A Stunning Chronicle of Life on Ellis Island, 1920

Translated Diary Entry from Ellis Island



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the story

A Stunning Chronicle of Life on Ellis Island, 1920

Francie Rodríguez (née Guerra), of Canton, Ohio has preserved and shared with us this remarkable document, chronicling the crossing from Spain and the Ellis Island trials and tribulations of her grandfather, Gabriel Tarriño. Such detailed first-hand accounts like this one are quite rare. The text presented here was transcribed and translated by Francie’s brother. With help from Laura Repullo Chacón and Ángel Briongos, we are in the process of retranscribing the document and revising the translation.

The following is a translation of my maternal grandfather’s diary from the time they let Spain until their arrival in New York then Canton, Ohio.

On the 20th day of July 1920 we left Nerva, Huelva, Spain with a pass from the Company up to the Mayas then on to Seville costing 39 pesetas and 20 céntimos, before we left it cost us 20 ptas. To the station and to the pension.

When the Consul signed the passports he told us that Rosa [my mother] needed a passport giving us a great scare, then finally they prepared one without having to pay anything other than the 64 pesetas for myself [grandfather Gabriel] and 64 for Paco [my Dad].

On the first day we sailed the day was very nice and also the second and third day very bad. On the 1st of August at 4 pm. We saw land which turned out to be the “Azores”. Then the sixth day the Isla of Santa María the sixth day cloudy. The seventh day very tranquil and became happy to see the women were allowed to eat with us, the day continued very well.

On the eighth day or August 6th very windy and on the 7th day very rough if felt as if we were on a big swing rocking back and forth. On the 8th of August, worse than the day before. The waves seemed to be coming into the ship and reaching the sky. It got better and the women were able to eat a little. The 10th, 11th, 12th, very tranquil sea, on the 13th, very bad rain and much wind. We were holding on [it doesn’t say to what] it was so bad a woman and another went rolling on the deck then afternoon the day was better. On the 13th at 11 am we saw land and they [sailors] raised the flag on the ship. We arrived at NY at 2:00 p.m.

We entered Ellis Island on the 17th of August. We were kept on the ship for three days. When we arrived in New York, what happiness we felt. We got dressed in our best clothes with such a desire to go out, but what a disappointment when we were told that those of third class would not be able to leave until Monday. “Companions what desperation we have to be housed in the bowels of the ship!”

Finally Monday came and again dressed to go out to the Island or [to the enchanted palace] that is what it appears to me. What was my desperation, we could not leave because it was a holiday? Finally on Tuesday they took us to the Island. In the times of enchantments that is what happened they would place you in a room and until you had your liberty, you would never get out!

Then they took us to a salon of Doctors for examinations –very good exams, they stripped us naked as when our mothers gave birth to us.

Next, on to some offices to number us and record the members of our family. To me, my wife Francisca, my daugher Rosa and Alex, they placed us in a room for days without going out and not knowing where Paco was or [Janico or John ???]

This house that is here in Ellis Island is larger than a palace because they have to house so many immigrants that come from so many countries. Every day many ships arrive from all parts of the world. Every day you hear them call out names claiming their relatives. When they call out their names the happiness you see in their faces is overwhelming it seems unbelievable to them that they are leaving purgatory for Glory.

When we were docked we saw Bibiana Billarino the ones that came with Serrando and Adelina, then she saw us and came to meet us because of the letter I had written her before, but because of the distance we could not speak.

After three days a telegram came from Bibiana, they took us to a room and asked us where our relatives were. When we replied Canton, Ohio, they told us we could not leave the Island because it was someone other than our family that was reclaiming us. They would talk with her and finally they sent a telegram to Canton. Thanks to Bibiana she tried to save us from this damn castle.

Then they separated us. I went to a room and my wife, daughter, and Alex in another. Now they think it’s better, we can’t see each other. Now we have complaints. Is this the country where they have placed the Statue of Liberty? Where you direct yourself to an imbecile to ask if they could mail a letter for you and they answer with “Chinflan-Chinflon” and they enter or place you in your room pushing you.

In the ship I had good meals. I ate always with a good appetite because I did not get sea sick, but companions here in this huge dining hall that fills thousands eating, I can hardly eat the food but as the saying goes: “for much hunger there is no bad bread!”

How many rude people in the Salons, dining rooms and dormitories. 100 French, 200 Italians, 300 from Peru, 400 Japan and thousands from all other countries, they cause such a ruckus that even God cannot understand.

In the dining tables they place dishes with sweet pats of butter for 6 or 7 and the first one that gets there eats it all. Even though there are many to serve us they cannot watch out for everything that occurs.

In the dormitories there are so many fights for the sleeping cots, that we tremble with fear, because if two persons get to the cot at the same time, one says this is mine and the other one no it’s mine until they start beating each other. In the salons the same thing happens. I was sitting on a bench one day and two of these morons and they took it off of me and two Spaniards when they saw what was happening they came to my assistance. I saw that the others were going to hit them so I told the Spaniards forget it, let them have it, because anyone could lose their life or be maimed by such animals, without a conscience!

The room that I’m in now I feel like a dummy. If I ask someone something they answer “chin flin, chin flan.” If I ask another one he answers, “chon blan” no one understands them, not even the mother that bore them. Well each one is from another nation, this is “the tower of Babel” where they didn’t understand their inhabitants but on the other hand I am better off, since I am not together with my family they are now aware of what is happening.

After we finish eating they take us out to a big hall that is covered with awnings and on the sides by railing so that we don’t escape. It is a very large hall –100 meters long about 70 meters wide, and we distract ourselves looking at the boats and the tug boats. Due to this the days pass easier and faster.

What have we immigrants (this is the title they give us) done after they have taken our monies, to have us confined to this prison? B me, I don’t know, yet it is true that to someone the bad luck had to happen and we are the ones that it happened to. This is what they call the country of liberty.

I like this very much, this is the greatest of the world, this is to see it, it is not to explain it. The trains run above the ground and above the water and I like to see it. A tug boat pulls a train full of wagons [box cars?) with sand, lumber, stones, and houses with many rooms which they pull above the water which I love to see this.

I do not know what or who to blame for this subjection, this penalty that we are receiving in this blasted island, it is because of the multitude of people coming to the United States every day so that we can write back to our families and discourage them from coming here? If that is so, why don’t they say there are no more passages. They probably understand it, but for me, it is to say that they have me in this prison without have done anything bad to anyone in this world. If anyone has done anything wrong then they should be the one punished.

On the ship we were very sick, when the ship would roll many had thrown up [sea sick] but we controlled ourselves because we were happy coming to the United States of our own free will, but this damn subjection makes us greatly despair!

At last in the room where the women are confined there was a woman who spoke English met with and English woman and they understood each other, so then we all were able to give them the mail we had written on the ship.

The hygiene is great; if it wouldn’t be we would be eaten up by dirtiness, humans cannot remedy mother nature, there are some imbeciles that do not bother to bathe themselves.

The toilets are very well constructed, of marble sinks with cold and hot running water where the men could bathe themselves to their satisfaction, the women also and wash their clothes.

The rooms are whitewashed because they are halfway with blue tiles and the rest to the ceilings painted and the blacks that clean them leave them as clean as god and the floors the same, they are with tiny tiles.

The door guards are Americans and very well dressed, to speak with them the people that don’t know them take off their hats.

What loneliness has taken hold of me since they separated me from my wife, daughter and my boy [Alex]. Why is this? Staying with people that I don’t understand and they don’t understand me? If I get a fever who is going to care for me. I do not know, therefore a deep sadness envelopes me and wonder where it’s going to stop, if I could only speak with these guards but when I try they dispel me and almost use their hands on me.

When they take us out to the big recreation hall so that we can walk, what I do is to try to avoid anyone or everything because of this loneliness. I only want to be by myself even though there are a few Spaniards, but I don’t have the feeling of wanting to converse with them so I just pick out a bench and sit until they take us out again.

On the ship even though we had bad times we also had a few good times, a chorus would sing, a band played music, a very good tenor and also a philosopher would give speeches, but in here we do not hear anything just yelling and screaming. God only knows what they’re saying.

When they transfer someone from one room to another because they have interrogated them or they then send them to another boat possibly back to their own country, a huge upset or riot starts everyone joins in making fun of his misfortune and yelling loudly oho ou ou aaaauuu for a good while, this is what happens with humanity!

Finally Sunday had arrived, in the recreation room the few Spaniards told me we were going to have entertainment. The music started, up to this point we were still in our dormitories, then we were escorted to the rec. room. Someone was playing a piano and men and women were singing but they put us in the back of everyone already there and we were unable to see anything. Give me my liberty already so I can be united with my family of go look for them, this is what I need, not music, drums or cymbals.

What loneliness has taken hold of me since they separated me from my wife, daughter and my boy [Alex].

Everyday I find myself tired of this life because of not being able to cope with these “animals” because when they take us to the dining halls, they all want to be the first ones there and they grab all the juice and when I reach here it’s all gone then when I return to my place at the table my bread is gone, there are “beasts” in here that will eat up the Island if they let them.

One day I got a small headache but with all the noise of these families of men I almost went crazy, but even though they heard me complain they didn’t care at all.

In here there are all castes, of all ages there are old men with beards to the floor even babies that are nursing, some are half-yellows and others are all yellow. Some are brown and some mulattos, other completely black, so black as a night without stars.

At last I see my wife, daughter and the boy when I’m going to eat, even though I don’t eat this awful food, we see each other for a brief moment which we can’t even exchange a few words —but of the other three? I don’t know anything, neither does my wife.

From the building or “prison” I distract myself looking at New York but since my eyesight can’t see too far, I cannot distinguish about 4 buildings black as the coal that they burn in their factories, as it is always cloudy and with all the smoke I can hardly see clearly.

Monday arrived and as always the postman comes we wait to see if our liberty comes today, finally they call my name but after I signed a form I am only handed the envelope. What discontent, I become more depressed, they continue to call one after another and the day has passed and I never get called.

In the rec room a Spaniard approached me and said “Paisano [friend] you must be happier than I, at least they gave you the envelope but I got nothing they took mine without opening it.” This man has been confined here more than 2 months. He is from Argentina and they have taken his money he was bringing, where is it? He is more depressed than I am, and also is all alone.

“Have you seen Paisano how well we are entertained? Sunday in the garden.” “I answered him “yes.” To me it seems impossible that another Sunday has come. Well I enteratained myself by cursing all the stupid people would clap their hands then the music stopped playing. “What enjoyment do these infidels have? Thay are here as if they are slaves””

We have more police here than all the civil guards in Spain. Two or three immigrants that were thirsty and wanted to and drink water were not allowed until they got tired of joshing with them.

Dear God, what is this? What pity to spend day after day, week after week, locked in this abyss without knowing when you are going to be released. What sorrow, they become crazy.

There is a family here with a 12 or 13 year old son and the mother became very ill and died in the hospital of this great Island, the father also got ill and taken to the hospital, the son became so disoriented when he realized he was alone and walks the rooms in deep daze. This is the action they take in the Island of Immigrants in the United States in New York. Look here paisano, here comes an Italian that was in the hospital with me and he still looks sick, well this is another one who became crazy here on the Island.

We ask him “Friend, how are you? How is your health? He replies bad, completely, I’m not even half well but how am I going to get well if what I need is my freedom that they have taken away form me and also my money, my ring and watch and when I ask about it they reply that they know nothing about it.

We have finally left this despicable island on the 28th day of August 1920 a memorable day –I want to say at least for me and my family you cannot comprehend the happiness we felt when were were on the tug boat that was taking us to the station for Canton, Ohio.

This was copied or translated from a booklet made by my grandfather, Gabriel Tarriño on graph paper and describing his trip when he left Spain. He also writes he started to work on September 8th, 1920, at Tri-Foundry.