HomeJobs‘We always got the dirtiest jobs’: A Maltese story of US emigration

‘We always got the dirtiest jobs’: A Maltese story of US emigration

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Rena Xuereb has lived in the US state of Michigan for 73 years but her family still call her iż-żgħira, the Maltese phrase for the youngest one.

Along with her mother and her five siblings, Rena emigrated from Malta at the age of four and has now written a book about their story.

Entitled Courage of a Maltese Immigrant, it describes how the family left their farm in Għajn Riħana, near Burmarrad in 1951, one of the peak years for Maltese migration to the US.

Rena’s book centres around her mother, Josephine, who had to help run the family farm at the age of 13 when her father died and her brothers emigrated to Australia.

To help the family make ends meet, the young Josephine would be rented out to pick up horse manure by the hour.

“You worked hard to survive and they did,” Rena said.

At 20, Josephine Gauci met her future husband, John Xuereb, through an arranged marriage and the couple went on to have a large family – Joe, Frank Dolores, Victor, Grace and little Rena.

But, in post-war Malta, economic conditions worsened and John joined the mass emigration of people to work in Michigan at the Ford Motor Company for $2.00 an hour, which was a significant wage at the time.

Ten months later, Josephine and most of her children boarded the SS Italia for the epic journey to be reunited with her husband. Before the move, she had never left Malta, not even to travel to Gozo.

The Xuereb’s first family photo which was taken in America, in 1954. From left: Top row Joe, Frank, Dolores, Victor and Grace. Bottom row: Josephine, Rena and John.The Xuereb’s first family photo which was taken in America, in 1954. From left: Top row Joe, Frank, Dolores, Victor and Grace. Bottom row: Josephine, Rena and John.

‘My heart is always in Malta’

“When I turned 42 (the same age her mother emigrated to America), I thought: Could I have made the same journey?” she said. “And I had to admit to myself that I wouldn’t have had the courage.”

Once there, the family worked hard to survive.

“We didn’t deal with racism in America like they did in Australia,” she said. “We are white here. But us immigrants always got the dirtiest jobs when we arrived.” She said she wrote the book as a tribute to her mother, who died in 2003, and to inspire others who face similar hardships.

While she speaks with a strong Midwestern accent, Rena has not forgotten her roots. She is a trustee of the Maltese American Community Club of Dearborn and has returned regularly to Malta.

“I went back to Malta for the first time in 1965 and I have been back quite a few times since. For a while, I was coming back here four to five times a year,” she said.

“My hair stands up every time we land in Malta. My heart is always in Malta.”

Courage of a Maltese Immigrant can be purchased on Amazon or Ingramspark for Maltese readers.

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