documentary, but the whole experience.

"Latitude 36 is a transmedia project - it's working on a lot of different levels with many different artists," she explains, attempting to distil the complex, multi-disciplinary project into a concise summary. "[The project is] split into three parts: Leaving Latitude 36, Returning to Latitude 36 and Visiting Latitude 36. The first part - leaving - is what we're researching right now. It's about the people who have left the island, and about me leaving to find those people and have them talk about their experience as Maltese migrants. We're documenting them through audio-visual accounts, Sebastian's drawings and, in some respects, writing as well."

Cauchi goes on to list a handful of artists from different disciplines - including performance and live-art - who are all involved in the project to some extent. But what is clear is that she is both the engine and the glue that is keeping the team and focus firmly on the axis she set out to follow.

"It's called Latitude 36 because those are the coordinates where Malta lies," Cauchi continues to explain. "The main point of this project is to compare [the different migrant communities] we encounter, because there's a big difference between the Maltese that moved to Detroit and the Maltese that are in Canada, for example."

Cauchi is finishing her PhD in Film Studies - her background is in film theory and history. She sometimes does the filming for Latitude 36 herself, as well as writing for the project, but for the bulk of the team's travels she has been the person guiding the conversations. The team are in New York for the last leg of the production, but they have already spent time in Toronto, Ontario (Windsor and London), West Virginia and Detroit. Cauchi's greater ambition is to eventually visit Tunisia, Egypt, France and Brussels but, as the project has limited funds, she is still looking for more funding for that.

The trio have seen and spoken to scores of Maltese migrants - mostly families whose parents or grandparents moved to the US and Canada in the 1940s and 50s to find work after the war. Although decades have passed since they settled in their adopted homes, Cauchi, Tanti Burlo' and Tollervey vouch for the overwhelming sameness they experienced when interacting with these communities.

"I'd walk into a Maltese club [in Detroit], and I'd forget where I was," Cauchi exclaims. "Then I'd step back outside and say - oh, hold on, I'm not in Malta anymore." The team all cite Detroit as having had the greatest impact on them. They describe the Maltese migrants they encountered there as having religiously protected their identities and origins - enshrining traditional Maltese idiosyncrasies and elevating them to a near-sacred status.

"That's quite a stark thing - the way the Maltese people in these communities have kept their Malteseness embalmed somehow - it feels like it never shifted, like you're back in the 70s," Cauchi says. "What people wear is fascinating - the Maltese cross as jewellery is everywhere...", "Or the lace head-veil," Tanti Burlo' chimes in.

"Yes - and the woman wearing it was young: She was in her thirties! We wouldn't do that. But they've kind of kept this old, real love [for Malta]".

"Visually and emotionally, Detroit was the place that really stayed with me," Tanti Burlo' says. "We really embedded ourselves in the community and the characters we met embraced us with open arms. We met a guy who ran a Maltese bar, Leno, beautiful character. And it's strange because you're in Detroit, and all of a sudden you're in a każin, with Kinnie and pastizzi, and there's a festa with ġbejniet, rabbit and mqarrun. It's completely surreal - your mental synapses are torn apart and reassembled in one swoop".

"Detroit is going through a process of gentrification," Cauchi explains, "and many of the buildings there have been saved because Maltese people bought them. They have a strong 'we can do anything' attitude. And, you know what? So many of the people who have moved away have done amazing things."

The team describes the way in which some of the areas they visited have been uplifted by the care, devotion and investment of the Maltese migrants who live there. They explain how the Maltese came to Detroit as workers and converted their toil and energy into class mobility - eventually joining the ranks of the American middle class. They bought property, formed clubs and created a distinct Maltese presence amongst their neighbours. In other words, and in true Maltese fashion - they showed up, and they weren't quiet about it. But this boisterous self-advocacy is not as immediately apparent in places such as Toronto, where the Maltese are more discreet about their impact on their community. This documentary seeks to capture that very difference in communal character whilst chronicling - without prejudice -all the hard work that has been in play over many years by the Maltese in the various - and - different places where they have settled.

"Some of the Maltese people we met came here as migrants with nothing; they worked super hard, integrated into the community, and have now established themselves," Cauchi says. "One thing that really struck me was when we visited Lansing, Michigan, where they've just passed a Bill to make 21 September officially 'Maltese-American Day'. We watched the state representative, Darren Camilleri - whose father is Maltese - present the Bill to the Senate. There was something so beautiful about the moment when all the Maltese people present were asked to stand and clap. These people had been there since the 40s - and they've become a big part of this culture. It was really touching."

But despite their willingness to contribute to their new-found home, the Maltese migrants that the Latitude team encountered seem to be somewhat stuck in a patch of temporal quicksand. Cauchi describes their vision of Malta as one that no longer exists in its wholeness: a Malta that has been radically romanticised and passed down migrant generations forming a strange, illusionary transcendence.

"An interesting pattern emerged in Detroit and Toronto amongst people who left Malta in the 40s and 50s. They have an idea of a Malta that doesn't exist anymore. They talk about this fictitious, fairy-tale Mediterranean island and their children talk about it in the same way," Cauchi explains. "Malta is a beautiful island, but it's not the same place."

However, the team does find that there are certain Maltese traits that ring true even in these far-away societies. Their hosting skills - the warmth and ability to make people feel included - are palpable, but they've also managed to hang on to homeland traits that are less positive. "The not working together is something that exists - we don't work together very well as a collective in Malta. It's very naval-gazing and 'about me', and that has stuck," Cauchi says. "The 'I don't trust you if you're an outsider' thing has also stuck - we do that a lot and it's a trait that has remained".

The team's long stint of travelling, recording and observing is slowly coming to a pause in their wider tour. They will be spending the next 10 days in New York, navigating the city's dense strata of human activity to seek out Maltese groups and to once again be transported into a parallel universe of identity-collision. By the time this article goes to print, they will have moved on to London and eventually back to Malta - a final sojourn that will provide them with the sense of perspective that only sheer distance and, in their case, a different time-zone, can offer. As a result of their travels tapering into a different phase, they've each taken time to reflect on the adhesive thread that has run through the entire experience - Malteseness. What is it? How does it change when you remove yourself from the island?

"I moved to Malta when I was 12 and lived there until I was 24, so when I'm in Malta people think of me as British, and when I'm in England they know me as Maltese," Cauchi says. (Her father was born in Malta and moved to East London in his adulthood.) "The question people always ask me is: 'Where are you from?' and it's the hardest one to answer."

"The uniqueness of it is what I like," Tanti Burlo' adds. "With other nationalities, people can latch onto a given perception. With Italians, it's pizza and pasta, British and Americans also have their own set of perceptions. But saying you're Maltese is like picking up a Joker from a pack of cards. And you can be playful with that."

Playfulness and the malleability of identity seem to be the concepts that recur continually in the descriptions of the people the team have met. They talk about second generation migrants who have never visited Malta, can't speak Maltese, but insist that their children attend Maltese language lessons. They describe their next appointment -a wrestling match at a Catholic school hall with a Maltese wrestler known as 'Malta the Damager'. Cauchi mentions earlier interviews in London, where Maltese migrants spoke out in favour of Brexit because "too many foreigners" are taking "their" jobs. So, there's an overriding pushing and pulling of authenticity, straining the definition of national identity to its tensest point. And, for Cauchi, that's the most exciting part of the project.

"Being Maltese is a special thing," she stresses, "being part of something that's small and different, with levels of history and layers of differences. I'm still trying to figure out what Malteseness is - that's really what this [project] is all about. Because people don't really talk about Maltese identity, and I think we need to."

For more information about Latitude 36 visit the project's official website


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