The International Business Times has some fascinating photos of costumed revelers at fiestas in Zubieta and Ituren. Some of them wear bells to make noise and scare away evil spirits. The noise also wakes up the land, getting it ready to produce for the next farming/harvesting cycle. See the link for more photos.
Back in June, right after I visited the Basque Country, citizens across the region held a peaceful demonstration in support of greater autonomy for the Basque people. The demonstration, called Gure Esku Dago, or It’s in Our Hands, consisted of around 150,000 people holding hands in a chain that extended from Durango to Pamplona, roughly 76 miles long. The goal is to demonstrate the desire of the Basque people for greater autonomy and more control over their own destiny. In particular, the participants support the right of the Basque region to decide their future, a referendum on self-determination.
It was inspired by a similar event that drew over 1 million people in Catalunya in September as well as even older events. These human chains have been a peaceful way of demonstrating since at least the 1980s. In 1986, possibly the longest chain, with 5 million people, was formed in the United States to raise awareness for hunger.
In Munitibar, where my dad is from, the local residents created a short video to promote the event. It features various people in Munitibar (my cousin appears around the 2:20 mark) waving and showing their hand to the camera.
Here is a nice little video highlighting some of the visual splendor of the Basque Country.
In 1991, I traveled, for the first time, to the Basque Country. Though my dad was born there, and my mom’s grandparents as well, we’d never made a family trek as it simply was beyond our resources. My dad himself only went back a handful of times during the first 30 years he was in the United States. However, I was determined to learn Euskara, the language of my ancestors, the language of my dad. Because my mom doesn’t speak Euskara, and the fact that my dad was on the road a lot, we didn’t learn any at home. My dad would speak it when he was with friends. He didn’t have to choose to be Basque, he simply was and that showed itself whenever he was with his friends, bullshitting in Basque with the very frequent Spanish tacos thrown in. For me, though, it was a conscious choice to try to learn a bit of this language, to make my own connection to my heritage.
I did this even though my mom’s dad, who, though born in the US, was fluent in Euskara, having been raised by two native Basques, and even my own dad suggested that concentrating on Spanish would be of greater value as more people in the world spoke Spanish. Basque was only useful in a very remote corner of the world and, even there, not always. For me, though, it wasn’t about practicality. It was about connection, about immersing myself into their world, into the way that they thought. Language shapes how we view the world, and I wanted at least a glimpse into theirs.
I went to Donostia as part of the University Studies Abroad Consortium, which had an intensive Basque language course for students with no knowledge of Basque. There were three of us — myself, a woman from Idaho who was trying to make the same connections to her heritage that I was, and a woman from England, who had no connection to anything Basque beyond an interest in the people and culture. Our teacher, Nekane, was an Euskaldun Berri, a new Basque speaker, who had learned Basque as an adult and decided to become part of the effort to ensure Euskara’s survival. She was an extremely pleasant and patient teacher, especially to a student of science like myself who questioned the why of everything, in particular the logic of the language (why this construct as opposed to this one). Little did I recognize, at the time, that my own language of English has so little logic behind it!
During the weekends, I would travel to visit my dad’s family in Bizkaia. This proved somewhat frustrating in that they all spoke a different dialect of Euskara. I was learning Batua in Donostia, but in Bizkaia they spoke the Bizkaian dialect, which was different enough that I struggled to communicate. Even my rudimentary Spanish, learned in high school, was a better communication tool. Compounded by the fact that I spent many evenings not with locals but with fellow Americans, playing foosball, drinking beer and cider, and, critically, speaking English, my Euskara never got very good.
I have some basic understanding of the grammar, but a relatively horrible vocabulary. I can’t carry on any real conversation and have a hard time even with pleasantries. That said, I certainly take some pride in understanding the opening of Negu Gorriak’s song Lehenbiziko Bala:
BASERRIAN JAIO NINTZEN
ARBASO ZAHARREN ETXEAN.
NEGU GORRIA ATZEAN.
I do wish I had better command of the language. However, beyond that intensive year in Donostia, I have not really devoted significant time to learning Euskara any further. Other priorities have taken precedent. I still have dreams, but I’m not sure when or if I will make the time to realize them.
Of course, I’m not alone in this desire, this drive, to learn the language of my ancestors. Many people have done the same, and those in the diaspora have had a particularly important role in ensuring the health of the language. Especially during Franco’s time, when speaking the language was forbidden, efforts in places like Idaho helped in promoting the language. In particular, she describes a radio program in Idaho by Espy Alegria that was famous because she was speaking a language, Euskara, that was outlawed in Spain. Now, modern technology, which at the same time threatens to homogenize our world, plays its own part in keeping the language alive. In a very interesting article on the Blue Review, Kattalina Berriochoa describes the role that both the diaspora and technology have had in contributing to the survival of Euskara.
In a recent post, I mentioned my dad’s uncle, Juan Uberuaga, who was renown for his strength. He was called “Oizko Lehoia,” or the Lion of Oiz, the mountain peak very near Munitibar. I was recently in the Basque Country and had dinner with his son, who had seen my post, and provided me with a lot more information. It turns out that, like for most of us, once you did a little deeper, there are some fascinating stories waiting to be told.
One story involved a contest between Juan and another strong-man, Gandiaga. In February of 1957, Gandiaga had carried the txingas for “8 1/4 clavos y 5.25 metros”, according to Lucio Doncel Recas in his book Deportes tradicionales de fuerza en España. A clavo is about 28 meters, so this is 236.25 meters, or about 775 feet. This was a competition in Abadiño, where Gandiaga was the winner out of 7 contestants. A few months later, in May, Juan and Gandiaga had a “dual” of sorts in Durango. Gandiaga could only muster 119 meters this time, while Juan won the day with 261 meters. The very next day, Juan left for America to become a sheepherder, where he joined his brother, Jose, who had already been there a few years.
(A funny aside regarding Tio Joe, as we call him. My dad would simply call him Tio. Well, my mom, when she addressed my uncles on her side, would always call them by their name, so I always thought Tio Joe’s name was Tio, so we called him Uncle Tio. Funny how kids think.)
In the United States, Juan continued his feats of strength. The book The Super-Athletes, by David P. Willoughby, mentions that, in 1958 in Boise, Juan “carried two 103-pound stones equipped with handles a distance of 240 yards.” That’s nearly two and a half football fields, effectively carrying two “suitcases” that each weigh about 100 pounds.
When he returned to Euskadi, Juan entered more txinga contests. In 1977, twenty years after his battle with Gandiaga, Juan won a contest in Mallabia, where he was first out of thirteen contestants, carrying the txingas for a distance of 281 meters.
Juan, the Lion of Oiz, was the txinga champion of Bizkaia, at least once. It was in recognition of his skill and excellence in the sport that they threw that homage to him I mentioned last time, the sporting exhibition in which he was a guest of honor. By that time, Juan had had a stroke that left him in a wheelchair and he was no longer the paragon of strength he had been his whole life, but it was a touching moment to remember one of the old great ones. Juan was also a champion in the US, in 1961.
It is interesting that, in the time of Juan, the longest distances were about 10 or so clavos but, in the 1980s and later, the distances doubled or tripled. This is because, as pointed out here, the txingas used by athletes such as Juan had thick rings to hold and they swayed a lot, making carrying them much more difficult. The basic design changed in the 80s and gave the athlete more control and made carrying the txingas much easier. Today, the best carry 100 pound weights in each hand for over a kilometer, or more than half a mile! I wonder how far Juan might have carried the new fangled txingas?
Here are two articles that provide some interesting Basque history, both outside of the Basque Country.
The first, an article at the Blue Review by Kyle Eidson and Dave Lachiondo, describes an interesting period in the history of the Basque diaspora in Boise. During the middle of the 1950s, when new Basques were immigrating to the United States from Franco’s Spain, there was much more political awareness of what was occurring back in Spain than had been true of the previous generations. Many of these Basques had experienced life under Franco’s rule, and were interested in what they could do against it. This lead to the formation of the group Anaiak Denok (All Brothers), which brought together like-minded Basques who discussed these issues. The most prominent member, Pete Cenarrusa, was of course also heavily involved in Idaho politics, and his two passions often overlapped. Dave and Kyle describe how, in the end, it was different views of ETA that ultimately lead to the end of the group.
Also related to the after-effects of the Spanish Civil War, the second article, published on the Bristol Post’s website, delves into the role that the city of Bristol played in adopting 4000 Basque refugee children escaping the ravages of the War. These children, ranging in age from 5-15 years old, were originally expected to spend only about 3 months in the UK before being returned to the Basque Country. Things didn’t turn out quite like that.
There is a funny little anecdote that the children misunderstood and thought that the straw that was being used for their bedding was what they were meant to eat for dinner.