Blood Uncles

Photo: Accidental Altars Series by Monica Berini

If you have a parent, grandparent, great grandparent, or even great-great grandparent who was born in Italy, it is possible, under some very strict guidelines, to get Italian citizenship. Many Italian-Americans (and people of Italian descent whose ancestors settled in other parts of the world) have taken advantage of this. I qualify and have long considered doing it. There is a beauty to this offering from a young nation state, which lost many of its people, particularly from the south, in the late 19th and early to mid-20th century due to massive inequality, land loss, hunger, and poverty that had them fleeing. Though I am only part Italian, do not speak fluent Italian, and have not been to Italy since I was a kid and last went back with my grandparents to visit family, I could still get a passport as a full citizen. Many of us who qualify for this are racialized as white.

If you are born in Italy to parents who immigrated there from another country, you grew up in Italy. You are Italian. You speak Italian, were raised in Italian schools, were acculturated as Italian, but you do not get full citizenship automatically. When you turn 18 you are not considered a citizen. There is an application process.. You are not be able to come and go or to have full rights in your country. You have to show your papers, which you have to have on you at all times. Many of the millions of people in this situation are Black and/or of African descent, and many are also Asian, Pacific Islander, Eastern European, or South American.

Italian-America is a complex place. My goal is not to get deep into those myriad complexities in this piece (but oh let’s have coffee and get into it sometime please!), but in general, here is what I mean: a mix of resentment at the stereotypes we face even as we often are the first to play them up; the massive and fairly quick assimilation from us being perceived as anarchists, communists, and overall disease-ridden dirtbags who had a special designation given to them on the ‘race’ line of immigration forms to a situation where many of our uncles are anti-immigrant trump-era republican party fascist adjacent stalwarts; and finally, the massive loss that went with those choices of what surely felt like survival and escape, which is a tragedy that we are currently reckoning with in many parts of the community.

Some of us are in our spaghetti return (h/t to my beloved MACARONIS Riot cummari), and we are taking on our uncles.

Some of us may be the uncles.

Among those of us on the left, and among those who may say they “aren’t political” but who are culturally oriented towards a more open-minded reclamation of ancestry, I see the word ‘blood’ being used more and more to assure fellow Italian-Americans that we do belong, that we can claim our heritage, that the losses our families experienced is real and that, though fossilized like many diaspora immigrant communities, our experiences growing up are and were rooted in something important. I have found great comfort and meaning in exploring and reconnecting to my own familial histories, placing myself in the larger context of the world and its empires, migrations, power imbalances, and shifts. It has rooted me to similar movements that people are going though right now, and rooted me in knowing my place in the world, in challenging whiteness, in history, and in the present. It has offered me clear points of solidarity with people on this land who come from very different backgrounds, who were colonized in places of origin or where they are now, whose people were enslaved, and/or whose people were abject settlers. Coming from 20th century mass immigration to the US makes me not quite any of those things, but it makes me some of those things, and it allows context for how it can all fit together, and how we can all work together to try to make the world better, now, for all people (which, while I’m here, 100% includes justice and reparations for those who were enslaved and those who experienced genocide).

Back to this idea of blood. It is built into the name of the way that some of us can get Italian citizenship—jus sanguinis, meaning right of blood. If we have the ‘blood’ via our paternal line, if certain dates of who naturalized when are met, if we can find the original documents, if we can manage to get that elusive appointment at the nearest consulate, we can get an Italian passport. As I mentioned, a majority of Italian-Americans are white (yes, for those of us from the south, our ancestors were not considered white upon arrival, but that does not mean we are not white today…it can allow us to start to deconstruct and examine the structures of whiteness, and the bull around whiteness as an identity, but it does not mean we get to show up to non-white spaces and start Dolezal-ing out, please oh my god please no, and thank you).

My fellow Italian-Americans, to pretend our grandparents being racialized as ‘southern italian’ on papers back in the day makes us not white today is to not fully engage with the country we are in now, and specifically the realities for Black and Indigenous people. I’ve heard us called spicy white, and growing up we (my family of Italians and Eastern Europeans) were often called ‘ethnic whites’, which in its banality can also allow for a complexity of thought around race as a shifting construction if one digs, maybe).

But white people talking about blood has also been incredibly dangerous. It is a word that is part of the playbook of fascism, of an idea of purity, of slogans that lead to a path of rejection of others, of persecution of others, and of genocide of ‘other’, those with some perceived different blood.

Italian-Americans are white, but not all Italians are white. The country of Italy is multicultural, multi-religious, and racially diverse, and not all Italians are white, though the current politics of Italy do not reflect or respect this reality. As I write this, the current government of Italy is a fascist one, and they are amping up tourism as a way to bring more money in to the country, at the same time that they are cutting social services for people (something for those of us who visit as tourists, even tourists with ‘blood’, should be aware of). They are unlikely to budge on allowing automatic citizenship for Italians whose parents were immigrants. They are also unlikely to assist neighbors who arrive on boats over the Mediterranean needing help of the most literal, life-giving kind.

As Italian-Americans, we need to be aware of this as we travel back and forth, as we potentially become citizens and have a chance to vote or live there. We need to be broad minded in how we see the Italy of today. It doesn’t mean rejecting the Italian-America we grew up in – that is real and that is ours and that has meaning. It doesn’t mean accepting the taunts of Italian-Italians, particularly online, that we are fake because our people left (forgetting that our people also sent money back so they could eat).

It does mean walking thoughtfully, and speaking carefully. It does mean talking to one another, and navigating these questions together, maybe slowly, and with a willingness to change our minds if need be. It does mean being cautious about saying blood makes you automatically be something and automatically fit in somewhere. That path of thinking can be fine, for a while, but that way can also lead to terrible, terrible places. Let’s use our experiences and privilege to connect us to the fullness of the human experience, and to the relationships others have, have had, and are having with Italy, too, ‘blood’ or not.



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