Podcast Episode #12: Overcoming Challenges in Claiming Your Italian Citizenship With My Italian Family

Transcript with Show Notes Embedded:

Bianca Ottone: It’s now that it’s becoming the rave. The New York Times had an article last summer saying that it’s now becoming a status symbol, and perhaps it is. But I guess that people are moved by taking advantage of the benefits to dual citizenship.

Kathy McCabe: 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!

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Kathy: So, I’m here today with Bianca Ottone. She is the founder of My Italian Family, a company that helps people trace their heritage and also reclaim their Italian citizenship. And she’s helped me in my own process. And she’s a sponsor of Dream of Italy on PBS. Bianca, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you, today, live on zoom, or taped on zoom. So, it’s good this new world lets us put faces together. So, it’s nice not to be on the phone. So, welcome to the podcast. But tell me… I always like to know a little bit — I know a little bit about your history, who we’re talking to. You are Italian. Where you’re from in Italy? And tell us a little bit about your company and what you do.

Bianca: Sure. I was born and raised in Genoa, the city of explorers: Cristoforo Colombo and Andrea Doria. It’s a beautiful city, often overlooked when people traveled to Italy. And I always support my city by stating, “Please go and visit it.” After an early career in finance, I decided to set up my own business, which is MyItalianFamily.com. And like you said, we help all people of Italian descent apply for Italian citizenship, and also reconnect to their roots in their ancestral town, like you did in Castelvetere.

We obviously have been in business for over 20 years. We have Italian lawyers, U.S. lawyers, paralegals to actually assist applicants in their journey to Italian citizenship. So, always contact us. We offer free consultations. Our website is full of free resources for people to actually learn about the process, to understand what the challenges are. And we’re going to, I guess, talk about those challenges today.

Kathy: Yes, because I have some of my own, in many ways, but…

Bianca: Yeah.

Kathy: … citizenship as well.

Bianca: We know that.


Kathy: But when you started your company, was it more people looking for their ancestors? Because now, citizenship is so hot, and I’m not sure it always was such a hot topic or a trend.

Bianca: Well, dual citizenship started in 1992, but it was a slow process at the beginning because not too many people knew about it. Since the beginning, when we started in 2000, we already set up a session on the website for Italian dual citizenship. Because already, back then, the people were starting to take advantage. There are obviously lots of several benefits and people were becoming more aware of that. It’s now that it’s becoming the rave, right? The New York Times had an article last summer saying that it’s now becoming a status symbol. And perhaps it is. But I guess that people are moved by taking advantage of the benefits to dual citizenship.

Kathy: So basically, Italy recognizes Italian citizenship jure sanguinis. What does that mean? And what does that mean for someone who might have heritage, Italian heritage?

Bianca: Right. So, since 1912, Italy passed the citizenship law that allowed people of Italian descent to possibly claim Italian citizenship by right of blood. So, at this point, if you have an Italian ancestor, maybe your father, grandfather, great-grandfather, you can verify if you qualify for dual Italian citizenship. And you have to fulfill those requirements in order to be able to apply. Of course, the law has changed several times, but the idea is always to make sure that the Italian ancestor who migrated to this country did not lose his or her Italian citizenship before the birth of the child born here in… The next in line child born here in the U.S.

So, the first thing is always determining whether a person qualifies. And many times we receive calls of people saying, “My great-grandfather was born in Italy, but they migrated to this country in 1905. Am I still eligible?” So never confuse the date of immigration with the date of naturalization. The date of naturalization is when the person officially became an American citizen, but also lost his or her Italian citizenship. And that’s always the most important piece of information that we have to find out.


Kathy: And are those naturalization records… Are those easy to find or hard to find? Can you determine pretty quickly whether your ancestor… So basically, they had to have not given up their Italian citizenship when the next generation was born. Is that something that’s easy to determine?

Bianca: Well, there are several tools that are available online here in the U.S. Most naturalization records, at least the majority, have now been digitized. So, you may be able to find the naturalization papers, which is the declaration of intention, the petition, and eventually the oath of allegiance, which is the official date when people renounced their Italian citizenship, but also through census records. Censuses from, starting from 1900s all the way to 1940, which is the latest census available online, list the citizenship status of these Italian immigrants. So, if you go and look at the census, especially the 1920 census, which is to me the most useful one, because it even tells you what, if you were… If your ancestor became a citizen and naturalized, what he did. So, that gives you an idea.

So, for instance, if your grandfather was born in Italy, came over, had a child born in 1918, you can verify it through the census, whether he was still an alien after the birth of the son or daughter here in the U.S. So, let’s say, the son was born in 1918. The 1920 census will list the father, obviously the next… The child that born after here in U.S. And it will state whether the grandfather was still an Italian citizen, because he was still an alien, or because you only had started to file the first papers, which is the first step to become a citizen.

Kathy: And I’m curious. Was it the more well-educated immigrants who became naturalized or was there some… Was there a trend?

Bianca: Good question. Many times people say, “I don’t think that my great-grandfather became a citizen. He barely could speak English.”

Kathy: Right.


Bianca: Well, that’s a point. Many people would… And by the way, it was a process that they will take eventually 10 years later. Obviously, the rule was you had to reside in this country for two years before you could start the process to Italian citizen… to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Sometimes, they would wait even longer. It really depended how much they wanted to be part of becoming an American, also for their children to be really a part of the American society.

There were obviously a lot of people who became citizens or attempted to become citizens of the U.S., but never finished the process. Sometimes, they would only declare their intention and never pursue anything. Sometimes, they would just petition, but never follow up. So, there are beautiful pictures, if you actually go and look at the library of Congress, of even classes that were given to immigrants to learn about the civic rules, and also some English that they had to learn. So, it’s not that different from today.

Kathy: It really is. It’s really this connection between then and now, and our own immigrant paths. I could talk about this topic actually for quite a long time, but I’d love to tell people how I met you. We were getting ready to film this. I think we’ve met before. Well, before this, I think we met through the National Italian American Foundation.

Bianca: That’s correct.


Kathy: We were getting ready to film this episode in Castelvetere, which appeared on PBS. And we really wanted to tell the story of my family. And even though I had traced it back a few generations and been to Castelvetere, I didn’t have the full scope. And then, we wanted to determine whether I could… to share in the show whether I could get citizenship or not.

Bianca: We did, yes.

Kathy: And then, my other side… So, that was one side of my mom’s family. The other side was from Ariano Irpino, which is about an hour away from Castelvetere. And you sent a wonderful researcher, Giovanni, to both towns. And I think having someone on the ground who’s Italian makes a huge difference because we found out so much more than I had ever found out before. So, how does that work? And maybe you can tell a little bit about what Giovanni did for me.

Bianca: Well, we actually had… We wanted to learn more about your family history, because there was an amazing wealth of information available in all these towns in Italy. And so, you obviously told a wonderful story in the Castelvetere episode. You went to the town hall and just showed all the history that… It’s unveiled in these old documents from professions, occupations, to the street where they actually resided. You were even able to show where your great-grandparents lived. But also, we dug deeper into determining whether you had a path to citizenship.

And unfortunately, on the beautiful family history that we created together, the Nargi one, we found out that unfortunately your great-grandfather, Generoso Cuzzone, became a U.S. citizen before 1912. So, any person, any immigrant, Italian immigrant, who would become a citizen before that date, not only they would give up their own citizenship, but also the citizenship of their minor children, regardless of where they were born. So, that was… Unfortunately, we could not use him, even though he naturalized if I remember correctly, in 1905.

Kathy: 1905. And it was after the birth of my grandpa.

Bianca: Yes, yes.


Kathy: So, my grandfather was born an Italian, Louis Nargi, in the U.S. We found… And this gives me… Just still gives me chills. We actually found Generoso‘s naturalization record, where I saw his signature. And I felt very emotional. And so, we share on the show, with some very dramatic music that my editor put in.

Bianca: Of course.

Kathy: I can’t go that way. So then, we looked to Ariano Irpino.

Bianca:  We went back to the beautiful town of Ariano Irpino, previously known as Ariano di Puglia. So, there is obviously history in all these towns, hundreds of history.

Kathy: And I tell a story. I love Puglia. I have been in love with Puglia since I first went in 2004. I would like to buy a home there. And I was like, “Why do I love Puglia? Why do I love Puglia? Well, I come to find out my family is from Ariano di Puglia. It used to be Puglia. It’s now Ariano Irpino.

So, we looked at going through my mother’s mother, from Ariano Irpino. And tell me why we couldn’t do it that way, or at least how we thought.

Bianca: Well, we actually… You will be able to do it, but it’s going to be a little bit more of a challenge, but you’re not alone. There are many people like you who have to challenge this rule. So again, the funny thing is that we discovered that they were both Generoso. So, Generoso, it means —

Kathy: Oh. It makes it really confusing.


Bianca: It’s a family name for Kathy. So, we went to Ariano Irpino and unveiled the birth record of your great-grandfather, Generoso Cuzzone. I have it here. Born in 1862, who got married in Italy and eventually came over to the U.S. However, the good news is that he never became a U.S. citizen, and we actually proved it with the certified census records, with letters, certifications of nonexistence from the federal government and so on.

His daughter, your grandmother, Mary, was born here in the U.S. in 1904. But unfortunately, because your mother was born before January 1st, 1948, you cannot apply here in the U.S. So let’s… But there is a way. Let’s just spend one minute… one minute, we should spend much more than one minute, but we’ll keep it short.

Kathy: But I think it applies to a lot of Italian-Americans who are listening, who think that, because of the 1948 rule, which was the year Italy became a Republic, they think they can’t get citizenship. That’s how we ended it in the Castelvetere episode. But we actually have a new special coming out where we talk about what you’re going to tell me. How can I go around that?

Bianca: Well, you have a way to challenge this law. Like you said, before, women could only hold, but not pass, citizenship to their children. Finally, when Italy became a Republic, a new constitution was written. And so, women could actually now pass citizenship to children, but only children born after January 1st, 1948, the date Italy became a Republic. So unfortunately, consulates strictly adhere to this 1948 rule. The only way is to challenge by suing the Italian government in the civil courts in Rome. So this is what Kathy will eventually do.

You have to petition the courts on the basis that this law is discriminatory. And there has been a rule by the Supreme Court recently stating that, of course, this is an unconstitutional rule against the… which goes against the equality between men and women. So, like many others, you go directly to the courts in Rome. And you have to make sure that you fulfill all other requirements. You have to make sure that your document portfolio that you will be presenting in front of the judge will be complete with no discrepancies. And citizenship will be eventually granted because the judge will rule, based on the interpretation of the Supreme Court, that this law is discriminatory. So, there is a path.

Kathy: So, I will be going to court, which is different than what most Italian-Americans do. They bring their portfolio of documents to a consulate in the U.S. And can you tell us how that works and how long that’s taking these days?


Bianca: Right. So, this is another challenge. I’m glad we’re talking about challenges because the people actually can get more information to make a better decision, if they choose to pursue this journey. If you fulfill all requirements, you’re not hit by the 1948 rule, then you apply at the Italian consulate that has jurisdiction over the state where you reside. There are several consulates here in the U.S. Based on where you reside, you have to go to a certain consulate. So, for instance, I reside in Pennsylvania. I would go to Philadelphia. The challenge nowadays is not about putting together a document portfolio, which has its own challenges. But the challenge with the Italian consulate is to find an appointment. Because, of course, in order to apply, you have to book an appointment. These appointments are available online at the Italian consulate website. It’s called Prenota online.

Prenota means “to book.” And so, people have to register, and then they have to look for an appointment. And those are difficult to find. Why is that? Because nowadays, there is a huge amount of people, Italian, or people of Italian descent, who are applying for citizenship. And the number of appointments available have really not changed from two, three years ago. So, there’s a huge queue, let’s say. And as a rule, if you find an appointment, it will be two years from now. But don’t be disappointed. It takes that long to put together a perfect document portfolio. And frankly, you know getting another citizenship takes a while, right? So even if it’s two to three to four years, it’s not too bad.

Kathy: And I recommend… I’ve known it. We worked on this. I’ve had a lot going on in my life, but we worked on this three years ago. I should have started then. Start now is my advice to everyone. Start getting your paperwork together. Contact somebody to help you make the consulate appointment. But what I’m intrigued about is you’re like a private investigator and you have to piece together lots of mysteries. And even my family, we don’t need the documents going back so far, but our name changed… even in Italy, not just by coming here. De Nargio. De Nargi. Nargi.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve had? Is it name, changes, adoption, other… How…

Bianca: Yes.

Kathy: Give me some of those stories.

Bianca: Too many.

Kathy: Yeah.

Bianca: Too many.


Kathy: How do you resolve them?

Bianca: Yes. I have to resolve those. When we have… We’ve been assisting so many people that we have had to… Obviously, each family situation is unique, right? So, you will find different challenges. But the most common ones are, of course, misspellings. So, you always start with the Italian vital records, always start with the qualifying documents. And the qualifying documents are always determined by the records to prove that you are of Italian descent, and, of course, whether you qualify or not with naturalization records or lack of those. After that, you start collecting all the U.S. vital records: birth, marriage, death, divorce records, whatever is applicable to your situation.

And you will see that maybe that most of the applicants are unaware that the Italian last name was different when the birth of their Italian ancestor was registered, was recorded, in the Italian town hall. So now, you have, for instance… Let’s take as an example Cuzzone. It might’ve become eventually, in the U.S., maybe lost one Z, or maybe the E became an I. So, how do you deal with these discrepancies, which have to be corrected? Well, we have to amend records, or add records to your portfolio. And for instance, there is always a very common certification issued by the town hall called “certificate positive/negative,” or “one and the same certificate,” which states that there is only one person born in Italy with that first, last name, that birth date. And there are no other people with those different spellings, date of birth. And…

Kathy: … another person. Yeah.


Bianca: Yes, yes. So, that’s an extremely useful document that is always accepted by the Italian consulate. In fact, it’s sometimes required. But then, you come to a point which is very, very common. These Italian immigrants come to the U.S., and after a few years have babies born here. And so, what happens? They did not speak very well English. They go and register the birth of the child, either the son or daughter. And sometimes, we see that the son was born as Giovanni or Giuseppi. So, it had a first name that was still Italian, maybe misspelled, or a last name that was maybe changed right then because they could not spell it. So usually, the birth record of the first generation born here in the U.S. that has the most issues. Those have to be corrected, add into a U.S. record, and AKA (also known as) if they allow you to do it.

But some states do not allow to amend a record of a deceased person. So, in order to do that, you have to go to court. But don’t… Again, don’t be disappointed. I mean, these things can be resolved. It may just take a little bit longer. And the Italian consulates have always helped out. There is also one thing about misspelling which is extremely important. And I would like to mention it. The misspelling also started with Italian ancestors. The name was not changed at Ellis Island, but it was changed later. It was changed later.

But if the person naturalized, go and look at the naturalization records, because maybe the petition states that even though the name is now Joseph so-and-so, he came… There is the immigration information on that petition that states that he came over on that ship on that date, under the name of. And that is considered an official name change. So, that… Sometimes, an unsurmountable, “Oh, I am so worried about name change” that can be already fixed through either naturalization records or doing those steps we talked about.


Kathy: Now, I mentioned adoption. That would seem to go against your jure sanguinis, by blood. Is there any way, if somebody was adopted, that they could pursue this?

Bianca: Yes. So, Italy accepts adoptions. All right? So, that’s good as long as the person was adopted as a minor. So, we’ve actually dealt many times with people being adopted, even to the point of being able to go. And because they were adoption records, they were so old being able to unveil those adoption records. They stated exactly the Italian blood connection, right?

Because it’s all about connecting. And many people actually received citizenship on that basis. So, the oldest things seem to be difficult steps to make or to take in order to pursue citizenship, but eventually can be overcome. And the only way to overcome them is to document. It’s always about documentation. So, always that’s the most important thing that you have to put together.

Kathy: And what about… Well, two cases. Obviously, I knew the town that my family was from, and then my mother’s maiden name, Nargi. It’s unusual in that it only comes… If you find one anywhere in the world, they only come from this town. So, there’s people that may not know exactly which town. And then, there’s people… Maybe they don’t know exact names. Do you ever run into, you just can’t find the person in Italy? Or how do you overcome that?


Bianca: Yes. That’s another big challenge because not everyone passed on information about their family roots, right? But the good news is that here in the U.S. there are plenty of records that can be researched, which list this essential information, which is the exact town where the ancestor was originally from, because all the records in Italy are only maintained in the exact town where the person was born.

So, without that piece of information, it’s really difficult. So, that’s why you can find naturalization records that are one document that lists the exact town. But there are many other immigration records, ship manifests, that list the town of residence. In many manifests also, on page two, you have the exact town where the person was born. So there…

Kathy: That was on… So, you found Caterina Scrima. So Catarina… My mother was named Kathleen after her grandmother and I was named Kathleen. And I remember you found for me the manifest with Caterina Scrima Cuzzone. And she brought… My grandmother was born in the U.S., but several of the kids were born… I got chills.

I’m telling you just do it for the… I got so emotional. I mean, we’re talking about having a goal and getting citizenship, but just the connection and emotion, seeing that manifest.

Bianca: Right.

Kathy: And she came with her children, and how brave she must have been. So, it’s always emotional. I guess, are you part counselor? Can you talk to some of these families?


Bianca: Well, you have to obviously be a person who understands how to deal with this very sensitive information, because you obviously unveil so much about personal and sensitive information. And certain things have to be communicated… informed in a nice way. And always make sure that people understand that this is private and sensitive information. And that’s the way it will always be treated. But the beauty is that you learn so much about, like you said, about the sacrifice of these families who decided, without knowing English, with very little money, to leave behind their history and start a new life.

And I always have the chills when I go to Ellis Island and see those beautiful pictures of these people who just had a bag in their hands. And that’s it. And they were going to the unknown. And think about how difficult the life was settling here, in New York, in those tenement homes. It must’ve been horrible, but yet they did it. And I’m sure they built a really strong generation after them, of people who knew how, by example… They led by example. And I think that’s beautiful. We should not forget that.

Kathy: And I’m fascinated that this big trend of not only going back to Italy… When they were trying to leave, life was so difficult. We’re all going back to Italy. And now, we’re reclaiming our citizenship, and how everything has come full circle.

Bianca: Yes.

Kathy: So, are you finding that more and more people… And why? I know there’s a number of reasons. Why are people looking for… to reclaim their citizenship now?

Bianca: Well, I think there are, of course, the benefits, which we’re going to outline. But it’s also a way to go back to your roots. I always would like to remind people who are going through the process of becoming citizens to also make an effort, even though it’s not a requirement, to speak the language.

Because at some point, Kathy, I’m sure you will do it. You may want to spend more time in Italy. You really do a lot.

Kathy: I think next year.

Bianca: Yes, exactly. Well, not right this second, but you know, eventually.


Kathy: I keep hearing… And you are my go-to person for all these rules. People email me. There is some kind of language requirement in Italy or not for citizenship?

Bianca: There is a language requirement if you’re applying for citizenship by marriage or by acquisition. Yes.

Kathy: Okay. So, as Americans, we don’t need to take a test as of this point.

Bianca: Well, if you’re applying through jure sanguinis, meaning right of blood, it’s your right. So, it’s not a requirement. However, I know that consulates also are very sensitive about it. You become a citizen of your ancestral country. Don’t forget to learn the language. Okay? So, it’s the idea of going back to your roots, and also the idea of, of course, maybe residing there because you want to retire there, or you want to give the option to your children and grandchildren to maybe study there and work there.

So, there are obviously very real benefits. This isn’t… It takes time to receive citizenship and it’s expensive. So, you have to have really a good enough reason to think that it’s good for you. And it’s not just the fact that it’s nice to have a passport. It’s really what you may use it for. And connected to this, going back to your roots, going back and maybe live in Italy, is also… maybe buying property in Italy, which is certainly something that people are considering seriously.

Kathy: Oh, I know. And we live in a different world. And we also live in the world, in 2020, where we’re looking at, “Well, how should we live differently? And what are our options?” And certainly, if you are a citizen, you can get healthcare if you live over there, you can vote in Italy. There are a lot of benefits. Your children can go to university.

Just what I was saying before, I think do it now, because we don’t know how the world will change or laws will change.

Bianca: Exactly.


Kathy: And I think it’s a wonderful gift. Not only are you getting it from your ancestors, you’re able then to pass it along. What are some other things, before we wrap up, that you’d like… Some misconceptions that people have or challenges in the process that they need to be aware of? What are some of your insider’s perspectives on this that people should be looking for?

Bianca: Right. So, one misconception is about qualification requirements. Sometimes, people don’t really understand them. They think that, by having an ancestor born in Italy, that’s all it takes. And you have to present that. No. Of course, you have to document your lineage. And the other misconception is that when a person lost the Italian citizenship. So, that’s one of the most important steps that somebody has to take before doing anything else. I’ve seen many times people collecting all the U.S. vital records. And last is to try to find the Italian birth record, which of course may not… cannot be found. And so, that’s —

Kathy: And that’s the key.

Bianca: It happens. They did not record the birth record. It’s as simple as that. And it’s a big issue. That’s why sometimes you turn into other lineages to see if you can actually have a alternative path to citizenship. It’s such a complex project in itself that sometimes people don’t know exactly the number of documents they need to collect. So, we always say, go to the website of the Italian consulate that has jurisdiction over the state where you reside, if they are do it yourselfers, because I respect people who actually take this on their own. It’s challenging. It’s difficult. But they do it. And so, more —

Kathy: Oh. I know some people who’ve done it.

Bianca: Yes. And we offer some tools for do it yourselfers. If they have trouble finding individual documents, we can help them with that. If they don’t want us to go start to finish, which of course is the… What the service we offer, the complete service that we offer for people who don’t want to lift a finger. And it’s always go to the website of the Italian consulate to see exactly what documentation they require.

Sometimes, they don’t require spousal documents, meaning documents related to the spouses of the direct ancestors, which, of course, makes you save a lot of money because there are fewer documents to collect. Remember the documents, U.S. federal records, have to be issued in a certain format, certified.

Kathy: Right, and then translated.

Bianca: And then translated to Italian.


Kathy: Yeah. So, what I would suggest people do is actually call you for that free consultation, because you could save weeks and months of work determining what… You can help them determine, is this even possible?

Bianca: Possible, yes.

Kathy: So certainly, it’s worthwhile to call before you get started. And you’re a fountain of information. And you helped me with my own family. And I look at those records every so often. And we’re continuing to follow my story now that I can go and do this in court. And we’re going through my grandmother and my great-grandmother. And there’s something really special about that, about the women, those strong women who came over on those ships.

Bianca: Yes. Let’s not forget the women. And it’s also a good way to actually remember them.

Kathy: Yeah. So again, your website is My Italian Family. And we always do show notes for the podcast. So, we’ll link to some of the things that you told us, and then they can come to your website and find out more. I could talk to you for hours because it’s just fascinating. And I’ve been telling people… And this… We’re all going to be home this winter. Start doing it now. Start doing your research and getting in touch and getting set for the future.

Bianca: Absolutely. Many people now have more time on their hands and may pick up from where they left years ago maybe. We have many people who have said, “We had a consultation in 2017, but now I would like to start the process,” because maybe they have children now, and they would like to give them an opportunity. It’s all about opportunity.

Kathy: Well, wonderful. And that’s why we came to America. So, now we’re going to…

Bianca: And now, going back as well. The ability, the opportunity to go back, if you want.

Kathy: Yeah. Well, thank you again, Bianca.

Bianca: Nice talking to you, Kathy.


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

For show notes on this episode, visit dreamofitaly.com/12.

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