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On the faint traces of my ancestors – and Italian passports

The writer is a columnist contributing columnist, based in Chicago

His name is Jimmy. No, wait a minute: Matthew. Actually, Amedeo. My grandfather went by many names.

Like many Italian immigrants in one of the greatest generations of Euro-American immigrants, he didn’t care what anyone called him: he just cared that all of his 4ft 10in made it to the Island Ellis on German steam train “Berlin”, eight weeks before World War I began in 1914.

So began my grandfather’s tumultuous affair with the American dream. “Jimmy,” as he was known for his steel mill job, went to work every day at the Bethlehem steel corporation. He watches baseball in the living room of the house that faces the factory tracks, in an Italian enclave in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He grows tomatoes in the backyard. And he died when forced to retire at the age of 70. To my knowledge, he never spoke a word of English – but I can’t think of anyone more American than my grandfather Bastianelli.

He would be appalled at what I was trying to do now: prove through him my right to become a dual Italian citizen, and issue Italian passports to my Chinese children, who had already entered the country. US citizenship. In the 15 years I’ve known him, I’ve never heard him say a good thing about “the homeland”. I could speak of Tuscany’s cypresses and Tuscany’s “birch,” but he liked the stench of the steel mills and the iron bridges of Bethlehem.

He died before I could tell him I had been learning Italian since the 1970s – but he certainly didn’t approve. His stepchildren didn’t speak a word in their mother tongue, except for the chosen obscenity he so frequently hurled at my grandmother.

Like most Americans of my generation, I never thought to ask him where he was born, or when. And I know my grandmother is called Lucy – my stepdaughter is named after her – but nothing more. Her maiden name is Shelbo, but what is that in the original Italian? And she was born in 1898, as indicated on her tombstone, or 1897 (on her social security records) or 1899 (her obituary). Did any of them ever become US citizens? ONE Opinion poll 2019 organized by the genealogy firm, commissioned by Ginry.com, found that more than 20 percent of Americans cannot name a single great-grandparent: I fall into that category.

I will need to document all of this in order to score an Italian passport with its precious residency in the EU. Britain could have rejoined the EU, at this rate, before I managed it. Because I’m not the only Italian-American trying this wheeze: Italian consulates across the United States are flooded with requests and have year-long backlogs of jobs. I first heard about this from my niece’s Italian-Chilean-American father-in-law, then discovered several other friends were also involved in the same paper chase.

I thought I could make it myself, until I couldn’t find any records of my grandparents’ marriage, death or naturalization certificates in the government archives. So I turned to My Italian Family, a leading US consultant on Italian citizenship. Founder Bianca Ottone says dual citizenship takes an average of three to four years: her institution can full search for me (from $5,000 to $7,500).

Crista Cowan, genealogist for Ancestry, says family searches like these are not simply for EU residency. People turn back family history with what she calls “a life-time moment of truth” – “and the pandemic has become a life time moment of truth for a large number of people.”

“Family history helps us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves,” she says. That must be why I was in tears when I found a picture of Jimmy’s grave – which I never saw – on Ancestry’s community feed Findagrave and stumbled across the death certificate of a baby uncle I never knew I had.

Perhaps, one day, advances in DNA technology will help my (adopted) children build a 5,000-year-old family tree of ancestors born in China. Now, however, they’re chasing their adoptive great-grandfather, Jimmy/Matthew/Amedeo, just like the real Italian-Chinese Americans they are. I just hope we catch him before I go with Jimmy and Lucy to Italian-American heaven. There are so many things I wish I had asked them.

https://www.ft.com/content/79f11057-460c-4152-af16-4453ded7bf1e On the faint traces of my ancestors – and Italian passports

Huynh Nguyen

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