Friday, April 22, 2011

How (not) to become an Italian citizen

Wednesday, April 20
While we are taking a timeout from living the vita bella, I have some time to give the back story about how I obtained Italian citizenship for myself and my family. To do so, travel back in time with me to 1997. I have just finished reading a book about an Italian American who went to considerable effort to find his Italian grandfather's birth certificate, so that he could apply for Italian citizenship. Intrigued by this possibility, I find a website that explains how this is possible. I discover that I can do this because I know where my grandfather was born and that I will be able to obtain his birth certificate. The other key is that my grandfather must not have renounced his Italian citizenship before my dad was born. Some Italian immigrants during the big migration of the late 1800s and early 1900s renounced their citizenship when they joined the American army during World War 1 (although renouncing Italian citizenship was not a requirement, many chose to do so), but my grandfather was not among those. He did become an American citizen just before World War 2, since there was some talk of sending Italian and German aliens to concentration camps with the Japanese, but this was well after all of Nonno's children had been born.

As I read the website, I discover that I technically am an Italian citizen, because my dad was born of an Italian citizen, making him automatically a dual citizen. What remains, though, is the difficult part of convincing the Italian government that I am Italian. Using information from the website, I begin a process that will take me twelve years. It is easy to blame this delay entirely on the Italian bureaucracy, but the fault is at least half mine and a little bit of the American bureaucracy and then other members of my family. Had I hired an agency to prepare the documents needed, I probably could have been a citizen within a year or two at the most.

Instead I try to do everything myself. I write to an Italian cousin, who goes to Pescia and sends me Nonno's birth certificate. Lucy does the research needed to obtain birth certificates for me, my dad and mom, and our children. We also find marriage certificates for everyone who is married and Nonno's naturalization papers, to show that he had not renounced his citizenship until after my dad was born. I ask my brother and sister if they want to get their citizenship at the same time, since it would only add a little more time to add their documents to the mix. My sister and her two chilren provide me their certificates as well, but my brother's family says they don't want to hold up the process by making us wait for them to get everything together. Once I get all documents in hand, next comes the need to translate the English language certificates into Italian. With the help of a dictionary and two Italian exchange students who live with us in 1997-98 and 1999-2000, I prepare my own translations.

We mail everything to the Italian Consulate in San Francisco in 2000. Since at the time the Consulate had a website written almost entirely in Italian only, I even write my cover letter in Italian, again with generous help from others. In the spring of 2002, we receive our first response, which explains, in Italian, what mistakes we have made. One major oversight is that we did not have each American document affixed with an apostille from the State of Washington. Even though the certificates of birth, death and marriage have the stamp of the appropriate counties, for international documents, an apostille is needed to ensure the county documents are authentic. How I missed reading this regulation at the time I don't know. The website I used as a reference no longer exists, so I don't know if this rule was not stated or I just overlooked it. In any event, Lucy takes all the documents to Olympia, pays a fee and we have our apostilles. The next problem is not so easy. Nonno's American death certificate says he was born October 8, but his Italian birth certificate says October 9. I have to provide proof that he is truly the Michele Spadoni who was born in Pescia, Italy, on October 9, and not some different Michele Spadoni born October 8. In 2002, it is impossible to call the Consulate in San Francisco for advice or even to use e-mail. We have two choices. We can coorespond by fax, or we can go in person and wait in line. I have a business trip to San Francisco in 2003, so I take my turn and ask in person what can be done.

"You must change the American death certificate," the clerk tells me. "It is the only way. The birth certificate cannot be changed."

Back home at the Pierce County Health Department, I am told that it will take a court order to do this. I am given the address of the court I must use, and this leads to more than a year of procrastination on my part. When I finally go to the court office, with the encouragement and accompaniment of sister Linda, we are told that I was misinformed; the Health Department has the authority to issue a new death certificate, a court order is not required, and I must go back to the Health Department and tell them this. So back we go, and after some discussion among three different clerks at the Health Department, they agree that they can indeed issue a corrected death certificate. I need to give them a copy of Nonno's Italian birth certificate, along with an English translation, which I can do quite easily. Within a couple of days, we have a corrected certificate and are ready to re-submit our application.

Oops, not quite, because in the meantime, my niece has had her name changed (which did take a court order), so she must fill out a new application and we need to include the order for the name change and a translation into Italian, along with another apostille.

By the time we re-submit everything, it is 2004. Two years have passed since our first rejection letter. Some months after we mail in our revised documents, we receive a letter from the consulate. The director is on maternity leave and there is no replacement. We will have to wait. Then another letter a year later. She is back from leave but has a large backlog of cases and won't begin looking at our application for another nine to twelve months. At least this time the letter is in English, and we can easily understand it. In 2007, we receive our second rejection letter. Most of the problems are minor--a page is missing from one form, we didn't fill in an address on another form--but two problems require some extra time to solve.

To get my niece's name change document approved by Italian authorities could take years, we are told. It would be far easier if we could just get her birth certificate changed by American authorities and re-submit her application under her new name. The other problem is with the translations. While they are mostly okay, the rejection letter says, there are "some irregularities" that need to be corrected. We are given a page with names of professional translators, but I decide instead to use an Italian acquaintance who works in Seattle as a translator. I offer to pay her, but she refuses payment. However, she also takes ten months to get the work done. Eight months into our wait, I send her a gift card to an Italian grocery store in Seattle as a thank-you for the work she is doing for us. It is also a subtle reminder that we have not heard from her. In the end, she makes about fifteen changes and also returns the gift card, saying it is not necessary.

I might have fretted over the translation delay, but in the meantime I have also been waiting for my sister to get me a copy of my niece's new birth certificate, which takes even longer. During this wait, my son has married, and we have to get his wife's birth certificate and their marriage certificate. Not wanting to risk further delays, I finally break down and pay for professional translations, which come back within a week. By this time, some of us have changed addresses, so I have nearly everyone fill out new applications and submit new photo identification cards. In March of 2010, I submit everything for the third time.

In the summer, I check the consulate's web site and find a disturbing statement. There is a new director, and as of this year, applications by mail are no longer being accepted. Applicants must make personal appointments to have their paperwork reviewed. I send an e-mail explaining my situation, and to my surprise, I get a response within a week. Since my application was already in progress, it was okay to submit by mail. I just need to wait until they get to my application, which should happen within a few months. I send another e-mail in October, and I am assured that my paperwork will be reviewed well before I leave for Italy in late January of 2011.

Finally, in mid-January of 2011, the letter arrives. Our citizenship has been approved! I have a document in hand stating that I am Italian, and we can fill out applications and come to San Francisco to get our passports. No one is home when I first get the news, but I put on the theme music from Rocky and shout, "Lucia, Lucia. Yo, Lucia, I did it!" I am charged with enthusiasm and energy, and not knowing what else to do with myself, I go outside and start vigorously spading my garden. I tell myself I must be trying to get in touch with my inner contadino, now that I have confirmation of who I am.

In any event, we have no time to go to San Francisco, as we will be leaving for Italy in two weeks and we have too many things at home to put in order. We will likely not need our passports this time because we are only staying three months and don't plan to make any major purchases. We will see if we can get passports in Italy, but if that fails, we can always go to San Francisco during the summer or fall.

In retrospect, I would certainly not recommend that anyone do this the way I did, but I can't say I have any regrets. I had no deadline to meet, and I feel better knowing that I was able to navigate the bureaucracies of two countries by myself while saving money along the way. I feel the same way about doing family research. I could pay a professional to do it, but what would be the fun of that? Some people like to solve crossword or Sodaku puzzles, and they surely wouldn't pay anybody for the solutions. The fun during the voyage is often equal to or greater than the joy of arrival.


Footnote: A middle ground and more economical way than professional services for your citizenship would be to purchase the book An Italian-American Guide to Seeking Dual Citizenship as Blood Right, by Valerie Winkler.
There is also a Facebook page where you can obtain advice from many other people with more experience: Dual U.S.-Italian Citizenship ( It includes an excellent forum you can search…


  1. omigoodness, You started when I was doing the application, I remember when she went on pregnancy leave. That's crazy! best of luck to you

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, and I enjoyed your story as well. Maybe in another year, my wife will have her citizenship as well.


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