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An Interview with Pedro Oiarzabal
Conducted in Winter 2006-2007
Buber's Basque Page: You just finished your PhD at the University of Nevada, Reno. What was your thesis about?
Pedro Oiarzabal: My dissertation was titled The Basque diaspora webscape: online discourses of Basque diaspora identity, nationhood, and homeland. It is an interdisciplinary empirical research at the crossroads of migration and diaspora studies, and Internet and Web studies. In the words of Bill Douglass, who intervened in my dissertation defense as an observer, not as part of my committee, "you are the pioneer of this new subfield of Basque Studies. I congratulate you for the dissertation and welcome this dissertation. This will be the baseline for new studies." My study focuses on the official web sites created by Basque diaspora institutions throughout the planet. In this regard, I studied 98 associations' sites throughout 16 countries as of November 2005. Over 140 people participated in the study. I interviewed community representatives, diaspora institutional leaders and webmasters from over 20 countries. I carried out fieldwork in Basque communities in the American West and in Argentina. Finally, I analyzed the content of all those web sites. This entailed not only hundreds of texts, but also hundreds of graphics and thousands of hyperlinks of the Basque institutional diaspora online. Ten years ago the first Basque institutional diaspora site was created -- in Venezuela. Now, this study is the first of its kind on analyzing the Basque diaspora presence on the Web. Why does the Basque diaspora use the Internet? Who are the webmasters? What are the online discourses that the Basque diaspora create?
BBP: How did you find yourself in Reno?
Pedro: I left my home town of Bilbao, in the Basque province of Bizkaia in September 1993, to study Irish migration in Ireland for a year. I stayed in the emerald island for eight years. For three years I lived in Maynooth, close to Dublin, and for five years in Belfast, where I witnessed the whole Northern Ireland peace process. Then, I decided that I wanted to pursue my doctoral career on Basque studies and I chose the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. My initial decision was to stay for two years, and this is my fifth year.
BBP: Where are you from originally?
Pedro: I was born in Bilbao in 1971 and I woke up every morning for a great part of my life looking at the green slopes of the Pagasarri, under iron rainy skies. Now, I wake up every morning looking at endless skies of infinite blue, surrounded by the most beautiful desert in the world.
BBP: In your studies of the Basque diaspora online, what was the most surprising thing you learned?
Pedro: One of the most surprising things was that the Basque institutional diaspora has a larger presence on the Web in comparison to other similar diasporas such as the Catalan and the Galician. As of November 2005, ninety-eight of the existing 155 Basque diaspora associations (i.e., 63.3%; federation of clubs, community-based clubs, cultural, educational, political, and business associations) from sixteen countries (i.e., 70% of total twenty-three countries) had a presence on the Web. As of January 2005, according to the Catalan Autonomous Community Government's Foreign Office (Generalitat de Catalunya, Secretaria de Cooperació Exterior, http://www.gencat.net/governacio-ap/casals/index.htm) the Catalan generic diaspora associations or Casal Catalans, established in thirty-seven countries, totaled 105. However, only forty-nine sites (i.e. 46.6%) in twenty-three countries (i.e., 62% of total countries) had a presence on the Web. Similarly, as of April 2004, according to the Galician Autonomous Community Government's General Secretary of Emigration (Xunta de Galicia, Secretaría Xeral de Emigración, http://galiciaaberta.xunta.es/conselleria/) there were 463 Galician diaspora associations or Centros Galegos in thirty-six countries, but, only 56 (i.e., 12.1%) from twelve countries (i.e., 33.3% of total countries) had a presence on the Web.
BBP: What did you conclude about the role of websites in the Basque diaspora?
Pedro: On one hand, the majority of the Basque diaspora webmasters believe that the Internet, for example, offers Basques of the diaspora a variety of ways to be informed in real time, connected, and communicated as ways to articulate a translocal community of Basques abroad. Consequently, they believe that the Internet has the potential to maintain Basque identity in terms of information, interaction, and communication. On the other hand, more skeptical webmasters believe that offline communities cannot be overridden by online aggregations of individuals, electronically networked by their connection to the Internet. They argue that face-to-face communities are the base for identity maintenance. My opinion lies somewhere between the two positions.
BBP: What do you think are the biggest weaknesses in how the Basque diaspora is utilizing the internet? What could we be doing better?
Pedro: Theoretically, the majority of the webmasters understand and are aware of the Internet's potential for offering update information and facilitating interaction and communication. However, in practical terms, they fail -- or perhaps they are not interested -- to take advantage of those potentialities. For example, web sites are not updated regularly, preventing current information to be accessed by their associations' members and general users. In addition, the web sites' interactive tools are minimal, while their communication with co-webmasters is almost inexistent. And finally, the ability of reaching a global audience is almost exclusively ignored as the webmasters focus on the immediate physical locality and the local members as their target audience. There is a wide gap between theory, based on webmasters recognition of the potential benefits of the Internet, and practice, based on the actions taken by webmasters to reach such benefits. In this sense, the webmasters have a long way to go in order to bridge such a gap.
BBP: You recently published, with your brother, a book on Basque identity. What were the biggest similarities in how different regions expressed their Basque identity? The biggest differences?
Pedro: La Identidad Vasca en el Mundo [The Basque Identity in the World] transcends national borders in order to include all those Basques who defined themselves as such regardless of their geographical location. In this sense, the book analyzes diverse definitions of Basqueness from sixteen countries, including the Basque homeland. It breaks in an unprecedented way the classical dichotomy of homeland Basques and diaspora Basques in order to expose the meaning of being Basque in a global and transnational perspective in this new century. Consequently, the book explores the symbolic institutionalization of contemporary Basque collective identities and their construction and maintenance. It focuses in a series of themes such as the significance of the family and elderly or the assumed authenticity and singularity of the Basque culture.
BBP: The question of "who is a Basque" often comes up, and there are different views. Some say that blood matters, other language. In your research, do you see the idea of Basque identity changing, evolving, and if so, in what ways?
Pedro: Taking into account that we, as individuals, experience identity in different ways, because of our different ages, generations, diverse socio-economic and historical backgrounds, political traditions, and geographical locations, we attempt to identify with certain collective identities such as the Basques. In this regard, different Basque people relate to certain specific aspects of our Basque collective identity such as ancestry or language over others. Although more studies are needed on Basque identity in the homeland and particularly in the diaspora, Basque homeland identity is moving towards a more subjective interpretation of identity. That is to say, according to the latest surveys the majority of the Basques in the Basque Country believe that the main condition to consider a person Basque is "to feel Basque." However, Basque diaspora identity tends to be defined by more objective criteria, based on language or ancestry, as a strategy to protect the "boundaries" of Basque culture abroad.
BBP: You mentioned that many Basque websites, while in theory understanding the power of the Internet to educate people, focus on the local community. How would you suggest that webmasters build a more global perspective? What can webmasters do to improve our utilization of the Internet as a resource?
Pedro: The Basque diaspora webmasters target audience is local, which is quite logical. However, despite using a global information and communication technology such as the Internet, the webmasters do not utilize the possibilities that the medium offers. Basque diaspora communities share similar concerns and problems, which go beyond their associations and communities. I think that webmasters should not only focus on their immediate constituency but they should open channels of communication with the Basque diaspora at large as a way to tackle their common difficulties. They need to begin thinking in post-geographical terms and attempt to reach other Basque communities within and outside the physical and political borders of their countries. The use of the Internet can help them to achieve their goals.
BBP: As you mention, there are conflicting views on the role of the Internet in maintaining Basque identity, and that your view takes the middle ground. In your personal view, how does the Internet help in maintaining identity? Are there specific things that can be done to build community specifically through the Internet?
Pedro: Technology is there for the Basque diaspora to use, but we cannot forget that nothing can substitute our daily experiences. Both online and offline realities are part of the same equation, and we need to articulate ways for them to become increasingly interlinked, so we can all benefit from each other. The Internet offers the ability for us to be informed, to learn, and to connect with others with common interests, regardless of their location, time, and the languages spoken. We need to capitalize on it. In this sense, we can maintain our identity, for instance, by learning about our culture, language, and traditions, and sharing our experiences with others, Basques and non-Basques, in an unparalleled way. For example, our dancers can easily log into any Basque dancing web site and download photos, videos, melodies, music scores, and lyrics, and learn the steps of any traditional dance. A "real" instructor is being complemented by an online multimedia database, which is open 24/7. In addition, we can educate ourselves by consulting the online homeland media, and be informed about current affairs.
BBP: In today's world, maintaining identity, especially minorities, is becoming increasingly harder as mass media homogenize the globe. As a result, many minority languages are dieing off. In your view, does the very concept of identity have to evolve in order to survive in? How can minority cultures not only survive but flourish in today's world?
Pedro: Nowadays most mass media from local, regional, national, international to supranational domains have access to global instruments of communication such as the Internet. In this regard, the media are utilizing global technologies in order to set up diverse political, economical, and cultural agendas. Some commentators would argue that globalization and its global media homogenize the globe -- some short of "MacDonaldization" of the planet. However, it is my opinion that alternative movements to this globalization and this homogenization are also utilizing, for instance, the Internet in order to raise their own perspectives. They are also maintaining, recreating, and promoting local cultures such as the Basque. English is the lingua franca of today's commercial, academic, diplomatic, business, and technology worlds. I don't think that minority languages such as the Basque die only because of mass media, globalization, or the existence of a world-wide lingua franca. The issue is much more complex. Since the return of democracy to the Basque Country and the reestablishment of an autonomous government and educational programs, and positive discriminatory policies towards the Basque language, the numbers of people who have learn Basque are immense. However, those who have learned the language are failing to speak it in a social context outside their classrooms. Is this due to contemporary globalization forces that attempt to create a global culture? Aren't the Basque culture and its language also a global culture?
BBP: Now that you've finished your PhD, what is next for you? Will you continue to focus on Basque identity, or will your research take you in other directions?
Pedro: Right now, I am involved in different projects regarding the Basque diaspora and my own research. For example, I am working for the University of Nevada Oral History Program (http://oralhistory.unr.edu/) on a book about the Center for Basque Studies history, which is currently the leading international research center on Basques outside the Basque Country. This is its 40th anniversary, and the book will be available to the public within the year. At the same time, I am researching the history of the Basque community in the San Francisco Bay Area as part of the Basque Government's the Basque diaspora series, called Urazandi (http://www.sfbasque.org/urazandi/index.htm). I have a wonderful team of people from the SF Basque community helping me with the project. This community-based approach to the project is an added-value of great significance for its success.