The Malta Independent 23 September 2023, Saturday
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‘Identity Malta’: Losing and rediscovering your heritage

Michael Bugeja Sunday, 21 January 2018, 08:03 Last update: about 7 years ago

A trainee at the Public Registry was recording my father's birth certificate and mine in the government building on Evans Street, Valletta, monitored by a supervisor who gave her detailed instructions. The trainee was in her early twenties and the supervisor, perhaps a few years older. Either could have passed as my granddaughter. The supervisor said something in Maltese, which I do not speak, and the process stopped.

"There is a problem, Mr Bugeja," she said, pronouncing my name with the hard "j" in her native accent.

This is the precise moment I lost my identity.

In May 2017, at age 65, I paid another visit to Malta, accompanied by my spouse Diane, to complete the process of procuring citizenship for her and renewing my passport at the government building on Evans Street by Fort Saint Elmo, scene of the Great Siege of Malta by the Ottoman Turks. A fitting place if you are Maltese in search of your identity.

This visit happened a few days before the contentious 3 June 2017 snap general election, and tensions were high. We didn't encounter any protests, but had seen them on television before we left the States and read about them in online newspapers. The comments section was heart breaking, replete with name-calling, stereotypes and vitriol. Thankfully, the protests had occurred just prior to our visit.

I had been working on my passport renewal for more than a year by this time, filling out all manner of forms with help from the Malta Embassy in Washington, D.C., and dozens of emails from "Identity Malta", the online portal that includes links to the Public Registry and other official government offices.

My Maltese passport was issued in 2002, before Malta became part of the European Union, so the process of renewal was much more laborious than I had ever imagined, probably for security and other reasons, I assumed.

As this is an essay about identity, it may help to know a little about mine as a dual citizen of Malta and America.

I am a nationally known journalism educator with more than 20 books, including award-winning ones from Oxford University Press, titled Interpersonal Divide and Living Ethics Across Media Platforms. I directed one of the top journalism schools in the country for 14 years at Iowa State University. Early in my career, I won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, one of the highest literary honours in the United States, for fiction about an excommunicated Maltese nun who rebelled against British rule in the 1970s. Titled "The Orange Habit," it is loosely based on the life of one of my aunts who dyed her white novice habit orange to protest royalists.

Because I was born in the United States, I am an American citizen. You do not need to prove bloodline here. If born here, you're one of us. In fact, Russian women flock to Florida to have their babies so that they automatically receive our citizenship.

As you can see, I have a very Maltese name. My mother's name was Apap. I can trace my Maltese lineage back to the 16th century through these very common surnames: Aquilina, Attard, Brincat, Grech, Micallef, Meilak, Xuereb and Sultana, among others.

And yes, my maternal great-great-grandfather, Nicola Apap, married Rosa Muscat in Sannat, Gozo, on 17 February, 1852. So I might share lineage with Malta's president, Joseph Muscat.

That really doesn't matter, though. All Maltese are related somehow if you look deep enough in the Church annals.

Malta in May

Photo by Michael Bugeja


The weather was beautiful, with fewer tourists. Diane, a photographer, loved the narrow streets, the carts of warm bread and scent of cappuccino on the jaunt from Auberge de Castille bus stop to Evans Street. We documented the trek, shop by shop. We also carried a briefcase of personal documents, original copies of my parents and our birth certificates, their and our marriage licences, and reams of forms to prove bloodline and heritage.

At first things moved slowly. We waited with immigrant hopefuls for hours in a crowded corridor of the government building. When it was our turn, I was told that I had to prove I was gainfully employed as an Iowa State professor before any paperwork could be finalized. We accomplished that the next day via email.

On our second day, things moved along rapidly. Our hopes were high. We waited in line while several immigrants and citizen hopefuls were rejected at the desk of a stern but professional official. She resembled my mother Giuseppe, as I remembered her before she passed years ago, so I didn't let her demeanour or questions bother me.

I looked at her lovingly and answered questions briefly and accurately. That seemed to take her aback. Perhaps no one had done that in a while.

"All right," she said, typing my information into her computer. She handed me a copy of a letter stating I became a citizen of Malta as of September 1964, retaining US citizenship and, most important, have been "deemed not to have ever ceased to be a citizen of Malta".

I had recovered my lost heritage, it seemed. I was overjoyed. With letter in hand, Diane and I quickly found a passport photo shop a few blocks down the road in Valletta, got our photos taken, and hurried to the Public Registry to file our birth certificates and marriage licence.

That is when the process ended because of a tiny discrepancy in one document. It was the letter "i" in my name, Bugeia.

There is not much difference in the letter "i" and "j." They both take a dot. The "j" descends and curls. In fact, the "i" in Latin and Greek was used to represent "j" for centuries. Moreover, in Mediterranean culture, both letters were used interchangeably until the 16th century when "i" gave birth to its variation, "j."

My father's birth certificate had the "j." He was born on 27 February, 1913 in Għajnsielem, Gozo to Salvatore Bugeja and Loreta Meilak. Before he left Malta, he was a Gozo soccer star (and later played professionally in the States). In World War II, he fought in the British and then American navies. Because of his service, the United States allowed him to become a naturalized citizen, which he did in 1947, spelling his name with the variant, "i," as in Bugeia.

Thus, my birth certificate was spelled with an "i" and his, with the "j."

The Public Registry supervisor was conferring with her boss about my case, a man with hurried demeanour and glasses. He shook his head disapprovingly at the birth certificates, then at me.

That sparked a flashback.

Expatriate Childhood

Michele and Giuseppe Bugeja with author as infant


Growing up in New Jersey, I encountered a problem that has plagued me for most of my life. Few Americans can pronounce my name with a "j." Spell it with an "i" and it is near impossible.

I have always been proud of my Maltese heritage. My parents told us stories about ours being the oldest civilization on earth, how our ancestors defeated the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and outlasted the Nazi bombardment in World War II, earning the George Cross. No one in our neighbourhood was Maltese, though, so on weekends when I was a boy we would go to Queens, New York, to visit the Sciclunas, distant relatives - an entire tribe of them - where we consumed burnt lasagne and bags of pastizzi from a nearby shop and lots of wine. In the evening, the whole clan would bring out mandolins and guitars, singing in Maltese past midnight.

On one of those occasions, my cousin Godwin asked, "Why are you spelling your name with an 'i' instead of a 'j'?" He added, "You are really Maltese, right? You don't speak Maltese, do you?"

My parents never taught me to speak Maltese because, like many US immigrants, they wanted me to be as American as possible and not to be mistaken for a foreigner. In denying me language, they denied me a culture, an identity.

I remember that weekend visit vividly. That evening, when the music started, I took two pencils and tapped out a rhythm on a silver cigarette ashtray stand in time with the mandolins and guitars. The music stopped abruptly, and the ashtray was removed. Maltese was spoken, and my father shot me a stern look.

I was crestfallen.

Later that night on the ride home to our Sicilian enclave, I asked my father why he had changed the spelling of his name. "There is no 'j' in the Italian alphabet," he said. "I wanted to be accepted in America." He paused for a moment. "At one point, I wanted to change the name to Brown."

Although common in America, Brown is not an ethnic name, but a Middle English nickname for people with brown hair.

I had brown hair and wanted to be known as Maltese with an Elmo-fire name like Scicluna. After all, my hero at the time was the professional wrestler Baron Mikel Scicluna of Balzan, who challenged the reigning Italian champion, Bruno Sammartino.

Beginning when I was about 10, I began spelling my name with a "j." I was proud of that "j" because it meant I was Maltese and could not be mistaken for Sicilian. All my documents, except for my Social Security card - based on my birth certificate - were spelled with a "j." My marriage licence has the "j". As do my wife's name and my children's names. All "js".

We are the bugeJas.

Michael and Diane Bugeja


Pilgrimage Home

Photo by Diane Bugeja


"There is a problem, Mr Bugeja," the supervisor at the Public Registry said. "Your birth certificate has an 'i' and your father's has a 'j.' You will have to get a judge in Malta to change your surname to 'Bugeja,' or do that in the States."

I was in Malta being rejected because of my name by public servants, who had surnames included in my extended family tree, telling me that I was not Maltese enough for the European Union.

I wanted to go home. Then I suffered the sting of betrayal. I had no home. No heritage.

That is when Diane suggested we set out for Gozo to find the Bugeja ancestral home in Għajnsielem.

Diane on Ferry


After we arrived, I was ready for a long walk. We hiked north to Triq Borg Għarib, taking the scenic route, and then headed south to Triq Sant Antnin, stopping at the Saint Anthony of Padova church where two old gentlemen were chatting outside the large vestibule doors.

I told them my name and explained that I was searching for any relatives. "My father was a famous soccer player from here. Michele Bugeja," and yes, I spelled it with a "j."

Their faces lit up. There was recognition!

"There!" one of the men pointed down the street. "Your cousin!" An old woman eating a piece of fruit had appeared on a balcony of a nearby apartment. He called her name and got her attention. "Your cousin! Your cousin from America!"

She looked at Diane and me and slowly backed into her house like a ghost sailing on air, with lace curtains blowing around her and then the sound of a door being shut.

How fitting.

On our walk back to the harbour to catch the ferry, we asked directions from another man. I told him about my father, and he directed us to the Club House near the town centre.

"There are photos there," the man said. "Maybe you will find your father."

Club House photo with Michele Bugeja in lower right corner

We entered the club, ordered two cappuccinos, and looked at the trophies and old photos behind the glass cases. Staring back at me was a photo that resembled my father, Michele Bugeja, who seemed to say, "You made it home, son."

The feeling didn't last long.

Costly Heritage

When we returned to Iowa, there was a rainbow, the traditional symbol of hope. I had given up hope of ever getting my passport renewed and citizenship for my wife and family. My oldest son, Shane, who also shares a deep love of Maltese culture, would not allow me to give up. "Look, Dad," he said, "Malta is selling citizenship for €650,000. You have to do this!"

This was the cost of heritage.

Shane Bugeja

How can a country sell citizenship and deprive me of one because of a missing descender on the letter "i"?

After a month of cajoling, I agreed. I took on the task of dealing with two sets of bureaucracies in Malta and America. Changing a name is not easy if your birth records are in New Jersey. Typically, you have to do that in the state or hire attorneys to do the job at a cost of thousands of dollars. I tried to hire an attorney in Iowa to do the legal work, but she didn't know how to do that. (Got billed anyway.)

Finally, I called my county's clerk of courts, explained the situation and asked if she could help me file the necessary papers.

"Of course, Dr Bugeja," she said, pronouncing my name perfectly. That was the first time this happened in a long while. "How did you know my name? You can't be Maltese," I said, knowing how few of us there are in the Midwest.

"Oh, no. You were my daughter's ethics teacher, and she talks about your class to this day!"

She guided me through the complicated process. After filing court papers and informing Social Security here, my Maltese name has been officially restored on my birth certificate: BUGEJA.

Late last year, with the help of the Malta Embassy in Washington, I completed an entire new set of forms for passport renewal and citizenship for my wife. We're still awaiting word about that. Then we have to fly to Washington for biometrics. As of this month, we are entering our third year trying to get this done. I will write a follow-up when I succeed or encounter more red tape.

Now that you know my personal journey, I would like to share something about Maltese expatriates in the United States. Often with names like mine or worse, like Xuereb or Sghendo, who live in states like Iowa, we delight, yes, delight! when we encounter another Maltese person in our midst. There is a bond of recognition borne out of estrangement - estrangement from one's history, cuisine, language, expressions, traditions, religion and so much more - that the simple realization that someone knows you, your culture, your heritage, is magical. You share the same pride and cast political partisanship aside, embracing instead the loyalty of friendship, the pageantry of festivals, and the music of the Mediterranean.

Perhaps you thought the title of this essay-"Losing and rediscovering your heritage - is about me. It is not. It is about you.

When I see people in Malta with our close-knit DNA and common names, calling each other all manner of expletives, because some support one political party over another, I am struck with how American you have become. We have the same hatred here. We, too, have forgotten our own magical bonds, that we are Americans first with a Statute of Liberty whose inscription reads, "Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free." Those words attracted my parents and, perhaps, relatives of yours residing in the States now.

When I read the vitriol in the online news sites from Malta, I have a distinct feeling, as if I am a child again watching helplessly as my parents fight in a guttural language I do not understand. I want them to stop. I want them to find peace.

So much of what we feel as Maltese comes from the gut. I get that. This is part of our history, too, as well as our courage and passion. But our strongest bonds are love, faith and forgiveness. Our archipelago is a 122-square-mile pressure cooker, reminding us, because of sheer space that we must let off steam but also get along with each other. That is why we are the longest surviving civilization. Evidence of that is not found in megalithic temples but in the compassionate heart and empathetic mind.

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