By Donna Perezella
It's not that I don't want to have US citizenship anymore, that's really not my intent – it's just that I also want to be an Italian citizen. So when my mother, a child of Italian immigrants, heard about my quest for Italian citizenship, she naturally reacted the way that most proud Americans would, by questioning my patriotism.
But, that's not what it’s about at all. Becoming an Italian citizen, for me, is a way to connect with my heritage, to my roots that have become increasingly important to me. It is who I am, an Italian-American, and to be a citizen of both the United States and of Italy strongly reinforces that identity for me.
And while my explanation seems quite foreign to someone who spent her childhood and early-adult years outwardly embracing being an American while practicing her “Italianism” behind closed doors, for me it just felt right.
For I am the new generation, we who not only want to know our heritage, but want to become a part of it and for it to become a part of us. Unlike our parents and grandparents before us, who came to this country and were embarrassed to speak their native tongue in public, we flock to university language classes and foreign language schools to keep these languages alive.
Growing up, I had a close relationship with my paternal grandmother, who was brought to this country at the age of 28 to marry my grandfather, a widower who she barely knew from their village back in Italy. It would be an arrangement that would last for almost 50 years and my father was their first child together.
She was never very comfortable in this new country, so she held onto the language and traditions that she carried with her on that long and difficult ocean crossing from Naples to New York City. Because she left her own family behind, her fellow countrymen or paesani, who were also living abroad, became her new family. Sadly, she lived in the United States for 60 years without returning to Italy.
Although she died when I was in my 20s, it wasn't until about ten years ago, when my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, that I would make a voyage of my own to Lucito, the town where both my grandparents had left as adults.
I still have my grandmother’s alien registration card, with the photo once sepia toned, now faded after almost seventy years, pages well worn and yellowed. I found it in my father’s desk drawer shortly after he died.
Signore Corrao has been my contact at the Italian Consulate since that day three years ago when I walked into his office and declared my intent to become an Italian citizen. The laundry list of items required for citizenship, however, overwhelmed me.
"Besides this,” he said, as he examined the copy of my grandfather’s birth certificate, dating back to 1888, with names and dates hand-written in a beautifully-scripted font, “you'll also need a copy of your grandparents' marriage license, your father's birth certificate, your parents' marriage license, your birth certificate, your father and grandfather's death certificates and your own marriage license," and then added after he came up for breath, "but don’t wait too long, they could change in six months."
But I didn't listen, I waited for almost two years and sure enough when I returned last year, the requirements had changed. The certificates of birth, death and marriage that I had sent my mother for on a wild goose chase through Waterbury's City Hall, all required an apostille, a special seal that certifies that a document is a true copy of an original. Maybe I was told that the first time, but I must have missed it.
And to make an impossible dream even more impossible, I needed my grandfather’s alien registration card, which I didn’t have, or the next best thing – an affidavit from US Customs and Immigration at Homeland Security stating that my grandfather had never become an American citizen, along with his application for alien status.
I couldn’t stop now – I had come too far. And along the way I made a very interesting discovery - I was not alone.
Every year, about 5,000 Italian-Americans apply for citizenship with Italy. Italian citizenship is based on the principle of jure sanguinis (blood right) by which a child born of an Italian father or mother is Italian. Because my father's parents were Italian citizens at the time of his birth, he himself was an Italian citizen. And that blood right was passed along to me.
I am just one of the many Americans who believe that while the process of dual citizenship may not be a particularly easy one, the rewards outweigh the challenges.
When I met Coleen well over ten years ago, her Irish citizenship was as natural as her flaming red hair. With both parents born in Ireland, this blood right automatically made her an Irish citizenship.
“Ireland's requirements are simple, which made the process so easy,” Coleen explains. “One must have either a parent or grandparent born in Ireland to be considered an Irish citizen. All I needed was my mother’s Irish birth certificate and a trip to the Irish Consulate here in Boston. And at the age of eighteen, I made it happen.”
These relaxed rules of dual citizenship in Ireland match the casualness and joviality so particular to this group of people. I ask her why it was so easy to become an Irish citizen.
“I think that back when I applied for and was granted Irish citizenship, Ireland needed more citizens,” she explains. “Years ago, they had experienced a great deal of exodus. It was just a matter of needing more citizens and recognizing the large number of Irish descendants living abroad.”
It is ironic that Coleen, a former Catholic who has since converted to Judaism, not only embraces her Irish citizenship, but also the many Judaic customs and traditions she enthusiastically partakes in with her Jewish husband.
Her husband, a devout practitioner of Judaism, was eligible for Irish citizenship when he married Coleen, but is waiting for citizenship for their two young sons before he proceeds.
Although she considers herself an American, Coleen tells me that she feels a kinship with the Irish people, and when visiting Ireland, it’s where her heart wants to be.
Growing up with Irish-born parents, Irish Step-Dancing lessons, and St. Patrick’s Day as an all-important holiday, she tells me she is most grateful for the extended Irish family that enriched her childhood and made her happy to be Irish.
Perhaps, that is why she speaks of one day taking her children and husband back to Ireland and living a year in the countryside surrounded by those she feels such a connection to.
“That is a gift that I would like to give my kids one day, the same one I had growing up,” she says.
And with an Irish passport, Coleen will have the freedom to give her kids a taste of her own treasured childhood.
Maya’s dad was born and spent his adult life in France. When he met his future wife, an Americans who was born in Ireland,they decided to make Boston their home. Just two years ago Maya, at the age of 19, decided to apply for her own French citizenship.
"It was around the time when I was going to spend the summer in France, living and working on a farm, that I thought it was a good idea to apply for citizenship," Maya tells me. "I was almost an adult."
She tells me the process of citizenship was fairly easy. She recalls having to bring both her dad’s and her birth certificate to the French Consulate. Her parents did most of the work as her dad was familiar with the process as he himself had become a dual citizen with the United States about six years ago. The whole process took just a few months and Maya believes that it was fairly easy because of her father's French citizenship.
The French government asks of its citizens living abroad to attend a one or two-day military training orientation, and for those residing in New England, it takes place in Rhode Island. Maya was told by the Consulate that this attendance was not mandatory, so she has yet to attend.
Although she is a French citizen living abroad, she continues to receive notices of elections, as voting in France is a duty and privilege that goes along with citizenship.
To Maya, having French citizenship, which also includes a European Union passport, has many benefits. She is thankful to have the freedom to live or work in Europe and loves the idea of traveling and staying within Europe without a time limit.
“French citizenship has opened up the world for me,” Maya tells me.
French citizenship is not wasted on her — she speaks fluent French and is nearing completion of a French minor at UMass Boston. She talks about the possibility of perhaps going to grad school at a conservatory in France, for their public universities are free to their citizens.
Despite her dual citizenship with France, American-born Maya considers herself to be an American first. But culturally, she does identify with France’s affinity to a Mediterranean diet and environmental friendliness — traits not so common to someone just twenty-one years of age, but more typical of one who has traveled and has a desire to know a world other than her own.
Both of Zofia’s parents were born in Poland and immigrated to the United States before she was born. At the age of five, she was automatically entitled to receive Polish/EU citizenship.
"My parents decided to grant me Polish citizenship because that is where our whole family is from, and they want me to make a choice after college whether to stay in the United States or return back to our roots in Poland," Zofia explains. “It is much safer to have dual citizenship because I have the choice of living there where the economy and job market are currently prospering."
She tells me that the process of receiving Polish citizenship was not troublesome, it just took time. Her application was processed through the Polish Consulate in New York who handled all communication directly with Warsaw.
"There is nothing that I can lose by having dual citizenship," she tells me. "I have the choice of living and working in other EU countries much more easily than if I just have American citizenship. With any EU passport, it is easier to study and take part in scholastic programs for a cheaper price."
I ask her if she considers herself to be Polish, American or both. She tells me that this is a common question people always ask of her.
"Growing up, I have always been around Polish activity here. For example, I attended Polish language and culture/religious education school in the Polish triangle in Dorchester from the age of five until my sophomore year in high school," she proudly says, with a hint of Polish accenting her impeccable English.
She continues, "Each year, we keep our indigenous traditions during the holidays. My parents have always strived for my brother and I to be surrounded by our Polish customs and traditions. Being around such activity and environment, I feel that this is the culture that I can most identify with. I feel that by spending every other summer in Poland since I was five, my childhood took place there. I have developed strong friendships and bonds. I have spent so much time with family there. If there is anywhere in the world I can feel at home, it is Poland. I really like how the lifestyle there is more laid-back and people are more carefree about their time.”
"La vita e’ bella,” Zofia says, and I do understand that for her the life in Poland is beautiful.
At five years old, Sagiv immigrated to the United States along with his parents and older brother. Applying for US citizenship as a family, Sagiv was sworn in as a US citizen just a few short months ago. Part of his oath was to swear that in case of war his allegiance would be to serve America, therefore giving up his allegiance to Israel in time of war.
By retaining his Israeli citizenship, Sagiv is obligated to serve in the Israeli army when he turns 18. There are benefits to this service to Israel. As most everyone is of draft age at 18, it is mandatory to serve three years in the infantry division. Serving in the Israeli army is prestigious; its commando units are comparable to US Navy SEALs. In Israel everyone goes to the Army and then to college.
Sagiv explains to me the benefits that the Israeli army provides. At just sixteen years old, he stresses the leadership skills that the army provides, and I can’t help but notice that he possesses the wisdom and maturity of someone much older.
When I ask him if he plans on serving when he turns 18 as his brother will be doing this fall, he tells me that it is not in his plans. He would prefer to go to college right out of high school; with his US citizenship he can avoid the Israeli draft.
“Most Israelis do take advantage of the benefits of the post-Israeli army,” he tells me. "The cost of college over four years in Israel is approximately $5,000. Many Israelis return to the United States with the BA from an Israeli university that is fully recognized here."
When I ask him if he experienced any difficulty while obtaining his US citizenship, he tells me it was very easy — his parents did all of the work. It was his parents that took the citizenship test along with all of the studying of US laws and governmental facts. As a minor, his citizenship was rewarded to him based on his parents’ efforts.
But what about the pros and cons of belonging to two countries, I ask Sagiv.
“The cons,” he tells me, “are technically just the legal ones. Because at times I feel a split loyalty to both the United States and to Israel, I can be both.”
Nelson, like Sagiv, was not US-born, but born in Brazil and kept his Brazilian citizenship while obtaining his American one. He first came to the US when he was just 14 years old and became a US citizen at the age of 17 through his mother's own naturalization.
"It wasn't difficult at all," he tells me." It could've been a little harder if I had to wait for five years as most people have to. However, my mother was able to become a naturalized citizen before I turned 18. So at the moment that she became a citizen, I was able to become one due to being her son."
Knowing the cost and work involved for citizens from another country, we talk about what his citizenship entailed.
"My mother did all the hard work, and thanks to her I didn't need to take the citizenship test, which nowadays, has gotten a lot harder than back then. All I had to do was fill out the paperwork and pay for the filing fee, that was it," he explains.
"It was definitely worth getting, even though the fee was sort of expensive, but just the fact that I was able to become a naturalized American was a huge reward for me. I finally felt like I belonged to this society. I felt proud of saying ‘I'm an American,’ even though I wasn't born here," he further explains.
For Nelson, like so many others in search of dual citizenship, the rewards have far exceeded the risks. For him there is the ease when traveling to a country that requires a visa from one of your citizenships and not the other; you can use your other citizenship to get into that country instead of having to get a visa, which can be sometimes troublesome.
Nelson considers himself and his lifestyle more American than Brazilian. His pace is more in line with America than it is with Brazil. He appreciates the fact that life is more affordable in the US than it is in Brazil.
"But culturally, I would say I'm more Brazilian probably because I was raised there, so I feel more Brazilian. However, I've heard from friends and relatives that I tend to behave more American than Brazilian, so I guess I'm both," he explains.
A funny thing happened on the way to writing and researching this article –my own journey towards dual citizenship took an exciting turn. Just last Thursday, I received an e-mail from the town hall in Lucito (Italy) where my final documents were sent before Christmas to officially register me as an Italian citizen. Apparently, my own citizenship was finalized last month. Both my birth and marriage certificates, identifying me as an Italian citizen, are currently making their way to me across the same ocean that my own grandmother traveled some ninety years ago.
For me, I am looking forward to experiencing what Maya, Zofia, Coleen, Sagiv, and Nelson have been experiencing since they received dual citizenship. I too, want to feel these same emotions and sense of pride.
I believe that Nelson echoes the sentiments of so many who hold dual citizenship when he says, "What I am sure of is that I'm very proud of having both citizenships and I wouldn't trade this for anything."
And neither would I.