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Story Publication logo April 29, 2021

“We are because they were. Because we are, they will be.” A Community Fights for Its Identity in a Pandemic

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William & Mary students completed the 10th Sharp Writer-in-Residence Program, working with Pulitzer...

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Image of the outside of the Boise Basque Museum at night.
The Basque Center at the top of the Basque Block in Boise, Idaho, normally booked solid in the month of October with community events and celebrations, was the site of early voting in October 2020. Image courtesy of Boise Basque Museum and Cultural Center. United States.

In the heart of downtown Boise, less than half a mile from the Idaho State Capitol, the standard gray asphalt of the western city gives way to bright green concrete pavers. For the length of a city block, scarlet diamonds the width of the street punctuate the sea of green. It is bookended by two hooked crosses in green, white, and red. This is the Basque Block.

Indeed, more than 5,000 miles from their homeland in northwest Spain, those flags hanging from every light post mark a little piece of the Basque Country in Idaho for all those who count themselves as members of the Basque diaspora in the United States. "Boise is the 'Disneyland' of the Basque Country," local translator and Basque teacher Oihana Andión joked.

But today, more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Basque Block is quiet. Once the site of cultural events and festivals, now there is no folk dancing, many of the restaurants are take-out only, and the historic boarding house is closed— you can't spray 110-year-old furnishings down with Lysol after visitors leave. The vast rooms of the Basque Center, normally booked solid for community events, were instead the site of early voting in Boise in October. 

These closures have affected many of the most crucial institutions for members of the Basque diaspora across the United States; that is, those whose heritage links them to the Basque Country, an autonomous region in northern Spain and the surrounding area in southwest France. Monthly or weekly meals at the local Basque club, dance lessons, matches of pelota, a sport from the Basque Country, and traditional card games of mus are all canceled, or reimagined online.

For a population whose demographics are changing and whose funding is often limited, COVID-19 has created a barrier not just to connection, but to survival. It has forced a reckoning (not for the first time) about what it means to be Basque when everything it used to mean becomes impossible.

"The older generation built the foundation," said Kylie Bermensolo, education programs specialist at The Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise. "But it has to be owned and adapted by the younger generation, and that will be the ‘make or break’ in the next five, 10, 15 years. COVID has forced us to move towards the younger generation."

The 2000 census identified around 57,000 people of Basque heritage living in the United States, concentrated mostly in the Western states of California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. Migration to the United States from the Basque Country began during the California Gold Rush of the 19th century, but many also fled the Basque Country for the U.S. during the repressive reign of Francisco Franco in Spain in the 20th century.

According to Ziortza Gandarias Beldarrain, assistant professor of Basque studies at Boise State University, the diaspora was "a candle in the night" for the Basque culture, making important contributions from abroad to Basque literature, with intellectuals helping to standardize the Basque language while it was forbidden in Spain.

However, tallying Basque diaspora in the United States or elsewhere is difficult because Basque status is hard to define.

 "How Basque do you have to be to be Basque?" Bermensolo asked, partly joking.

 To be Basque means different things to different members of the community, especially among a people whose identity is linked not just to cultural, but genetic, heritage. These two strains are often invoked in discussions of whom Basque centers and clubs are for, and consequently, the future of such institutions, as the lines back to the Basque Country become harder and harder to draw.

Modern Basques are genetically distinctive to their fellow inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula in southwest Europe. Modern genetic science has shown that Basques share a common haplogroup, or DNA markers that indicate a common male or female ancestor. The Basque haplogroup is different from most other French and Spanish people, despite a largely congruous geographic location.

Recent research by Swedish archaeologists suggests that modern Basques are descended from Neolithic farmers who migrated to the northwest corner of Spain around 3,000-3,500 years ago and mixed with hunter-gatherers already living there. Once this population was set, researchers theorize, it was mostly isolated, and thus insulated from millennia of migration and genetic mixing that created the genetic profile of modern French and Spanish people.

This isolation may have also protected the Basque language, also known as Euskara, from domination by the Indo-European languages that populate the rest of the European continent, and indeed the Iberian Peninsula.

Migration from the Basque Country and to the United States, the proverbial melting pot of cultures and races, diluted these unique genetics as Basques married Americans of various ethnic backgrounds, as did their children.

And yet, to be Basque is not only to be genetically Basque, but to be connected to their distinct cultural practices and language. In Basque diaspora communities, involvement in those activities isn't necessarily determined by any genetic litmus test.

Basque centers and clubs have for decades been the center of the cultural life of the diaspora. They presented an opportunity to speak the native tongue, eat familiar food, and be surrounded by people with similar life experiences, especially for first-generation immigrants in the 1970s and ’80s.

“Basque dinners are a time of connection, especially for the older members of the community,” said Nere Lete, professor of Basque and the Basque studies department head at Boise State University. “It’s nice to have the opportunity once a month that’s yours—when you’re a member of that community.”

Tony Huarte, the director of the San Francisco Basque Cultural Center, grew up attending the facility he now directs. His parents were founding members, and he remembers fondly the weekends spent participating in the folk dance group, playing pelota, and hanging out with other Basque kids speaking his mother tongue. Before COVID hit, his goal at the center, which has a membership of around 500, was to teach the next generation what his parents taught him: "It's our responsibility."

“Basque clubs have helped keep the community alive,” Huarte said. However, he acknowledges that the role of the club in Basque life has changed. "Back in the day, this was their network," he said of the first-generation immigrants who founded the club. "It's harder now to bring young people in because they have other networks."

It's for this reason that he said it's a mistake to limit involvement in the club to people who can prove Basque ancestry, or who speak Basque.

"In the Basque Country," said Lete, "it's the Basque language that makes you Basque. In the diaspora, it's the cultural activities, traditions, and religion that make you Basque."

But even this generous definition of Basque-ness isn't enough to counteract the generational forces at work in the community. Some say that this focus on the visual and performative parts of the culture has almost necessarily left it static— any change to the traditions becomes a threat to the very essence of the culture.

Inside of the Boise Basque Museum and Cultural Center. Pictured are an exhibit about Basque history and culture and a gift shop.
The Basque Museum and Cultural Center helps educate people about the Basques and the diaspora, and have continued to do so virtually during the pandemic, including through successful virtual language classes. Image courtesy of Boise Basque Museum and Cultural Center. United States.

Oihana Andión, who teaches the Boise museum’s Basque-language classes, fears that the Basque diaspora is stuck in the past, especially as it relates to issues of gender and feminism. "It feels like we hit pause" in the ’60s and ’70s, she said. "The diaspora is less progressive than the Basque Country."

Disneyland has Mainstreet, U.S.A., the idealized version of what America is. For Andión, it seems like Basque culture in the U.S. may be stuck in an idealized version of the Basque identity of the past that also may make it difficult for more progressive young people to connect to the culture. "It relies on stereotypes," she said.

Some adaptations the diaspora has made have been positive, according to Philippe Acheritogaray, president of the board of the North American Basque Organization (NABO), a federation of Basque clubs and centers in the United States and Canada.

He described the “NABO effect,” a term coined by William A. Douglass, the preeminent English-language Basque studies scholar and anthropologist. In the Basque Country in Spain or France, the various provinces have distinct identities that can cause conflict among them; not so in the North American diaspora.

“We have a shared Basque-American identity, and we’ve lost the provincial Basque identity, and it’s been a positive thing,” Acheritogaray said. “We’ve had people from the Basque Country remark on it and tell us how they admire it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has nevertheless brought generational divides into sharp relief. The older generations most connected to the physical activities of the clubs are also the group most vulnerable to the disease. Moreover, those in the founding generations are also an important base for financial support for Basque diaspora institutions.

“Most of our financial support comes from seniors,” said Bermensolo, of the museum’s donations. “The museum recognizes that we can’t support the same demographics forever. We’re trying to take steps to include as many people as possible.”

While many of the most significant fundraising efforts in normal years have been canceled or postponed— the Jaialdi and Wine festivals in Boise and Basque picnics or restaurants at local clubs— some clubs have nonetheless been surprised at the donations that have continued to flow in.

“The Basque community is nothing if not supportive of their own,” Bermensolo said. “They’re participating as much as possible.”

A brick building with trees and a white fence in front of it.
The historic boarding house on the Basque Block has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic. This and other Basque buildings make up what Oihana Andión calls the 'Disneyland of the Basque Country.' Image courtesy of Boise Basque Museum and Cultural Center. United States.

Clubs have made an effort to adapt their offerings out of necessity, but these new offerings have the added and unexpected benefit of bringing Basque culture to a broader audience and connecting Basque people who perhaps do not have a physical club in their area.

The museum in Boise has expanded its online offerings and seen its membership increase by 25%. Demand for its Basque-language classes, which had been a standard in- person offering for years, exploded when it transitioned to instruction over Zoom.

“I had to find more teachers,” said Bermensolo, who coordinates the classes. “People registered from Texas and the West Coast— people without Basque clubs in their areas.”

Bermensolo said the museum will continue to offer classes online in the future. For all its challenges, the pandemic has given the small staff at the museum the opportunity to “take a breath” and evaluate all the options for an online presence that could be the answer to its demographic quandary.

“Some communities are really taking advantage of it and trying new things, like the Chino Basque Club in Southern California,” said Anne-Marie Chiramberro, writer and creator behind the Hella Basque blog and YouTube channel. Instead of its annual picnic on Labor Day weekend, the Chino club hosted a four-hour livestream of a virtual festival on the YouTube channel it had to create specifically for the event. It featured music clips from musicians in the United States and the Basque Country, Basque cooking demonstrations, and Basque cocktail tutorials.

Chiramberro hopes that what will endure is a hybrid model with parties and festivals when they’re possible again, but also more online offerings that can bring more Basque people together even in the absence of a physical club.

Lete shared a Basque proverb that she sees as a roadmap for the survival of the Basque culture: “‘We are because they were. Because we are, they will be.’ That legacy accumulates. It’s deep inside.”

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