In the Beginning

We did not know we would end up in Italy. In fact, we have not ended up there yet. But we know we will. Providence, as the saying goes, has shifted. The first time I remember being fascinated with Europe was when I was sixteen or seventeen, before I went away to college. I’d always loved poetry, and it probably came from picturing the cliffs of England, standing “glimmering and vast,” or Byron living with the romantics in Italy. I planned my trip to all the great cities of Europe with Frommers guides checked out from the library. I had only two problems. Number 1: I didn’t exactly have the funds for a month-long European vacation. Number 2 was even more serious. My mother would never have let me go alone. So I went to college instead. One of my philosophy professors was European, although I do not remember quite from where. He lacked the typically American casualness of manner, and I can still feel the pleasant chill that ran down my spine every time his slight accent would catch the voiceless g in “cogito ergo sum.” When he told us he changed his career from mathematics to philosophy after backpacking through all the ancient capitals of Europe, I was entranced. I could easily picture him sleeping, as he said, on a park bench so he could afford one more museum, and myself doing the same. Was there some other world across the ocean, that I thought had only existed in my head?

After graduating from college, I met my husband. We were married December 27, 2003. Suddenly, I had an Italian last name. His family, like mine, had lived in the United States for generations. But one of his aunts gave me a set of pasta dishes as a wedding present, along with Tony’s grandma’s recipe for Chicken Parmagiana. “Welcome to the Famiglia,” it began.

Two years later, he had graduated from college, and we were working on a start-up business in San Diego. Surfing the internet one day and daydreaming about taking a trip to Europe, I stumbled on Michael Severini’s blog about his quest to gain Italian citizenship by descent. It was the first time I had ever heard the magic words jure sanguinis. I was instantly obsessed.

I learned that Italy has a unique law stating that if an Italian never renounced his citizenship after emigrating from Italy, his descendants can claim Italian citizenship jure sanguinis. By right of blood. The rules are very specific. To pass citizenship on to his children, the Italian ancestor must have either never become a citizen of a foreign state, or changed his citizenship after his children were born. Up until perhaps 20 years ago, this would not have been very important, since citizens of the United States were prohibited from having dual citizenship with another country. However, laws here have recently loosened up, causing a flood of Italian-Americans to seek out their roots and reclaim citizenship in the country of their progenitors.

Tony has Italian blood on both sides of his family. I was sure it had to work. I spent the next three days working 14 hours a day at my computer, researching his family tree. On his father’s side, Anthony Joseph Familia came to America from Italy before 1900. His first-born son, Joseph Anthony, is Tony’s great-great grandfather on his father’s side. (The name is passed down in the family and flipped every time they use it. For some reason, even though Tony is the third son in his family, he received the family name.) The 1890 census record for the family states that both parents were naturalized, and that all the children were born in New York. However, family sources confirmed that Joseph Anthony had been born in Sicily and brought over the sea as a baby. Apparently, they didn’t want to get in trouble, so they told the census worker they were all citizens. When I checked with the National Archives, we were crushed to find that he had completed the naturalization process just months before his son William (my husband’s grandfather) was born. His two older children inherited Italian citizenship, as did their descendants. But my husband’s line did not.

I turned my attention to his mother’s side of the family. On this side, Domenico Bodrero had come over from Piedmont, Italy in the mid-19th century after being baptized by Mormon missionaries. He had settled in Logan, Utah, where some descendants still lived. His son Louis was Tony’s great-great grandfather on his mother’s side. We learned that Domenico had emigrated around 1855, and that Louis (his youngest son) was born in 1873. So the question became whether Domenico had become a naturalized citizen of the United States before his son’s birth. By this time, I had been all over the internet searching for information on how to complete the citizenship process, and discovered an invaluable resource for all things Italian: Expat Talk, a community of expats in Italy with an active, extremely informative message board. I met lots of people there who had actually done it and become Italian citizens. (Or rather, had their Italian citizenship recognized, since technically speaking, they had been Italian all along.)

Unfortunately, Tony talked to his mother, who got out a box of family history papers she had copied from a relative in Logan, Utah, where the Bodreros settled. While reading family stories, she stumbled across one that talked about Domenico voting in elections years before Louis was born. It seemed like a dead-end. He could not have been voting had he not been a citizen. I gave up on finding his naturalization records, which before 1900 were difficult to locate.

But the seed had been planted. We decided somewhere along the line that we wanted to live in Italy, no matter what happened. And if we had to live there for ten years to get citizenship, we would do it. It looked like it might be a while, though. Without citizenship, we would need to get the long-stay visa, which requires you to live in Italy basically as a retiree–without any income from work.

We got a little discouraged, and the idea of Italy seemed very far away. It went dormant in our minds for about a year. We still talked about it sometimes, though. And when our new baby was born in June, 2007, we named him Raj Dominique, after his great-great-great grandfather who had come to the United States before Italy was even a country.

Autumn came that next year, and we moved back to San Diego, just down the street from the Mormon Temple. Attending the Temple weekly helped us to put our lives back in focus. We started thinking about doing family history, which made us think again about Italy. The day before yesterday we decided to go over the family lines again, in case we had missed something. I emailed the Utah state archives to have them check several different county registers and find out if Domenico ever did become a United States citizen. Utah was only a Territory back then, and the Mormons were not always on wonderful terms with the Federal Government. Besides, Tony’s mom says her mother told her stories of being teased and called WOP’s because they were Italian (W.O.P.; With Out Papers). Maybe they really did not ever have naturalization papers. I checked the census record. In 1870, three years before Louis was born, Domenico had indicated that he was not a U.S. citizen. Who knew if it was true or not, considering how the other side of the family had falsified their census data. But it was something. By the 1900 census, he did claim citizenship.

At this point, I realized we had another set of problems. Domenico emigrated before 1861, the year Italy became a country. I asked the message board if this was a problem. We were unable to reach a clear conclusion. It is probably one of those things that varies with different consulates. Also, there is some question as to whether children born to parents who naturalized before 1912 were able to inherit citizenship. Some sources (including the San Francisco Italian consulate) say no. Others don’t mention it as an obstacle. In any case, it’s quite a long shot. IF Domenico never naturalized or naturalized after the birth of his son Louis, we might, if we are very lucky, be able to get Italian citizenship.

None of this made too much of a difference before, when we were just going to move to Italy eventually. But the other day, Tony felt a distinct call from God to go to Italy. There is some reason we are supposed to be there. We wouldn’t wait around now for a consulate to approve our jure sanguinis application anyway. A year or so ago, Italy created a new permesso di soggiorno for people who are applying for Italian citizenship in Italy. If we do find that Domenico was never naturalized, or naturalized after his son was born, we’ll move to Italy, get the permesso, submit our application, and hope that the fact that we have moved our family to Italy, are learning Italian, and want to live there forever in the valleys of Cuneo, Piedmont like our ancestors, will move someone at the Comune to approve our application, in spite of the sketchy points.

If we don’t, we’re planning how we can get a long-stay visa next year.

Either way, we are moving to Italy.