This article was translated by John R. Bopp

One of the newspapers that most discusses Basques in the US is the Idaho Statesman, which we’ve cited in our blog regularly.  Recently, it’s published an article by Eric Quitugua that has taken us by surprise.

Thanks to the large number of news stories we’ve collected related to the Basques in Idaho, we’ve always gotten the feeling that Basque culture was alive and well, and still connected to its roots, and that the Basque community, while integrating quite well into its new land, was also able to maintain a connection to its roots and homeland.

And that’s why this article’s tone and message have so surprised us.  Apart from the fact that there were some basic conceptual mistakes, especially about the history and definition of the Basque Country the immigrants come from as “an autonomous area of the Pyrenees Mountains in northern Spain and southern France” or Basque pelota as having “morphed into jai alai in Florida, Nevada and parts of New England”.

Obviously, we don’t live in that part of the US, but we get the feeling that, even with all the difficulties such a small culture has in a country as big as the US, the Basque heritage is still strong in that part of the world.  The existence of a Basque Museum and Cultural Center, a Basque language school, or an event as big as the Jaialdi, leads us to that conclusion.

It’s true that there is change and evolution, just like what happens in any immigrant community; even the Basque culture in its homeland is changing.  And of course many of the immigrants’ children are no longer shephers, but businessmen, doctors, or politicians–it’s normal.

What might be happening, as Meggan Laxalt Mackey explained so well in her research for her “Master’s of Applied Historical Research” at the Department of History at Boise State University, is that in Boise, something that is very common to all immigrant groups is happening: the distancing by the second generation feels from its roots, and the third generation’s return to them.

And the cultural evolution happening in the Basque Country itself also shows that we’re going from “Basques by birth” to “Basques by choice”.

Alongside the article from the Idaho Statesman, we also have an article by an American from Nevada who lives in the Basque Country

Idaho Statesman – 11/5/2016 – USA

Cultural identity fades among Idaho’s second-generation Basque immigrants

Henry Etcheverry whistled, and a row of sheep dashed down a fenced dirt path. On the other end, two men branded the freshly sheared animals. It was late morning on St. Patrick’s Day, exactly 13 years after Etcheverry’s father, Jean Pierre, died. The man from Bidarray in the French Basque Country was one of the big sheep outfit owners at the peak of Basque immigration to Minidoka County. In those days, sheep outnumbered people.

(Continue) (Automatic translation)

The reflections of an American expat in the Basque Country, responding to Eric Quitugua’s article on the fading of Basque Culture in Idaho

Mr Quitugua, Basque Culture Isn’t Dying, It’s Just Evolving

Being an immigrant can sometimes be quite hard.  Right after graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, I moved to Bilbao, in the Basque Country, where I’d spent a semester abroad.  I’d fallen in love: with the land, the people, the food, the weather (I grew up in a desert), and that special someone.  But despite having a house, a car, friends, and my better half waiting to receive me, I had a lot of adapting to do.  Bilbao is not Reno.

I had to learn how that shop owners don’t feel the need to open for their customers’ convenience, and that it’s literally impossible to get anything between 2pm and 5pm.  I had to learn how friends can’t meet up for business without have a wine or two before getting to work, and another couple after.  I had to learn how to use public transportation since gasoline and parking are so outrageously expensive.  I’m still trying, 11 years later, to figure out celsius (22º just sounds so cold!).

And along the way I’ve lost a lot of customs that I held dear back home.  Thanksgiving has been reduced to a couple turkey breasts and mashed potatoes I can whip up in 20 minutes because I have to get up early for work on Friday.  The Fourth of July, I do get to go to the American restaurant, although their interpretations of actual American food can be a little off (at least I get free refills on the soda–another thing they don’t do here!).  The practice of driving literally everywhere I’ve also had to abandon–one tires rather quickly of driving in circles for an hour to find a parking spot my (rather smaller) car can fit in.  And that reminds me–I even had to adopt the idea that a Toyota Corolla is a midsize; the thought of buying anything bigger sends chills down my spine.

I’ve been able to keep alive my language only because I’ve ended up as an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher–but even it has been “corrupted” by eleven years of students’ mistakes.  And given the high value placed on English in the school system here, any kids I have would undoubtedly learn it (alongside Spanish and Basque).  But that would be due to the strength of the English language on the world scene; were my native tongue anything else, my kids would probably never learn it.  It’s normal–it’s a lot of effort for very little reward.  And honestly, one can take part in the culture even in a different language.  I’ve only just started learning Basque, but I’ve been a participant in Basque events since my arrival.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s impossible for a foreign culture to cross an ocean and maintain itself intact, especially when the immigrant community is small.  But just because certain elements are fading away does not mean that the culture is dying, it means it’s evolving (if it’s not, that means it’s isolated itself into a ghetto and not integrating).  So the kids don’t learn the Basque language, or feel up to the task of cooking 350 pounds of lamb to feed 100 people–there are other ways of celebrating their culture, even if that’s just going to the local Basque festival.  And it’s also quite normal for the children of immigrants to feel a much looser connection to their parents’ homeland.  We don’t have to worry, though–their kids, the immigrants’ grandkids, will pick up the slack and keep it alive.  Ms. Megan Laxalt Mackey wrote an excellent thesis on the topic at Boise State University.   

What we do need to focus on, though, is finding out what elements of the culture can thrive in the new environment and promote them.  And we must also not be afraid of innovation; indeed, we should celebrate it.  Because, just like I started turning Basque when I arrived at Bilbao Airport (I stopped being “Johnny” and became “Johntxu”), the immigrants’ culture stopped being 100% pure Basque when they walked off the plane–let’s find out where the community’s new wonderful hybrid culture goes.

John R. Bopp


Last Updated on Dec 20, 2020 by About Basque Country

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