How a journey into family history led to Italian citizenship

Family research for a book required author Paolina Milana to explore her Italian heritage in greater depth. Eventually, it led her to reconnect with her family’s past and her Sicilian identity.

How a journey into family history led to Italian citizenship
Paolina's journey to engage with her family history took her to Sicily. Photo: Getty Images

When writer Paolina Milana’s father, Antonino, was a child in Custonaci, Sicily, he dreamed of hopping on a cloud that would take him all the way to America. As fate would have it, it was the beginning of a great story of migration and survival. It is also a story of citizenship granted by descent, through the hard work of Italian Citizenship Assistance.

It starts almost a century ago. Fleeing both the rise of fascism in the late thirties and organised crime problems closer to home, Antonino boarded a boat to America, making fast friends onboard with a gentleman named Salvatore. 

As Paolina told The Local: “Salvatore showed my dad a picture of his unmarried sister, Maria who happened to be dressed as a mandolin player for Carnivale. My mother was beautiful and at that moment, my dad – who love to play the mandolin – decided he wanted to marry her.” 

After settling in Chicago, Antonino married Maria, who came from the Sicilian city of Nicosia. Together they had four children. Antonino owned his own barbershop while Maria had a professional seamstress business. When Paolina left Chicago for Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of being a writer, Maria shared some of her experiences of moving to America.  

“She told me, when I called her feeling alone, that this is part of moving forward and soon I would love having embarked on such a journey, just as she did leaving Sicily for the United States.”

Paolina’s father, Antonino, and mother, Maria, in the late 1940s. Photo: Supplied

Paolina has fond memories of her upbringing with two Sicilian parents. 

“Growing up, my parents would need to make their own recipes when they cooked something because they came from two very different places. Not that we were forced to choose but it was pretty funny because of the rivalry. 

“Being raised Italian is something that I wish everyone could experience. Because it is truly about family and it’s truly about love.”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Milanas, however. Throughout Paolina’s childhood and adolescence, her mother struggled with severe mental illness and was hospitalised several times. Combined with the challenges of migrating to a new country, these experiences formed the basis of Paolina’s books Committed: A memoir of madness in the family and The S Word.

La vita è bella: Paolina Milana now has her Italian citizenship. Photo: Supplied

“My mother was very sick. She had a mental illness. Also, we did not have a lot of money at all and there were times when my father had to sell personal belongings to pay bills. Yet we never, ever felt – with all the troubles we had – that we weren’t loved or cared for.”

As a consequence, Paolina has spent much of her life exploring her upbringing and in particular, the Sicilian culture in which she was raised. It was while researching Committed, that she decided she wanted to reclaim her Italian heritage by becoming an Italian citizen. 

“I was incorporating a lot of journal entries from my mother, letters from my father. I was reliving their journey from Sicily to the US and experiencing their hopes and dreams of having a family from their words. It was so powerful that I thought to myself: I love being Italian. I loved growing up Italian.

“It sparked me into reclaiming my Italian citizenship.  

Do you have Italian parents or grandparents? You may be able to obtain Italian citizenship and reclaim an important piece of your heritage 

“It’s me honouring them, but it’s also me recognising the importance of my roots, of different kinds of cultures, and what it means to really live this life.”

It was at this point that Paolina approached Italian Citizenship Assistance (ICA) for help with her citizenship by descent application.

“It took me almost two years with ICA at my side, doing all the work. I don’t know where I’d be if I had to do it myself. They found all of the documents for me and they did all the translations. They took care of everything.”

ICA’s researchers even visited several towns across Sicily to obtain the necessary documentation regarding Paolina’s parents and secured the required apostilles to confirm their authenticity. 

“I’ve heard some people have to actually go to Italy or go to the consulate and plead their case. I didn’t have to lift a finger. ICA even sent me an incredible binder that had all of the documents – all I had to do was send it in.

“Now I have my Italian passport and it took 21 months. Yet it was so worth it.”

Maria’s family collecting silkworms in the late 1920s. Photo: Supplied

With an Italian passport in hand, Paolina feels a new-found connection to her heritage, as well as optimism about the opportunities that the future provides. 

“This Italian passport gives me the freedom to unite my past with my present and my future. My husband and I are actually thinking now that maybe we will just end our days by getting a place in Sicily.

“Next year we are planning to visit my extended family across the island. My husband has never been to Sicily. And we are also going back to check out places we may want to settle.

“We’re also going to hit the international couscous festival. My father loved the various flavours that came to Sicily from different areas and he taught us all how to cook couscous – a dish that came to Sicily from Morocco.

“This trip is going to be very different because I will arrive not as a US citizen, not as the daughter of Italians, but as an actual Italian citizen myself. That’s going to mean a lot.”

You could say that the story of Paolina and the Milana family has a happy ending – one that was enabled by the work done by Italian Citizenship Assistance. 

“To have ICA moving things forward and obtaining all the documents required from some very small towns was amazing, just amazing – and I didn’t have to do anything! They even traced my father’s journey, via the ports he transited through, to ensure that he didn’t have any additional citizenship documents. It was so serendipitous that I found ICA to help me secure my Italian citizenship. I can only say it was meant to be.”

Over 80 years since Antonino and Maria made the move of a lifetime to America, their daughter Paolina has returned, passport in hand, to experience the land in which her parents grew up. Perhaps her visit will provide the inspiration for another book.

Begin the next chapter of your family’s tale. Ask ICA about how you can obtain your Italian passport

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Married an Italian? Here’s how to get your Italian citizenship abroad

You can apply for Italian citizenship if you get — and stay — married to an Italian citizen, but if you live outside of Italy there are some extra steps to know about.

Married an Italian? Here’s how to get your Italian citizenship abroad

So you’ve married an Italian — tantissimi auguri! A long life of good meals and sunny family reunions hopefully await you. And there are other perks, too.

Just this year, the Italian passport was ranked as the second most powerful in the world, meaning gaining your Italian citizenship is no small thing. An Italian passport will entitle you to live and work anywhere in Europe, and make residing in Italy much easier if you choose to do so in future.

Under Italian law, foreign spouses of Italian nationals are entitled to apply for Italian citizenship, with some qualifications — but the process can be anything but easy.

Here are the steps you need to follow to claim Italian citizenship by marriage from abroad.

Step 1: Register your marriage

First, if it was performed outside of Italy, you’re going to need to make sure your marriage has been properly registered with Italian local and national authorities.

Your Italian spouse must make sure to register with AIRE, the anagrafe italiani residenti all’estero or register of Italian citizens abroad. It’s possible they’ve already done this, as it is necessary for voting abroad and renewing any government documentation.

This is free and can be done at your local Italian consulate or via an online portal.

Then, as soon as possible after your wedding, you will want to register the marriage with your local Italian consulate.

This is done by filling out an application form and submitting it to your local consulate along with: 

  • a photocopy of the non-Italian partner’s passport or identity document
  • an original copy of your full-length marriage certificate, and
  • a translation of that marriage certificate, provided by a translator certified by your local consulate.

The certificate and translation must be additionally verified by legal authorities in your own country and those at the local consulate, a process known as apostille. This process varies from country to country and can involve paying for official translation or other additional costs.

Keep in mind that if you had a destination wedding abroad, your certificate, translation and apostille certification must come from that country, not where you reside.

READ ALSO: Eight of the most common mistakes when applying for Italian citizenship

Certain European countries are exempt from the apostille requirement. You should check with your local consulate to be sure of local requirements.

If you have a legally recognized civil partnership, these same processes will apply.

The consulate should take these documents and forward them to the correct municipality — the one your spouse included in their AIRE registration — to create a record there. But you may want to check, as having a local record in Italy is important later on.

You'll need to gather a number of documents in order to apply for Italian citizenship by ancestry.

You’ll need to gather a number of documents in order to apply for Italian citizenship. Photo by Romain Dancre on Unsplash

Step 2: Wait – and learn Italian

You’ll need to wait a while before you will be eligible to apply for citizenship. In the case of couples not resident in Italy, you need to be married a minimum of three years before starting your application.

This time is reduced to 1.5 years if you have children (either biological or adopted).

In the meantime, you might want to take the opportunity to brush up on your Italian, which you will need to secure your citizenship. Since 2018, it has been a requirement that those applying for Italian citizenship by marriage can meet the B1 standard of Italian or higher.

TEST: Is your Italian good enough for citizenship?

When you think you’ve reached this level, you will need to take a test to certify it.

For the purposes of citizenship applications, only certificates from private or public institutions recognized by the local consulate will be accepted. Contact your consulate for a list of eligible testing centers before booking a test.

Step 3: Prepare your documents

Once you have an account, you can begin uploading the documents necessary for your application. It’s a long list, but some you will already have from registering your marriage. Here’s what you need:

  • An original, full-length birth certificate that was issued no more than six months previously
  • An original criminal record report from every country you have lived in, going back to age 14 — you may also need to have these signed by a local police official.
  • A copy of your passport or identity document
  • Proof of address and/or residency (if you are not a national of the country where you reside)
  • A copy of your full marriage certificate, issued from the Italian municipality where it has been registered, and no more than six months old
  • Your proof of Italian proficiency to B1 level from a recognized language school
  • Proof of payment of a €250 fee to the Italian interior ministry (paid online via the ministry’s online portal — see below)

Any legal documents not in Italian — meaning, at least, your birth certificate and criminal record — must be translated into Italian by a certified translator and additionally certified apostille, as you did with your marriage certificate.

Once you have all those documents ready and your minimum time has elapsed, you can finally proceed to the application.

Step 4: Register and upload your documents

You need to apply for citizenship via the consulate in the country where your Italian spouse is registered with AIRE, and where you are a long-term resident. You’ll also need to be cohabiting with your spouse at the time, or able to provide documentation explaining why you aren’t.

To start the process, you will need to register with the interior ministry’s online portal. If you have a SPID you can use that to log in — otherwise, you can register for an account with your email.

Keep in mind this is the email they will use for all correspondence during your application.

Next, you’ll upload digital copies of all your documents and certifications, and pay your €250 fee. Make sure all the data you enter in the online form matches your documents exactly.

READ ALSO: Will Italian citizenship mean I have to pay tax in Italy?

You will also need to specify any children from previous relationships, and all addresses going back to when you were 14 years old. There can be no gaps.

After you submit, you will need to wait for the consulate to check that everything is in order. If your application is accepted, you will be invited to submit originals of all your documents to the consulate, including your passport, which will eventually be returned to you.

The details of the process for the document check, and other aspects of the citizenship application process, can vary by consulate.

Step 6: Wait again

The application process can take up to three years to be completed, though the authorities are supposed to try and complete their assessment within 24 months. 

If your application is successful, the interior ministry will send your local consulate a ‘citizenship decree’ that will authorize you to take the oath of citizenship. But hold on — you aren’t done yet.

Before you take the oath, you will need to be able to confirm, with a newly issued marriage certificate obtained from an Italian municipality after the date of the decree, that you are still married to your Italian spouse.

You will also need an updated criminal record check, translated and apostilled, to show you haven’t committed any major crimes while your application made its way through the system.

Lastly, you’ll pay any outstanding fees.

Step 7: Take the oath

Finally, after those final checks, you’ll be invited to take the oath of citizenship, which reads: Giuro di essere fedele alla Repubblica e di osservare la Costituzione e le leggi dello stato — “I swear to be faithful to the Republic and observe the Constitution and the laws of the state.”

From the moment you’ve taken the oath you are officially an Italian citizen, and you can apply for your Italian passport the next day.