When visiting San Francisco, many tourists will no doubt take the opportunity to visit Angel Island State Park, a National Historic Landmark since 1997.
Visitors can enjoy the wonderful views of the Bay Area from this natural piece of heaven on earth where once upon a time, before the United States existed, Miwok Native Americans, made the most of the 740-acre island as a fishing and hunting site. It was also the island where Spanish explorers, the first Europeans to first enter the San Francisco Bay in 1775, anchored off their ship. In command and master of the ship was Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish naval officer who played a key role in the European exploration of California, and also known for drawing one the first maps of the San Francisco Bay.
But as those who visit the island soon find out, the history of Angel island turned rather ugly at the beginning of the twentieth century when it served as an immigrant processing station.
From 1910 to 1940 a deportation centre was in operation in the island and unlike European immigrants arriving in Ellis island in New York, immigrants arriving in Angel island were not welcomed or treated with the dignity and respect they deserved, with an overwhelming majority facing openly discriminatory attitudes.
Those arriving in the U.S. via Angel Island were mainly Asians, primarily from China or other Asian countries, such as Japan, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, Korea and Vietnam.
During its 30 years in operation as a processing station, an estimated 500,000 immigrants from 80 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Mexico, Canada, and Central and South America, were processed through Angel Island.
However, it was mainly those of Asian descent that would be subject to long interrogations and detentions to prevent illegal entry.
Under the Chinese Exclusion Act, U.S. immigration officials were required to inspect each Chinese passenger who arrived via boat in San Francisco before they could be allowed on land. Asian immigrants who sailed across the Pacific Ocean were routinely inspected, disinfected and detained at the immigration station.Only a few were allowed into the United States, as immigrants were submitted to exhaustive interrogations to prevent entry.
In 1970 over 200 poems were discovered written by Chinese immigrants into the wooden walls of the detention centre expressing their feelings of isolation, loneliness and discrimination while being there. These carvings are now an important legacy in the history of Pacific immigration and American heritage.
A visit to the deportation centre which closed due to a fire and is currently partially open, will make anyone rethink the history of immigration in the United States. Angel island is the perfect example of a part of history that for decades was relegated, hidden, not told.
History however, needs to be written by everybody and many San Francisco residents whose ancestors arrived in the U.S. via Angel Island deserve the same recognition as those who arrived via Ellis Island.