Bakersfield Basque Symposium  

Originally published May 31, 2006 by John M. Ysursa. Neither NABO or the Basque Government is responsible for the following content.

The dream is to one day create a viable Basque Studies Program in California. An early step was taken on the eve of the annual Bakersfield Basque festival with a successful Basque symposium on the campus of California State University, Bakersfield.

The three states with the largest number of Basques are California, Idaho and Nevada--in that order.  Two of these states now boast university level Basque study programs:  forty years ago the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno was initiated and then last year the Cenarrusa Center for Basque Studies collaboration with Boise State University in Idaho was inaugurated.  That leaves California were most of our Basques live with no viable formal program.  An initiative has begun to see if some day soon a Basque Studies Program can come to fruition at California State University, Bakersfield.  It's a big dream, but so were those in Reno and Boise. 

So now the first steps are being taken to see if all the right pieces can come together to make this dream a reality, and this culminated this last Memorial Day weekend with a Basque Symposium on the eve of the annual Bakersfield Basque festival.  The event was co-sponsored by the California State University, Bakersfield and the Kern County Basque Club and ended with a packed house.  The photographs from NABO's touring photo exhibit provided the backdrop for an engaging three hour event.  Not a bad start for something that might well be a living legacy for us in the years to come.

Assisting in this effort is Steven Gamboa, Ph.D.  A Chino Basque native, Dr. Gamboa is presently teaching at the CSU-Bakersfield campus in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department.  He has served to initially bring together interested parties from the university and Basque communities to look into the possibility of creating a Basque Studies Program at CSU-Bakersfield.  There was an initial effort at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1995 with the founding of the Jose Miguel de Barandiaran Chair of Basque Studies to create something, but what was noticeably absent was a visible and vital Basque community in the area (note Boise and Reno both have a sizeable Basque population).  So if things haven't really flourished at UC Santa Barbara, why try it again in Bakersfield?

So yes many might pose the question "Why Bakersfield"?  Several reasons actually, but a main one is the following:  Basques are well known in Kern County.  Arguably, after the Basque community of Boise, Idaho, Basques in Bakersfield are well known in the surrounding community.  Whereas there might well be more Basques up northern California in the bay area, they are largely unknown by most of their non-Basque neighbors in that larger metropolitan area because of the sheer high numbers of people living there.  In Bakersfield, meanwhile, many from the community know of Basques from having gone to school with one or more, meeting one in work, or of course because of the famous Basque restaurants there.

The Bakersfield Basque restaurant experience helps to explain why Bakersfield might well be a ideal location to create a Basque Studies Program.  In our Basque-American world, Bakersfield is known for its fine Basque restaurants; it's always a pleasure to go to one or more to sample the cuisine and enjoy the company.  One notes, with few exceptions, that at any given time in these restaurants that most of the patrons are not Basque; i.e., the success of the many restaurants is not because of the Basques but moreso because of the larger Bakersfield community that goes there.  Many people of Bakersfield know about the Basques, and that's the key if there is going to be a sustainable Basque Studies Program because it will not suffice to have only Basques supporting it and taking courses, attending symposiums, etc.  The larger community, to an extent, will have to want to embrace this. 

After some initial exploratory meetings with interested parties from the University and the Basque community, the idea was to put on something concrete to first see if people would even come.  Thus the idea of a symposium came into place.  The afternoon session commenced with a talk by Bakersfield native Philippe Duhart (pictured above).  Graduating from Cal State Bakersfield, he is now headed to UCLA for graduate studies.  He presented on overview of the Bakersfield Basque community and how multiple generations (i.e., immigrant Basques from Europe and Basques born in America) of Bakersfield Basques have gone about creating a Basque synthesis that minimized the divisions of old (i.e., the "Spanish" & "French" Basque labels and mindsets) to instead concentrate on a shared sense of being Basque.  Bakersfield boasts a large Basque population that reaches back across a century, and there's a real pride in being Basque.

Teresa Fernandez Ulloa, born in Bilbao and now teaching at CSU-Bakersfield in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, gave an introductory talk as to the status of Euskara or the Basque language in the Basque country of Europe today.  There is both good and bad news:  the good news is that the number of Basque speakers is increasing in Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa; the bad news is that the number is shrinking in Lapurdi, Benafarroa, Zuberoa and Nafarroa.  Whereas the former region (collectively taking the name of Euskadi) has benefited from years of a formal, government sponsored campaign to promote the language, the other four have not.  Lapurdi, Benafarroa and Zuberoa are only a part of a larger French department or administrative zone and Paris has never really shown an interest in promoting Basque.  Meanwhile Nafarroa is its own autonomous community that possess the means but collectively has abandoned the larger will to continue promoting the language.

The symposium aimed to provide a varied assortment of information about the Basque on various levels.  Since its publication in 1998, Nancy Zubiri's book now newly updated and revised in its second edition, A Travel Guide to Basque America is the first-ever guide to America's Basque-American community.  The author presented her book to the audience and highlighted some of its features.  The new edition updates the original in hundreds of ways, including new cultural and community efforts to preserve Basque culture in America.  This book will be serving as the background text for many more Astero articles to come, and it's essential for anyone interested in exploring the Basque-American story.

The keynote speaker for the inaugural symposium was Gloria Totoricaguena, Ph.D., the new director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.  Outside of the Basque country, the CBS (formerly the Basque Studies Program) is the premiere Basque research institute.  Founded forty years ago, the CBS continues to yield top-notch academic works, including their own Basque series of publications, most of which are available in paperback.

Dr. Totoricaguena has consistently shown her support for this effort to create something at CSU Bakersfield.  When approached by organizers, she said she would be willing to assist however she could and more than made good on this pledge by making the drive down from Reno to not only give a talk at the symposium, but then also to meet with University officials and Basque community leaders to explore various strategies of making the dream of the Basque Studies Program at CSU-Bakersfield a reality.  Her talk built upon her years of research in the Basque Diaspora (Basques and their descendants living outside the Basque country of Europe) and demonstrated the necessity of Basque-Americans needing to think in new ways, as things have changed in our modern world, if the preservation of the culture remains the goal.  One key way of thinking anew is the creation of a Basque program at CSU Bakersfield.

The symposium then culminated with a performance by the women's vocal group NOKA.   NOKA is composed of three women of Basque descent from Chino, CA: Andréa  Bidart, Begoña Echeverria, and Cathy Petrissans.  NOKA sang songs from their second CD "Nokatu" that available at  Their songs consist of contemporary and traditional Basque songs, with a special interest in those about women and these three fine singers put on quite a show.  In addition to being entertaining, their program was audience friendly, employing a Powerpoint format to  post the lyrics to their songs with simultaneous English translations.  It was a great finish to a great event.

So now it remains to be seen if this long-range dream of creating a Basque studies program at CSU Bakersfield becomes a reality.  The possibility of its creation is worth the effort becasue a program at this campus would serve as a great supplement to the local Basque club and community and vis-versa.  Both might well provide key parts of a vital synergy as complementary part.  Tying in an institutional means of educating will go a long way in keeping a Basque identity alive.  The University would also benefit as well, including drawing upon the dynamism of this local ethnic community.  However this will not be built overnight, and there are many things that still need to be decided and developed down the road--and it will take work to get it done.  But if this inaugural event was any indicator, we got a glimpse of what it all might be like and it looked pretty good.


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