A discussion of what it means to be
"Basque" can be a touchy subject. One's understanding of being Basque
is a very personal matter for some, and these individuals are certain of
several aspects or elements which contribute to their Basque identity.
Yet what characterizes Euskal Herria or the Basque Country is the wide
assortment of customs and traditions. This diversity of cultural
expression—in such a small area—provides for varied definitions of what
is means to be Basque.
t remains a marvel
that our Basque ancestors of long ago did not go the route of most all
other small ethnic groups that became assimilated by the neighboring,
dominate population. Instead, the Basques sustained a unique "island"
culture in their small corner of western Europe. It is not because
others did not try: for example Euskal Herria was "visited" by numerous
groups and armies since the time of the Romans. Nor can geography
solely explain the endurance of western Europe's oldest ethnic group.
The reasons Basques are still around today consist of several
explanations, but one of them must include the "buru gogor" factor.
The reason for the
Basque's perseverance should come as no surprise after a moment of
reflection. To those who danced in older dance groups, or served on a
Basque club board of directors, or worked with other Basques, the answer
is soon apparent: Basques are stubborn! Therefore, it is most probable
that the Basques have endured because of their hard-headed refusal to
abandon their language and traditions.
"Basqueness" is a
difficult thing to define, and some definitions contain several parts.
One version is Txistu, Txistorra eta Txapela--one is Basque if one plays
the txistu, eats txistora or Basque sausage and wears a txapela or
beret. Another's definition would insist that one be born in the
Basque country, while another's include that one speak Euskara or the
The intent of this
article is not to correct or critique one's perception of "Basqueness"--a
difficult thing to define--nor to set forth the dictates on what is and
is not Basque. Instead the primary objective is to offer a word of
caution that asks for a moment of reflection before blurting out "that's
culture is unique--it is not completely American nor is it purely
European. With only a few exceptions, for example, you will not find
the same "Basque" food that we are accustomed to here in our
Basque-American restaurants if you travel to the Basque country. Many
of our Basque-American restaurants derived from the early Basque
boarding houses--hence family style dining.
Houses. For many Basque immigrants here in America, the
Ostatua, or Basque Boarding House, became a home away from home.
Pictured here is the former Star Boarding House in Boise, Idaho.
In 1911 there were six Basque boarding houses clustered together
in central downtown Boise; the Star opened in 1903 and it had a
canopied handball court.
It was around the dining tables of
these Basque boarding houses that the American style of Basque
cuisine was born. While sharing some things in common with
its European cousin, Basque food in America is not synonymous
with Basque food back in the European homeland.
The American context added
new elements, but traditional staples remain. Many restaurants
and Basque clubs continue to serve Basque delicacies for the
daring diner that include “tripota / morcilla” or blood
sausages, “txerri patak” or pigs-feet, and of course “Rocky
You can really stump
a European Basque if you ask them if they know about the Basque drink--"picon
punch?" For that matter, Basques in Idaho are not really familiar with
it either. It would be too hasty, however, to dismiss a picon-punch or
the Basque-American style of dining as not being Basque. For some,
these and other elements are Basque because they have made them so.
A picon-punch, for
example, derives from a French liquor familiar to those herders who came
from the Iparralde (north or French side of the Basque country). They
added a few other ingredients, and it slowly became their drink of
choice. Basques from Bizkaia who make up most of the Basque
population in Idaho, on the other hand, did not have this French liquor
in their homeland, nor here. (Don't fret, because they made due with
good Kentucky spirits). For some, it is a "Basque" drink, and you're
not going to change their mind if you tell them it isn't. There are
many more such examples, but the point is not to immediately dismiss
something that we don't recognize or understand as not being Basque.
are different from our European cousins. We cannot be like them--nor
they like us--because of different circumstances. Therefore, it is
unrealistic to copy everything that they do across the Atlantic.
Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of Euskal Herria. It remains the
focal point of our heritage, because much of what we seek to preserve
here derives from the traditions brought over. Therefore for some
things, the Basque country should be where we should look for guidance
traditions of the Basques are multi-faceted. This photo is
from the historical region of Lapurdi. Very few Basques
from this region immigrated to the United States making these
dances unfamiliar to many Basques here.
Gara from Reno performed these dances it triggered the comment
from a spectator: "that's not Basque." How is it when
someone hasn't seen all of the Basque country's traditions that
they become an expert on what is and is not Basque?
The comment that
triggered this editorial concerned a new dance costume. Years ago the
University of Nevada "Zenbat Gara" dancers presented the carnival dances
from the province of Lapurdi--dances new to most of us here in America.
In this case, it makes sense that we should look to Lapurdi for our
model. This group followed the patterns of those costumes which called
for the men to wear hats consisting of a hat adorned with flowers. This
is consistent with other headgear in carnival dances, but the only thing
we have seen here for the men are bonetas or txapelas. While most of us
would all agree that the beret is "Basque," that does not disqualify all
other headgear. Many dances also call for the use of a scarf instead of
a beret. Remember that many costumes derived from daily wear, and
a scarf could be just as useful as a beret for blocking the sun's rays.
dismissing something as not being Basque, take a moment to consider that
there might be a story there that you do not know about. For some
Basques, that dance, costume, word or custom that you do not recognize
is something very real for them. Therefore, it is not only unfair to
quickly dismiss something as not being Basque, but very presumptuous.
The image at
the top of this article is the proto-typical photo of Basque
dancers, and many hold this to be "the" Basque dance costume
while it is only "a" costume.
costumes were oftentimes yesterday's everyday wear, and there
was a variety from person to person and place to place.
Whereas many men's dances were based on primarily white
costumes, not every woman wore a red skirt so there was plenty
Recall that few have
traveled through all of our Basque-American communities and throughout
Euskal Herria. The fact of the matter is that most all of those who
came here from Europe knew only a small portion of their homeland. I
grew up in Idaho, and I'll bet that not more than a dozen European-born
Basques there have ever traveled to the province of Zuberoa. Now I live
in Chino, CA and though "Gernikako Arbola" is sung to begin the
festivals here, I wonder how many have traveled to Gernika to see this
tree or to the province of Bizkaia?
there are some things
that are more "Basque" than others, but it becomes a tricky endeavor
sorting through them. The Basques have persevered because of their
insistence over dividing "us" from "them." But this strategy can be
questioned now in a world that is continuously becoming more
homogenous. There are concentrated efforts underway in the Basque
country to bridge regional differences and to work together to promote
their shared heritage. Here in the United States, we Basques are few,
so if we hope to sustain our heritage here, we should try to get along
together and respect the various ways of "being Basque." And remember
that there is always more to learn about our Basque heritage--just like
everything else. There are seven provinces with hundreds of towns in
the Basque country, and nearly three dozen different Basque clubs in
NABO, making for at least that many ways of being Basque.