We have often been told that America is a country of immigrants, and this immigration lawyer would agree. Although it is commonly taught that we began as children of the May-flower, and became a true nation when the Founders wrote some outrageous, courageous and dangerous documents that sealed our independence and our continuity as a united people, I also think that it’s legitimate to point to those epochal moments in our history when the gates opened and welcomed foreigners, as in the mid-19th century with the Irish, and the late to early 20th century with southern Europeans. Immigration is a controversial issue these days, but I feel safe in stating that most Americans are proud of our multicultural, multiracial, multilingual heritage.
Italians form a substantial percentage of that heritage. Readers of this column likely have some linkage to il bel paese, either through blood, marriage or affinity, and the love for Italy permeates our lives and our traditions. But in addition to third- and fourth-generation Italians like myself, who see the ancestral country as a distant yet beloved memory, America is home to many Italian citizens who have chosen to live outside of the peninsula.
As an immigration lawyer, I have been privileged to meet many of them, particularly since I work for another immigration attorney, Joseph Rollo, who made that journey from Sicily to the United States over 45 years ago. His love for his native country is manifested in the decorations in our office, including classical busts of Caesar Augustus and posters of his hometown in provincial di Siracusa, as well as the sign which says “Si Parla Italiano Qui.” I’ve encountered a number of people who are very happy to live in the Delaware Valley, but who still maintain Italian passports.
And that’s where the Comites comes in. “Comites” stands for “Comitato Degli Italiani all’Estero,” or Committee for Italians Living Abroad. There are Comites on most of world’s continents, because the Italian diaspora is one of the most expansive and wide-reaching. The Comites is charged with providing a bridge between the Italian government, and Italian citizens who find themselves
for work or family reasons living abroad. It provides services that are quite different from those provided by the Italian Consulates in various cities around the world, including an important one in Philadelphia. Whereas the Consulate is primarily concerned with administrative issues like issuing passports, diplomatic concerns and is the official representative of the Italian government, the Comites is more intimately involved in the lives of the people it serves. I am currently a member of the Comites as a “co-optata,” which can be translated roughly as an associate member. Because I am not an Italian citizen, I am not eligible to be a full member of the council, but I think that it is important to recognize how exceptional it is that even non-citizens who nonetheless have deep Italian ancestral roots are considered valuable members of the larger diaspora. The Comites has historically provided information about pensions, about insurance issues, about employment, about health care and a whole host of other things that would be outside of the purview of the Consulate but which impact Italian citizens living abroad.
I remember one initiative, almost 20 years ago, when the Comites of Philadelphia provided free immigration services, helping elderly Italian green-card holders to become naturalized U.S. citizens. It was incredibly valuable, and made a significant impact on the local community.
Comites celebrates the beauty of the mother country’s history, music, art, film and of course cuisine. Most recently this past February, the Comites sponsored a Carnevale festival in Jenkintown, Pa., celebrating the “fascino” and majesty of one of the country’s most beloved traditions and holidays. Food, music, dancing, singing provided by the magnificent Grace Torna whose Instagram is @gracetornaa (and more food) were the hallmarks of an exceptional experience that will be the template for future events that celebrate what Comites President Judge Ralph Sposata is fond of calling “Italianita`.” Luisa Cilurzo, a member of the “Consigliere” of the Comites observed that “The Comites is trying to do outreach events to bring the community together. We plan to appeal to all generations and associations along with the Italian Consulate so that we can collaborate and better serve our community.” She went on to note that “the core mission of Comites is to use our traditions and celebrations, including Carnevale, to gather and connect. With this event, in the true spirit of Carnevale, we wanted to free ourselves from our daily obligations and duties and dedicate this celebration to fun, smiles, colors, masks, food and to simply be together.”
As the old quote says “once a year, it is legitimate to go a little crazy.” I think that sums up the heart, spirit, ethos and purpose of the Comites extremely well. It is an organization aimed at bringing laughter, comfort, enlightenment, joy, unity and a little bit of “pazzia” to the lives of those in the greater Italian community.
Among the participants was a representa-tive of the Italian Consulate Gaia Pecci, who remarked that she was pleased to see how the community was coming together in such a delightful and unifying moment. The Comites has been fortunate to have the full cooperation and collaboration of the Consulate, under the guidance of Consul General Cristiana Mele, as well as many of the local Italian civic associations who are incredibly active in not only the Delaware Valley but throughout the consular district which includes Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina as well as Pennsylvania.
You can learn more about ComItEs at comitesphila.org, checking out the Facebook and Instagram pages, consulting the social media account of the Italian Consulate General at https://consfiladelfia.esteri.it/consolato_filadelfia/en/ or by emailing the Comites at email@example.com
Christine Flowers was born in Baltimore and raised in Philadelphia. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and Villanova Law School, and has studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. She has been practicing immigration law, with a concentration in asylum and human rights work since 1995, and is a syndicated columnist for Cagle News, which publishes her weekly column nationwide. In her free time, she loves the Philadelphia Eagles, old movies, traveling, learning new languages and spending time with her nephew Alex and her two Black Labs Chance and Sophie.