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CONVENTION 2000 - Part Two

The Second Day of the Convention, Wednesday 26th January 2000 at the Emigrants’ Commission, Castille Place, Valletta.

Second Session - Preservation of Maltese Culture and Language:

The topics were:

  • What is being done to keep alive Maltese traditions?... feasts, food, language
  • How much is the Maltese language still being used?… in the family, among Maltese, in church
  • Is the Maltese language a help or a hindrance?
  • Are TV and radio being made use of and to what extent?
  • Are books in Maltese and about Malta reaching Maltese migrants?
  • What is expected from the Malta side to help in this respect?
  • Connections (contacts) between present and future generations with Malta

The Keynote speakers were Professor Henry Frendo and Professor Maurice Cauchi.
Other delegate speakers were:
Dr Victor Borg - Australia
Mr Charles Mifsud - Australia
Mr Richard Cumbo - Canada
Rev Victor Camilleri OFM - U.K.
Ms Claudia Caruana - U.S.A.
Mr Alfred Zarb - V.O.M.
Mr I. Magri-Overend - Maltese of Egypt
Mr Francis Azzopardi - Maltese of Tunis
Mr Jean F. Buhagiar - Maltese of Algeria
Professor Henry Frendo opened up the Keynote address by recalling on the time of his arrival in Australia from Papua New Guinea, back in 1985 following a three-year stint in Egypt. "What does the future hold for realistic cultural ties and ethnic identity?" This was the question he asked at a lecture he gave to the Maltese Literature Group at the Maltese Centre in Parkville. In a different context, today he was asking the same question, with suggestions of some means of help.
He explained that those who migrated know what it feels to be torn between two countries, the nostalgia, homesickness and heartache.
He compared the migrant concept with that of an orphan that was adopted and grew into adulthood; he remained however eager or perhaps more curious to know about parentage comforts. But once the social-physical ties break up, how far does the parent recognise the offspring, or the offspring understands or desires the parent?
It is fascinating, that this small and isolated island of Malta was in fact so spread and even affluent, enriched with descendants that somehow still felt and identified her as a matrix of ethnics with valued and enjoyable memories. Like a mountain stream that becomes a river and flows from country to country until it ends into the vast open seas.
I will never forget the words of my mother’s uncle who lived in the USA. He was over ninety. After a visit, before I left, he put his hands on my shoulders and said: "My son, there is no place like home, even if it is a chink in the wall." Memorable words! Who wants to be a chink in the wall? Who isn’t?
It is unfortunate that very few migrants used their intelligence to delve into their grass roots and benefit from the developments of the country where they were born. As settlers in foreign countries they also faced racial disadvantages and struggled to overcome the poverty, which caused them to leave their native shores. The Church played an important part in caring for the needs (social and religious) of the migrants. In some places of the Middle East (Arab and Muslim states) the Maltese were identified through their Christian faith and practices. The presence of Maltese priests enhanced the survival of the culture, together with other traditional practices such as band music, folklore, recipes, waistcoats, and the retention of the language.
There are disadvantages too. Migrants from colonised countries were seen to have been dominated by Military forces and other subtle means, such as being given a British passport. By comparison with other immigrants (Greeks, Italians, etc) the retention of the Maltese language was poor and this did not help matters. The link starts breaking at this point.
Immigrants do not learn about their native country once they are away from it. This results in lack of transmission of language, culture and traditions to their offspring. Even less is taught or mentioned about the history of Malta among the overseas Maltese-born children.
What does the Maltese identity stand on among Migrants? Is there a burning desire for identity and sense of belonging? The younger (second) generation of Maltese cannot uphold the Maltese identity unless encouraged and aided by their own elderly folk. It is feared that it will be impossible to achieve this in the next few decades. The norm is that culture and national identity and perceptions (recognition, learning, ideas and experiences) are transmitted naturally from the parents. It is harder to achieve all this when residing far away from the cultural source.
Since obtaining Independence, Malta is moving fast into being its own organic entity and without depending on other countries. In other words, it is cultivating itself. A Convention of Emigrants every thirty years will not suffice.
Efforts are needed to implant the Maltese culture and heritage into the minds of second and third generation Maltese. Promoting folklore and old traditions are not the method to achieve these aims.
Professor Frendo made a number of suggestions for issues to be taken on board, namely
(i) A focal point to serve as a sounding board is needed. This should include researches, exchanges and sources of information from Malta accessible among the migrants.
(ii) A Universal Maltese Federation (already suggested by the expert Ropa) should not go unheeded. Modern technology should facilitate the widespread of writings and audio-visual programs via the Internet and other media.
(iii) The students at Malta University held seminars during the past 11 years on "Maltese Migration and Overseas Settlements" informtion sources from the Maltese abroad.
Continuous pleas are made for all kinds of resources, including adequate funds, to ascertain successful continuity of the project. It is felt that the Maltese Government has an obligation to support the socio-linguistic development of Maltese abroad.
We urgently need assistance from Malta and a genuine commitment by the Government to help us preserve our Culture and Language for future generations of Maltese abroad.
Malta should remain the matrix and origin of any Maltese cultural trend. Emphasis should be made to extract information from the existing libraries in Malta and overseas. For example, refer to the book Malta: Culture and Identity which comprises various aspects of culture. The following is a list of cultural issues:
National identity, Literature, Language (spoken and written), Archaeology, Law, Medicine, Architecture, Folklore, Music, Natural heritage, Art, Poetry, Economy, Emigration, Pastoral work, Politics, Commerce, Citizenship.
Dwelling only on the past is not conducive to any country’s culture. Past, Present and Future should be the target of information and research on cultural aspects. Many are those Maltese who hold the Maltese Culture dear to their hearts. Others have contributed through their writings, poetry, literature, arts and history.
Professor Frendo ended his speech by giving the following warning:
"Unless the recommendations of today are heeded and dealt with seriously, another Convention in thirty years ahead will be void and unproductive, since the Maltese Voices Overseas will have gone quiet, and only their echoes will remain heard from a distance, and no one is there to listen and answer them."
Professor Maurice Cauchi followed by indicating that he had gained his experience in Australia. He presented many detailed statistics on the Australian situation based on the Census 1996. It is admirable that out of over fifty thousand Maltese migrants in Victoria and New South Wales, there are still about forty-five thousand who speak the Maltese language. More than a quarter of these are under 35 years of age and were born in Malta. Many of them would have left Malta when still very young.
A large number of children born of Maltese parents are now classified as third generation Maltese, but the majority of them do not speak their parents’ language because their first language is English.
The analysis given by Professor Cauchi demonstrates that, while the first generation Maltese are willing to adopt the Maltese language as their daily life colloquial tongue, yet their offspring have a limited use for the Maltese language outside their homes or their community circles. However, with such a long distance away from their roots in Malta, the only life-line they have with our country is the Maltese language.
The question therefore arises as to whether Maltese writings (books, magazines, publications, literature, correspondence etc.) would benefit these migrants if they were made available to them. In our times there is a horde of information written in Maltese through the Internet media. There is no problem with accessibility to Maltese writings. Book reading in Malta and possibly to a larger extent among Maltese overseas is not a popular pastime. Books are usually printed in hundreds rather than thousands. The children use their local libraries to produce their school projects.
Professor Cauchi maintains that there should be a well-stocked library in every State where Maltese form a substantial number. This would be useful as a resource both for Maltese as well as for non-Maltese students wishing to obtain information.
Learning Maltese when residing overseas should not be a hindrance. If other languages are taught outside the school curriculum, then the Maltese language too can be delivered to the Maltese children overseas. The Maltese Government is urged not to let this opportunity lapse before our children abroad grow up and forget completely the importance of their parents’ language.
Dr Victor Borg next gave a brief historical outline of the first migrants to Australia and recorded how the Maltese were anxious to preserve their traditions and culture in their new environment. This they did by setting up shops with Maltese names and residing close to one another as a community. Many groups were found working together in factories and local businesses. There was great enthusiasm to build up a Maltese Community, which provided a sense of security and an informal network, which ensured employment and housing opportunities for those who settled there. The Maltese were close in those early years and the intention was to build a solid foundation for those who were to follow in later years.
With the passing of time, however, there was to be a change when many opted to integrate as much as possible with the local system, or even drifted away from the established city areas, in order to enhance better opportunities for their growing children. The preservation of Maltese culture and language was unplanned in the early days of settlement. People felt comfortable mixing within their own community in the secure knowledge that they could obtain help when they needed.
An umbrella organisation for Maltese groups was formed in 1954 with the name of Maltese Community Council of Victoria (MCCV). This grew into a strong advocate and representative of the Maltese people of the area. Today there are about thirty Maltese organisations working under the auspices of MCCV who worked closely with the Australian Government to ascertain adequate recognition of the Maltese community needs.
In 1983 a Centre for the Maltese Community was opened in Victoria. This serves as a venue for community activities and welfare programmes. With such good progress there is room for the community to take further steps to ensure that the Maltese culture and language remain relevant to the Australian-born members of the Maltese community. Special efforts need to be concentrated on getting the young Maltese to be involved in community ventures with an aim to preserving our culture and traditions.
Dr Borg ended by giving a long list of recommendations aimed at procuring aids of all kinds from both the Maltese Government and local Maltese community groups to enhance the Maltese language and culture abroad.
Mr Charles Mifsud referred to a Maltese-Australian community in New South Wales where the population is proud of its heritage, and as such it should assist in the economic, social and cultural development of Malta. It also enriches the host country with a foreign culture and language.
As in other immigrant countries, the pattern is just as equal, namely that the first generation of Maltese makes full use of their mother-tongue, whereas the second and third generations have a considerable diminished use of the language.
Great efforts are made by various Maltese Associations to keep alive our Tradition, our Culture and our Language. An excellent medium is the use of Radio programs and a newspaper named The Maltese Herald, which reach many people. Other linguistic resources and books from Malta are very much needed among the young Maltese in order to generate interest in the culture.In 1999 a Maltese Community Language School was set up with the co-operation of the local Department of Education. About 100 students take part with tuition from eight qualified teachers, and it continues to develop due to the high demand by the local Maltese families.
There is no assistance forthcoming from sources in Malta.
Mr Richard Cumbo opened up by explaining that Institutions like Maltese Organisations, the church and the media, play an integral role in helping to preserve our Maltese Culture and language in Canada. They help to maintain our identity in a multicultural mosaic, which is the make-up of Canadian society. He said that there are various organisations that propagate a multitude of Maltese cultural activities, thereby instilling and help strengthen a Maltese-Canadian presence in communities across Canada. By feeding into these institutions or groups, our Maltese heritage has a nucleus from which to grow. The main Maltese-Canadian community in Canada is found in Toronto in an area called the "Junction", and although decreasing in its Maltese presence, this area is still considered to be the "hub" of the Maltese in Ontario.
An easier method to maintain our culture is for the Maltese-Canadian organisations to play a more active role by organising Maltese-style events or activities. Most members of the community take part in marching band concerts, carnival dances, soccer competitions, plays and drama, folklore concerts, village feasts, cultural displays and religious activities. All of these events are held in the Maltese language, and they also serve to educate the Canadians about Maltese customs and awareness of our culture.
The formation of clubs, associations and church groups including a Maltese Parish Church all contribute to the preservation of our culture. The only institution in Canada, which has taken the important role of teaching and promoting the Maltese language and culture, is the Maltese Heritage Programme based in Toronto. There is no question, therefore, of thinking that learning Maltese abroad can be a hindrance. Insistence must be made on the young Maltese to take up the Maltese language as a second language, which they will speak when socialising with others in a Maltese environment.
Rev Victor Camilleri OFM, presented a discussion paper, which highlighted the difficult situation in the United Kingdom with regard to the preservation and development of Maltese Culture and Language among the migrants. There are factors that may have reduced the desired progress, the principal of which was that the Maltese are widely spread over many parts of the country. Indeed, initially they had settled in small communities around London and other counties of England and Wales, but soon they moved to other areas once the conditions were ripe for them to settle elsewhere. Another problem has always been the difficulty in holding outdoor events to celebrate socially or organise religious events in a Maltese-style custom, since events in public areas may be seen as disruptive to the fast moving activities of the British public in their own neighbourhoods. Another salient reason could be perceived in the easy access to Malta by the Maltese residents in the U.K. Whenever they miss their own folk, it is quite simple for them to take a flight to Malta to visit their relatives.
The use and practice of the Maltese language is quite common, albeit among small circles of migrants, such as in church functions, social events, and in the families. The urge to have an organised group to take care of cultural and language development has been lacking in the community for many years. The various associations in existence over the years left much to be desired. It was however the setting up of the new organisation, the Maltese Culture Movement, which generated most awareness and interest in the community in the past two years. Many parents are now requesting that their children should be taught the Maltese language.
Fr Camilleri ended by making a formal request to the Maltese authorities to appoint a qualified Maltese teacher for those who wish to learn Maltese. Also, any publications and books that are not in use by schools or libraries in Malta can be forwarded to the Maltese community leaders in the U.K. for distribution among their Maltese clients. A much more realistic liaison can be created between the people of Malta and their emigrated folk overseas.
Claudia M. Caruana, a second-generation Maltese-American and author of Taste of Malta (Hippocrene Books, 1998) described growing up "invisibly" in New York during the 1950s. She said that Malta and the Maltese were unknown in a metropolis that revelled in ethnicity and was viewed as a huge melting pot. She said that she had a difficult time trying to convince American publishers that there would be enough interest in a book describing Maltese cuisine and culture. She said finally, after many attempts, she convinced a New York publisher that a Maltese cookbook could be marketed successfully.
Taste of Malta is available on Amazon.com, in London at the Books for Cooks bookstore.
Ambassador Mr Alfred a Zarb is a Councillor for the radio network Voice of the Mediterranean (VOM) spoke on the benefits reaped from his work in the U.S.A. when setting up the Permanent Mission of Malta to the United Nations in New York. In particular he promoted a "Committee for Maltese Unity". His experience was also extended through contacts with the Maltese of North Africa and those of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
He highlighted the fact that the Maltese abroad have happily integrated in their ‘new home’ overseas. This meant that many aspects of their culture were lost or reduced considerably over the years. VOM was set up in 1988 as a regional station to disperse information on events taking place in the Mediterranean with some features about Malta. This network gradually expanded to reach the people of Australia, and there is room for further improvement. Last year the programmes started to be heard via the Internet, and now many Maltese listeners abroad avail themselves of these transmissions. At present negotiations are under way to promote Malta’s activities in the EuroMediterranean area.
VOM also aims to foster contact with Maltese communities abroad through regular programmes which will include young Maltese children of the third and fourth generation.
Mr Ivan Magri-Overend spoke last and delivered his thoughts and recollections on the community of Maltese who resided in Egypt before their departure from North Africa in the mid 1950s. The Maltese Community life in Cairo was like a club which embraced people of the same aims and objectives, namely to preserve and uphold the Maltese culture and language. Activities included social, religious, artistic and educational features, which were participated by the closely-knit community of Maltese. There were Maltese residents also in Alexandria, Port Said and Suez. They had access to newspapers and literature brought over to them from Malta by visiting clergymen and other sources. A radio network was also available.
After leaving Egypt for England, the Maltese set up the Association of Maltese Communities of Egypt, which commemorates the main Maltese historical events.
With the conclusion of all the speeches the Convention Delegates put their comments and questions from the floor during a plenary discussion. The day was concluded in a friendly atmosphere among those present, since they all came together with one intention: to uphold the cause of the migrants.

A courtesy call on the President of Malta was made by all at his auberge.