On our daily search for articles related to anything and everything Basque, we recently came across a Colombian publication, EJE 21, which has an opinion column penned by Víctor Zuluaga Gómez in which he fights to have his nobility as a Basque descendant recognized, ridiculing it the entire time.
The story, as the author says, refers to a family whose origins are in the “town of Garragamurdi en the Basque country” (sic). We imagine he’s actually referring to Zugarramurdi, which belonged to the Kingdom of Navarre back then. The town is perhaps most famous for the witch trials which took place there during the Inquisition at the beginning of the 17th century.
The protagonist of the story is Sebastián Sancena, the son of the Royal Scribe Carthage had in the 18th century, Thomás Sancena. When his father died, the son demanded the title of hidalgo, and as he was denied it, he sued.
We don’t know if that petition had any grounding or not. But it must have had something, because in the end, he got it. But we’ll get to that later. What grabbed our attention was how the author makes use of terminology and descriptions.
Firstly, he uses the term “citizens” to describe the inhabitants of the colonies or the homeland. In those times, there were no citizens. That concept originated in the 19th century to describe people with rights and guarantees. Then, in the kingdoms “of the Spains” under control of the king, there were subjects, who had no more rights than those the powers that be deigned to give them.
The best way to have any “rights” in the ancien régime was to be either a nobleman, or a religious (and even then, that depended on the rank). What the Basques set about to do, as far as they could, was to sue for the right for Universal Nobility to be recognized. That means that they would be recognized as nobles, or hidalgos, by birth. This right is also enjoyed by other peoples in the north of the peninsula, including the Asturians. The Basques achieved it in the Lordship of Biscay, in Gipuzkoa, in part of Alava, in the valleys in the north of Navarre, and parts of Labourd and Soule.
But what sense does it make to be noble? A lot. It guarantees that all in the King’s realms, the Basques who have that title enjoy the rights protected by, for example, the Fuero (sort of like the Constitution) of Biscay. This is as close as one could get to being considered a “citizen” in the weak and defective system they had to live under.
But then the author goes and makes the confusion worse when describing why the Basques had that right. To sum him up, he says that a king “gave” them the title of hidalgo because they were poor and couldn’t pay their taxes.
The author really needs to go over all the legal debates and processes and suits that were presented for years and years to gain that recognition. To think that a king would be so magnanimous as to give a noble title to the “poorest” of his subjects is honestly really good comedy.
And then he gives us another “joke”, that of the meaning of the term hidalgo. His description is disconcerting:
«Eran pobladores españoles que no tenían ningún cruce con negro o indio y muchos era muy pobres, de manera que no tenían recursos para pagar los impuestos al Rey que se denominaban “pechajes”. Entonces el Rey les condecía el permiso para no pagar impuestos por se “hijosdalgo”, es decir, hijos de algo».
“They were Spanish people who had never crossed with a black or an Indian, and many were very poor, so much that they had no resources to pay the taxes, which they called ‘pechajes’, to the King. Then the King gave them permission to stop paying taxes because they were “hijosdalgo”, that is “hijos de algo”, ‘sons of something”.
Let’s hope he’s able to illuminate other topics better, because, for example, in the Partidas of King Alfonso X the Wise, the term is described as such: “Hidalguía is the nobility that comes to men by lineage…” and “that is why we call them hijosdalgo, which means as much as honorable sons..”. Thus, hidalguía is nobility by blood, which means it includes children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and all descendants of those who have been hidalgos since time immemorial.
Does Mr. Zuluaga Gómez now understand why that son demanded the title of hidalguía his father had? In the valleys of Navarre, to stick to this specific case, its inhabitants had had that title of nobility by blood since before anyone could remember. We don’t know if they believed that in a literal way or not. But what they were clear on is that that recognition gave them guarantees and rights they couldn’t have had otherwise.
This special situation explains how the Basques, who numbered so few, had such high representation in the highest ranks of Spanish monarchies, both in the Peninsula and the colonies in the Americas and the Philippines.
Of course, we mustn’t forget the ability, and virtue, the Basques had to organize and create mutual support networks, both in the Peninsula and overseas.
We recommend those interested in the topic analyze the process of constitution and evolution of the fraternities and guilds that were founded by the “members of the Basque nation” all over the world under the patronage of Our Lady of Aránzazu.
The author finishes by telling how “the character of Mr. Sebastián is portrayed when, in 1792, he sued citizen José Álvarez in Carthage because he addressed him ‘saying I was equal to him'”. Of course he sued him, it’s only logical: if subject (not citizen) José Álvarez said that, it meant he wasn’t recognizing the rights that belonged to him.
The nobility of the Basques was never a myth, nor was Mr. Sebastián the “last hidalgo“. And yes, the noble status of the Basques was “present”, very present throughout the centuries, so much so that its influence and consequences can still be felt in the present, our present.
EJE 21 – 1/5/2020 – Colombia
El mito del último hidalgo
Hace ya algunos años, María Mercedes Molina, quien fuera mi alumna en la Universidad Tecnológica y luego de haber hecho un doctorado en Méjico, incorporada como profesora de la Universidad de Caldas, fue la compiladora de unos textos de personajes destacados entre los cuales se encuentra Guillermo Páramo Rocha. Dicha obra la publicó la Universidad de Caldas con el título de “Grandes temas de nuestro tiempo, en 1991. La definición que hace en el texto Guillermo Páramo de “mito”, me llamó la atención y la considero muy acertada. Dice Páramo: “Los mitos son historias de un pasado que nunca fue presente”.