Ilha das Flores, 3/24/2017
The first immigration hostel in the Americas was built in the Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro in 1883. Before Ellis Island or the Immigrants’ Hotel in Buenos Aires. Today it is part of a network of immigration museums which include those in São Paulo and Halifax. Between 1820 and 1914, 50 million people disembarked in the New World.
Ilha das Flores is no longer an island. A spit of land ties it to the mainland and today it is a Naval Yard. Its commander is rear admiral Correa, who has coined the motto for the museum which opened last year: “We are all immigrants.”
The collection of photographs, documents, and oral testimony is kept in the Interpreter’s House, where there lived for decades an employee who spoke eight languages. His role, like in all civic registries across the Americas, was critical. Not only did he write down the names of the recently arrived, but while they were waiting the eight days to be shipped at the expense of the state to farms and jobs in the interior, at the expense of the State, he also translated for everyone, from dock to kitchen and the barracks where 6,000 people slept.
We walk together, civilians and soldiers, around the Island. There are trees older than the hostel, and scholars from the Botanical Gardens will come to date them. The commander has ordered a nautical chart to facilitate the arrival of visitors from the center of Rio. The tour of the bay will include stories of the men, women, and children who came from Europe and Asia fleeing hunger and wars, seeking the Promised Land.
Today, every station along our walk in Ilha das Flores has a totem – a word native to America. And the totems tell the story of the place, from the parade ground to the infirmary, from the landing dock to the refectory. Images and texts speak for themselves, but we can’t hear the voices of those who arrived as children and still remember the odyssey, such as the cook’s or the interpreter’s children, who were raised here in Babel; nor the voices of prisoners and detainees after 1966, when the hostel closed.
Thank you, hosts.