by Julienne Gage
Every year during the last weekend in July, Idahoans turn off their country music and set aside their cowboy hats to take part in a celebration that is old and European but nonetheless down home to Boise residents. In the capital's center, Basque children in centuries-old costumes whirl and skip to lively tunes in celebration of their patron saint at the Saint Ignatius of Loyola Festival in Boise. Eighty-year-old Jimi Jasoro, an award-winning Basque accordion player, strikes the first notes as spectators quickly join into the twirls and steps that coincide with the circle dancing. Black dancing shoes laced to the knees encase the legs of girls in peasant scarves. Adolescent boys in suspenders and black berets display their fancy footwork as they leap and skip over a ladder.
Painted across the pavement of this Basque Block-turned-performance-square is the lauburu, an ancient four-headed red and green swirl emblem. The symbol identifies the forces of nature, reminding Basque people that they have always been tied to the land and the sea. In the Old Country, they were known for their seafaring ways. Legend has it that the Mayflower bringing the first pilgrims to America was actually a Basque ship. In Boise, the early immigrants arrived as rugged sheepherders, and while they have since entered into all kinds of professional fields, they have not lost touch with their heritage.
Transplanted to an unlikely place, this ethnic group is the pride of Idaho's state capital. Idahoans with Basque roots coming mostly from Spain claim about 20,000 members of the state population. The Boise Basques are the most heterogeneous and concentrated group within the whole of the United States. With a strong sense of community pride, they are also one of the most well-organized ethnic groups when it comes to promoting their culture to tourism.
Who are the Basques? - The Basques are one of the oldest peoples of Western Europe, tracing their earliest ancestry to what is now southern France and northern Spain. Their language, Euskera, is unique in that it has no connection to other regional dialects. Nor does it base itself in Latin as does French, Spanish and Catalan. They are famous for their gourmet cooking and their folkloric dances that require years of practice to perfect.
The Basques first immigrated to Idaho by train near the turn of the last century. In search of better economic futures and having little knowledge of English, they took jobs as nomadic sheepherders, migrating among Idaho, Utah, Nevada and California in covered wagons. A second wave of Basques, mostly from Spain, began arriving in the 1940s and '50s. The Spanish economy had crumbled, even as regional traditions and language were repressed by Francisco Franco. The dictator held a special distaste for the Basques and attempted to blot out all regional ethnic identity in the country.
Basques who came to America, like Antonio Arrubarrena, continue to celebrate their heritage -- even if they weren't fully conversant with it at first. "Are you going to bring me to America?" The restless 21-year-old asked his immigrant uncle in 1955. "I'm a robust boy and I know how to work on the farm." Upon arrival, however, young Antonio discovered that he had a lot to learn. "When I arrived, my uncle took me to the mountains and said, 'Just go out there a-ways.' We had 2,200 sheep and three dogs. I cried for three days straight because I had no idea how to bunch the sheep together. I ran up and down that mountain asking myself, 'Where on earth have I come?' " recounts Arrubarrena today. "Little by little, I got accustomed. In fact, I learned to cook beans over the open fire the way I had seen my mother do in the old country. I used to roam those mountains singing Basque music, playing my instruments and thinking about girls."
Four years after his arrival, Arrubarrena returned home to find a Basque bride to bring back to America, and he has since become the patriarch of two generations of Basque-American offspring.
Basque Culture in Boise - "The people always ask us how we identify ourselves. They want to know: 'Do you feel Basque, American, Basque-American or American-Basque?'" says Patty Miller, director of the Basque Museum of Boise, located in the center of the Basque Block downtown. In reality, the Basques of Idaho identify themselves as all of these things, but most important, they have integrated with the Idaho community by sharing their traditions with everyone. Some teach Basque history by giving classes in Euskera at the Basque Museum. Others invite visitors to taste a bit of home by coming into their specialized markets or restaurants.
The museum offers visitors a historic chronology from the Iberian Peninsula of Europe to a real-life example of a restored covered wagon from the first immigrants. On the walls, the museum hosts an exhibition of black-and-white photos and personal testimonies of the Basque women who helped to give southern Idaho this special cultural identity. Next to the museum is a ground-level red brick Victorian homestead surrounded by a white picket fence. On the outside it looks like any other historic site of America's westward pioneers, but inside the caretakers offer special accounts of the Cyrus Jacob Uberuaga Boarding House which served as the first home away from home for Idaho Basques. Musicians like Jimi Jasoro first learned to play the accordion at such Basque boarding houses when the sheepherders came in from the mountains.
The Basque Cultural Center on the corner is a wonderful place to chat with the old-time sheepherders like Jos & eacute; Luis Arrieta, the last "practicing" Basque sheepherder in the area. You can also join in a competition of Mus, a traditional Basque card game. The center also offers spectators an opportunity to see the practices of the world-renowned Oinkari dancers or the world Mus championships. Basque immigrants come from as far away as Chile and Argentina to participate.
The 40-member Basque Choir preserves the culture through its 70-song repertoire, with its contrasting light and melancholy tunes. Second generation Basque singer Helen Berria says, "Basque music is ancient. Some of it dates back 500 years. We enjoy folk and patriotic songs about our homeland, and then there are little ditties about romance and daily life."
The choir has toured Basque communities all over the United States and returned to perform in their ancestral homeland. In Boise, they perform for the Saint Ignatius of Loyola Festival and the Easter Vigil. Visitors may also attend weekly rehearsal if they call and make arrangements. "The music has always made me feel happy and helped me through the hard times," says Basque singer Mary Carmen Totorika of Boise, a survivor of the Nazi bombing of her native city of Guernica.
On the opposite corner of the Basque Block sits the Bar Gernika. It is a younger generation pub offering regional Idaho microbrews, Spanish wines, tapas (appetizers) and a pub-style menu. Favorite dishes include Solomo in a sandwich (marinated pork loin), chicken and ham paella, lamb stew and chicken croquettes. Gernika's owner, Dan Ansotegui, invites visitors to try cooking Basque food at home as well. His Basque Market across the street sells imported foods and gifts from the Iberian Peninsula. Besides a collection of 120 fine Iberian wines, he sells olive oil, cured meats, spices, hand-painted ceramics and Basque cookbooks. Since the original Basque immigrants came to the area as sheepherders, it is no surprise that the market sells fresh lamb in large quantities, along with advice on how to prepare it. On the first Monday and second Thursday of each month, Dan and his sister Chris from Epi's Restaurant offer cooking classes in the Basque Market's backroom kitchen. Tourists are free to join if they schedule about a week ahead.
Epi's restaurant, just outside of Boise in the town of Meridian, serves the best of Basque cuisine from garbanzo bean and chorizo soup to rack of lamb, garlic shrimp and codfish. "Every culture has its own twist on what they consider authentic," explains Chris Ansotegui, co-owner of Epi's.
"Basque cooking goes back to the basics. Every dish starts with a base of roasted garlic, olive oil and red wine vinegar. We let these ingredients bring out the natural flavor of the food." But the flavor is anything but basic. With a little salt, roasted red pepper and onions fresh fish and lamb specials present a gourmet meal with a homespun flair. If these condiments are not cooked directly into the dish, they are spooned directly over the top. All can be delicately enhanced by Epi's collection of Rioja-region red wines from Spain, and a creamy flan or a rice pudding for dessert.
"We're fortunate to be able to maintain our cultural background in a city this size," says Miller, "Here in Boise, we've always had the support. That's why we're able to have the Basque Block." In fact, the Basques have assimilated so well into the state of Idaho that a state Representative, Dave Bieter, and the Secretary of State, Pete Cenarrusa, both of Basque heritage, were instrumental in passing a Basque memorial in the Idaho Congress last March. Remembering those who suffer political instability in the homeland, the memorial calls for peace and dialogue in Northern Spain, where a three-decade-long Basque separatist battle rages in the form of terrorist attacks. More than anything, the memorial offers official recognition that cultural ties still bind these Boise residents to their ancestral homeland.
Boise is a first-rate capital city, but with a population of just 150,000 people, you'll still sense that you are in the heart of potato country. Do not miss this opportunity to participate in the festivities of this city's most popular cultural group and their Basque-Idahoan hospitality. This year's Saint Ignatius Festival will offer a variety of performers direct from the Basque homeland. A youthful folk-rock band, Ene Bada, and a group of native Basque dancers will be among the featured artists. There are music and dance shows in the evenings on the Basque Block and a picnic on Saturday in the Basque Center. Sports and games are held at local parks, and the Mus tournaments are held in the Cultural Center.