The Executive Director, Francesco Guzzo had an opportunity to interview (COVID style) Arizona’s Honorary Consul, Avv. Roberta Gentili-Purcell so that we can all get to know more about her. Unfortunately due to Covid-19, public interactions are limited so we all look forward to the day when public appearances and attending special events resume so we get a chance to interact with her again. Until that time, we can learn more here:
- Can you tell us what brought you to AZ – you came from Italy to the US … tell us a little about yourself.
I moved to Arizona in November 2003, on Thanksgiving Day, to start my married life because my husband, also of Italian descent, was born and raised in Arizona.
At the time, I had completed my studies in law, passed the Italian bar, and had a great position with a major law firm with offices in Bergamo and Milan, Italy with a promising career ahead of me. It was great, but not enough for me as a person, and as a woman.
I first met my husband during law school in 1993, and when he proposed, one of the first big decisions of my life was: Italy or the US? We could have chosen both (my husband is an Irish citizen and speaks a very good Italian since his college days, thanks to ASU’s Italian program), and we settled on Arizona. It was a sacrifice for me, very challenging at times when I had to juggle college classes and small children, but I had a lot of help from my mother-in-law – an Italian business-woman who raised four children herself – and I never gave up my profession. Seventeen 17 years later I can tell you that hard work always pays off. America welcomed me with open arms, and for that, I am and will be forever grateful to this great country.
Some people may think that I had a lot of courage but let me tell you a true story about real courage.
During my wedding reception at my family’s villa in Italy, one of my mother’s dear friends approached me to tell me that she thought that I was very courageous because I was leaving my family, my job, and all my friends to move to the US. Near me was Milan Goldschmidt, a long-time family friend who heard these words and started to laugh saying in a loud voice: “Ma che coraggio e coraggio! Guardali: sono belli, giovani, hanno entrambi una professione e vanno in America! In America, capisci?”. Milan was a Jewish artist who escaped the communist regime when he was 21 years old by jumping on a train headed west in the middle of the night, leaving behind all that he knew, and had, in his hometown of Zagreb, Yugoslavia. He arrived in Milan, Italy in 1952 where he started a career in arts and design and became a very influential and successful art director, painter, and sculptor, in addition to creating a beautiful family.
Since that moment, I have a deep awareness of what courage truly is, and how blessed I am. In my view, having received so much from life for no particular reason other than God’s generosity, the least that I can do is to give back to Italy, who educated me, and to America, who provided me with opportunities: and what better chance do I have than in my role as Honorary Consul?
One last thing: Milan gifted me a painting which is hanged in my bedroom. Every time I look at it, I think of that comment because it taught me to put things in perspective, and never to overestimate myself and my achievements.
2. What prompted you to want to be the next Honorary Consul in AZ?
Before we get into the “what”, let me tell you something more about myself.
I was born in Bergamo, Italy, and was raised in a Catholic family. Coming from this type of background and traditions, you are taught early on, not through words but through silent examples, certain values that are within you and grow with you.
I am the last of three children. My father is a “pseudo-retiree” – at 83 he is a bubbly, energetic man full of projects and ideas which he developed after he retired from his career in an executive position held in the Italian government, at the county level, and still serves as the executive director of another public entity; my mother is his opposite, a very private housewife. Nonetheless, they both always had a deep sense of care for others that manifested itself in their own ways according to a belief that I summarize as follows: if God puts you in the condition of being able to help others, then you have a duty to do it. My father entered politics at 27 and has served as the Mayor in my small town for 29 years followed by other positions always held at local and county level (where the troubles you face for getting involved are 100 times bigger than the glory you might not even get, at times.) My mother for many years opened our big house to less fortunate children who were headed to or transitioned between foster care/adoption/mental institutes. She simply thought that a family environment was much better than an award, and for the last child that was with us, that meant 20 years together.
Getting back to me, I saw a need in the Italian community and felt that I could make myself available to help. I greatly enjoy being a mother and love my profession; being self-employed gives me financial independence and a lot of flexibility, so I thought that, perhaps, due to my professional background and familiarity with many (but not all, of course) consular procedures, the learning curve for me would have been not as steep, which means I could be effective since day one, and handle the role without too much anxiety.
I made that decision by myself, in total freedom, and then asked my family if they agreed that I would submit my candidacy because their support is essential to me. I kept this very quiet and spoke to nobody about it because, just like I made my decision in total freedom, I wanted that the same privilege to be extended to the government representatives in charge of choosing who the next Honorary Consul of Arizona would be after Dr. Massimo Paolillo, who by the way served the Italian community of Arizona very well.
I believe that, because this a position in which you are appointed, and not elected, it is very important to be and to appear independent. Cooperative and respectful with everybody, but independent.
Since my appointment in June 2019, I met a lot of people, and I have truly enjoyed learning about each of them as they come to the Consulate for their needs.
3. Given the importance of this position, what are some of the primary duties of the Honorary Consul?
My duties are primarily to provide the direct, local assistance needed here in Arizona in case of an emergency (typically, an accident) involving Italian nationals or when it’s most expedient to facilitate a process that is otherwise directed elsewhere and yet involves either residents of Arizona headed to Italy or Italian nationals headed to Arizona whom I am tasked to assist with preliminary information, consular documents, etc. So far this happened for a very rare and unique medical reason.
Beyond the extraordinary activity described above, there is the ordinary assistance which consists primarily in providing punctual information to those first approaching certain consular procedures that affect their rights as Italian citizens. Often times it’s a matter of pointing them in the right direction by giving them clarity on the overall process. As an Honorary Consulate, by definition, my role and functions are limited by a ministerial decree, and in my case, I chose to make this document public by posting it online, on the web site of the Italian Honorary Consulate of Arizona, because I value transparency and also because it helps everyone understand what they can request of this office. Keep in mind that this Honorary Consulate acts under the guidance and instructions of the General Consulate of Italy in Los Angeles, CA which is and remains the only depository of official documents and where consular officials handle and approve the various petitions presented by residents of Arizona (such as to register in the AIRE, request visas, request the registration in Italy births/marriages/divorces/deaths, request an Italian tax ID, etc.)
But nothing comes close to, in my opinion, is the most appreciated service provided through this Honorary Consulate, which is the assistance with the renewal/ first issuance of an Italian passport. Here in Phoenix, AZ we facilitate the process of collecting the fingerprints and the digital signature of the applicants and work in strict coordination with the Passport Department of the Consulate in Los Angeles, CA which is where the new Italian passports are prepared and issued (and which dictates what I am allowed to process.)
Finally, there is the most pleasant part (let’s be clear: this is about 5% of the entire time, actually down to 1% since the pandemic hit) which consists of representing the Government of Italy in official occasions with foreign, local, and national government officials. I am a member of the Consuls Corp of Arizona and, in that role, I regularly meet other Foreign Honorary Consuls of Arizona for educational and networking purposes. This is where I, as a representative for Italy, get to build ties and goodwill in the community at large on behalf of the Italian Government by attending the events to which I am being invited. This also helps to create a network of contacts that I can use for the benefit of the Italian community in Arizona and its members. For example, just on Friday, August 21, 2020, I attended the official ceremony to dedicate a local school to the late Governor Raul H. Castro in what is now known as the “Raul H. Castro Fine Arts Academy” in Phoenix, AZ. I had the honor to meet the late Governor Castro in person many years ago because he had ties with my husband’s family that go back to the time when, in 1974, he was elected Governor of Arizona (indeed, the first and so far only Mexican-American Governor of Arizona), and later US Ambassador in Argentina, so in this case, it was particularly important to me to be there on a personal level. Nonetheless, the main point was to express Italy’s formal recognition of the importance of the efforts made by this public school in the areas of fine arts (which is very dear to Italy, as everybody knows) in that specific community.
4. How large is the Italian community in AZ? Do you work with individuals only or businesses as well?
I don’t have an exact number because, as I said above, this Honorary Consulate is not the depository of any “schedario consolare” or consular registry, which are held and constantly updated by the AIRE office in Los Angeles. However, I am convinced that, even if I had a number from the Consulate of Los Angeles, it would not tell us the entire story, and this is why: the “Italian community” is a generic term that in reality includes different types of people, each with different needs and expectations.
You have Italians who were born and raised in Italy, moved to the US in recent years (late ’90s onward), and now live in Arizona: this category includes mostly college-level educators and/or researches, entrepreneurs (especially in the food/restaurant sector), professionals in the medical/scientific/legal field and in the import/export sector. As Arizona’s economy grows and becomes more and more attractive, so does this pool of Italians who are very attentive to having access to true Italian products and food. Most but not all of them are indeed registered in the AIRE system, and of course, they are the ones that are in need of the services provided by the Honorary Consulate such as passport renewals or vital records registrations.
Next to those you have Italians who left Italy many more years ago, often after working a few years in Italy. This category (and/or their surviving spouses and children) needs assistance mostly with pension matters, as they often became naturalized US citizens at a time when, under Italian law, it was not possible to hold more than one citizenship(s). Because they often retire in Arizona from other places (primarily, the East Coast or California), and because not all of them go through the process of re-establishing their Italian citizenship, they are not counted in the AIRE Registry held by the Italian Consulate in Los Angeles and interact only with the Honorary Consulate for their own individual needs. They often volunteer their time and talents in clubs and organizations and are very much involved with their local Catholic church.
The largest group, in my view, is represented by Italian-Americans, i.e. the descendants of Italian ancestors who came to the US in the late 1800-early 1900. Within this group, you have also those who, in recent years, have completed the process called “recognition of Italian citizenship iure sanguinis” (and therefore are also accounted in the AIRE system) and now carry an Italian passport. They are very proud of their origins because it gives them a sense of belonging often derived from family traditions and food-based memories. They are the most eager to be with other Italians and gladly participate in social and cultural events.
Finally, you have those who have no specific connection to Italy based on lineage or origin, but truly admire Italy for its beauty, lifestyle, the arts, the “buon cibo”, il “gusto”, which often deepens after they visit Italy. They truly enjoy being around Italians and appreciate everything Italian, and I am very mindful of that because I know that my role is also to support the Italian economy in a broad sense, so I gladly listen to the memories of their trips and answer their questions related to their plans to visit Italy in the near future.
As for businesses, we are of course always available to respond to their requests, and I from time to time receive e-mails demanding initial assistance by prospective investors from Italy who are considering Arizona for their next move. These businesses typically require specific professional services which are primarily delivered through the Italian Trade Agency (also known in Italian as “ICE” – Agenzia per la promozione all’estero e l’internazionalizzazione delle imprese italiane), a governmental agency that was specifically created to support the business development of Italian companies abroad and promotes the attraction of foreign investment in Italy, also hosted in the same building in Los Angeles, CA where the General Consulate is. In addition to the governmental agency indicated above, I often provide them with contacts and information about the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West (IACCW), which is an independent, private, not-for-profit US corporation also based in Los Angeles, CA with a range of action that includes Arizona.
Regardless of which category one falls in, I see a growing interest in everything that is Italian in Arizona, so I really think that an entity such as the Italian Association is absolutely beneficial for the growth and development of the Italian community in Arizona. I am grateful for all you do and hope that you’ll be able to have your annual Italian Festival as soon as the conditions allow it.
5. We are living in unprecedented times due to the impact Covid-19 has had on a global scale. How has this impacted your work and also what seems to be the primary concern for those needing your services during these times?
This pandemic has of course impacted our services, like anybody else.
Because my entire family is in Bergamo, Italy (one of the hardest-hit area in Italy), I was very much aware of certain safety protocols which are now widely accepted also here in the US and implemented in our offices since from March 11, 2020: wearing a mask/allowing only one person at a time in my office/maintain a distance of at least 6 feet when inside/ washing their hands thoroughly before and after taking the fingerprints is a given. At first, there was some disbelief, but now it’s widely accepted, and I think that it gives people a sense of security.
My primary concern was to be able to continue to meet the needs of the Italian community even during the pandemic and to give a sense of care and hope. E-mails and phone calls were always answered (I found out that there is a fair amount of Italian students who come to Arizona to be enrolled in college and high school: all these had to return home, of course) and, as soon we the state re-opened, I decided that I could do so as well by transferring the location of the appointments outside the building that hosts the Honorary Consulate, more specifically in the bocce area of the Arizona Italian American Club. The appointments were held between 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. You may think that this is crazy, but people signed up and actually came. Not only that, but this initiative received the praise of the Italian Foreign Ministry in Rome, Italy – Department for Italians Abroad, who actually sent me a letter of congratulations. Thinking back now, it was definitively an unconventional approach, but unusual time requires unusual solutions.
As the numbers measuring the spread of the pandemic in Arizona declined, I decided that it was time to resume our services inside the building, in our regular office. The same safety rules implemented in March still apply, of course, just like anywhere else now.
6. How has Covid-19 impacted travel to and from Italy? And Europe in general?
Covid-19 has definitively impacted travel. I can only speak about Italy, of course, who is part of the Schengen area.
Most people are aware that, as of right now, August 23, 2020, you cannot enter Italy for “non-essential reasons” (such as tourism) if you come from the US and travel under as a US citizen under a US passport. That is only one of the many aspects of a truly complex and ever-changing regulation which is impossible to outline here, and for this reason, I invite everyone interested in further details to read official information directly from the web site of the Italian Foreign Ministry (aka “Farnesina”), which has a dedicated section in all languages including English, of course, and now even a questionnaire to help figure out what’s possible and what’s not: www.esteri.it
7. How can those interested in or needing your services contact you?
The best way to contact the Honorary Consulate of Italy in Arizona is by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (480) 304-4620.
I kindly ask all the interested people to carefully read the information provided through our website before placing a call or sending us an e-mail because, often, most of the answers are already there (this will also help you to narrow your question.) Keep in mind that we are authorized to assist only residents of Arizona and that we can’t return phone calls if you don’t leave your full name and number.
I have one last request for you, if I may use this public venue.
One of the first thing that I did was to create a new web site (http://wp.italianazhc.org) to introduce myself to the Italian community in Arizona, explain the range of services that I am authorized to carry out as Honorary Consul, and provide as much updated and official information as possible, often with references to the web site of the General Consulate of Italy in Los Angeles, CA which is and remains the main reference for residents of Arizona.
I would like to take this occasion to thank Fabrizio Cali’ of La Dolce Vita, who in his previous, professional life was an IT/marketing consultant and is very experienced in web design. He not only created the beautiful web site that we have now but also taught me how to manage it. This hands-on approach turned out to be a blessing because it allows me to update the web site anytime I need, and in fact, I do it quite often due to the everchanging reality imposed by the ongoing pandemic.
There is another person who helps this Honorary Consulate a lot, and who deserves the proper credit for the time and efforts dedicated to the Italian community in Arizona: his name is Roland Clarke, and he is our expert in charge of the Italian pension matters. He really is a very valuable resource because these matters are quite complicated, and often he is the person who can address issues at a local level that otherwise would need to be deferred to one of the Italian “Patronati, either in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. Thank you both, from me personally, and also on behalf of the Italian community of Arizona!
And to all the Italian community who patiently read this article: stay safe and hang on because, once this pandemic is finally brought to its knees, it will be my pleasure to host an official visit of the General Consulate of Italy in Los Angeles, Dr. Silvia Chiave, who is eager to come to Arizona to meet you. I have some ideas in mind, and God willing we’ll be together soon, this time to celebrate. A presto!
Grazie Mille Avv. Roberta Gentili-Purcell, a presto.