by Elizabeth Shostak
The Basque Country is not an independent state but a region in the western Pyrenees that straddles the border between France and Spain. Measuring only about 100 miles from end to end, Basque Country is about the size of Maryland and borders the Bay of Biscay to the north, France to the northeast, and Spain to the south and west. In Spain, where six-sevenths of its territory lies, the Basque Country was established as an "autonomous community" in 1979. The Basque Country in Spain consists of the provinces of Alava, Guipuzcoa, Navarre, and Vizcaya (Bizkaia). Its capital is Vitoria (Gasteiz), and other principal cities include San Sebastian and Bilbao. In France, the Basque Country comprises the regions of Labourd, Basse Navarre, and Soule. It is estimated that the Basque Country has 2.5 to 3 million inhabitants, of which only about 200,000 are French nationals. Much of the Basque Country is composed of rugged mountains, and the terrain is suitable for intensive cultivation on small farms. Parts of the Basque Country have also become heavily industrialized.
Though the Basques are perhaps the oldest civilization on the European continent, their precise origin remains unknown. The Basques lived in the Pyrenees before the arrival of Indo-European tribes during the second millennium b.c. Unlike other groups on the Iberian peninsula, they were not conquered by the Moors; Banu Quasi, however, who founded the Basque kingdom of Navarre in 824 a.d., was a convert to Islam. Evidence shows that the Basques also successfully defended themselves against invasions from earlier groups, including the Visigoths, the Franks, and the Normans. Navarre was the first and only Basque political state, and during the reign of King Santxo the Great (999-1035) many Basque-speaking regions were unified under its jurisdiction. The kingdom withstood many challenges and was able to maintain independence for 1,200 years. In 1512, however, Castilian (Spanish) forces conquered and occupied the kingdom. The northern section of the region was ceded to France, and the rest was incorporated into Spanish territory.
Because Arab invaders did not vanquish the Basques, the Spanish Crown considered them hidalgos, or noblemen. This status allowed individuals of relatively modest backgrounds to find powerful positions within civic and church administrations. During the years when Spain concentrated on building colonies in the New World, several of the Basque elite were given important government posts in Latin America. In this way, a tradition of emigration was established among the Basques. In both France and Spain, the Basques enjoyed a large degree of political autonomy as well as economic and military privileges, which were codified in fueros, bodies of traditional Basque law.
By the late eighteenth century, political turmoil in France and in Spain took its toll among the Basques. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic campaigns brought invading armies to Basque territory in France; soon thereafter, during the 1830s, the Basques in Spain supported the conservative pretender to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos, whose cause was brutally defeated. His supporters were forced to flee the country, and many Basques made their way to Spanish colonies in America. When the Basques supported the Carlist rebellion of the 1870s, the Spanish government retaliated by abolishing the fueros.
The creation of the Spanish Republic in 1931 caused split loyalties in the Basque Country. The regions of Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya, and Alava supported the republic, hoping that the government would grant them autonomous status. Navarre however, vigorously opposed the republic. The ensuing civil war attracted international attention. The Nazi bombing of the Vizcayan city of Guernica, memorialized in a painting of that name by Picasso, was seen as a brutal suppression of Basque nationalist hopes. At the war's end in 1937, many Basques went into exile. When dictator Francisco Franco assumed power, his government instituted harsh anti-Basque policies, most notoriously the suppression of the Basque language.
When Franco's rule ended in the 1970s and the liberal Spanish monarchy was established, Basques pushed for self-governing status. The statute of autonomy recognized the Basque Country as an autonomous community in 1979, but radical Basque factions were not satisfied. The military wing of the Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna ("Basque Homeland and Liberty") is thought to be responsible for several bombings and other terrorist activities intended to publicize the Basques' demands for complete political independence.
THE FIRST BASQUES IN AMERICA
Renowned as seafarers, Basque fishermen and sailors had probably reached American waters well before the voyage of Columbus in 1492. They were among the first Europeans to hunt whales off the northeastern coast of North America. When Columbus recruited his sailing crew, Basques made up the largest ethnic group on board, and they continued to participate in voyages across the Atlantic during the earliest years of European exploration of the continent. A few educated Basques held administrative posts in Spanish California, and several of the Spanish priests who founded missions there in the late 1500s were Basques. But large-scale immigration to the United States did not begin until the late 1800s.
SIGNIFICANT IMMIGRATION WAVES
The California Gold Rush brought the first waves of Basque immigrants to the United States, but most of these adventurers did not come directly from Europe. They were Basques who had immigrated earlier to Spanish colonies in South America. During the period of Spanish colonization, Basques from Spain had often taken administrative posts overseas. Political exiles also found their way to South America. In the 1820s, Basque immigrants were welcomed in Argentina, where they were able to get unused rangeland on which to raise sheep. Here, they developed the ranching and herding skills that they eventually brought to North America.
When gold was discovered in California in 1848, Basques in South America were well-positioned to take advantage of the opportunity. They could sail quickly to California, arriving well in advance of Europeans or even residents of America's eastern regions. Many European-born Basques who were living in South America came to California by this route. Large numbers of French Basques also came directly from Europe, sailing around the South American continent to San Francisco. Though it is difficult to determine the precise number of Basques who came to the United States during the Gold Rush, since many were counted as South Americans, it is evident that at least several hundred entered the country in 1848.
Robert Laxalt, Sweet Promised Land, (Harper & Brothers Publishing, New York, 1957).
"W e were in the foothills of the Basque country, but night had fallen and everything about us was lost in obscurity. Yet, as fleeting as glimpses out of memory, scenes that told us where we were, caught and hung momentarily in the passing headlights of our car, and then were gone in the darkness. There was a little boy in a beret and short trousers, and under his arm a loaf of bread that seemed as long as he was. There was a crude, wooden cart pulled by two oxen, whose nodding heads kept rhythm with the gay fringes on their horns. There was a girl in a scarf and bright peasant dress, visiting with her young man at the juncture of a country lane, whose eyes our lights brushed in passing, and whose laughter tinkled after us in the night like tiny bells."
Basque immigrants were not successful with mining and soon migrated from the gold fields to the ranchlands of southern California. Familiar with the South American style of ranching, the Basques quickly began to establish themselves in the area as herders. Because herding was an isolating activity, the job attracted single men, primarily between the ages of 16 and 30; Basque women were almost nonexistent in the United States until these men became financially established and sent for wives back in Europe. As Basques entered the ranching business, they began to raise sheep, which proved more resilient than cattle to drought and flooding. The type of ranching Basques had learned in South America, transhumance, also proved successful. It required sheep to be moved across a large open area according to seasonal needs. The animals wintered in lowland areas that the Basques either leased or purchased, and they summered in the high grazing lands of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Conditions in the west proved quite suitable for transhumance. Between 1869 and 1870, the number of sheep in Los Angeles County tripled, while the number of cattle decreased by 71 percent.
As their operations expanded, Basques in the United States began to send back to Europe for additional helpers. This pattern became so common that, according to California Basque herder Louis Irigaray in his memoir A Shepherd Watches, a Shepherd Sings, Basques in Europe expected one son to enter the priesthood, one to learn local artisan skills, and one to go to America to earn money and then return. The pattern of recruitment continued until strict immigration laws in 1924 limited the annual quota of Spanish nationals to a mere 131; these regulations effectively stopped any additional immigration from the Basque Country. After World War II, however, the situation changed. Sheepherders had become so scarce that Senator Patrick McCarran of Nevada sponsored legislation to exempt European herders from immigration quotas. Within about the next decade, more than 5,000 European Basques applied for jobs on American ranches. After 1970, however, Basque immigration slowed significantly in the wake of improved economic conditions in the Basque Country.
Because they intermarried and because many of the first Basque immigrants were counted as "Chileans," an umbrella term for all South Americans, it is difficult to determine the precise number of Basque Americans in the United States by the end of the twentieth century. In U.S. Census data from 1990, only 47,956 U. S. residents identified themselves as of Basque ethnicity, though this number may be lower than the actual population. Another estimate suggests a range of between 50,000 and 100,000. By the 1990s, it was thought that American immigration to the Basque Country had surpassed Basque immigration to the United States.
Los Angeles became the center of the Basque community in California in the 1840s and remained its largest settlement through the late 1800s. By 1886, about 2,000 Basques lived in Los Angeles, and the city's downtown area had a distinct Basque district, complete with Basque boardinghouses and handball courts. Many southern California place names are of Basque origin. As Basques increased their herds, however, the California ranges became crowded. By 1870, Basques began to spread into northern California and also Nevada, where gold and silver strikes had created a booming economy and an increased demand for sheep to feed the new miners. During the 1890s, Basques moved into Oregon and southern Idaho. By 1910, Basques had spread into all the open-range areas of the West.
The success Basque immigrants found in sheep-herding caused significant conflict, however, with the area's settled ranchers, especially cattle ranchers. At the time, grazing was permitted on public lands on a first-come basis, but ranchers who owned private holdings wanted to use adjacent public ranges as their own exclusive property. These settled ranchers resented the presence of itinerant Basque sheepherders and began harassing them and spreading anti-Basque sentiment. When the national forest system was created, most of the mountain rangeland in the West became part of that system. Though some grazing was still permitted, rights were denied to aliens and to herders who did not own ranch property—a practice that, in effect, targeted Basques. In 1934, the Taylor Grazing Act placed almost all remaining public rangeland under federal control, with the same grazing restrictions. This law effectively ended itinerant herding, and, coming at the height of the Great Depression, caused severe economic hardship to the Basque community. As a result, many Basque shepherds returned to Europe. Those who had been able to buy land, however, remained in the United States and sometimes prospered.
Though the Taylor Grazing Act damaged the livelihood of Basque Americans, it also ended the intense competition for rangeland, which improved attitudes toward Basque herders. By the mid-twentieth century, Basque sheepherders had become extremely scarce, since older generations were dying and new immigration from Europe was prohibited by harsh quotas. As a consequence, the sheep industry suffered, and by the World War II era the shortage of herders became so acute that federal legislation was enacted to encourage new immigration of sheepherders from the Basque Country. This act prompted the arrival of more than 5,000 new immigrants between 1957 and 1970. By the late twentieth century, however, the American sheep industry was in serious decline, decreasing the need for new immigrants to take herding jobs. Basques often remained in the business, however, as ranch owners and managers.
Alhough most Basque immigrants are found in the western parts of the country, some communities were established on the east coast. When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Basques from Europe did not have to sail all the way around South America to reach California. They could make the much shorter ocean journey to New York City, and then take the train from there to the western states. Though many did in fact follow this plan, some remained in the city and established a small but close-knit Basque community there. Small Basque communities also sprang up in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., and Florida.
Immigration patterns among the Basques reflected their regional distinctions in Europe. Those who settled in California, central Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana were generally from France or Navarre, while those who moved to northern Nevada, Idaho, and Oregon came from the Spanish province of Vizcaya. These groups have tended to remain relatively separate in the United States.
Acculturation and Assimilation
Basques who worked as sheepherders experienced a lonely life. They spent long months alone on the range, moving from place to place. When they returned to the towns at the end of the season, they rented rooms at Basque boardinghouses, known as ostatuak or hotelak, where they could socialize with their countrymen, speak their native language, and enjoy Basque food and drink. These boardinghouses served an essential role in maintaining Basque culture among a group who were scattered over a wide geographic area. They also became places where Basque men could meet potential wives among the young women recruited from the Basque Country to work as boardinghouse maids. Other men, once they were financially established, sent back to Europe for their sweethearts, who joined them in the United States. In this way, Basque American families maintained a strong ethnic identity through the first generation. Often, other young male relatives from the Basque Country came to help with the herds, further cementing family bonds.
The conflict between established ranchers and itinerant Basque sheepherders created some prejudice toward Basque immigrants and caused economic and political discrimination against them. Some families recall hearing epithets like "dirty black Basco" or "tramp." Even worse was the physical intimidation they suffered because of landed interests during the height of the western range wars, during which their camps were sometimes vandalized and their herds killed. Yet Basques were also respected as hard workers who were frugal with their money and conservative in their politics. And, as Caucasians, Basques did not suffer hostility based on race. After federal legislation ended competition for grazing rights, anti-Basque sentiment began to disappear. By the later decades of the twentieth century, the Basque sheepherder had acquired a highly romantic image—the opposite of the negative stereotype from earlier years.
Basque immigrants tended to remain clannish at first, socializing with other Basques—often from the same villages in Europe—and patronizing Basque businesses. However, by the second and third generations, this pattern began to change. Intermarriage with other ethnic groups became more common, and many parents urged their children to learn English—to the extent that, by 1970, only about 8,000 Basque Americans knew their ancestral language. In addition, Basques assimilated well because, unlike some immigrant groups, Basque Americans were scattered over a vast land area and never established an ethnic majority in any town or even county. It was imperative, therefore, Basques immigrants did business with and live among an ethnically different majority. At the same time, it is possible that their relatively small numbers motivated Basque Americans to emphasize their ethnic traditions more consciously than larger immigrant groups have done. The Basques recognize a person's right to claim Basque ethnicity if he or she has only one Basque ancestor and encourage Basques scattered throughout the country to participate actively in the many associations and festivals that have sprung up since the 1960s.
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
The Basque identity is based on a deeply held sense of the Basques' distinctness from other cultures. Their language, for example, includes many negative terms for non-Basques. Though Basques accepted Christianity, they maintained belief in some supernatural creatures, including Tartaro, a one-eyed giant who is usually outwitted by human beings. Basques also tell stories of the Basa-Jaun and his wife, Basa-Andre, wild forest creatures who are sometimes depicted as mischievous beings, but who at other times are described as an ogre and a witch. Basque fairies are called Laminak and, like fairies in Celtic legend, they supposedly live underground. Basques folktales often mention astiya (witches), sorcerers, magicians, and the Black Sabbath.
Elaborate masquerades or folk plays, part dance and part theater, are an ancient part of Basque culture. Scholars have found links between these events and Greek drama, as well as Medieval miracle and mystery plays. Many come from the romances of Charlemagne and others are taken from Biblical or classical subjects. Characters often include such villains as devils, infidels, demons, Turks, and sometimes Englishmen, and the action emphasizes the struggle between good and evil. The forces of good always prevail. Actors dress in colorful costumes and incorporate song, dance, and exaggerated gestures into their performances. Often, a chorus plays an important part. Masquerades have served as the basis for some of the more intricate dances performed by Basque American dance troupes.
Ancient Basque proverbs reflect peasant values of hard work and shrewd judgment: "God is a good worker, but He loves to be helped," or "A cheap donkey will eat much straw." The Basque love of home and independence can be found in sayings such as "Heavy is the hand of foreigners" and "A foreign land is a land of wolves." In a more humorous vein, the Basques say, "Old bachelors and old maids are either too good or too bad," "Gold, women, and linen should be chosen by daylight," and "Satisfy the dog with a bone and a woman with a lie." About wealth, they wonder, "Is there any river with clear water?" meaning "Is there any wealth that is honestly obtained?" Some have observed a cynical note in such sayings as "A golden key will unlock any door," or "Marriage of love, life of sadness."
Basque cuisine, based on simple peasant dishes made with fresh ingredients, is admired as one of the most delicious in Europe. Food is a serious and pleasurable thing for the Basques, who emphasize fresh, home-grown ingredients and simple preparation. Salt-cod (bacalao ) and beans are staple ingredients of the Basque Country table, and olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers are often used. Farmers traditionally make their own cheese from sheep's milk and also mill their own cider (sidrería ). Snacks or appetizers (tapas ) are popular, as are the spicy sausages known as txistorras. Chorizo sausage is also commonly served. Tuna, anchovies, and sardines are also popular. When meat is served at the Basque table, it is usually lamb or sometimes ham. Main dishes are customarily accompanied by a simple salad, often made with vegetables picked minutes before from the household garden, and are almost always served with the region's Rioja wines. Festive dishes include pastel vasco or gateau basque, a custard-filled cake essential for any celebration. Another special dessert is intzaursala, a creamy dish made with ground walnuts boiled with water and sugar and then cooked with milk.
According to María José Sevilla in Life and Food in the Basque Country, the cuisine enjoyed by Basques in France differs from that among Basques in Spain. French Basques live farther inland, and their food is based more on meat than on fish. Similarly, Basques in the United States have had to adapt their cooking to ingredients readily available in the western areas of the country. Lamb replaced fish as a food staple for Basque herders and ranchers, and beans and potatoes were also regularly cooked. Even during his lonely months out on the range, the Basque herder would always cook himself a hearty meal—often, a lamb stew with potatoes and beans—and consume it with sourdough bread and plenty of robust red wine. Herders continued this practice even during the Prohibition years, when the sale of alcohol was outlawed in the United States. Somehow, Basques made sure that red wine was always available. In some cases, they even insisted that their employment contract include a quota of wine as part of their regular supplies.
Barbecues have been very popular among Basque Americans; home-made chorizo and red wines are plentiful at these events. Because Basque boardinghouses served dinners to large numbers of residents, this "family style" dining around a large table came to be considered a Basque tradition—although it is one that evolved in response to American conditions, and is not customary in Europe. Although Basque Americans make up a very small percentage of the U.S. population, Basque restaurants are plentiful in several areas of the country. Throughout the western states, both large and small cities boast Basque restaurants, which are patronized not only by customers of Basque ancestry but also by the larger American population.
Music is extremely important in Basque culture. Old songs are sung at festivals, and summer music camps in the United States enable children to learn traditional instruments such as the txistu (flute) and the tambourine. Basque musicians also play the violin and accordion. Though Basque musicians are very skilled, their tradition emphasizes song more than instrumental accompaniment. Central to Basque musical culture are the Bertsolariak, poets who compete in festivals by improvising songs on any subject. Though Bertsolari competitions are common at Basque American gatherings, Nancy Zubiri points out in A Travel Guide to Basque America that all the Bertsolariak in the United States by the 1990s were from the Basque Country, and not American-born. The linguistic fluency required by the art form, specialists believe, has been almost impossible to acquire in the United States.
Perhaps the most recognizable piece of traditional Basque attire is the txapella, or beret, worn by many Basque men as they go about their daily business or socialize. It is also an essential part of ceremonial costumes. Male dancers typically wear white pants and shirts, with a red geriko (sash) around their waists. Sometimes they wear long white stockings with elaborate red lacings up to the knee, and a pair of bells just below the knee to ward off evil spirits. They wear white shoes with red laces. Some dance costumes include a black vest, and the men always wear the txapella. Women dancers also wear white stockings with elaborate lacings. Their blouses are white, and their full skirts are sometimes green (more common among Basques of French origin) and sometimes red (among Basques of Spanish origin). The women wear black vests, and white head scarves. On their feet they wear abarkak, or leather shoes.
DANCES AND SONGS
Dance is a central and very colorful part of Basque life. According to the southern California Basque dance troupe Gauden Bat, there are over 400 different Basque folk dances, many of which are associated with particular regions. Only men perform traditional or ritual dances, while both men and women perform recreational dances, or jota. Many of the most celebrated Basque folk dances involve arm movements with sticks, swords, or hoops and demand great agility. John Ysursa, an expert in Basque culture, has emphasized the influence of Basque dances on other traditions, pointing out that many steps in modern ballet may have derived from Basque folk dances.
Basque Americans began organizing dance festivals as early as the 1930s, and these festivals have expanded since the 1960s. The Oinkari Basque Dancers of Idaho, wncorporated in 1964, have toured extensively at Basque American cultural events as well as at such venues as the World's Fair exhibitions (1962, 1964, 1971, and 1974) and the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The Oinkari Basque Dancers list an extensive repertoire that includes both secular and religious dances. One of their most colorful dances is from the Zuberoa'ko Maskarada, or Zuberoan masquerades. Scholars believe that it originated as part of an ancient fertility rite. Dancers come forward one by one and perform individual steps around a wine glass, finally stepping onto it and then leaping away. Another thrilling dance is the Amaia'ko Ezpata Dantza, the sword dance of Amaia, based on the history of the Basques in the seventh century. Eighteen men, formed to represent two armies, perform the piece, which involves high kicks and spinning twists.
In the Xemein'go Dantza, a dance symbolizing the struggle between good and evil, a dozen sword-bearing men dance in a circle around their leader, who is believed to represent St. Michael, the archangel. They then hoist him onto their swords and lift him above their heads, as two men dance in front. The Kaxarranka, a dance from the fishing town of Lekeitio, is performed to honor St. Peter, patron saint of fishermen. In this dance, six to eight men carry a large arch on which a man dances high above their heads. The procession winds through the town, stopping at designated areas. The Donibane, based on a traditional Basque dance, was adapted by Jon Onatibia. It is usually performed at night around an open fire and is associated with the feast of St. John. The Euzkadi, of pagan origin, is danced around a huge bonfire meant to scare away evil spirits.
Songs are also integral to Basque cultural functions. Among the best known are "Gernika'ko Arbolo," which honors the Tree of Gernika, a symbol of Basque democracy, and "Boga, Boga, " which describes the difficult life of fishermen. "Aitoren Ixkuntz Zarra" tells of the beauties of the Basque language and urges the Basque people to speak their native tongue. Indeed, Basque choirs have been organized in the United States as a means of preserving the Basque language and culture. The Anaiak Danok ("we are all brothers") performed in Boise, Idaho, during the 1970s. It later became the Biotzetik Basque Choir.
The biggest holiday among Basques is the feast of their patron saint, Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. It is celebrated on the last weekend in July, and includes a mass and picnic, music, dancing, and sports contests. Basque Americans in different states also organize specific festivities throughout the year. In Boise, they have held an annual Sheepherders' Ball since 1929. Basque Americans have also held several jaialdi, or international festivals, at which athletes, musicians, and dancers from the Basque Country and the United States have performed.
Though there have been no health or psychological issues identified as specific to Basque Americans, Basques do have distinct physiological traits. Of all European peoples, Basques have the highest rate of blood type O and the lowest incidence of blood type B. They also have the highest rate in the world of Rh negative blood factor.
The Basque language, Euskara (also spelled Euskera) has ancient origins that have remained obscure. Linguists have been unable to establish a relationship between the Basque language and any other known language groups. Although some faint similarities with Finnish, Georgian, and Quechua have been found, these remain inconclusive. The fact that several Basque words for tools derive from the root word for "stone" has led specialists to suggest that the language is among the most ancient in Europe, and may link Basque culture to the prehistoric people who created the Lascaux cave paintings.
Basque is considered a particularly difficult language to learn. Basques joke that the devil himself spent years trying to learn the language in order to be able to tempt the Basque people, but after seven years had mastered only two words, ez and bai (no and yes). The basic structure of Euskara uses agglutination, or the practice of adding prefixes or suffixes to words to create different meanings. Though Euskara shows influences from Celtic and Iberian languages as well as from Latin, it has remained largely unchanged for centuries. It has not, however, enjoyed a strong literary tradition. Because of Latin's primacy during the Middle Ages, works in Euskara were not transcribed in writing; instead, the language was passed down orally. The first printed book in Euskara did not appear until 1545. Some scholars consider this a central reason that the Basque did not produce a particularly rich literature.
Several regional dialects of Basque include Guipuzcoan, Iparralde, Alto Navarro Septentrional, Alto Navarro Meridional, Biscayan, and Anvala. Souletin, spoken by Basques in France, is the dialect most distinct from the others. Because this proliferation of dialects was a hindrance to greater Basque unity in Europe, a unified Basque language known as Batua was developed. Verb forms in Batua were modeled on the Guipuzcoan and Iparralde dialects. Batua also standardized spelling. It has not, however, been introduced to the United States, where Basque speakers continue to use the dialects they inherited from their immigrant ancestors.
One estimate from the late 1990s suggests that Basque is spoken by close to a million people in the Basque Country, but other accounts place the number around 700,000. About 8,100 people in the United States count themselves as Euskaldunak, or Basque speakers. The language was suppressed in Spain during Franco's dictatorship, but interest in preserving Euskara has increased since the 1960s.
GREETINGS AND POPULAR EXPRESSIONS
When Basque Americans get together, they often exclaim "Zapiak Bat!" This expression means "The seven are one," and refers to the seven provinces that comprise the Basque Country. Another saying emphasizing unity is "Gauden-Bat," which means "Let us be one." And the expression "Aurrak ikasi zazue Euskeraz mintzatzen" ("Young children must learn to speak Basque") shows the importance Basque Americans place on their linguistic heritage.
Family and Community Dynamics
The Basques' solitary lifestyle caused Basque immigrants to develop a high degree of independence and self-sufficiency. For herders out on the high ranges or ranchers at remote settlements, opportunities for socializing were few. Eager and diligent workers, they preferred to work for themselves or for a family business when possible. Basque Americans did not begin organizing cultural groups until about the 1930s, but even then Basques of French origin and those of Spanish origin had little contact with one another. In 1973, however, a group of Basque Americans formed the North American Basque Organizations, Inc., to unite the various local groups and promote more interaction among Basque Americans of different backgrounds. In A Travel Guide to Basque America, Zubiri observed that though Basque Americans continue to harbor some regional differences, they consider it important to present a unified Basque culture to the outside world.
Basque culture in general emphasized hard work and independence over intellectual pursuits. These values transplanted well to the American West, where academic learning was not considered necessary to succeed in agricultural work or entrepreneurial endeavors. Often growing up on isolated ranches, children in Basque American families had relatively limited access to good schools, and their parents tended not to emphasize higher learning. According to William A. Douglass in Amerikanuak, Basque American children often excelled in high school but were less likely than others to go on to college. For this reason, proportionally few Basque Americans have entered the professions.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
Women in Basque American households often worked hard alongside their husbands to make their ranches or small businesses work. Women packed food and supplies to send out to the herders, and also cooked, sewed, and performed countless physical chores around the ranch. Though in many ways this kind of work resembled the responsibilities held by Basque women in Europe, in the American West families often lived at far greater distances from one another than they had in the Basque Country and were much more isolated. Louis Irigaray, a California Basque shepherd, wrote in his memoir that his mother found ranch life boring and profoundly lonely. In towns, Basque American women also played significant roles. Paquita Garatea, a professor of history at Grays Harbor college in Aberdeen, Washington, researched women's work in Basque American communities for her master's thesis. She found that many boardinghouses and hotels were run not by men, but by their wives.
During the first decades of Basque immigration, many men sent back to their native villages in Europe for brides. If the man had accumulated enough to afford the trip himself, he might return to the Basque Country to choose a wife from his own village. Other men asked a matchmaker to arrange marriages for them. Many Basque boardinghouses employed a few maids from the Basque Country, who were frequently courted and wed by the hotels' patrons. In later generations, however, men more often courted local women.
Basque American weddings are often gala affairs, with the entire Basque community in attendance. After the church ceremony, a large feast is held, complete with good wine, music, song, and dance. Weddings provide a welcome opportunity to socialize and strengthen community ties.
Funerals are taken very seriously by Basques and serve as an occasion for Basque Americans to affirm their ethnic bonds. They consider it important to attend funerals of other Basques even when they scarcely know the family involved and sometimes travel hundreds of miles to be present. This funerary obligation was of particular importance during the early 1900s, when many Basques in America lived isolated lives on the range and had few social contacts. Their families back in the Basque Country worried that these men might die alone, deprived of a proper burial ceremony. Consequently, the Basque American community took great care to bury each of their dead with due ceremony. Often, they hired a photographer to take a picture of the group gathered around the deceased's coffin at the cemetery, to send back to his family in Europe as proof that his community had not abandoned him. Sometimes, the deceased's native village in Basque Country would also hold a funeral for him, using a block of wood for a coffin.
In America, Basques have formed associations to help provide flowers and memorial services for their deceased. In Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, and Venezuela they established their own burial crypts and cemeteries. Basque associations in New York City and Boise offer their members burial insurance. Basque funerals follow the rituals of the Catholic church, and if a Basque priest is available, he offers the funeral mass in Euskara. Until about the mid-1940s, it was customary to hold a gauela, or wake, at the home of the deceased or at a Basque hotel. It was also traditional to make a financial donation for a mass for the deceased, a practice that the mourners reciprocated when the occasion arose. After the ceremony, a funeral feast was always held.
INTERACTIONS WITH OTHER ETHNIC GROUPS
Basques have lived successfully among different ethnic groups in the United States. Because of their small numbers, they have had to work and associate with many non-Basques; but have also supported each other through clubs, sports, and other activities. Though Basque Americans express a deep appreciation of their distinct culture they tolerate intermarriage.
The Basques were the earliest civilization on the Iberian peninsula to be converted to Christianity, which occurred in the seventh century a.d. (one source says tenth century). The Roman Catholic Church continues to play an important role in the lives of Basque Americans. According to Father Jean Eliçagaray, isolated sheepherders often kept their faith by repeating the prayers and hymns they had learned by heart in Euskara, and having the Catholic liturgy available in their native language was very important. Since around 1960, the U.S. Catholic Conference has sponsored a Basque priest from France to minister to Basque Americans in the western states and to celebrate masses in Euskara ; these are broadcast by many radio stations throughout the West. Catholic rituals such as baptisms and first communions are important social as well as religious events for the Basque community.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Basque Americans are unique in that they are the only ethnic group in the country associated almost exclusively with one business, sheepherding. Yet, significant as their presence has been in that industry, they have also succeeded in several other enterprises. They have traditionally worked in agricultural jobs or at manual labor. In addition to ranching and herding, Basque Americans have opened small businesses such as dairy farms, or turned their boardinghouses into restaurants. Less often, they have taken urban jobs in meat-packing plants, bakeries, or construction. Relatively few Basque Americans, however, have entered professional fields—a trend that some have linked to the group's traditional indifference toward higher education. However, a few Basque Americans have successfully entered politics.
Politics and Government
Most Basques who settled in the American West expected their stay to be temporary. They planned to work for a few years, save their money, and then return to the Basque homeland. Though, in the end, many remained in the United States, their ambivalence about where they should finally settle caused many to delay the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship. Thus their political involvement was relatively low in the first few generations of Basque immigrants. Like the majority of the population in the western states, Basque Americans have generally supported conservative causes and the Republican party. Although Basques have served as mayors or other local officials, few have sought higher office. Paul Laxalt (1922—) became governor of Nevada and was then elected to the U.S. Senate, making him the only Basque to be elected to a federal post. Peter T. Cenarrusa (1917—) served as the Idaho secretary of state, and Anthony Yturri (1914—) served several terms in the Oregon senate. In Nevada, Peter Echeverria (1918—) served as a state legislator and as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. John Garamendi, a graduate of the University of California , Berkeley, spent several years in California state politics after a Peace Corps stint in Ethiopia. He was elected to the state assembly and then to the state senate, where he served 14 years. Despite several subsequent failed campaigns, he was elected as California Insurance Commissioner in 1990. Garamendi ran for governor in 1994.
During World War I, many Basque immigrants were harshly criticized for refusing to serve in the U.S. army. Some who were drafted chose to renounce their new U.S. citizenship to avoid service. Often, these men were denied the chance to reapply for citizenship—a condition that deprived them of grazing rights in the western states. This apathy toward military service was consistent with the Basque pattern of indifference toward political causes in either Spain or France. Douglass reports that throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the rate of military evasion in the Basque provinces was consistently high. Military service was not a significant issue among Basque Americans, however, in World War II. Idaho Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa, for example, proudly cites his record as a Marine fighter pilot during that war. He retired with the rank of major.
RELATIONS WITH THE BASQUE COUNTRY
Basque Americans have remained generally indifferent to political events in either France or Spain. Even the Basque separatist cause has elicited little enthusiasm from Basques in the United States. While some groups and individuals in Idaho have denounced Spanish government crackdowns on Basque separatist activities, other Basques throughout the West have expressed no interest in the matter, which they consider an urban and middle-class movement unrelated to their rural concerns. This attitude differs markedly from the views of Basques throughout Mexico and South America, who have generally showed strong support for Basque nationalism.
Individual and Group Contributions
The University of Nevada, Reno, has developed an acclaimed Basque Studies program. It offers course work in Basque language, history, and culture and publishes the Basque Book Series, which numbers more than 30 titles.
Though Basque American individuals have not established themselves as notable visual artists, immigrant sheepherders developed an anonymous art form unique in the American West. The herders carved the trunks of aspen trees, often cutting their initials and dates into the bark, but sometimes adding short thoughts, poems, or drawings—usually about women or sex. As time passed, the aspen would produce scar tissue around the cuts in a manner that outlined them. As many as 500,000 such carved trees may exist in the western states. One carver who signed his name "Borel" appeared to have had some formal art training. The trees he carved are near Kyburz Flat in California's Tahoe National Forest. Dr. Joxe Mallea of the University of Nevada, Reno, who has specialized in the study of Basque tree carvings and has been instrumental in their preservation on public land, called Borel "an amazing carver."
The single most significant piece of art for Basque Americans is the National Basque Monument in Nevada. Unveiled in Reno on August 27, 1989, the five-ton bronze piece was created by renowned Basque sculptor Nestor Basterretxea, who named it Bakardade (Solitude). The sculpture depicts a sheepherder carrying a lamb on his back under a full moon. Not all Basque Americans appreciated the memorial's abstract design, and some complained that it did not adequately memorialize their history. Yet the committee that approved the design felt that the memorial would stimulate discussion about the Basque cultural heritage.
Two Basque language newspapers were published in the Los Angeles area during the late 1800s. Lawyer Martin Bascailuz published Escualdun Gazeta, the first newspaper in the world printed exclusively in the Basque language, during the 1880s. When Bascailuz's reputation suffered after his alleged mismanagement of a wealthy client's estate, the paper folded and was succeeded by California'ko Eskual Herria, published by journalist José Goytino. During the 1890s, the large population of Basques in central California prompted the Bakersfield Daily Californian to print occasional articles in Basque, and during the 1930s, the Boise [Idaho] Capital News also included stories in Basque. From 1973 to 1977, Brian Wardle, a non-Basque, published The Voice of the Basques from Boise. Basques in the San Francisco area, the majority of whom were of French origin, subscribed to Le Californienne, which later became Journal Français d'Amerique.
Basque Americans have been relatively slow to establish a literary tradition, in part because so much of their background was based on an oral culture. In addition, most of the Basque intelligentsia who emigrated chose to go to South America rather than the United States, leaving the American West with virtually no foundation to support Basque literature. One writer, however, has received extensive recognition. Robert Laxalt, brother of politician Paul Laxalt, has earned critical acclaim for his books exploring the Basque American experience. In The Basque Hotel (1993), he chronicles the coming-of-age of a young boy whose parents run a boardinghouse in Nevada. Child of the Holy Ghost (1992) tells of his journey to the Basque Country to discover his parents' roots, and The Governor's Mansion (1994) recounts how the oldest son enters politics in Nevada. Sweet Promised Land (1988), Laxalt's first book, is a memoir of his immigrant father. Laxalt has also published the novella A Cup of Tea in Pamplona (1993) and text for the photo essay A Time We Knew: Images of Yesterday in the Basque Homeland (1990).
Among the more celebrated Basque American musicians is accordion player Jim Jausoro. Jausoro and his partner, Domingo Ansotegui, began playing dance music at Basque festivals and gatherings in the 1940s and eventually became quite well-known. Since 1960, Jausoro has played regularly for Boise's Oinkari dancers. In 1985, he was chosen as one of twelve master traditional artists in the United States to receive the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Jausoro has also received a lifetime achievement award from the North American Basque Organization.
Basques have brought several unique sports to America, and they enjoy participating in athletic contests at festivals. Many of these events can be traced to the physical work Basques did in the Pyrenees. Wood chopping is a very popular event at Basque American festivals, as are weight carrying and stone lifting, all of which allow athletes to demonstrate their skill as well as their strength and endurance. Handball games are also an essential part of Basque American life. Pelota, or handball, was developed from the medieval game of jeu de paume. According to Zubiri, Basques invented the basic modern handball game as well as several variations. Jai alai, played with basket-like extensions (txistera ) that are fastened to the wrist, is probably the best-known of these variations. Basque immigrants began building pelota courts soon after they arrived in the United States, and their love of the sport is considered an important factor in unifying the American Basque community. From the earliest days of Basque immigration, weekly pelota matches were held throughout the western states, enabling people scattered over a large geographic area to get together for competitions. Until World War II, every significant Basque community in the United States had one or more pelota courts. Jai alai, on the other hand, has been most popular in Florida, the first state to boast a professional team. Mus, a card game, is another common pastime when Basque Americans get together.
Basque Studies Program Newsletter.
Semiannual publication covering the Basque Studies Program and Basque-related news. Carries articles about Basques in old and new worlds and news of research in Basque studies. Recurring features include notices of books, films, and program activities and announcements.
Contact: Linda White, Editor.
Address: University of Nevada, Getchell Library/322, Reno, Nevada 89557-0012.
Telephone: (702) 784-4854.
Fax: (702) 784-1355.
E-mail: [email protected]
Journal of Basque Studies in America.
Published by the Society of Basque Studies in America.
Contact: Jose Ramon Cengotitabengoa.
Address: 19 Colonial Gardens, Brooklyn, New York 11209.
Telephone: (718) 745-1141.
Fax: (718) 745-2503.
E-mail: [email protected]
Several radio stations in rural western areas have featured or continue to broadcast Basque radio programs. These programs include music, local community announcements, and sometimes even church services in Basque.
Organizations and Associations
The Basque Center.
Provides meeting space and social activities, rehearsal space for Oinkari Basque Dancers and Boise'ko Gasteak Dancers (a children's group).
Address: 601 Grove Street, Boise, Idaho 83702.
Basque Educational Organization (BEO).
Founded in 1983; offers Basque language, dance, music, and sports classes; sponsors theater and educational programs; maintains museum and reference library.
Contact: Martin Minaberry, Coordinator.
Address: P.O. Box 640037, San Francisco, California 94164-0037.
Telephone: (650) 583-4035.
Fax: (707) 769-9077.
North American Basque Organizations, Inc. (NABO).
Umbrella organization which includes 31 local clubs; maintains cultural relations with Basque government, French Basque Cultural Institute, and other international centers; sponsors music festivals, summer camps, and sports events; maintains website; publishes newsletter.
Address: 1101 Court Street, Elko, Nevada 89801.
E-mail: [email protected] Online: http://www.naboinc.com
Museums and Research Centers
Basque Museum and Cultural Center.
Maintains museum displays, classrooms, archives, research library; exhibits include preserved Basque home and boardinghouse.
Address: 611 Grove Street, Boise, Idaho 83702.
Telephone: (208) 343-2671.
E-mail: [email protected]
Society of Basque Studies in America (SBSA).
Founded in 1978; sponsors art exhibits, speakers' bureau and hall of fame; conducts research; publishes Journal of Basque Studies in America (annual).
Contact: Jose Ramon Cengotitabengoa, President.
Address: c/o Ignacio R. M. Galbris, 19 Colonial Gardens, Brooklyn, New York 11209.
Telephone: (718) 745-1141.
Fax: (630) 369-5207.
E-mail: [email protected]
Sources for Additional Study
Douglass, William A. and Jon Bilbao. Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1975.
Irigaray, Louis, and Theodore Taylor. A Shepherd Watches, a Shepherd Sings: Growing Up a Basque Shepherd in California's San Joaquin Valley. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1977.
Laxalt, Robert. Sweet Promised Land. Harper & Row, 1957. Reprinted, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1988.
Portraits of Basques in the New World, edited by Richard W. Etulain. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1999.
Sevilla, María José. Life and Food in the Basque Country. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1990.
Urza, Carmelo. Solitude: Art and Symbolism in the National Basque Monument. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1993.
Zubiri, Nancy. A Travel Guide to Basque America: Families, Feasts and Festivals. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998.