Maltese American Heritage Day - A Personal Experience
On September 20th, 2017, State Representative Darrin Camilleri stood up in the Michigan House of Representatives to propose September 21st, 2017 as Maltese-American Day. His proposal, which was approved by the House, made the 21st the first ever Maltese-American day in the State of Michigan. We asked for a few different views on the day.
Though much time has elapsed between that day and now (how is it already November?!), we want to continue to share your stories with the community. Today's story is from Rena Xuereb, and she describes her personal experiences as being a Maltese migrant and why that September day mattered so much to her.
My name is Rena (Nazarena) Xuereb, and I am the youngest of seven children. My father, John Xuereb, (Ganni ta Grima) left for the United States in 1950 and quickly secured a job at Ford Motor Co., earning $2.00 an hour working in the hot coke ovens. My father managed to purchase a car and a home near St. Anne’s Catholic Church, all while renting a room from a Maltese lady names Sara in Corktown.
John's passport photo in 1950
Ten months later he sent for us. My mother Josephine (Giuseppa) Gauci Xuereb hesitated because that would mean she would be leaving her oldest child Marija Xuereb Gatt, who was married with two small boys. She resentfully left her island, left her family, left her eldest child not knowing she would ever see her again.
Passports were in order and in June of 1951 we left for the States. Picture thirteen days on a ship with six children from 19 to 4 years of age! Let me point out that none of us spoke English and some were severely seasick the whole trip. We made it to the Port of New York then arrived in Detroit by train, with my father waiting for us.
The Xuereb family's first portrait in the United States, taken in 1953.
We moved to the Holy Redeemer area a year later, and since there was a large concentration of Maltese in Detroit we never felt like immigrants, everyone was like us. Mothers kept cooking Maltese foods, pastizzi were a staple. Men would dress in suits and hang out on Sundays. The downtown Detroit Maltese Club on Michigan Ave. was the glue that kept everyone together. We had Maltese priests like Fr. Cefai, Fr. Cini, and now Fr. Joe Mallia who were and are a big part of our community. We had social functions at the club, everyone was happy. A second Maltese Club in Dearborn opened its doors in the 1980s to accommodate the families moving out to the suburbs.
We slowly adjusted to our new home and our new surroundings. My brother stated we were in America and had to start speaking in English. I was the youngest and just turned 4 years old, I can’t recall anything about Malta or our ship experience. Although I have no past memory of Malta as a child before we left, my heart never left.
Rena Xuereb is pictured above in 1952 on her first day of Kindergarten. Her brother Victor is in the background.
Frank and Victor Xuereb adjusting to American life, adopting "American" clothing in 1955.
My parents eventually started going to Malta every couple of years, enjoying their time with family and their oldest daughter they hadn’t seen for years. I find myself going to Malta several times a year with my husband Fernando Campos who also loves Malta. Maybe I’m trying to make up for those first few years of my life, trying to fill the gap. Each and every time I get my first view of my Malta from the plane my hair stands up and as soon as I’m on land I feel like I’ve never left.
When in Malta I’m asked where I’m from because of my American accent. I jokingly say St. Paul’s Bay knowing damn well they mean where am I living. Then they ask again, Canada? Australia? I say no, America.
I’ve had my dual citizenship for a number of years now and I find people in Malta say, oh your not Maltese because you left so young. They might as well stab me with a dagger, that hurts terribly. I immediately pull out my Maltese passport and ask them what does that say? I have so much pride in my Maltese heritage that I do a lot of research. My family line goes back 12 and 13 generations to the 1500s, so don’t tell me I’m not Maltese.
Then just the opposite, I get Americans who say you were born here right? They are quite shocked when I tell them no, in fact, I was born on the island of Malta. Sometime I get, where is that? Fortunate for me, that’s when I can start bragging like a historian about history, temples, beaches, sunshine and on and on.
The Xuereb children, in birth order, returned to Malta in 1998 for their sister's 50th Wedding Anniversary. From left to right is Mary, Grace, Joe, Victor, Frank, Dolores, and Rena.
My family, minus my mother, all became American citizens. In 1967, I was sworn in and felt a great sense of pride. Our recent trip to the State Capitol brought out that pride once again with all the Maltese presence and those in spirit. Seeing all those people there, hearing Lisa Buttigieg LiGreci sing both the American and Maltese national anthems. Watching our first Maltese legislator Darrin Camilleri give a history of Malta and our contributions to Detroit, then introducing a resolution to declare September 21 as Maltese American Heritage Day in the State of Michigan -- the same day we recognize Malta's independence. Once again my hair stood up as if I was flying over Malta and seeing it for the first time.
Rena Xuereb lives in The City of Belleville, MI with her husband Fernando Campos. They have six children and four grandchildren. She is a member of the Maltese American Community Club in Dearborn where she is a trustee on the executive board. Rena is currently working on a book, entitled “Courage of a Maltese Immigrant.” She wants to share stories her mother passed on to her and her siblings, regarding life in Malta and the courage it took to eventually leave the island.