This year marks the 125th anniversary of the opening of Ellis Island, which closed 63 years ago on Sunday. Over 12 million immigrants passed through its doors for inspection before entering the United States, and Basques were no exception. From February to May 2010, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum held an exhibition on the Basques, entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Basques.” Here’s an excerpt from the website, with photos from the exhibit:
“Hidden in Plain Sight” was an interactive exhibit that presented opportunities for all ages to discover the unique origins, language, and history of the Basque people; the factors that pulled them away from their homes; the legendary tales of colorful immigrants; Basque contributions in the United States and the world; and the unprecedented cultural connection with their homeland.
Basques have rarely been recognized for their historic contributions or cultural distinctiveness. Similarly, as they passed through Ellis Island, their nationality, names, and heritage were often disregarded by otherwise well-meaning officials. In many cases they were simply listed as Spanish or French.
Today, even though Basque politicians, scientists, sports figures, business executives, artists, and movie stars may be prominent throughout the US and in many nations around the world, they are still often overlooked as being Basque, perpetuating them being “Hidden in Plain Sight.”
This exhibition was organized by the only museum in the United States devoted to preserving Basque culture and history, The Basque Museum & Cultural Center, in conjunction with and supported by the Basque Autonomous Government.
“Hidden in Plain Sight” opened on February 6 with a special ceremony in the Great Hall at Ellis Island with performances by the Biotzetik Basque Choir, the Oinkari Basque Dancers, and soloist Amaia Arberas. The ribbon cutting was performed by Patricia Lachiondo, President of the Basque Museum & Cultural Center and Guillermo Echenique, General Secretary of Foreign Action of the Basque Government. Performances by the Biotzetik Basque Choir followed. The Oinkari Basque Dancers also performed at Liberty Island later in the afternoon.
Looking at Ellis Island from an international perspective, the New York Times recently profiled it in its Daily Briefing, with links to articles:
Ellis Island, the gateway to the U.S. for more than 12 million immigrants, is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its opening this year. Sunday marks the day it closed in 1954.
Many Americans are descended from immigrants who passed through Ellis Island in a wave of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Upon arrival by ship, steerage passengers were transported to the island for inspections. (First- and second-class passengers skipped that step.)
Those found to have serious contagious illnesses or deemed unemployable could face deportation.
Nearly 70 percent of arrivals didn’t speak a word of English, but language was never an issue, said Doug Treem, a National Park Service Ranger.
Interpreters translated scores of languages — they were required to speak at least four each, other than English. Many were immigrants or children of immigrants.
“I doubt if anyone working as a translator at the U.N. right now could have gotten a job at Ellis Island,” said Mr. Treem.
One translator, the child of European immigrants and a veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, worked in Italian, German, Yiddish and Croatian, while attending law school at night. That was Fiorello LaGuardia, who went on to be a three-term mayor of New York City.
I’m guessing language was an issue for Basques, for I wonder if any inspectors spoke Euskara! What we do know is what awaited these migrants once they were in New York City. As Douglass and Bilbao note in Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World:
Elderly Basques residing the American West today still retain vivid memories, spanning more than half a century in some cases, of getting off the boat in New York City filled with trepidation, only to hear the welcome words, “Euskaldunak emen badira?” (“Are there Basques here”). pg. 374.
These words often came from Valentín Aguirre’s agents at the Casa Vizcaina, a hotel and travel agency of sorts for Basques in New York. Aguirre sent employees to meet every ship that arrived from Europe. Once the Basque immigrants met up with these agents, they were taken to the hotel where they were welcomed with familiar food in their native Euskara environment. Some may have even played a few games of pelota at the hotel’s fronton. Aguirre would help them reunite with family or find employment in the West. He would purchase their tickets and give them instructions for their second journey across the States, at many times pinning their names and tickets onto their lapels so that they would safely arrive at their destinations.
Although there are many stories of Ellis Island, the horrible conditions and foreign-ness of the place, it was the port of entry for many of our relatives here in the West. With its 125th anniversary, we remember the long journeys our ancestors took to find their new place in the United States. “Euskaldunak emen badira?” Yes, we are here and will remain.