This morning when I got up there was a line of cars outside our house.
That is the line that starts the post I thought I was going to write. You’ll get that one tomorrow or dopo domani. It is about a funeral and the funeral/burial traditions of Pontelandolfo. I can’t finish it today. Because today in the basement of the Pontelandolfo Cemetary “Cappella” – Chapel, where the bones of the poor are stacked in wooden or tin boxes, I found my great grandfather. Don’t ask me how I know it was him or how I found him. When I saw the wooden box with the handwritten “Salvatore Guerrera” I just knew. It doesn’t have a date – he died in the 1920’s – but I knew.
My great friend, Nicola Ciarlo, had taken me to the cemetery to explain the rules, regulations and traditions of a Pontelandolfo funeral. It is as unlike a New Jersey funeral as you can imagine. The mountain is made of soil that is rocky and hard. The cemetery has been used for generations and hasn’t grown in size. People die – how could the cemetery not expand? Simple, after a number of years, the coffin’s are dug up, bones prepared and then placed in a little box that is placed in a nice marble drawer. That’s if you can afford the nice marble drawer to share with your loved ones. But you’ll read that tomorrow. Today I need to think about my bisnonno.
Nicola took me to the church basement to show me where the bones of the lost ones were housed. The place is called “il ossario” – that is fitting because “ossa” means bone. The lost ones either didn’t have family to reclaim their bones or they were too poor to be placed somewhere else. In the 1920s in Pontelandolfo everyone was poor – my family was no exception. They were contadini – farmers who worked the land for a rich dude. Back then, after World War I and the ravaging of the mountain by the troops, the poverty caused a mass exodus to the Americas. Noone had the money to come back for funerals or even knew that loved ones had died. So, in the ossario there are stacks and stacks of wooden boxes. Some were dated from the early 1900’s. Most didn’t have any dates, just a name scrawled across one side. Little white boxes held the bones of poor children.
As I covered my nose from the damp, moldy smell and looked around, I realized that the boxes had been piled in alphabetical order. I kept walking and found a shelf containing the remains of Guerreras. Since Guerrera is as common here as Smith, I didn’t think anything of the shelf. Then, as though an arrow shot through my core, my entire being was pulled toward the box that said “Salvatore Guerrera.” It has been 5 hours and I am still crying – though now I am crying in my scotch. At first, I thought the overwhelming sadness was because the root of my family tree was tossed in a box and stacked on a shelf. Or I was crying because of how very poor my family had been. Then I realized that I was crying and felt an overpowering sense of loss for all the elders in my family that I didn’t know, haven’t found and haven’t taken the time to discover. I cried from the depth of my soul. The tears refused to stop. Suddenly, I realized that I was mourning. Mourning for my father, my Aunt Cat, my mommy, my Uncle Sally, grandma, Uncle Tony, Uncle Nick, cousin Roseann, Aunt Julie – mourning for all of the people I have loved, who had loved me unequivocally and died. All of the sadness I had bottled up had been released by my great grandfather, Salvatore. My sadness sits inside me and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe in order for the sadness to escape I need to start whacking away at the memoir about finding my family.
Enough about me. Let’s talk about Salvatore Guerrera. He was born on April 5, 1848 to Giovanni Guerrera and Maria Guerrera – since women here don’t change their names when they marry seeing the Guerrera married to a Guerrera was a wee bit disconcerting. But hey, it was a small village and Guerrera is like Jones. The Guerrera infusion in my body is even stronger – Salvatore married Caterina Guerrera. Writing this makes me realize that my blood must also flow in over 50% of the people that I meet. That connection is visceral for all of us and explains why I feel so accepted here. My great grandparents had five children that lived – Francesco – my nonno, Maria Vittoria, Anna, Nicola, and Giovanni.
What I discovered years ago peering through the dusty books in the town hall was that Salvatore had a whole second family! He also married Giuseppa Iannicelli and had four more kids- Caterina Maria ( who died as a baby), Caterina, Michele Nicola and Antonio. It is interesting that Salvatore’s first wife’s name was Caterina and he named his daughters with his second wife Caterina! I wish I could flash back in time and hear that story.
Salvatore was a small man who was larger than life – a fighter, lover, leader. I have only met him through the tales that others have shared. It isn’t the same as seeing his face and hearing his voice but it still links me to him. Here are stories my Zia Caterina, Daddy John, and Carmine Manna told me.
Salvatore Guerrera was Robin Hood. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. In those days everyone was a poor sharecroppers – like a slave – worked the fields for the rich. They had very little food or money. Salvatore took and gave. No one starved.
During World War I, Salvatore was out hunting and he heard some local women screaming. German soldiers were “having their way with them.” Salvatore shot the soldiers. He then dressed as a soldier, took their German guns and walked past the Germans – right back through the lines. That took amazing balls.
With safety in numbers, peasants then lived in stone attached dwellings. The bottom floor was used to house the family’s animals and farming tools. The heat from the animals rose and warmed the second floor which was inhabited by the family. It was one room. The space was very small and yet everyone managed to live together. The structure still stands in the Santa Caterina section of Pontelandolfo.
Zia Giuseppina Guerrera, my dad’s first cousin, told me these stories:
Salvatore needed wood for a fire to bake bread. In this time there were no trees left for wood. (My grandmother told me that during World War I everything was taken from them and they started to make soup from the bark of trees.) Everyone was poor and hungry. Salvator wanted to cut down the tree of the the padrona. Remember, Salvatore, like many others, was a serf and worked the land for the padrona. The tree was incredibly large and the padrona said “No, you can’t cut it. I need to tie my donkey to that tree. So in the dark of night Salvatore cut off the just the top of the tree and tied the donkey to the bottom!
Tobacco was grown in the fields to make cigarettes. The police – working for the rich – said don’t take this tobacco, it is to be sold. Of course Salvator took a leaf of the tobacco, looked at the police and said, ” Beh, don’t talk to me about this tobacco. I will smoke if I want to – so get the hell out of here.” Since he was as strong as a giant, the police went away. The next day the police came back and Salvatore was smoking. He was so very very strong and carried himself like a man of power. There was no arrest. They were afraid of him.
He was so strong that he would take things from the rich man to give to the others. The rich man would say – “I’ll give you money to stop taking things. Salvator laughed and said – “I’ll just take it.” The rich man too was afraid of the very strong and persuasive Salvatore.
When Salvatore was very old he told Giuseppena’s father, Antonio, to bring him his cane. “I want the cane. Give me the cane because I want to beat these children.” No one would bring him his cane. He was still really strong – even as an old man and everyone knew if he got a hold of that cane…
I obviously never met Salvatore Guerrera, the father of my father’s father and the very strong root of my personal family tree. Those traits of his I have seen – in my father, my aunt and gulp – I hate to admit it but – myself.
“L saugu t chiama,” Zia Giuseppina, my father’s first cousin, constantly tells me in the dialect of Pontelandolfo, that “the blood calls.” “L saugu t’altira.” Blood like a magnet is drawn to like blood. My saugu, is strongly attracted to the saugu here. She hugs me and reminds me, that I am the only one who came back from America to search for those left behind.”
The search continues.
Finally – the story you may or may not have been waiting for – the funeral traditions of my Italian home town. A shout out on this topic to Art Adair of Somerville’s New Cemetery, Jimmy Cusick of Cusick’s Funeral Home and Mayann Carroll, former ace lobbyist for the Funeral Director’s Association. Sorry that this particular blog was usurped earlier by my finding my great grand daddy’s bones and turning into a pile of weepy. (https://nonnasmulberrytree.com/2014/06/06/finding-my-great-grandfather/)
This morning when I got up there was a line of cars outside our house. (Thats a lie, it’s been a week since this happened but I didn’t want to mess with the story.) I mentioned the cars to Jack and he said they had been there late last night too. An all night bash and we weren’t invited? Of course we are usually asleep by 10:00. Our house is really close to the cemetery but it has a parking lot and this car line started further up the hill. H’mmm.
Our neighbor and friend, Nicola Ciarlo, stopped over for caffè. Nosey Jack asked why Nicola wasn’t working. “There’s a funeral, he said, don’t you see the cars?” What cars, I said? (Hey I’m not the nosey one.) Looking at me like I had Campari for breakfast, Nicola said, “The ones on the road by the house?” Oh those cars. Why are they here? “People are visiting the family.” We do that in the New Jersey too. “With the body?” he asked. I retorted, The real body – the dead body?
According to Nicola, here in Pontelandolfo they bring the coffin to the house, arrange the body in the bedroom or another room and everyone comes to the house to pay their respects. People bring food and many kiss the dead person goodbye. (Try bringing food to a NJ funeral parlor – I’ve gotten my hand slapped trying that one – right Jimmy.)
The family stays up all night with the corpse. My first response was YUCK will I ever use that room again. Then, thinking about it, the idea resonated with me and actually sounds more civilized than schlepping the corpse from a drawer in the morgue to the paid company’s home. (Sorry Jimmy, your funeral parlor often feels like my home away from home.) They don’t have funeral parlors in Ponteladolfo – they have funeral facilitators. So unless you want to cart the body to – well I don’t know to where – you have to use your own parlor. H’mm that could be a lot of work. I mean, how long is the body in the house — I’m thinking three visitation days – two hours in the afternoon and two or three in the evening – or something like that. “Oh”, Nicola said, “its only 24 hours then the funeral at the church and burial. People visit most of that time.”
I was blessed to be present when my dad died and moments after my precious Aunt Cat died. During that period of time, I could feel the force of their spirits leaving. It wasn’t ugly or scary – it was an opportunity to share yet another moment with someone you loved. So maybe taking the process one step further and having your loved one pass on from their home isn’t’ so bad. Years ago that was the American tradition too.
I only saw the sign for one “organizzazione funerali a Pontelandolfo” – notice it is not a “home or parlor.” The company, Agenzia Funebre Diglio, located on Piano della Croce, 8 – 82027 – Pontelandolfo, BN, organizes funerals. They do not embalm! Bodies here are not embalmed. I’m thinking the NJ Funeral Directors lobby would have a hissy fit if folks started screaming for our laws to change and bodies in their natural state were allowed to be viewed for 24 hours and interred.
My Italian is not the best so I may have misunderstood some of Nicola’s nuances but research and Jack’s memory of his Italian teacher saying the same thing confirms what follows – sort of. Here you only lease a spot for a coffin. If you have a lot of money you build a zinc box like thing and your coffin rests on a cement pad. You then have thirty years to decompose peacefully. If you have less money your coffin is partially buried in the dirt and you have a small shell of an exterior box. You get ten years of a cozy spot.
After thirty years – or ten – the body is exhumed, bones are cleaned and put in a small box. Often, there is another ceremony for the bones. The bones are then placed in a smaller spot on one of the long walls of marble. Poor folks who don’t have family drawers on the wall are placed in the basement of the cemetery chapel. Those of you who read my last post, heard that story.
People of means have little private burial houses – what do we call those – memorials? (If you know what these things are called leave a comment.) The family’s remains can stay in the coffin in a place permanently or be removed later to make space for younger relatives, their bones placed in a glass box and put to rest in a smaller spot.
The people here visit their deceased family often. I see families come bringing new flowers weekly. There is a real connection to the past.
This exhumation and re-burial in a smaller spot is far from barbaric. It is done with love and a understanding of the cycle of life. The mountain’s rocky soil makes interment difficult. Usable land is farmed to bring food and income to the residents. The re-interment of remains has been going on for hundreds of years – think of all the bones found in ancient church lower basements- catacombs. More important than the burial process is the honor that is given to the dead – ongoing by even the younger generations.
After Nicola patiently explained all that to me, I decided to walk down the hill and see the funeral precession for our neighbor. I chose to watch from the great patio at Bar Mixed Fantasy. Whew, I got here just in time to watch the lead flower car slowly move up the hill to the old church. The hearse followed and following the hearse, just like in every old movie of an Italian funeral, people from the village slowly marched up the hill too. Wait a second – the person dies, is laid out at home and within hours folks are visiting, bringing food and clearing their calendars for the next day’s funeral. How does the news spread that fast? One of the services provided by the Funeral Agency is the immediate printing and posting of the large death notices.
The first time I came to Pontelandolfo – years ago – I saw plastered on the wall a death notice for Giovanni Guerrera. It was a little freaky since I had spoken to my dad the day before and he was fine. The death notices are either simple or adorned with art. Within hours of the persons passing the notices are posted on the villages walls and posted at the cemetery.
Ok, back to my glass of succo d’arancia rossa and the procession. I will admit I wanted to take pictures but I thought that it would be incredibly tacky. It was a very quiet and somber movement towards the church. OK,OK, I snuck one picture of the flower car. (This is for Cusick’s Funeral Home.)
After the mass, the procession moved slowly down the hill to the piazza and on towards the cemetery. Where the loved one will be interred undisturbed until the lease runs out and they are moved to their final resting place surrounded by those that loved them.
Chased by the emotions welling from a simple e-mail subject line – Invio Ricerca Famiglie Rinaldi e Solla (Search for Families Rinaldi & Solla), – tears race down my cheeks. An incredible gift was soaring over the mystical internet highway. I took a breath, double clicked and read –
Come eravamo rimasti, finalmente posso inviarti la ricerca delle due Famiglie Rinaldi Mariantonia e Solla, spero che il tutto sia soddisfacente. (As we left it, finally I’m sending you the documents about the Rinaldi and Solla Familes – I hope this is satisfactory.)
Una caro saluto
How could it not be satisfactory? It was so much more than satisfactory! Attached were two incredible documents – documents tracing my grandmother’s family back to the 1500’s!
Immediately I sent PDF’s flying through space to my family. With a little more digging, my newly found ancestors will share incredible stories. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning –
One beautiful morning Annarita Mancini and I walked up Via Municipo and stopped in front of a small attached stone row house. This part of the Pontelandolfo dates back to the 1600’s. Annarita rang the bell.
The shutter of the second floor window burst open and our guide into the past thrust out his sleepy head. “Beh?” Oops, were we too early? Annarita explained that we had an appointment to see the church archives. While he was mulling that over, the beaded curtain in front of the door parted and a middle aged woman peeked out. Shouts from above moved her. She ushered us into the front room. More shouts from above and she ushered us up the stairs. Annarita and I looked at each other. Weren’t we supposed to go to the church? Wasn’t he the dude with the archive room key? Why are we going up to – well who knows what? What had my quest for the family’s history gotten us into? That quest had led us to the true keeper of the keys to knowledge – Antimo Albini! After a cursory greeting, Antimo promptly sat down at the computer, lit a cigarette and led me on a four hour journey into my grandmother’s past.
His head of thick grey hair bobbed and weaved as he pulled up database after database. This passionate historian had decided that the history of Pontelandolfo would be lost if someone didn’t do something. He decided to be that someone.
Antimo spent four years of his life meticulously going through all of the church records and putting the information in a Microsoft Access database. This was an incredible undertaking. As he digs into my past, the gleam in his eyes reveals a man filled with passion for both history and the story of Pontelandolfo. He entered data from books going back to 1607 – separate books for each year of the census. There were also combined year range books of births, deaths, and baptisms. That is a heck of a lot of books. Whoops – he had matrimonial books back to 1505! He said, ” as the books disappear, their stories will be gone unless people like us who care about our pasts start passing the stories on.” So get on the stick and start recording your stories!
As he created the databases he noted the book name, page number and entry number. That way if anyone really wanted to see the fragile old books they could just go to the relevant pages. He also created separate data bases labeled by book. Damn, he is good. The organization will help future historians track data.
We learned that until 1903 the priest of each parish was responsible for doing a census. The census held the tales of the village. The priests would visit each house in the parish – why am I wondering if they also got donations for the church at the same time – and ask questions. They noted the names and ages of people living in the house, if the house was owned or rented, what kind of jobs folks had, nicknames and what ever else caught their fancy. Those notes are now safely ensconced in Antimo’s database. In 1903 the state took over the job and started to do a census every ten years. These sure has hell don’t include the interesting notes the priests wrote down.
Before 1700 there were four parishes serving this mountain town of peasants and landholders – San Felice, San Angelo, San Piedro and San Salvatore. So priests from all of those parishes kept records of births, baptisms, deaths, weddings. These are great old journals with meticulous handwriting on paper so old that it crumbles when touched. We know that because the Comune has it’s own set of unprotected books that are manhandled, falling apart and not digitized! Che fa! Thank God Antimo created a database of the much more complete church records.
In 1688, there was a huge terremoto – earthquake – after which the parishes were forced to merge. Well. not exactly forced, but San Felice and San Pietro parishes spent a lot of time fighting over who got to be the cemetery. In those days that meant holding the bones of the departed in the catacombs of the church – you know that space just below the seats for the congregation. In the throws of the fight neither church got rebuilt. That narrowed the playing field and in 1700 there was only the mother church of San Salvatore. The church where my grandmother was baptized and twice married. It still stands and we go to mass there often – not because I’m a good catholic but because I can feel her presence there.
As I sit in the piazza writing this, my heart fills and tears start to glide down my cheeks. What is that about? How could a middle aged, hard assed woman like me get so sentimental about finding my family? I haven’t a clue but the universe sent me here and as my dad’s first cousin, Giusippina, says often – sangue è sangue – blood is blood and I am the first of the family to return looking for those that stayed.
Finding one’s family is a backwards process. Start with the birth and death certificates of today and work backwards. Since I had already done a lot of research to gather the documents to become an Italian Citizen, I went to see Antimo with the materials he needed to leap even further back in time. (Read the blog about citizenship for more background.) https://midgeguerrera.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/cittadina-italiana-citizenship/)
Antimo started by finding my grandmother’s birth records. We had the day, time and name of her parents, Liberantonio Solla and Maria Antonia Rinaldi. (I am dying to know if we are related to the Rinaldi Olio di Oliva folks.)
Then he painstakingly worked backwards, creating a new excel data base for me that included everything he could find. The little details he unearthed painted a picture of the times and the people. nicknames were used everywhere. My great-great grandma Solla had the same name as mia nonna – Maria Rosaria. It was also the same name as her mother. Her birth certificate was noted as Maria Rosaria D’Addona.
Antimo said that baptisms were very close in date to birth records. Many children died soon after birth. Since everyone wanted the babies to go to heaven, people made sure they got those kids to church and baptized immediately. Often if a child died, the same name was given to the next child of the same sex. Boy, does that add another database layer of confusion.
Later we paniced – we couldn’t find my grandma’s grand-mom, Maria Rosaria D’Addona, in any database. Oh where oh where could my grande bisnonna be! We only found the unborn (no birth record) Cesare D”Addona in all the family census databases. Like she fell from the sky. The brilliant Antimo scanned even more documents and realized that Cesare was Maria Rosaria’s nonna’s name. Since there were two Maria Rosarias in the family they decided to call my great great grandma – Cesare. In 1839, Cesare was only 16 years old when she married the widower Felice Solla from Morcone. I am guessing he didn’t have much cash because they moved in with her mother on Via San Felice (now Via Municipo – the same street where Antimo currently lives.) That means I have walked past my great – great grandparents first marital home a million times!
I never would have figured that out. We were blessed to have Antimo, a focused detective, helping us by constantly cross checking information from birth, death, marriage and census records. OK, we found the lineage of my great grandma. Now let’s talk about great grandpop.
My great grandfather was Liberantonio Solla – family tales are full of his musical ability. Zia Caterina also remembered his ability to drink the night away and fall down the mountain on the way home to Via Porta Nuova. On my second visit to Pontelandolfo, we found my great granddad’s house . The rocks of this small medieval stone cottage – now in ruins – held secrets that we will never know. Or will we?
What we didn’t know was that Liberantonio wasn’t called Liberantoino by anyone but his mama. Pitocchio (flea in dialect) was his nickname. As he played the concertina, villagers shouted Pitocchio . I’m not quite sure of the name my bisnonna, Maria Antonia Rinaldi, shouted when he came home dead drunk, having spent all he made singing at the bar.
Oh, I just remembered, great grandma Maria Antonia Rinaldi was born in a rented house. Liberantonio Solla was born on Via San Felice – in the home of his grandma! How the hell did we discover all this in less than ten hours? My great grandfather was a “bracciante” – an ancient term for working the land for someone else and getting a piece of what you grew for yourself – yeah serf. I come from a long line of indentured servants. Weeoo. My great-great uncle Nicola Solla (Liberantonio’s bro) worked for the commune. We discovered that for generations a Nicola Solla worked for the commune. I can’t wait to find out if one works for the town today.
So much to discover. So many stories to hear, feel and relive. So little time to do it all.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you Antimo Albini for keeping the keys to family history at our fingertips.
You know how little girls imagine themselves princesses twirling at the ball? Well, I tried to imagine that but after tripping over a hoe somehow knew that my family sure as hell wasn’t royalty. It felt really special to be about 6 years old and discover I was from a long line of serfs! Hey, quit smirking – a lot of us first generation folks come from families who – well – didn’t have the proverbial ‘Pot’. Salvatore Guerrera, the patriarch of my family, was a contadino, farmer. Now, don’t think of the agri-businessman of today or even the great local organic farmer. In the Pontelandolfo church and commune records my family members are all listed as “contadino and/or bracciante” They were peasant farmers who “gave their arms work” for another person. Serfs – now that is a word we all know. Or sharecroppers – these men and women worked the land for a piece of the garden pie – a very small piece.
Over a period of 18 years, I have shared many a long and wonderful Pontelandolfesi meal with my extended Italian family. When the coffee was served, I often steered the conversation to stories about my bisnonno. The elders, his grandchildren, vaguely remembered him but really remembered the stories about him that their parents told. What was he like? Where did he live? What did he do? These alert and fun filled men and women regaled me with tales – all in the dialect of the town. I didn’t have a clue as to what they said. They knew I didn’t have a clue, but kept right on talking. Today, having taken years of Italian, I still only understand about 20% of what anyone says in dialect. Not to lose the stories, I shot lots of video tape. Much of it still needs to be translated. The ever gracious linguist, Annarita Mancini, helped by giving me some short summaries.
The central theme was that my incredibly well built bisnonno was a Robin Hood kind of guy. If the landowners weren’t sharing, he would not so subtly help the process along. One tale, set after World War I, told of great deprivation – everything of any value was used for the war or stolen by the enemy. There wasn’t a bit of food to eat or even wood to burn for heat. Salvatore Guerrera approached the landowner and asked if he could cut down a really big tree – one of the last trees. The man said, absolutely not, I’m saving that tree for myself. Salvatore looked at this incredibly tall tree and thought 50% is good enough for that uncaring @#$%$#. “Noi braccianti have provided him with much much more.” He then climbed up to the middle of the tree and began to saw. Soon the top of the tree tumbled to the ground, was chopped up and shared. No one remembers what the landowner did – but they kept remarking that their nonno was really big and really strong. Hmmmmm.
We were led to what is left of Salvatore Guerrera’s house by his grandchildren. I could write about it but, frankly, am enjoying editing video. What follows was shot in August 1995 – the first time I saw the house with my Zia Caterina – and June 2002 when we brought my father there.
In 2007 my mug graced my brand new Italian Passport. The process to become a Cittadina Italiana took me about three years and numerous trips to the Philadelphia Consulate. It took my sister less than one year and two trips to the Newark Consulate. It took my niece (her picture is above) about 6 months. It will take my cousin about three years plus. WHAT???? Let us start at the beginning. The questions most people ask me are these: Why would you do it? What is the benefit of having dual citizenship? Is the process difficult? How much did it cost you?
Why would I do it?
Why wouldn’t I do it is more like it. In the early 1990’s I started actively researching the Guerrera Family Tree. Piece by piece, I was collecting data, adding branches and getting more and more involved with the lives of people I had never met. To get a better handle on the research, I knew that I had to go to Pontelandolfo and visit the archives of the commune. Zia Caterina, Jack and I made that journey in 1995 – another blog will tell you that whole story. We not only added numerous branches to the tree but discovered my father and Zia Caterina’s first cousins! When Zia Caterina and I had gone to Italy in the 70’s their uncles were still living – we missed an incredible opportunity then. After meeting my extended Italian family, I became even more obsessed with all things Italian. Particularly, all things related to this small village in Campania, Pontelandolfo. While we were there I bought a few copies of my grandmother’s and grandfather’s birth certificates and certificate of marriage. That was an incredibly smart thing to do since folks have told me it is difficult to retrieve those documents via mailed requests – unless you use a service like http://myitalianfamily.com.
A quick search on line revealed that I was indeed eligible for citizenship – an act which would bring me even closer to my roots. There was no “aha” moment or benefits lightbulb that exploded in my brain – just the deep seated need to be closer to my “i parenti,” the DNA that makes me who I am.
What is the benefit?
How American of us to want to know what the hell we get out of the deal. Like feeling closer to ones heritage isn’t enough! Well, let me think what do I get out of it? If Jack and I really do retire to Italy we are already part of the Italian community. During the Bush Jr. years, My sister and I did talk about moving quickly forward so that if the draft was reinstated and we didn’t particularly agree with the why behind the war we could get her kids out. Now, that might have been our 1960’s sensibilities kicking in, because Italy had mandatory service until January 1, 2005. The other benefit is being able to work anywhere in the European Union – a benefit that my niece is actively using. Further, I can stay in Italy or any of the Schengen Treaty countries for as long as I like – no ninety days for me! ( Of course we are only staying 90 days this trip because Jack hasn’t applied for spousal citizenship yet.) The USA State Department explains all this. http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_4361.html OK, I am bored with the what is the benefit idea – the benefit is IT MAKES ME HAPPY.
What is the process?
Ah, this is tricky! In the over ten years since my family has gone through this process it has changed based on who we spoke to in which consulate and new regulations. Here is the basic tenet – if one of your parents was an Italian citizen at the time of your birth – no matter where you are born – than you by blood are an Italian citizen. Yikes, my dad was born in Manville, NJ – does that disqualify me? No! My grandparents had not become American citizens until after my dad’s birth. That automatically made him an Italian citizen living abroad. Did my father know that? No! When I explored the process I explained it to him and he couldn’t believe it. He had served as a Navy pilot during WWII, had been Mayor of our home town – how could he also be an Italian citizen? Guess what – lots of you probably are eligible – here is what is currently on The Italian Embassy Website.
CITIZENSHIP BY DESCENT / DESCENT (” jure sanguinis “) And ‘the son of an Italian citizen parents (father or mother) Italian citizens. Citizenship is transmitted from parents to children regardless of generation, with the condition that none of their ancestors ever renounced the nationality.
Go to the web site to read all of the rules and regulations.
The first step is to discover when the elder of your Italian American family became a citizen. We were lucky, my Zia Caterina saved everything. Including her dad’s certificate of citizenship.
Since my dad didn’t know he was an Italian citizen, he didn’t renounce it. When he found out, he was thrilled and admitted he never would have renounced it. OK, I had the blood line covered. Now what – this is the story of what I went through. Next will be my sister’s story, then my niece and finally my cousin.
I hop over to the Italian Consulate in Philadelphia and ask for a list of the requirements for citizenship. At that time it listed things like : Birth and Death Certificates of my Grandfather, Naturalization Certificate of my Grandfather, Marriage Certificate to my Grandmother, Birth Certificate of my Grandmother,Birth Certificate of my Father, Marriage Certificate of My Parents, Birth Certificate of Midge, Marriage License and Certificate of Midge, Birth Certificate of Midge’s Husband. Easy – no brainer! When I had the time, I drove from city to city in New Jersey and New York and bought the required documents. Full of myself for accomplishing this, I waltzed into the Philadelphia Consulate without an appointment. They took me into a secret room and I waited. After about a half an hour of staring at the art, a lovely woman pulled me into an office and looked at my fat folder. She smiled an said I was on the right track but needed an apostile for each document. An apostile? Wasn’t that one of the men who travelled with Jesus? Turns out an apostile is a certificate from a state that guarantees that the documents that I just bought from a variety of towns were valid. OK, so on the way home I stop in Trenton and go to the apostile office. They explain that they can’t put an apolstile on any of the documents that I just dropped a couple of hundred dollars on because I didn’t buy them from the NJ Office of Vital Statistics. But, I stammered, the oficies of vital statistics in each town were happy to take my money. A week or so later, I go back to Trenton and buy all of the same documents. Since there were so many I had to have them processed. That took a few weeks – when I got them guess what they looked like? The same bloody pieces of paper but they originated from the NJ Office of Vital Statistics! Off to pay for the apostiles. I don’t remember what all this cost me but I think about $25 a piece of paper times two. If you order documents online there are additional fees. This is from the NJ Office of Vital Statistics:
How do I obtain a record with an Apostille Seal? You must purchase a copy of your vital record from the Office of Vital Statistics and Registry and indicate on your application that it is needed for Apostille Seal. You will receive a certified copy, which contains the original signature of the State Registrar or Assistant State Registrar. You must forward this certificate to the Department of Treasury requesting an Apostille Seal.
Since my parents were married in New York City, it took a full day to gather the documents from NYC Boro Hall and then walk a few blocks to the State of New York Office to request the apostille. During each step of the process, I purchased additional copies of every document so that my sister would have a set. When I had a completed set, I made an appointment at the Philadelphia Consulate and carried the box in. I did make a copy of my entire packet, just so that I knew what I submitted. About one and a half years later I got a letter from Pontelandolfo saying that I was a citizen. Wheeeeeeeeooooooooooo.
Susan had copies of all of the documents. When she got around to doing this, residents of Somerset County New Jersey were told to use the Consulate in Newark. We read the website and made an appointment for her – it was about four months out. We also read the new regulations – she needed a translation of every document – including the apostiles. You were only allowed to use an Italian translater from the consulate’s approved list. That cost her about $50 a document. This was all done via e-mail. We scanned the documents and sent them off. Scanned translations came back. This was great we thought – because now my cousin Maryellen can use the same translations. Susan took her two children to the appointment. We figured we would process everyone at the same time. WRONG. Susan had to be certified first. She was missing something – I can’t remember what – but I do remember pleading and begging with the consulate employee because whatever it was I knew was on file from me in Pontelandolfo. Susan made a second appointment and returned with whatever had been left on the dining room table. During the second visit, she is given a document that she is told her daughter can use to prove lineage and easily apply for citizenship. We go for dinner and a drink or three. Just a few months later Susan gets her letter of recognition.
Alex lives and goes to university in London. I suggested she use the London Consulate. She took her handy document from Newark and back up documents and headed to that office. They told her she needed to supply the same complete package that her mother had submitted and that the little certificate from Newark was nothing. UGGGGG. All of this is now done electronically, Alex asked if they couldn’t just get the same documents sent back to them? No. Another appointment please. Oh yeah, now we have to make the packet and get it to London! She brings the packet and is nervous about completion. She would like to stay and work in Europe and the EU Passport would be very helpful. Months go by and she hears nothing. She visits and e-mails the London Consulate and they say all things were e-mailed to Pontelandolfo. We asked our cousin to visit the Pontelandolfo office of Vital Statistics and check on Alex’s status. Instantly, her paperwork was done and her certification sent off.
Takes all of the same documents – but adds her dad’s information – translated and in a cute folder to her appointment at the Newark Consulate. There, she doesn’t get past the triage dude. You see, my grandfather’s birth certificate from Italy says Francesco Guerrera but his citizenship papers say Frank Guerrera – how do we know it is the same person? This name change – a common occurrence – happened with her father’s documents and our grandmothers. They told her nothing could be processed until she got the documents certified as belonging to the same person. I was with her and argued up a storm, explaining that two of us had already used the exact same documents and gotten citizenship. Further, all of the documents were already on file in Pontelandolfo. He shrugged. We left and Maryellen hasn’t moved the process forward. So lessons learned. Double check everything. Read all new regulations. If you can, have a local relative in Italy lobby for you! What did it cost me? Do we count the trip to Italy to buy the birth and marriage certificates? I’d say if you include travel and all the mistakes I made it cost me about $1,000. It cost my sister about the same because it was $50 a document for translation plus the cost of the original documents and apostile.