Early rays of sunshine filter through the kitchen shutters as Luca Neves launches one of his daily live cooking sessions on Facebook. Today, he will prepare grilled polenta with melted cheese and sauteed zucchini.
During Italy’s lockdown, these informal video streamings became, he explains, “my way to open up, get over this period”.
Neves grows thoughtful when he realises there is another chef among his viewers. “It’s a hard moment for all of us, working in restaurants,” he says to the camera, before lightening the atmosphere: “Now just brush with oil and get over the fear: can’t you hear the zucchini singing in the pan?”
As he broadcasts from his kitchen in an anonymous apartment block in Appio Claudio, a densely populated district in eastern Rome, Neves hides a wound. For more than 12 years, he has been undocumented.
He is one of millions across Europe. An estimated 600,000 people live in the country without documentation, according to the Istituto per gli Studi di Politici Internazionali thinktank. The numbers have risen sharply since a 2018 “security decree” by the former interior minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Lega party, removed humanitarian protection permits.
Unlike the vast majority of these people, Neves, 32, never migrated to Italy: he was born in the country. But when you’re born to foreign parents in Italy, the smallest mistake in your late teens can affect your whole life, and turn you into a ghost.
It was 1975 when Luca’s father, Joaquim Antonio Neves, a sailor, disembarked at the port of Nettuno, 50km south-west of Rome. His mother was already working as a housemaid in the capital. Like countless Cape Verdean young women before her, Maria Araujo – known as Cristallina – had left hardship in the small archipelago nation in the Atlantic, responding to requests for domestic workers by a growing Roman bourgeoisie.
Joaquim Antonio had travelled the world but accepted the offer of work with a fisherman in Nettuno. He stayed on in Italy, met Cristallina and the couple settled down in Rome.
Their son, Luca, grew up in Trigoria, a suburb known for hosting the Roma football club’s training ground. As a teenager, he would deliver pizza to famous players such as Cafu, Francesco Totti and Gabriel Batistuta. When he wasn’t studying at a vocational school for hotel and catering he was doing odd jobs or making music.
In the 90s, the Neves were one of the few black families in the district. Luca learned to react to racist comments with dignity. “My mother had given me a life-changing lesson: instead of listening to my complaints she looked me in the eyes and told me it was on me to decide how others will treat me,” he remembers.
Like many of his friends, at 18 he was trying to decide whether he should embark on an uncertain career in music or an apprenticeship to become a chef.
His plans were interrupted in late 2007. According to a 1992 Italian citizenship law, one of the most restrictive in the EU, children born in Italy to foreign parents have one year – between the ages of 18 and 19 – to apply for citizenship.
While his parents “worked, worked and worked”, Luca faced daunting bureaucracy. By the time he had gathered the necessary paperwork it was too late: he had turned 19.
“This is where my Calvary began,” he says, shaking his head.
In 2013, his mother died after a stroke. Months before, he was stopped by police and received a deportation order. “I was so busy helping her that I passed the time limit to appeal against that order,” he says.
Remarkably, even though he lacked any official status in Italy, Neves managed to climb the ladder of Rome’s culinary scene. He proudly recalls the day he was congratulated for his spaghetti alla carbonara, while working illegally in a well-known trattoria. “They offered me contracts of up to €4,000 a month as a head chef, but I had to refuse,” he says. No job contract could undo the pending deportation order.
In the meantime, Neves had also developed a budding hip-hop career. He was touring Italy performing as Fat Negga, his tracks mixing Cape Verdean creole with Roman slang. “Rome is my history, gives my identity, gives me my freedom: tell me where you want to chase me to?” he sings on Fat Negga’s last, unpublished track, La mia città [My city].
In 2017, he fell in love with Hélène Mastroianni, a dance teacher, and they decided to tour together, combining music and dance. But they had to decline multiple offers to perform outside Italy. “I often feel like we have two lives: our everyday one, where we make plans, we argue, we laugh, and a parallel one, where everything is ruined by Luca’s invisibility, by a constant fear,” explains Hélène.
In late 2019, this second life was about to swallow the first. Luca had applied for the right to remain under family reunification rules. He had a good case because his father had suffered multiple heart attacks.
On 19 September, he arrived at the central police immigration office to collect his documents, full of hope. But minutes later, he found himself locked in a cell in the building’s basement.
He had secretly slipped his phone into his documents folder. He texted his lawyer, and Hélène, who was waiting outside the station. “It was like being dragged into a pit, with no holds: it took us a while to breathe again,” she remembers.
One officer told Neves that the only way out was a plane to Cape Verde, a country Neves had only visited on holiday at the age of six. As the local detention facility in Ponte Galeria was at full capacity, Neves was given a one-month order to sign in with authorities twice a week. The next day, that order was revoked by a judge who decided there was no realistic prospect of returning him to Cape Verde, since he was born in Italy. It was nightfall by the time they freed him.
Paula Baudet Vivanco, a spokesperson for Italiani Senza Cittadinanza (Italians Without Citizenship), a grassroots movement advocating for reform of Italian citizenship law, says Luca’s case “is an extreme one, exposing all the flaws of old norms” about what it means to be Italian. Her group advocates for the children of immigrants to be naturalised at birth or during their schooling.
Italiani Senza Cittadinanza estimates at least 900,000 people born in Italy are currently unable to become citizens, either because they are under 18, or failed to meet the strict criteria and time limitations. If they are unable to keep renewing their permit of stay for family or work reasons, they can easily fall into irregularity.
“Usually at 18, a young Italian thinks about their driving licence, votes for the first time … for us, it’s as if adulthood arrives much later,” Baudet Vivanco says. “You spend your best years waiting, refusing jobs … it’s an infernal circle from which you can’t leave.”
With the worst economic depression since the 1930s looming as a result of the pandemic, the inequalities exposed by coronavirus are clearer than ever, she says: “The idea that we’re all in the same boat is wrong. Italians without citizenship are left drowning.”
Neves was preparing an appeal against the rejection of his family reunification when civil courts were shut down in March because of Covid-19. No further date for the hearing was communicated. And financial assistance? “Forget about it, I don’t even have a health card or ID card any more, I just don’t exist,” he tells me during one of many long strolls alongside the Parco degli Acquedotti, one of Rome’s largest green areas.
From this vantage point, we can see the large expanse where Federico Fellini filmed the opening scene of La Dolce Vita. Luca’s story seems closer to that of another masterpiece partly shot here: Mamma Roma, by Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose hero is dramatically brought back to a past she wants to escape. “This virus was a bitter surprise,” Neves says. “But I’m used to quarantining; I’ve been doing so for the past 12 years.”