How did someone with a name so completely Celtic as Colleen McGuire come to possess an Italian passport?
My mother’s parents immigrated to America from a little village in Italy, in the exact center of the country, in the region known as Abruzzi. My grandfather did not become a U.S. citizen until after his daughter was born (1924) which in Italy’s eyes made my Chicago-born mother a de facto Italian national from birth. As if to convey a poetic confirmation of her roots, my grandparents named her Ora Lora Spadafora. Say it three times and you just might start to levitate.
Although Mom has never visited Italy, the circumstances of her birth trigger some loophole in Italian law that permits her children to become legal Italians. My sister and I applied for citizenship through the Italian Consulate in New York City, a process which required the seemingly unattainable production of seemingly extinct documents, such as Grandpa’s 1886 birth certificate and our grandparents’ marriage certificate.
After two years of de rigeur Italian bureaucracy (lost files, documents confused, mistaken instructions to re-apply at the Boston and Chicago Consulates), I finally received an Italian passport on Valentines Day, 2005. Italian citizenship means I am also a European citizen and this coveted status allows me to live and work legally in Greece. It’s been quite useful having a US and European passport, but I’ll save those capers for another story.
Although Mom’s father Oreste was born in Abruzzi, his father immigrated north from a Sicilian town called Spadafora which means “swords out.” Family lore has it that the Spadaforas were guards of the principality, although I wonder if this is just an Old World euphemism for Mafia connections.
Sicily was an historically prominent colony of ancient Greece, as evident by the glorious ruins abounding in Siracusa, Taormina and other Greco settlements. Mighty King Agamemnon who launched the Trojan War had a son named Orestes. These two factors (Grandpa’s Sicilian origins and his storied first name), although scanty evidence by my lawyerly standards, compel contemporary Greeks to insist that I am Greek, too. I am content to let that myth float . . .
I was the first to return to Italy, in 1974, to the little village of Corfinio in Abruzzi where Oreste and his wife Francesca Colella were born and married, but died an ocean away. Grandpa lived to be 100 years old, yet once he settled in the New World he never returned to his homeland. We still had lots of famiglia in Corfinio, including Grandpa’s nephew, Alfredo Trippitelli.
My most vivid memories of my first visit surround the meals and eating. Hand-rolled pasta in a multitude of crazy shapes and colorful names. Spaghetti sauce, not from a jar, but from hand-squashed shiny red tomatos. Wine from grapes grown on the backyard vine. My relatives incessantly commanded me to “eat, eat” in their Abruzzesa dialect,“man-yia, man-yia.” (The correct Italian pronounciation is “man-jah”). Unaccustomed to the volumes of food served, early on I threw up, prompting Fiorangello (“Little Flower”) weighing in at 300 pounds, to heartily remark, “Bene. Now you can eat more” as if he were a manager at one of those ancient Roman vomitorium.
Over three decades passed before I returned to Corfinio in the summer of 2006, this time with my sister Cat. We still seem to be related to half the town. Villagers approached us detailing the bloodlines that tied us to them. Everyone seemed to know our business, where we were staying (at Achille Colella’s self-built hotel) and when we were returning to Roma (about 2 hours drive away). One of the things that intrigued me most this time was the history of the town itself.
During the Roman Empire Corfinio was known as Corfinium. Tiburtina Road (which still exists in Rome today) passed straight through Corfinium, beginning in Roma and ending at the Adriatic. It was the east-west version of the Appian Way which runs north-south. Remnants of the ancient wall lining the Via Tiburtina still tower in Corfinio over 2000 years later.
A number of tribes in this region united under the name “Italics” to challenge Rome’s authority and domination. The capital of the Italics was Corfinium and money was minted in Corfinium. The name on the coins was “Italia.” Corfinio’s modern residents proudly assert that these coins were the first known reference to the word Italy. Later in Rome, we asked a professional tour guide, an archaeologist, the origin of the word Italy. Unconvincingly, she replied, “It’s always been this name.”
Eventually, the Romans overthrew the Italic peoples and Corfinium’s name was changed to Pentima (accent on first syllable), perhaps standing for repent. The town’s name remained as Pentima for almost 2000 years until 1928 when Mussolini, enamored with resurrecting Italy’s ancient glory, changed the name to Corfinio. My sister and I spied a public water tap with “Pentima” written on it which is how our Nana used to refer to her hometown.
What a lark that I wound up living in Greece instead of Italy. No matter. When Greeks and Italians encounter each other, they fondly proclaim, “Una Fatsa Una Ratsa,” (one face, one race) which means they come from the same stock. Honestly, I feel at home in either land.