The Ellis Island of Buenos Aires
New York City had the Baggage & Dormitory Building on Ellis Island; Buenos Aires had the Hotel de Inmigrantes near the port docks in Puerto Madero. Today, the old hotel contains an intriguing museum documenting the experiences of the great waves of European immigrants arriving in Argentina between 1911-53.
Descending from ships
There’s an old saying in Argentina that goes something like this: ‘Mexicans descended from Aztecs, Peruvians descended from Incas, and Argentines descended from ships.’ Indeed, much of the population can’t claim any ties to the indigenous groups that originally inhabited the territory. As in the United States, most citizens are descended from European immigrants – in the case of Argentina, primarily Spanish and Italian, but also large numbers of French, Russian, Irish, Welsh, German and Armenian.
The mass exodus to South America began after Argentina won independence from Spain in 1816. With the massive nation sparsely populated, the government passed laws to promote immigration, promising foreigners free land in exchange for working the land and developing an agricultural industry. The first arrivals came in 1825 from the British Isles and Basque country. It was the start of a major wave of immigration that would last for more than a century: thanks to government support and relatively affordable ocean crossings, more than six million settlers arrived in Buenos Aires from Europe between 1870 and 1929.
Construction of the Immigrants’ Hotel
With skyrocketing numbers of foreigners arriving by boat, simply making the journey no longer guaranteed entry into the country. In 1906, the government started building the Hotel de Inmigrantes – near the port, on the shore of the Rio de la Plata – to accommodate up to 4,000 people at a time. Immigrants could sleep, eat, and receive medical care at the hotel, free of charge, while securing work or proving family connections in Argentina.
Today, in what’s now the Museo Nacional de Inmigración, you can see the simple dormitory-style accommodations and wander down the airy hallways of the old hotel, peering through the antique glass windows to see sailboats bobbing in the blue water outside. Daily life in the Hotel de Inmigrantes might not have been glamorous, but considering the bleak conditions onboard many of the sea vessels making the journey from Europe, most immigrants probably wished they could stay for longer than five days (the allotted number of free days per passenger) inside the stately old structure.
The Hotel was closed in 1953; today, it’s considered a National Historic Monument. Notable exhibits inside the museum include old photographs and passport documentation from the port’s Books of Landing, multimedia installations featuring interviews with former guests of the Hotel (those that arrived as children toward the end of the immigration wave), and a wall of posters in Italian, French and Spanish advertisting ship crossings to South America. But best of all is the experience of passing through the building and imagining what it might have symbolized to so many thousands of Europeans – hope, liberation, fear, disorientation – in every case, a poignant point of transition between the old and new worlds.
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