In a previous blog, I argued that once we situate our history within a choice and a moral project, it can gain moral significance and point us to an “ought”. Thus, focusing on our history and ancestry as a people can help us chose to see ourselves as migrants and to be solidary with today’s people on the move. Keeping that in mind, I will share some of my personal history and my migrant identity with you in the following paragraphs.
My Life as a Migrant
“Am I a migrant?” At this point in my life, I am a white, 43-year old Maltese man, living in Rome… or more precisely, in a hybrid milieu: a building which territorially is part of Italy, but fiscally is part of the Vatican City State. Being a European citizen and a Roman-Catholic cleric, I receive most of the benefits Italian citizens receive while residing in Italy, plus the full-benefits of citizenship in my country — which is little more than 1 hour (and a few Euros) away by plane. I probably have to deal with less red-tape than many other Europeans (and even Italians) to access most of those benefits. Certainly, I am a migrant, but what that means in my case is probably quite different from what it means to most of the people that Europeans have in mind when they think of “migrants”, viz., the people legally called TCNs (Third Country Nationals). That may sound a bit better than the American-English legal term “aliens” but does not necessarily mean they are treated better than foreign nationals in the US.
There are, of course, elegant ways to refer to a migrant. Wealthy and well-educated European and US-citizen migrants tend to shun calling each other “migrants” in English: they rather like to be called “ex-pats”. On one hand, the distinction can be seen as snobbish, classist or even racist: there are certainly some foreign black intellectuals and Muslim Arab businessmen living in Rome who might want people to call them “ex-pats”, but most people tend to associate the word with white skin colour, and with a “Christian” or “Western” cultural background. On the other hand, the distinction highlights the fact that while some migrants are “more equal than others” and experience their migratory status as a situation where they get the best of two or more worlds, others live it as a burden, a source of social exclusion, phycological insecurity and bureaucratic nightmares.
I might insist that I am authentically a “migrant”, since I was born to well-travelled parents (who lived abroad for long periods in their youth) and since, in the 16 years prior to settling in Rome, I lived 14 years outside of my home country, in 5 different Western countries. To be sure, I was cushioned from most of the distress and complications such an experience may cause: all this time, I lived in Jesuit communities which made me feel at home, rather than lost and alienated, and furthermore, my education in Malta made learning western languages and navigating western cultures relatively easy, and quite enjoyable, to me. Yet, having to change language and culture every two to three years in the last 22 years (including a more-recent 8-month spell in Africa) must have given me more than a taste of what “transmigration” (the physical kind!) is all about.
You need not travel a long distance to be a migrant, however. My mother and her siblings were called “refugees” during the World War II, having lost their house during the Blitz and having had to move from the Cottonera to the Zebbug area of the island of Malta (a distance of just 9 kilometres!) The epithet was no joke: the clash between the “agrarian” and the “port-city” cultures that my mother experienced as a child, and then again when she returned to that same rural village many years later (after having lived and travelled in France and the United States for 14 years), was probably much greater than any cultural shock I have ever had to face. My mother’s family posh-pauper status was probably aggravated by their being, in part, of recent Italian ancestry, and this brings us back to the genealogy.
DNA studies are always interesting in places like Malta, and possibly very iconoclastic with respect to any white- or Christian-supremacist ideologies, given that many North-African slaves were given their masters’ surnames upon liberation (just as much as the children of the mistresses of the Northern-European Knights of Malta were often recognized by the woman’s legal husband). Yet, already the surnames of my grandparents give me a lot to think about. The earliest mention of a Maltese “Micallef” is from a 15thcentury prison roll in the then-Spanish fortress of Tripoli in North Africa: the man is listed as a Jew (Maltese and Jews have long been seen as “twins” in North African Countries, being both non-Muslim, non-Arab Semites). My mother’s surname is Abela, probably of distant Catalan origin, but well represented in Sicily. My paternal grandmother’s surname is Bonanno, with various versions common in Sicily and Naples, while my maternal grandmother’s surname, Giusti, is typically Tuscan.
How About You?
After reading what I have just shared about my personal and family history, you may be willing to concede that I am a migrant, while failing to see how this story concerns you. As noted above, the simple factof recognizing that we are “all migrants” does not by itself imply that we should be solidary with today’s migrants and refugees, since hospitality and “philoxenia” implies a choice. Yet, a historically-conscious approach to immigration can be helpful today, to help us overcome the “crisis” narrative. Human mobility is a “normal” thing in history, and it is very much part of who we are, whether we wish to admit it or not.