Genealogy undoubtedly is an important part of how a big number of Italian Americans relate to their Italian roots. As time goes by, the distance between today and the mass migration era between XIX and XX century grows bigger and bigger. This means that grandparents and parents are leaving this earth, the memories of those who are still with us become more important than ever, data are difficult to find, and the new generations are often asking about the story of the arrival of their ancestors to the US. When did they come? Where did they come from? Why did they choose to leave their country? Who were they? How did they come to the US?
America is a land of immigrants, so this is big not only among the Italian Americans. That's why PBS has a tv show dedicated to this topic, and one of the hosts of the show is Italian. We thank Mary Tedesco for being the guest of our new interview, and for helping dozens of Italian Americans to reconnect their life with their Italian roots.
Mary, given that we will speak about genealogy, our first question is obviously about you and your origins, which I'm curious about even because your family name in Italian means ... "German"! What's the story of your family?
Ironically, my mother is part German! My father, the Tedesco by surname, is 100% Italian. I'm a second generation Italian American. My last name Tedesco originates from a small town in Calabria called San Pietro a Maida. My grandfather came to the United States in 1929 as a young boy; my grandmother was born in Rovereto, in Trentino Alto Adige and she arrived in the United States in 1946. My grandparents met in Rome during World War II, when my grandfather was stationed there as an American GI. I also have some Tuscan ancestry from my grand-grandmother who was born in Sarteano and of course we still have family in Rome and in Calabria. I feel very connected to them and I visit them as often as I can.
You are the host / Genealogist on the PBS TV series "Genealogy Roadshow" (season 2) as well as the founder of Origins Italy. Please tell us something about your activity
"Genealogy Roadshow" is a PBS TV series that captures the best of America, which is our diverse cultural heritage. I'm privileged to be one of the three hosts on the show and also part of the research process. The show captures the diversity of the ethnic groups in America, including a couple of Italian American stories in season two. All of the episodes of "Genealogy Roadshow" are available on the iTunes store.
My company ORIGINS ITALY is research firm specializing in Italian and Italian American genealogical research. A component of our business is conducting on-site research in Italy; we specialize in obtaining records not accessible online or from the United States. We love connecting families to their unique Italian heritage, rediscovering, and preserving their stories for generations to come.
You also are the co-author of "Tracing Your Italian Ancestors", an 84-page Italian research guide published by Moorshead Magazines. Which is the most common question you are asked, as a genealogist, by those Italians who come to you to do research about their families?
The number one question is probably "where can I find Italian records that I need to research my family history?" This topic, along with many others, is covered extensively in "Tracing Your Italian Ancestors."
A great place to start your Italian genealogy research is on www.familysearch.org. They have an unrivaled collection of Italian records online and on microfilm.
Which sources do you use here in Italy?
In Italy, I conduct genealogical research using every record type you can think of: church records, civil records, land records, cemetery records, school records, notary records, and so many others. We consult every resource necessary to accomplish the client's objectives.
Preserving the privacy of everyone, can you tell us an anecdote, something curious or peculiar that happened while you were doing a genealogy research in Italy?
Of course, so many stories, Umberto, I have to tell you! Here is one.
Let me start the story saying that this conversation was in Italian. One time, a gentleman thought that since I was from America, that I would not be able to read Italian, and therefore would not to be able to read any of the Italian records. On the contrary, of course, I do speak (and read) Italian. So, after I politely explained that reading Italian records was actually what I do all day, every day, he was quite surprised. After that the gentleman referred to me as l'italoamericana or the Italian American. This is my favorite.
Which part of Italy do you research most?
Our client genealogical research projects take place anywhere and everywhere in Italy. One research trip in particular started in Genova and finished in Palermo. Of course, there's a concentration in Southern Italy for many Italian Americans clients, but in reality our clients' come from all backgrounds in Italy.
Why do the Italian Americans have such a huge interest in going back to their roots? Did you make up your mind to the reasons?
That's an excellent question. I believe that many Italian Americans are losing their connections with Italy: meaning that their Italian born parents or grandparents are now gone. So, as Italian Americans they're seeking to reclaim the emotional link. Researching Italian family history is a fantastic way to begin reconnecting with your Italian roots.
Do other ethnic groups, like Polish Americans or Irish Americans, do the same? Is there a difference between those groups and the Italian Americans?
What I think is that each ethnic group has a unique connection to their roots. It's different for everyone. For Italian Americans specifically, I think a lot has to do with family in connection to our ancestral towns, something that our parents and grandparents really treasured. For the other ethnic groups it's a combination of so many reasons. For many, it could include family and other special connections to heritage to tradition.
What could Italy do to facilitate this kind of link between its sons and daughters away to their loved family homeland?
It would be exciting to see Italian towns designate a week annually for "their" Italians all over the world to return and embrace their roots and celebrate their connections to their Italian ancestral towns. I know some towns in Italy do this informally around their annual feast in the summer.
Personally, returning to my roots in Italy changed the course of my life, and helped me to become interested in Italian genealogy.
When did it happen?
When I was 16 I took my first trip to Italy. We went to Rome and visited the Tedesco cousins for the first time. At that time I didn't speak more than three words of the Italian. That experience inspired me to learn Italian language and planted the seeds for my journey with Italian family history that would change the course of my life forever and lead to my career as the professional Italian genealogist.
The language is important, right?
The Italian language to me is very important. My cousins in Rome don't speak English, so if I didn't speak Italian I wouldn't have the kind of wonderful and close relationship I do have with them. It's a privilege to be able to maintain this relationship and this connection with my Italian roots and with my Italian family. Family is everything to me; it really is!
I'm always amazed about the strength of the love and passion the Italian Americans have towards Italy: I live in Rome and let me tell you, such passion is rare to be found here, unfortunately, nowadays. To be honest, frequently it's quite the opposite of what happens among the Italian Americans. Now, of course they live in the US, and maybe some of them have an idea of Italy which is not exactly always updated with what happens today. But, in your opinion, is that it, or maybe there's more? Do Italians have to go away, to appreciate their country?
Well, obviously I can't speak for everyone in the Italian American community. On a personal level, what I can say is that our families think of Italy in a very nostalgic and positive way. Of course, we've been back to Italy many, many times since my grandparents emigrated, but there's a feeling of nostalgia, just a sense of home in Italy that is only matched by people who left.
I know it's difficult to explain, because I'm not the immigrant, my grandparents were. My grandfather thinks of Italy in such a wonderful way; here he demonstrates respect for his hometown. He was born in San Pietro a Maida, and for him no other Italian town could be better than San Pietro a Maida. San Pietro has a special place in his heart, and for someone who immigrated from Italy many, many years ago. According to our family, it's the best town in Italy. Everything began in San Pietro a Maida.
Please help us giving a hint every one of our readers who is interested in starting the research of his/her Italian ancestors. Where and how can they start? I mean, at the beginning maybe not contacting an expert but then also how they can reach you or how they can come to you with already something concrete.
I publish information regularly on Italian genealogical research topics and how to get started with genealogy on the ORIGINS ITALY website, at www.originsitaly.com. Everyone is also welcome to sign-up for the ORIGINS ITALY mailing list. There's also information about starting your Italian genealogical journey in "Tracing Your Italian Ancestors" (Moorshead Magazines, 2015). I would like to wish everyone the best of success in tracing their Italian roots.
What if I'm an Italian American who discovers all of the sudden that I've never tried to understand what it really was about, and then for one reason I want to start ... I mean, before to come to you, what do I do? Do I talk to my parents or to my grandma or grandpa? What else?
I always recommend that people start genealogical research at home. What documents, what family papers do you have? Do you have an old birth certificate from your grandmother, or something similar? A lot of the home sources hold the keys to the initial Italian genealogical questions like "What is my ancestral town in Italy?"
The other thing I recommend is to interview relatives of the older generations, especially folks who may have been born in Italy or are very closely connected to a grandparent or a great-grandparent who was born in Italy. Ask them to tell you their stories, the stories about your ancestor town and other details about Italy. This is a fantastic way to start.
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