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buber.net > Basque > Features > GuestColumns > Euskaldunak: A Quest for Identity
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Euskaldunak: A Quest for Identity

by Elizabeth Ihidoy

About Elizabeth Ihidoy: Though raised in an American household, my father, a French-Basque immigrant from the Pyrenees in Esterencuby, France, always spoke Basque to friends at our table or on the phone, and occasionally to me specifically. He never had the patience to teach me the language, but nonetheless kept his heritage strong in our home, constantly gesturing to the painting of his mother on the wall with every story he told. Growing up in Holtville, California in the Imperial Valley, I was always exposed to the Basque culture, as there are many who reside there. My father himself was a man of trade; raising market lambs as he had been taught since he could walk, and taking me along for moves in my early childhood. Currently I am a freshman at Elmira College in upstate New York, and, perhaps because of my father and his endless stories about his homeland, have become hooked to traveling abroad since my junior year of high school. Though the plans of finally visiting my fathers home and relatives this coming summer were cut off by his sudden death, he still lives within me day to day, and drives me to further my knowledge of my heritage. This writing is the introduction to a massive research term paper, one that has helped me understand my roots and my father. I am determined, one way or another, to make it back to my fathers homeland and see his house, those infamous mountain peaks, and the relatives that I know so little of. Looking up at a 1970?s snapshot of my father?s home on my dorm room wall, I am reminded of who I am and how far he came. I hope that this small piece of writing will help anyone and everyone out there realize their own dreams and strengthen their heritage as well.
"Dad! Daddy? DAD! Come on...answer me!!" The man sitting at the kitchen table reading the morning newspaper did not react; reaching instead for the nutcracker and basket of walnuts sitting nearby. The young girl tried again: "Papa? Daddy? DAD? Why don't you answer when I call you that!?" Her father cracked open a walnut and ate it slowly, deliberately ignoring his daughter's words. She sighed, giving up as usual. Hands on her hips, she said the word she knew would get her father's attention: "Aita. Will you listen to me now?" The man slowly set his newspaper back down on the table near the nutcracker. With a straight face and a slight twinkle in his eye, her father replied, "You know I answer to Aita. I'm not 'Dad'; I'm Aita. Now, what is it you need?" Holding up a piece of paper, she replied, "I want to quiz you with my spelling list." "Elizabeth," he said, "You know I have broken English. Test me with Basque. My language makes more sense!" Smiling, she started her ritual. "Okay, Aita, spell boy." Sighing, he replied, "B-O-I?" Laughing, she kissed him on the cheek and said, "Wrong again Aita. B-O-Y. Nice try though. When are you going to teach me Basque?" Shaking his head, the twinkle returning to his eye yet again, Michel replied, "There's not enough patience in the world for me to teach you that. You speak good English. Almost too good. Go read a book; I'm reading the paper." Elizabeth ran off down the hallway to her room, and her father returned to his English language course--the daily newspaper.

As a young child, I never appreciated the fact that my father had made a life from the ground up. To me, he was just my Aita; a stubborn man who could not spell the words off my third grade spelling list. However, over the years, I came to realize the hardships he faced as an immigrant to the United States, the obstacles he overcame in order to make a life for himself and his family. My father came to the United States as an eighteen-year old pursuing the American Dream. He was raised French-Basque in the Pyrenees mountains bordering France and Spain; and, despite his acquired United States citizenship, he was proud to hold a Basque name and ideals. From a young age I knew that my last name would always require some explaining. "It's pronounced ee-hee-doy," I would say, pronouncing each syllable just as my father had taught me. I never found the difficulty in pronouncing Ihidoy; to me it seemed straightforward. However, more recently, I began to look at my last name in a different light. It seems as though my unique name conceals an existence outside of my own, one that my father told stories about but never fully explained before his death. "Ihidoy is a very special name, Elizabeth," he said seriously. "There are very few in the world, and we are the only ones in the United States," he would begin, starting the familiar story about our Basque heritage. My mind always seemed to drift off when my father started his rambling, and yet the topic of all of his stories now haunts me more and more every day. The Basque Country: that place that was not quite French or Spanish, existing along the Pyrenees; Euskara, the language my father spoke so well; and, the dancing and cuisine I always encountered at Basque picnics. All of it amounted to half of my existence, and yet the questions still remain: What does it mean to be Basque? What was my father telling me through all those stories over the years? Most of all, as a person of Basque descent, who am I?

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