Podcast Episode #11: How to Use Your Italian Ancestry to Claim Italian Citizenship With ItalyAncestry.com

Transcript with Show Notes Embedded:

Kathy McCabe: I started researching my own ancestry and the Italian records are fascinating. They tell so much more than an American record might say about an ancestor. And it’s really fascinating, the details that you can find.

This is Kathy McCabe. Welcome to the Dream of Italy Podcast. You know me from the PBS travel series, Dream of Italy, and the award-winning website and publication. Join me as we explore the sights and sounds of Bell’Italia. From the canals of Venice, to the piazzas of Puglia. From the fashion houses of Milan — Ciao, bella! — to the vineyards of Tuscany, hop on! It’s going to be a great ride. Andiamo!

First, some words from our podcast sponsors.

Medjet: While travel should always be dreamy, sometimes it is not. That’s when it pays to be a Medjet member like me. If you’re sick or injured, and hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, domestic or international, Medjet gets you home to the hospital of your choice — something many travel insurance polices don’t offer. Get your own Medjet membership at medjet.com/dreamofitaly.

Are you dreaming of traveling to Italy? Read the award-winning book Love in a Tuscan Kitchen: Savoring Life through the Romance, Recipes, and Traditions of Italy written by Sheryl Ness. The book takes you on a journey of discovery and love as her life is forever transformed by a trip to Italy. Find it on Amazon.


Kathy: So I’m here with Melanie Holtz. She’s the founder of ItalyAncestry.com. They are one of the sponsors of the PBS series Dream of Italy, and I’m thrilled to talk to Melanie. She knows all the ins and outs of finding your relatives in Italy and then using that to potentially reclaim your citizenship, which is a really hot trend these days. So I can’t wait to get into that. But first, Melanie — and people ask me this about my name, Kathleen McCabe — you’re Melanie Holtz. How’d you get into Italy ancestry?

Melanie Holtz: Well, I am Italian, but it comes down to my maternal side. So there isn’t the surname anymore being carried through with the females. The full name of my business is Lo Schi­avo Genealog­ica and Lo Schiavo is my great-grandfather’s surname.

Kathy: I didn’t know that.

Melanie: Yes. And that means “the slave.” So that kind of tells you what our role in society was way back then. But yes, Lo Schiavo is one of our surnames.

Kathy: Where were they from?

Melanie: They were from the Palermo province of Sicily. Termini Imerese, Isnello and Polizzi Generosa.

Kathy: And how did they — there’s always a story. How did they come over? Or what was the impetus for them? And when did they come?

Melanie: Well for him, he ran from the Mafia.

Kathy: I don’t mean to laugh. I mean, it’s not funny, but that’s actually a common… You talk to a number of people about their ancestry and that is sometimes a reason.

Melanie: Yeah, exactly. And he came over here and he was a fisherman and he sold fruit as his father and his grandfather and great-grandfather had done before him and started selling fruit in downtown Pittsburgh. And eventually earned enough to buy a store in Evans City, Pennsylvania, which is a little bit south of Pittsburgh, and moved his family out and more into the countryside.

Kathy: And did you grow up with him, or…?

Melanie: I didn’t know him. He was deceased by the time I was born, but I was given all the traditions and all the stories.

Kathy: That’s what I’m wondering, yeah. What are some of the things that you grew up with that really stick with you from your Italian heritage?


Melanie: One thing about my great-grandfather, that was Antonio Lo Schiavo, is… And the reason I named my business after him was because I so respect what he did. He came over, he married another immigrant. He had eight children. His wife died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, along with his oldest daughter, leaving him with eight kids. The youngest one was six months old. He never remarried. He just raised his family. And all this time, while raising that family, not having much themselves, he’s sending money and food and clothing back to his family in Italy. And when we reconnected with them, some 10, 15 years ago, they had his picture on the wall as —

Kathy: You’re giving me chills.

Melanie: Yeah. His picture was on the wall as well as this 1970s beaded purse. You remember those beaded purses from the 1970s?

Kathy: Yeah. Well, yes and no. Now I’ve already, I’ve committed.

Melanie: Well, out of respect for all that he had done for them, what he sent basically kept them alive during the Second World War. They had his picture hanging up there all that time. So we thought that was wonderful and we were really happy to reconnect with our relatives.

Kathy: So then how did you turn your own ancestry into this business where you’re helping other people find their relatives? Obviously you made a trip back to find the family.

Melanie: Yes, and many, many trips since. I started researching my own ancestry, and the Italian records are fascinating, they just… it tells so much more than an American record might say about an ancestor. And it’s really fascinating, the details that you can find.


Kathy: Like what? I’ve seen mine. So I guess the father’s name, the occupation.

Melanie: Yeah. The occupation, age sometimes, in a parish baptismal record, sometimes you’ll find four generations. Father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great great-grandfather named in that baptismal record, which I find fascinating. And even on civil death records, if the death was unusual, we can find descriptions in there. There was one death record I encountered some time ago, it was a soldier during the Risorgimento. And he was actually from southern Italy, but he was killed in the piazza in Sicily, in the town of Isnello. So they had this description about him being shot in the piazza. It was really interesting.

Kathy: So when did you start looking for… Were you doing it professionally or personally?

Melanie: It started just personally. And then it started to be that I was helping everybody in the Family History Center. And I soon started to realize that maybe I could actually do this for people. But I didn’t really have a concept that there was a professional genealogist until I went out to Salt Lake City to the big family history library. And this was about 18, 19 years ago. And I saw someone working in the Italian records of a town I had worked in and I went over to talk to her and she worked for one of the professional genealogy companies that is in Salt Lake City. And she said she was doing this for her company, for a client. And that was an eye-opener for me, because I didn’t really have the concept that there were professional genealogists up until that point.


Kathy: So if you could explain to people, I know why, but why is there this Family History Center in Salt Lake? It’s fascinating.

Melanie: It’s part of their religion that they —

Kathy: The Mormon religion.

Melanie: The Mormon religion, that they gather records from around the world so that they can get their ancestors blessed and get their ancestors to heaven. That’s basically the bottom line. So genealogy research and finding out about their ancestors is intertwined with their religion.

Kathy: And they have the world’s biggest depository. And they have, I guess they have so many Italian records.

Melanie: And they do have many Italian records. And it was in 2012, I believe, that they reached another agreement with the Italian Archives to go back and digitize all the civil and military records in all of Italy’s state archives. The first time they did that, in the 1970s and 1980s, they had to get permission from each individual state archives. And some of them refused. But with this new agreement, everyone was told they had to let them in. They had to let them digitize. And all those records are going up on the internet, free of charge, on the Italian governmental website. And they will also be accessible with Family History Libraries and Family History Centers.

Kathy: So I think we’ll put the links for people in the show notes, if they want to go and look at what is online right now, but then you can also hire someone like you. And why do people hire you? I think there’s about 18 million Americans who have Italian blood and that’s… You specialize in Italy and Italian ancestry. So what are some of the reasons that people come to you?


Melanie: I think many people… We don’t necessarily live in our Italian enclaves anymore. We’re not taught the Italian language. So I think when it comes to thinking about researching and records in a different language that we don’t know, it’s a stumble for many people.

Kathy: It’s daunting.

Melanie: You can learn to do it, but it does take time and it does take effort. And many people have very busy jobs and not much free time. And so that’s where people like me come in and in this way they can find out about their ancestors without having to invest a whole lot of time into learning the Italian language.

Kathy: And then do many of them go to find that go… So my story, which was in the Castelvetere episode of Season 2, which you supported, is my entire life was changed by, actually, a translation of a birth certificate. This birth certificate that someone gave me when I was 17, I wrote a little biography of my grandfather in high school for a project. And someone had the birth certificates of a couple of ancestors in Castelvetere. And then I went back in 1995 and it started this whole crazy Dream of Italy. But do many people then take that information and go?

Melanie: Yes. And many people, their main goal is to find someone who’s still living that’s related to them. So we take, and we research as much as we can. Sometimes we have to go backward in time and then forward when we find cousins and siblings, that sort of thing. And hopefully, find living relatives that are still there. And many people do it for that. Many people just do it because they want to understand and they want to have the connection to Italy.

Kathy: Yeah, I understand that so well. And now, in these past few years, a process that I’ve been trying to work on too, people can use their Italian ancestry to reclaim Italian citizenship, which would give them an Italian passport, which is a fascinating trend. Tell us about that and the basics of how that works.


Melanie: Yes. And this has become more and more popular in the last 10, maybe 15 years. So it’s a possibility if you have Italian ancestors that you might be eligible for Italian citizenship. It’s not a given because there’s Italian nationality law, and there are key things that your ancestors have to have not done or done in certain periods of time in order to be eligible. So what I do for clients is I have them tell me what they know, give me any documents on the immigrating ancestors and then I do a free one-hour evaluation.

Kathy: Oh, that’s wonderful.

Melanie: And if an immigrant ancestor naturalized before the birth of the child that the person descends from, then that cut the line of citizenship and they can’t claim through that person. So that’s one of those nationality laws that has to be evaluated.

Kathy: So, jure sanguinis, it’s the right of blood. So if you’re born to an Italian citizen, anywhere in the world, Italy considers that you are Italian.

Melanie: Yes, you are considered to be born Italian.

Kathy: Roughly, and then you’re explaining some of the possibilities for eliminating that.

Melanie: Right. Exactly. Also women could only pass citizenship in certain time periods. So that sort of thing has to be considered when you’re looking at a family. Now, if an immigrating ancestor naturalized 10 years after the birth of the child that you descend from, then you’re probably eligible, but you do need to still look at that lineages. Are there any females in that line that might knock you out of the running and when were they born?


Kathy: Yeah. And as we showed in the Castelvetere episode, there’s a 1948 rule for women to pass it on. And my mother was born in 1938, and she’s no longer with us, but I could hear her screaming at me for telling people how old she is. But so that eliminated me on one side, or I thought did. And then even though my grandfather was born to an Italian citizen, his father then a few years later naturalized in 1905. And that was before 1912. So that’s another one of those rules. So I think people would do themselves a great service to call you for that consultation, because there are so many nuances. I thought I couldn’t get citizenship, but it turns out I can go to court and try to get it, saying that the 1948 rule is discriminatory against women. And so professionals like you would be able to guide people in those possibilities. And how long does this process take? I think people have a fantasy, oh my God, I’m going to get my passport next summer and go live in Italy.

Melanie: Yeah. It’s not like that. Most of the consulates in the U.S. are scheduling appointments several years in advance, between 18 months and eight years. Los Angeles is eight.

Kathy: Eight.

Melanie: Yes. So yeah, that’s Los Angeles. So you gather your documents and you should give yourself if you have four or five generations, give yourself maybe nine, 10 months at least because there could be documents you need to have amended in order to make them ready, but you’re still going to be waiting for an appointment.

Kathy: But tell me this. Because we talked the other day. So if I have all of my documents and I have to wait eight years for the appointment in LA, you have a program where I could actually go to Italy, establish residency and get my citizenship faster, correct?


Melanie: Exactly. Yes. I have a program in the Bergamo province, which is about two hours east of Milano. And people go there, they must establish residency and stay in the country for three months, at least. And they can then apply for the citizenship at the Italian town hall, the town that they’re living in. But the only way you can do it in Italy is if you establish residency, and it takes about six weeks to eight weeks for the residency process to be completed. And then after that, you can file your citizenship papers.

Kathy: I think that’s amazing. And I know that more people are trying to do it that way. And we talk a lot in the show and the work that I do that people want to live like an Italian. This is a great way to go do it for three months. Now that we’re all working remotely, of course, as we’re taping this, we can’t go do it, but it’s not so hard anymore. You just get a good internet connection and go and work from there and get your citizenship. What are some advantages for people to have an EU — it’s an EU passport, not just Italian?

Melanie: Right. Well, it is an Italian passport, but they’re part of the EU. So you have educational benefits for you, your grandchildren, your children. The cost of a college education over there is minuscule compared to what we pay here. You can work anywhere in the EU much easier. Can purchase property easier. If you want to open a business or a branch of your business, it’s much, much easier to do that as an Italian citizen.

Kathy: And then how much, again, you’re saying this savings you would get, even if you want to get your master’s degree or something. What is the range of costs for hiring somebody like you to do the entire process?

Melanie: To do the entire citizenship process on-site or in a consulate is a little different. Usually a consulate application, it’ll cost anywhere between $3,000 and $4,000, depending on how many generations in your family you have.

Kathy: That is not bad. That is not bad. And I actually speak to lots of people and companies that do this and your pricing is pretty good. So people should know that it’s fair. It’s fair. And you have to tell me, I am sure of this. Are people calling more and more and more these days with COVID and looking for new options, I guess?


Melanie: Most definitely. People are chomping at the bit to get back to Italy. So they’re looking for any way that they can do that. And looking for hope. I’ve been doing monthly Facebook Lives, where we talk about what’s going on in Italy right now, how soon we can get back to Italy. And we also talk about different things about genealogy and Italian citizenship. And I’ve been keeping everybody up to date on the latest emergency decree that’s come out in Italy and there’s another one coming out tomorrow. So I don’t think it’s going to change anything major for Americans going to Italy, but it is easing some restrictions and it’s very positive.

Kathy: Oh good. I was a little worried there. But if you had a passport at this point, you could go.

Melanie: Exactly. You can go home if you were an Italian, yes.

Kathy: Yeah. And I think with the remote working, it’s not going away anytime soon, it offers more options. I know families, and in our upcoming special in 2021, a family who took a sabbatical to Florence with their kids. There’s so many reasons to explore citizenship. And I know now that I can get it. And I’ve known for several years. So I encourage everyone to start now because it does take a while. And since I need to go to court, you told me I can’t go and do residency.

Melanie: No, you can’t.


Kathy: So I have that whole process. What else can you tell people? What advice can you give them about gathering these documents about places to look for hints about their ancestry, besides talking to their relatives now who are still with us?

Melanie: Yeah. Many people have older relatives, but those older relatives are maybe two, three generations removed from the immigrants also.

Kathy: We’re getting further and further away.

Melanie: Right. So, we have online resources. Ancestry.com has immigration and census and all that sort of thing. And that can usually give us generalities for us to be able to see maybe in a few minutes whether it looks like you actually are eligible.

Kathy: Oh my God, that is exciting.

Melanie: Yeah. There’s a lot of naturalization records on there. You know, sometimes it’ll take me maybe five minutes, sometimes it’ll take me two hours. So it depends also on how common that name is of that ancestor.

Kathy: Oh my gosh. I think it’s exciting. That’s one advantage of our digital world, that it’s all at our fingertips. Well, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast. So people can go to ItalyAncestry.com. That’s easier to remember and to spell than the full name of your company.

Melanie: Of course, yes.

Kathy: And I think it’s a great URL that people can remember. And you can call Melanie. You can get — I really would encourage people to do that hour because it can open up a whole different life for you. If you want to move to Italy, educate your kids, just have another option in this crazy world.

Melanie: Yeah, exactly. And not just for you, for your descendants.

Kathy: You can pass it on, basically. If you get the citizenship, your children would then get it.

Melanie: That’s right.

Kathy: Yeah. That’s great. Thank you again.

Melanie: Thank you.


Kathy: To learn more, visit ItalyAncestry.com. Save 10% with code: dreamofitaly

For show notes on this episode, visit dreamofitaly.com/11.

Thank you again to our podcast sponsors. Medjet: While travel should always be dreamy, sometimes it is not. That’s when it pays to be a Medjet member like me. If you’re sick or injured, and hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, domestic or international, Medjet gets you home to the hospital of your choice, something many travel insurance polices don’t offer. Get your own Medjet membership at medjet.com/dreamofitaly.

Are you dreaming of traveling to Italy? Read the award-winning book Love in a Tuscan Kitchen: Savoring Life through the Romance, Recipes, and Traditions of Italy written by Sheryl Ness. The book takes you on a journey of discovery and love as her life is forever transformed by a trip to Italy. Find it on Amazon.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to subscribe to the Dream of Italy Podcast on Apple Podcasts and leave us a review. For more about all of our podcast episodes, and to give us feedback on what you would like to hear in the future, visit dreamofitaly.com/podcast. And for all things Dream of Italy, the award-winning travel publication, membership website, TV show and travel-planning service, visit dreamofitaly.com. Ciao!