The Malta Independent 8 August 2020, Saturday

Keeping the Maltese culture in San Francisco alive: A history, a community, and a call for support

Albert Galea Monday, 9 December 2019, 14:41 Last update: about 9 months ago

Sitting some 15 miles south of San Francisco, Millbrae is in many ways a typical American suburban town. However, there are hints of things which set it apart from other such towns; subtle hints such as small stickers of flags and plaques indicating the origin of family names.

Most striking, and perhaps even most out of place however, is a large piece of rock.  Adorned with intricately carved patterns and sitting outside the Town Hall, the rock is accompanied by a plaque which explains that it was once part of the Mosta parish church, some 6,700 miles away.

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Millbrae is in fact paired with Mosta – they are sister cities. This owes to the fact that among its 21,000 or so strong population, Millbrae is home to a significant community of Maltese emigrants – a community which is also pockmarked across nearby San Bruno and the marvelous city of San Francisco.

Tucked away just off the main road which passes through Millbrae is an average looking small office block, no more than two storeys, and with signs and service adverts leaning against the full length glass panel that runs across its side.  Again, standing out from these is the seal of the Republic of Malta.  However, it is not until one enters the building, walks down the main, wood-lined hallway and enters one of the office doors that they find out the reason for this seal’s presence.

Indeed, nested at the back of the office of the Millbrae Chamber of Commerce is a small room. “You are now on Maltese territory”, Louis Vella says with a smile as he takes his seat behind his desk and under a large, handmade wooden Maltese seal – one of only five ever made.

Despite being halfway across the globe from Malta, Vella isn’t technically wrong – his office is one of 13 Honorary Consulates of Malta in the United States, and he is the Honorary Consul for San Francisco and most of the state of California.

His job is essentially to be the bridge between the community in the area and the Maltese government. He can sign off on the power of attorney for a person, help them with renewing or acquiring a Maltese passport, or with acquiring dual citizenship, while also representing the community or even the embassy – which is based six-hours away in Washington DC – in certain matters.

However, where does the Maltese presence in California originate from? It is a well known fact that Malta’s emigration history is one which spans across many years and many parts of the globe. California is perhaps one of the more far-flung destinations, but in spite of its location, it has played home to Maltese for over 150 years to the 1850s.

The American West was, back then, something of a lawless state when compared to the continent’s east coast. Anybody who dared to venture past the city of St. Louis in Missouri was entering practically lawless territory. However, in the 1850s gold was found in the Californian Mountains, giving rise to the gold rush.

Although there is no physical documentation of them, a number of Maltese were among the thousands who flocked to California in the hope of getting rich off of the gold, Vella explains when asked about the origins of the Maltese community in the state.

Documented evidence however shows that there was definitely a Maltese presence in San Francisco by the end of the nineteenth century, and they were present in the city when a third of it was leveled in the famous earthquake of 1906, Vella explained. The city however recovered, and in 1914 and 1915 the World Expo took place in San Francisco showing the Bay Area was open for business.

In that period there was a thriving Maltese community which was mainly based close to the city’s port, Vella explains before adding that they had a linguistic advantage; they may not have had fantastic knowledge of English, but at least it was not a totally foreign language to them like it would be to an Italian or Chinese migrant.

In conjunction with San Francisco’s revival, the Maltese Protective Society was founded in 1913. “It was brilliant”, Vella says; “In a time when there was a lot of work but with a very low level of safety, meaning that a lot of people got hurt or killed on the job, the society would raise money and step in to help those families whose breadwinner could not work anymore”.

In essence, the Maltese already had a social security system before the actual social security system was even created, Vella says. The Protective Society became the Maltese-American Social Club in November 1929, just over 90 years ago, and it became a one-stop shop for the Maltese community; one could find a job, a partner, a church close by, and everything else that may have been needed through the club, Vella explains. “It was a thriving community”, he says.

The influx of Maltese migrants came in the years that followed the Second World War, Vella said, however as other destinations such as Australia and Canada began to open up to Maltese, owing to them being in the Commonwealth, immigration from Malta to the States started to decrease earlier than it did to other destinations.

In spite of this, there are still a number of Maltese youths coming to San Francisco, primarily to work in the IT industry, Vella says, although he notes that this is not something of a renewed influx.

The Maltese-American Social Club is not the only club in the area; today the Maltese Heritage Association, the Maltese Historical Society, the Sister City Commission, and the St. Elizabeth Maltese Society all exist and are supported by the consulate. The Maltese Cross Foundation is another group; it gives out a grant of $4000 every year to children of Maltese descent in order to aid them in their studies.

Keeping Maltese culture alive however has not been easy, Vella says. “There was always a certain nucleus of people which keep it alive, but what they do is done by themselves and only themselves – the help actually coming from Malta is very minimal”, he continues before noting that nothing in terms of literature or filmography had ever come from Malta meaning that people had to create thing based on their memories of the island.

The club had started to organize activities such as parades and exhibitions, but this perhaps did not take into account the collective feeling towards Malta that the bulk of those emigrating to San Francisco (and elsewhere) had.

“The people who came here after the war didn’t actually have nice memories of Malta.  They came from a poor country with no infrastructure and no work, and they wanted to distance themselves from it”, Vella explains.

For instance, he says, these families imposed on their children to speak only in English, with the idea here being that they were now in America and must assimilate with their new home.

Most of those who emigrated after the war hailed from the western side of Malta – from then agricultural villages such as Mosta, Mgarr, Rabat, and Mellieha.  This meant, Vella explains, that the traditions they brought with them were largely religious.

The population of first generation migrants is however ageing – one gentleman, Joe Chetcuti, recently turned 100 – but Vella has seen that their grandchildren are developing a fascination with Malta.

The second generation of Maltese in America are those who were assimilated into the American way of life by their parents, so they have been somewhat cut off from Malta, Vella explains. It is however their children who, by harnessing technology, are discovering the origins of their parents and grandparents and developing a fascination with Malta.

“We could write a book about this because it is a phenomenon”, Vella says.

Aside from this fascination with their roots, these youngsters also have a strong desire for a Maltese passport, Vella says before explaining that this is because of the amount of doors it will open across the pond in Europe.

“The passport is a very strong link in a chain which connects the person to Malta.  It ties them to Malta forever.  When one of these youngsters stumbles onto something big where they have the chance to invest, that connect can bring investment to the islands and open the doors for their children and grandchildren and those of others”, he says.

One of the highlights of the yearly calendar for the Maltese community is Malta Day which takes place on 21st September – coinciding with Malta’s Independence Day.  This is a day dedicated solely to Malta; the Maltese flag is raised at City Hall while trips into the wine country accompanied by explanations of Maltese history are also organized. A reception which attracts a significant crowd – over 200 people and even double that when a special guest, such as the Prime Minister, is in attendance, also forms part of the celebrations.

“The impetus behind this is that while people here cannot become Maltese, their roots are Maltese and we want them to know where they are coming from and teach them what Maltese culture is about”, Vella explains.

“Through Malta Day we try to teach people where they are coming from, and make them proud of being Maltese”, he continues.

The Maltese community is also invited to take part in the annual Columbus Day Parade by the Italian community, and they do so in front of over 100,000 people.

This is where, Vella laments, help from an authority such as the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) can come in handy; “if even one couple goes to Malta as a result of the promotion in such an event, then the money spent is injected back into the economy, but there isn’t the contact unfortunately”.

This is a point which Vella expands upon when asked what he would like to see in the future in terms of support for the Maltese community in San Francisco.

“We would like to see support from entities such as the MTA or Heritage Malta – maybe in terms of finances but also in terms of sending a performer to the area from Malta”, he says.  He laments that Maltese performers are generally sent to places such as Toronto or New York on the East Coast, but never reach San Francisco on the West Coast.

It is not the case, he says as he recalls a recent example to back his assertion; “last March, for the first time, we managed to bring over the play The Star of Strait Street and to prove that there was the interest, we booked a large auditorium for it – in spite of the fears of the embassy that we would not manage to fill it”, he says.

“The auditorium was packed; over 500 people came. The actors were astonished – they said it was the biggest audience they had ever performed the play to…and they’ve performed in Australia, Canada, and the UK!”

“This shows that there truly is a thirst for these things. But how long can this thirst last if there isn’t any help?  The wheel sometimes needs an injection to help it spin further, and if it comes from Malta, it will be all the better”, he says.

This is perhaps not what Vella wants most however.

“When it comes to America, there is still that certain opinion that those who have left Malta and came here are not Maltese anymore.  We are not emigrants – we are Maltese who simply live elsewhere”, he says.

“It took a while for people to get used to that phenomenon; until Malta entered the EU and more Maltese moved to Europe.  Since they’re close enough though, that’s fine – for us, who are further, the attitude isn’t the same”, he laments.

“Should distance separate us from Malta? No. If I am Maltese and living abroad – be it in Luxembourg or in San Francisco – I am still Maltese”.

 

 

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