News / The Northern Virginia Daily/nvdaily.com
Local business owner achieves dream of U.S. citizenship
By Josette Keelor
Sal Diroberto came to America in 1987. He left Italy with almost nothing, determined to write his own story.
Others he knows who emigrated from Italy at the time all went into the pizza business, he said. But he wasn't like the others. Most of them returned home to Italy when times got tough. Diroberto worked through the struggles, and today he not only runs his business, Sal's Italian Bistro in Edinburg, but, as of Jan. 10, he also has become a U.S. citizen.
Living in Shenandoah County with his wife and two of his three children, Diroberto is a long way from where he started out at as a 15-year-old merchant mariner. After six years traveling by sea and seeing a little bit of the world that his nine siblings never would see, he made the decision that would change his life. He moved to the United States.
"I came here on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 1987," he said. Asked how he remembers that, he said, "How can you forget? That's a memorable date."
He came "more out of curiosity." The Merchant Marines would not be a suitable life for a family man, he decided, and he wanted a wife and children one day.
In his area of Italy, a small seaside village called Pozzuoli, about a 20-minute drive from Naples, each man's future was already laid out. He recalled four options available to him: construction, fishing, joining the Merchant Marines or leaving.
On the way to New Orleans, he remembered, his ship docked in Sicily, and he resigned.
He said he envied friends who had left Italy after high school. At the very least, he remembered, he wanted to see the Statue of Liberty.
When he left, he overheard his father tell his older brother, "Sal will never come back." Other than visits to see family, he never did return.
"I closed the chapter with that life," he said.
The next chapter began in Brooklyn, with the 21-year-old finding whatever work he could in pizza parlors and living with friends until he could afford his own place. He couldn't even speak English.
"I really had no idea what I was doing," he said. But, "I'm a very aggressive learner."
"I stayed there and learned," he said. "I moved forward all the time."
Drawing mainly on his experience cooking at home in Italy, he worked for a family pizza business before moving to southern New Jersey. There he met his ex-wife, and the couple had a daughter Tania, now 20.
When the marriage didn't work out, he moved to Pennsylvania and back to New Jersey before settling in Virginia on Sept. 4, 2000, with new wife JoAnn and 2 1/2-month-old son Joseph. The couple now have another son, 9-year-old Lorenzo.
Diroberto had learned about the restaurant location at 125 S. Main St. in Edinburg.
"I figured I ran all these [other restaurants,] why not run one on my own, because that's what they call the American dream."
His life so far in America had been leading up to that point, he said. He also attributes that drive to succeed in dissolving his first marriage when he was 28.
"Why didn't you come home like everybody else?" his father asked him when he went home for Christmas after the divorce.
"This country [the U.S.] has taken the best of my youth," he remembered saying. There was no going back. "I'd die first," he said.
"I'm going to achieve what I set my mind on, you know that," he told his dad. "My father died never seeing the restaurant."
U.S. citizenship was long in coming. He said he remembers first feeling impassioned while watching televised demonstrations of the American flag being burned.
"That really affected my emotions," he said. "I spent more time here than in Italy."
"I said, 'I think I'm ready.'"
After five years living in the country as a permanent resident, he was eligible to become a U.S. citizen. Now he's been here 26.
"I applied about towards the end of August," he said. The naturalization application through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is $660, and it costs another $200 to process the application. He was called for fingerprints a couple weeks later and then tested in Fairfax on Oct. 15.
"You got to be prepared for 100 questions, and of course the test is oral, it's not like a multiple choice," he said.
He studied for weeks, with his wife quizzing him.
On Oct. 15, in Harrisonburg, the test preparer asked him 10 questions, and he needed to get six correct.
"What is the name of the national anthem?" was one question. "You know, 'The Star Spangled Banner,'" he said while sitting in a booth at his restaurant last week.
The rule of law was another question.
"Everybody obeys the law," he said. Government obeys the law. Nobody is above the law.
"The reason for the 13 stripes on the American flag. That represents the original colonies, the 13 original colonies," he said.
How many senators are there? "A hundred," he said. "Two for every state."
What did President Lincoln do? "We all know what President Lincoln did," he said, launching into explanations of the abolishing of American slavery.
The test preparer didn't need to ask him all 10 questions, he said, "Because I just rolled them out." His wife had tested him on all 100, he said. "I knew all of them."
Next was the writing portion of the test, and his assigned sentence was "I want to vote."
For reading, he read aloud, "'I want to be a United States citizen.' They gave you like flash cards," he said.
But not everyone passes the test.
"A couple friends of mine, they took the test and they were sent back," he said. He attributes their results to being unprepared. One applicant, he recalled, didn't study until the day before the test.
"I take the test very seriously," Diroberto said. "I said I'm only doing this thing once."
"I think to become a citizen, in my eyes, is like a completed chapter on what I started 25 years ago," he said.
On Jan. 10, he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, and he was first to volunteer when the judge at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Harrisonburg asked for the first of the brave to come forward.
"Of course I raised my hand," Diroberto said. "I stated my name. I stated I've been here for 25 years. I work very hard at what I do because this country give me something that my country couldn't have. So I stated I'm very pleased to become an American citizen."
He was surprised how pleased the office of immigration was to welcome him.
"At the end, they make it very special," he said. "They act like it's the first time."
One of his sisters in Italy commented on his Facebook status, telling him, "You finally reached your goal," he recalled. "'We are a little sad inside ... but we are very excited for you,'" she told him.
"They're not happy there, either, but they're stuck there," he said.
His determination to build a life in America grew from that fear of being trapped.
At 21, he was going to sell his car for travel money. Instead, his father gave him $2,000. Diroberto used $1,400 for the plane tickets. The rest was in Italian money, and he couldn't exchange it as easily then as he could now, so he returned it to his father.
In New York, with luck, someone hired him, he remembered. It was temporary, but it was a job. A friend directed him to a 7-Eleven to purchase bread, but he couldn't find the store, and he didn't know what 7-Eleven was either. Instead he found a Dunkin Donuts. He had the English word "bread" written on a piece of paper, and he handed it to the cashier. She gave him doughnuts.
Ironically, before he moved to America, he never wanted to come here.
"What if you get sick?" he remembered asking friends who were crazy enough to leave Italy. They didn't know English, he said. How would they convey their need to someone who doesn't speak their language? "That was my main concern," he said.
"It helped a lot me being in the Merchant Marines so young," he said. "You get to learn a lot of things, and I knew French when I came here." Knowing French turned out to be no help, so he learned another language.
"You don't back down," he said. "You keep going. And you turn around and you know it was worth it."
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org