Bill Cellini Jr. is a true blue expert in Italian ancestry. For about thirty years, he has been holding seminars and workshops across the United States, to teach Italian-Americans how to trace back to their roots.
Between 1876 and 1930, out of the 5 million migrants who embarked from Italy to the U.S., 80 % came from Southern Italy, mainly from Calabria, Campania, Abruzzo, Molise, and Sicily. Their perilous journey towards a land that promised a better future was motivated by sheer necessity.
Once they landed on the new continent, Italians became the largest segment of immigrant population to work in the mines. Cellini’s grandparents were no exception. In the early 1900s, they emigrated from Abruzzo to the U.S and, eventually, ended up working as coalminers in Illinois.
Bill Cellini Jr. has taken it upon himself to give everyone who feels the intellectual and emotional necessity to reconnect with their Italian origins, the necessary tools to navigate among a deluge of immigration records, ship manifests, Italian civil and church documents.
Next October, Bill is giving his next workshop at the Italian Cultural Institute in L.A. Put a mark on your calendar and sign up for a class that might change your own life perspective and even make you find out about relatives whom you didn’t know existed.
Italian ancestry expert Bill Cellini Jr.
Could you tell us more about your family history?
I descend from a family who, about a century ago, emigrated to the US from Abruzzo. They passed through Ellis Island - like the vast majority of immigrants did up until 1954 - before settling in Massachusetts. From there, they moved again towards the Midwest, specifically in Illinois.
My grandparents worked as coalminers, because that State up until the mid-1920s relied heavily on coalmining. The vast majority of labor was made up of European immigrants, particularly Czech, Lithuanian, Hungarian and, of course, Italian.
How did you develop your interest in genealogy as a profession?
As far as my background, I studied American History in college where I also earned teaching credentials for the public school system. Then, I did graduate work towards a Masters in teaching history.
I consider Italian genealogy a passion I developed, but not as my main profession. It’s a precious skill set, which I enjoy giving back, almost as an offering, to the Italian-American community.
The class I’ve been giving in different venues across the US, started as my personal interest in investigating my roots. What started as simple questions asked to my relatives, about thirty years ago, evolved into several trips to Italy, where I visited archives and interviewed people from my family’s villages.
I realized how there were and still are many Italian-Americans who simply don’t know where their families hailed from in Italy but they have a desire to learn. Over the years, I’ve been refining and perfecting a way to deliver my know-how to the people eager to trace back to their origins by giving them tools to begin a personal discovery.
What are the greatest challenges you’ve encountered in the course of your researches?
Believe it or not, I’ve encountered the greatest challenges in my fieldwork in Italy. What is challenging there is to obtain information from people.
If you ask someone about their connections to a family bearing a certain family name in a nearby town, they would answer you that they have no idea. That is the case, even if that individual lives a few kilometers away.
As an Italian-American, that is particularly challenging when you’re trying to trace out people with the same family name living in a specific area in Italy to connect them, or not, to your Italian-American family.
There are historical motivations to this widespread local pride, as life in Italy, at least up until WWII, was very insular. Back then, an Italian would grow up, live, work, get married, procreate and die, without ever stepping outside of their hometown.
In the US, a challenge that is getting more evident now, has to do with the younger Italian-American generations. Often times, not only they do not know from where in Italy their family hailed, they don’t even know their family name is Italian. By growing up in the States within Americanized families, subsequent generations marry non-Italians and the family connection to Italy is lost.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
The most rewarding aspect occurs when someone, wanting to know where their family comes from, takes the course and discovers all they need to know in order to travel back to Italy and find their relatives.
Sometimes, you don’t even need to travel outside the US. To give you an example from this past session at the Italian Cultural Institute in L.A., we discovered through U.S. records that a participant in the class had an uncle who emigrated to the United States, whom he didn’t know existed. The discovery also led to the confirmation of the family’s village in Italy. It was exciting!
Could you describe for us what to expect in one of your typical sessions at the Italian Cultural Institute - L.A.?
Participants are shown how to acquire genealogical records from their family’s town hall and parish and this is important if an Italian-American needs to trace their origins in Italy. I ensure each participant gains an understanding of how to properly request these vital records, too.
Another challenge to Italian genealogy is that many villages in Italy share similar names such as Castel del Monte, Castelluccio, Torre del, etc. Sometimes participants have their ancestor’s town name or just the province name, or nothing at all. I do my best to help participants acquire a basic knowledge of Italian geography and guide them to discover their family’s comune where more information often awaits them.
Could you expand on the phenomenon of Italian-Americans who change their family names to make them more pronounceable?
Through my years of Italian-American research in the US, I found that a family name most often is changed via a combination of records. I’ve noticed how often times Italian-Americans did not change their family names on purpose but rather, employers had their employees’ surnames misspelled, or civil records were in error, or church records listed family names in error. I have also carefully studied surnames of Italian immigrants registered on ship manifests coming to the U.S. and surprisingly, the vast majority of surnames are spelled correctly.
However, I recognize there are some occurrences when Italians did change their family names. In those cases, the genealogists’ tasks become very difficult.
A fundamental lesson to keep in mind is to always start with what you know, with the more recent information available in the US, before taking a trip to Italy. Try to discover when and why they changed their family names. In some cases, it is something totally feasible.
You regularly give a seminar at the Newberry Independent Research Library in Chicago. Do you follow the same format there, as the one you employed at the workshop in L.A.?
I teach at the Newberry regularly. In fact, my next two-day seminar will be this upcoming June 29th and July 6th.
The format is the same, but I tailor our seminars according to the demographic features of the people in attendance. For example, in Chicago, there is a prevalence of Italian-American families from Lucca (Tuscany), as well as others from Sicily.
That is not to say, that there are not families of Sicilian and Tuscan descent in the Los Angeles area, but here there is more a mix of Italian-Americans descending from different regions in Italy, partly because North Americans themselves living in California, come from all over the United States.
You’re a member of the Italian American Studies Association. How does that operate? Do you gather periodically?
The Italian American Studies Association, whose headquarters are at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute in New York City, is composed chiefly of academics focused on the topic of Italian-American history. A large part of their study focus deals with the question of the so-called “Italian diaspora,” particularly how this phenomenon has affected Italy as a country.
The Association holds an annual symposium – that, this year, is going to take place at the University of Calabria (UNICAL), Arcavacata di Rende (province of Cosenza, Italy) from June 15th to the 18th – and a yearly conference – that is going to be held in Washington DC from November 2nd to the 4th, 2017.
In the future, I would really like to offer a presentation to the Association.