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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How many people get Italian citizenship every year?

Thinking of applying to become Italian? Here's how many other people do it each year, where they come from and how they qualify.

How many people get Italian citizenship every year?

If you want to secure your future in Italy, acquiring citizenship can be the best way to go about it – but the route you go down will vary significantly depending on your personal circumstances.

READ ALSO: What’s the difference between Italian residency and citizenship?

Here’s what the most up-to-date information from Istat, Italy’s national statistics agency, says about who gains Italian citizenship, and how.

How many people get Italian citizenship each year?

A total of 121,457 people were granted Italian citizenship in 2021, the last year for which official data is available. 

That’s eight percent less than in 2020, and lower also than 2019 (127,001) and 2018 (112,523).

This may be partially down to delayed effects of the pandemic, given the lengthy application process and the amount of paperwork involved in Italian citizenship applications.

Where do most ‘new Italians’ come from?

In 2021, like most years before it, the vast majority of people acquiring citizenship came from outside the European Union: 109,600 or roughly 90 percent. That’s what you’d expect, since people with EU passports already enjoy most of the same rights in Italy as Italians and therefore have less incentive to apply for citizenship.

The highest number of successful applications came from Albanians (22,493), followed by Moroccans (16,588), Romanians (9,435), Brazilians (5,460), Bangladeshis (5,116), Indians (4,489), Pakistanis (4,410), Argentinians (3,669), Moldovans (3,633), and Egyptians (3,531).

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Italian passport if born in Italy?

Citizens of Albania and Morocco have consistently made up the top two since at least 2012, with as many as 36,920 Albanians and 35,212 Moroccans gaining Italian citizenship when claims were at their height in 2016.

People from the top three countries – Albania, Morocco, and Romania – accounted for 40 percent of all new Italian citizens in 2021.

Italian flag coloured smoke is pictured in the sky after Italian Air Force aerobatic unit Frecce Tricolori (Tricolor Arrows) flown over Rome to mark Repubblic Day on June 2, 2021.

Three countries of origin account for 40 percent of new Italian citizens. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP.

How do most people qualify for Italian citizenship?

In 2021, the most common way to acquire citizenship was either by descent (ius sanguinis, which allows those who can prove descent from at least one Italian ancestor to claim Italian citizenship), by birthplace (ius soli, which entitles people born and raised in Italy by non-Italian parents to claim Italian citizenship at age 18), or by parental transmission (the law that automatically transfers citizenship to the children of adults who acquire citizenship, provided they’re under 18 and living with them at the time).

Altogether 55,897 people qualified for Italian citizenship via one of these three routes in 2021, around 46 percent of the total.

Another 50,973 people (42 percent) qualified via residency in Italy, while 14,587 (12 percent) qualified by marriage to an Italian national.

Claims based on residency decreased by around 15,000 from the year before, while those based on birthplace/descent increased by a little over 4,000, and claims from spouses of Italian nationals remained broadly stable, increasingly by just over 500.

READ ALSO: How foreigners can get ‘fast track’ citizenship in Italy

In 2020 and 2021, citizenship requests via marriage were at their lowest in the past decade, down from 24,160 in 2018 and 17,026 in 2019.

That may reflect a change in the law in late 2018 that allowed the Italian state to take up to four years to process requests for citizenship via marriage, where previously they had to be answered within two years or automatically granted after this point.

The new rules also abolished automatic consent after the deadline, as well as introducing a language test for people applying via marriage or residency.

The number of new Italians acquiring their citizenship via marriage was at a ten-year low in 2020 and 2021. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

Where in Italy do most people get citizenship?

The region of Italy with the most successful citizenship claims in 2021 was Lombardy, which granted 29,438 requests – just over 24 percent of the total. The region has topped the list for several years, reflecting the large numbers of foreigners who move there for work or study. 

READ ALSO: How British nationals can claim Italian citizenship by descent

Other regions where high numbers of people gained citizenship were Emilia-Romagna (16,432; 13.5 percent), Veneto (13,229; 11 percent), Piedmont (11,653; 9.6 percent), and Tuscany (9,682; 8 percent). While Lazio, the region of Rome, has a high foreign-born population, just 8,895 people took Italian citizenship there.

The regions handing out the fewest new citizenships, meanwhile, were Sardinia (704), Molise (466), Valle d’Aosta (455), and Basilicata (351).

What else do we know about people who apply for citizenship in Italy?

There’s a fairly even gender balance – 49.6 percent of the total number of new citizens in 2021 were women, compared to 51.4 percent men – though women made up over 81 percent of those who acquired citizenship via marriage.

They’re also mainly young: the largest age group is under-20s, who accounted for 48,324 citizenships granted in 2021.

People aged 20-39 made up another 30,952, while 40 to 59-year-olds numbered 36,326. The number of people over 60 who acquired Italian citizenship was just 5,855.