Personal Stories

July 16, 2021

Becoming Italian

On February 2nd, 1878, my great-grandfather, Antonino D’Amico, was born.  Nine years later, my great-grandmother, Antonina Runza was born.  Little is known now of either of their families of origin.  We know that both were born in Pachino, Sicily, Italy, and when we attempted to find gravestones for their parents, the only one listed in the graveyard records had been abandoned and the plot was reused.  In October 1902, Antonino took a ship from Palermo to Ellis Island, New York.  He arrived with little money in his wallet, and we believe he may have settled initially with relatives.  Throughout my research, I was never able to find a record of how Antonina came to America.  On June 2, 1907, Antonino and Antonina were married.  My grandfather was born almost 11 years later on March 12, 1918.  The early 1900s was a hard time for Italians in America.  Like other poor immigrants throughout American history, they were despised and rejected, in part because so many had come from poverty to find a new life in America.  Family legend has it that when my great-aunt took my grandfather to pre-school, she renamed him from Salvatore D’Amico to Samuel Robert D’Amico to anglicize his name, to reduce the discrimination. 

Unfortunately, my ancestors still faced discrimination and demeaning name calling.  Nonetheless, my grandfather and great aunts grew up in America, went to top American universities (my grandfather graduated from Harvard), and contributed extensively to their new home.  My grandfather was a distinguished member of clergy in the Los Angeles diesis of the Episcopal church.  My great aunts became teachers.  As each of their children had children and grandchildren, the legacy of Antonino and Antonina grew to include teachers, social workers, pastors, military, and businesspeople…each contributing in their own way to the fabric of America.

I was born on February 29, 1988.  By this time, the Italian aspect of our family had been largely relegated to family stories, Italian restaurants, and a last name no one could spell or pronounce, and that generally broke computer software.  No one in my family spoke Italian or Sicilian anymore, my uncle still made the family recipe “S Cookies” at Christmas, but otherwise, we had become in large part a typical American melting pot family with little racial identity.  However, from a young age, something always drew me back to my Italian heritage.  I always wanted to learn the language, and I loved my last name.  Italian food was my favorite, and Italy was the country I always wanted to visit, but never was able to.

When I was a young teenager, my dad received a fluke phone call from an attorney, during which he found out about an Italian citizenship program called “jure sanguinus” through which we could regain Italian citizenship.  None of us had heard of this before, but this launched me on a quest to learn about my Italian great-grandparents, specific crucial details about when my family became American citizens, and how they’d come to the United States.  Gradually I worked my way through the paperwork, learning that I would qualify for citizenship, but facing a variety of hurdles due to poor documentation in American vital records and a variety of name changes.  Through this time my dad, aunt, uncle, and great aunt helped to amend records, research, and remember the stories that proved invaluable to reassembling our history.

In summer of 2017, now a husband and father myself, I finally made my first trip to Italy.  As I prepared to board the flight from London, I looked around at my fellow passengers and remarked to my wife, “Charity, they all look like me!”  While I mark “white” on demographics forms, I have Mediterranean skin that tans easily with wavy dark brown hair and dark brown eyes.  Never had I seen a group of so many people that looked like me.  In Italy, we found a people who were extremely friendly, and between my last name and appearance, they were all very confused when I couldn’t speak Italian.  Our trip was a 48-hour whirlwind.  Charity and I landed in Catania, drove around the south side of Sicily, and flew out of Palermo.  We left, assuming this would be a one-time adventure, but that eventually we would complete the paperwork for dual citizenship.  For what…we didn’t know yet.

In Spring of 2020, COVID-19 struck the world.  In Summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, BLM protests took over America.  By Fall, I needed a break, and said to Charity one night, “I have a crazy idea.”  I suggested that we take a trip to Italy for several months to complete our dual citizenship.  My primary job was remote, our children were doing school remote, and rehabbing rental properties (our other business) was not very feasible with things shutdown for COVID.  Initially this was just a crazy idea, but a week later I brought it up again.  What if we could actually do it?  What would it mean?  What started as a crazy idea, rapidly turned into a reality when only a couple months later we boarded a flight to London to begin our two-week COVID isolation before going to Palermo, Sicily, Italy to start the citizenship process.

2020 was one of the worst years for international travel in modern history.  National, regional, state, and provincial entry and exit rules were changing on a weekly basis; borders were tight; COVID tests, isolation, and/or quarantining were required for most travel; and even going between cities sometimes required justification.  As we prepared to leave London for Palermo, I said to my wife and kids that if we even made it to Palermo, it would be a miracle.  We did make it though, and quickly settled into our AirBNB.  The host, Sergio, was incredible and went out of his way time and again to not only make sure we were comfortable in the apartment but repeatedly used his connections to help us with the citizenship process.  Within a couple days, our family began to wonder whether Sicily would be our new home.  We loved it.  The food was incredible, everyone seemed to understand that COVID was real and precautions needed to be taken, there was fascinating history at every turn, and beauty both natural and constructed.  Did I mention the food was incredible?  Time after time, I’d say, “I had no idea…[fill in basically any type of food]…was supposed to taste like this!”  We gradually decided that if possible, we wanted to stay in Italy.  Unfortunately, between the generally beauracratic processes of Italy, and COVID removing one of the government officials from her job for many weeks, we found ourselves stuck and running out of time and facing the prospect of having to go back to the United States and try again another time.

However, at this point we met Jennifer Gray, another person of Italian descent attempting to get dual citizenship.  She told me about a different town, Ventimiglia di Sicilia, where she was going and where she had friends who knew the local government officials and were moving her paperwork through quickly.  After a few weeks, we were off again, this time moving from a city of 600,000 to a town of 1,800.  Ciro Grillo quickly arranged for our transit, housing, tours, and meeting with Nino Manzella, the local official who would handle our paperwork.  Since arriving, the people of Ventimiglia have been wonderful.  As predicted, Nino was fast, efficient, and tireless, working rapidly to finish what had already taken months in Palermo.  Throughout the town, people welcomed us, using what English they knew and patiently letting us practice our Italian.  Our children became town favorites and often now I see a parade of children coming to play in front of our apartment.  Regardless of whether the communication was in English, Italian, or a combination through Google Translate, the message was clear: we are welcome and we are Italian.

As I write this, we are finishing our permanent transition to Sicily and getting ready to fly home.  Our American house, most of our belongings, and cars are sold and we’ll continue running our businesses remotely.  Probably not so unlike my great grandfather coming to America, I had no idea when I set off for Italy what I would find, but also like my great grandfather, I found home.  Perhaps unlike my great grandfather, I found home in a nation with a giant welcome sign!

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