Several years ago I began digging for genealogy clues about my Italian great grandparents. They, like millions of others who emigrated from Southern Italy in the late 1800's and early 1900's, left their homeland with few possessions. Birth records, photographic details and even names of birth towns weren't fully known to our family until recently. But thankfully my genealogy dig has yielded not only clues, but facts about the people in my Italian family tree. In the last few years I've found birth documents, marriage records, military records, hometowns and ship manifests. I have also had the luxury of being able to visit several of my ancestral towns, both in Campania and Calabria.
Since the summer of 2015 I have learned - through trial-by-fire, how to locate historical information on both sides of the Atlantic. I feel extraordinarily accomplished in my feat and equally grateful to all the people who helped me. I did not do this alone.
This blog post is my attempt at chronically big wins and significant challenges. I did not keep a written journal during this time period but I should have done so. Some of the details of what was accomplished are fuzzy. Fortunately I saved emails, scanned correspondences and posted photos and videos of my of family finds on Instagram. This post is selfishly more for me than anyone reading. Other than friends and family, I doubt anyone else will be interested.
In 2015, while studying at a language school in Assisi, Italy, I met an Italian man and Polish woman in a wine bar. Manolo, Paulina and I made fast friends. In a matter of a week, Manolo and Paulina agreed to accompany me on a road trip to a small 6 by 4 mile long island off the coast of Naples to dig for clues about my Italian born ancestors, specifically, my great grandfather Franceso Paolo Iacono.
Armed with a seed of information from my septuagenarian great aunt, and clues from my sister, we traveled to the famous green island of Ischia via car (macchina) and ferry (traghetto).
We arrived in Ischia Porto in late summer. We were all filled with uncertainty, excitement and one pressing goal. All we needed to do was to find and procure the original birth record of my great grandfather, Francesco Paolo Iacono. My new friends had major doubts about what, if anything, we would find. Truth be told, I was doubtful as well.
Would we be granted any kind of access to birth records at the local town offices?
Would we have enough time on our spur of the moment adventure trip to locate anything substantial?
Would we find any clues about Francesco's life on the island?
To my travel mates, the quest for Francesco's birth record seemed impossible. However, the can-do American spirit in me knew it was possible. I refused to give up hope before we'd even begun.
Once settled in on the island we wasted zero time asking locals for help and questioning them about the Iacono last name. As a matter of fact, until this trip to Ischia (my first of many), I thought our family name was pronounced "EYE UH CONO". However, according to the islanders, I learned our family name is pronounced "YACK A NO".
My Italian acquaintances, now friends, Manolo, and his fiance', Paulina, helped me compile a family tree based on the knowledge I already had from family records and lore. Armed with a scribbled family tree on scrap paper and his language skills we made our first visit to the Comune in Forio. Think of the comune as the town hall, a place where records of births, deaths and marriages are kept. It's been a couple years now and I can't remember exactly how our first visit went, but I recall being filled with excitement and nerves walking into the building. As we all waited our turn for service we passed the time taking pictures and being silly with one another. In retrospect we probably looked like idiots but I know none of us cared. After a while we had the chance to present our needs to a mature man behind the glass window. He looked familiar to me. His face was warm, welcoming, like an uncle I wish I had or a long lost Italian family friend.
The man who stepped forward to help us is named Leonardo, pictured here with me at the Comune in Forio on a second trip we made in the fall of 2015. Leonardo understood my desire to connect with my past. Although I spoke only limited Italian at the time, we communicated with each other in the way Italians do, with eyes, gestures and body language. In short, he got me. He saw the passion for my past in my eyes. And thanks to my friends who speak Italian, he understood exactly what I was looking for.
In a short time, I forget the actual time frame, he located and produced my great grandfather's birth record. As I recall now, several years later, he smiling with delight as he watched me shake and sputter joyful comments at the sight of those two beautiful Italian pages. During my second trip to Ischia, we returned to the Comune in Forio to obtain my great grandmother's birth record. After Leonardo found Regina Folgia's record he told me we share an ancestral name, Migliaccio. I recall him saying his grandmother was a Migliacco. My great great grandmother was also a Migliaccio, and based on generology infromation I recently obtained from my relative, Len Iacono, apparently there were scores of Migliaccio's in my family line. I don't have hard evidence now, but I really feel like Leonardo and I are related.
On September 1, 2015, the day that lives in genealogy success history, the impossible became possible. Holding my great grandfather, Francesco's, birth certificate (below) in my hand was exhilarating. I remember calling my father on WhatsApp and sharing the good news with him. I knew in my heart at the time his birth record would be life-changing for me.
The rest of my story has not been written yet, but I am certain I will return to Ischia.