The Dream, the Journey, the Tears

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Ellis Island may be a small dot on the map of west coast America but it is a unique destination for millions of visitors. After welcoming immigrants from all over the world, Ellis Island stands as a poetic symbol of the American Dream. But not for everyone.

Between 1892 and 1927, 12 million people passed the gates of Ellis Island. But for the 280,000 turned away, it became the Isle of Tears.

The new red and white brick structure began receiving immigrants on January 1, 1892. Annie Moore, a teenager from Ireland, accompanied by her two younger brothers, are the first to be processed.

Awaiting Examination – Ellis Osland | ©

Awaiting Examination

If papers were in order and immigrants were in good health, the Ellis Island inspection lasted 3 to 5 hours. They took place in the Registry Room where doctors would scan every individual for physical ailments. Doctors became adept at conducting the six-second physical. By 1916, numerous medical conditions were identified just by a glance.

Despite its reputation as an Island of Tears, most immigrants were treated courteously, free to begin their lives in America. Only two per cent of immigrants were excluded from entry. The two main reasons being contagious disease or concern an immigrant would become an illegal contract worker.

After the First World War, U.S. embassies opened worldwide where all necessary paperwork and medical inspections occurred, replacing the Ellis Island inspection process.

After 1924, the only those passengers with paperwork issues and war refugees came to the Island. In November 1954, the last remaining detainee, a Norwegian merchant seaman, Arne Peterssen, was released and Ellis Island officially closed by the U.S. government.

Ellis Island by Meredith Monk

American composer and vocalist Meredith Monk with co-Director Bob Rosen chose Ellis Island for a historical/psychological ghost story about our ancestors. 

Meredith Monk is a striking musician and composer as well as a director/choreographer and multi-media creator. She is one of the most unique and influential artists of our time, creating works that thrive at an intersection of music and movement, image and object, light and sound. Her exploration of the voice as an instrument, as an eloquent language in and of itself, stretches the bounds of musical composition.

Ellis Island blends documentary and fiction in what Monk describes as “a mosaic of sounds and images woven into formal musical design.”

Photo-documentary stillness collapses the passing of time in haunting scenes of immigrants moving through the clinics and waiting rooms that make up this landscape of memory and hope.

“Though it is inspired by historical fact, the work is not a documentary. Though it uses professional actors, it has no dialogue and no storyline in the ordinary sense.

It does, however, try to suggest something of the atmosphere and mystery of a ghost story, the ghosts, in this case, being our ancestors.”

Meredith Monk and Bob Rosen (San Francisco International Video Festival, 1982)

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