Buber’s Basque Story: Part 48

If you have comments or questions, or have simply been enjoying the story and want to say hello, please drop me a note!

That afternoon, Kepa was opening the door to their hotel room when his phone began to ring. He fumbled with the key, pushing the door open as he grabbed his phone. He smiled as he saw Maite’s image smiling back at him as he answered it.

“Maite!” he exclaimed. “How did it go?”

“It has been great so far!” replied Matie’s voice. “My presentation went really well. There were lots of questions that really showed they were interested in my work. And none that I couldn’t answer. And then I toured a few of the labs and met with some of the professors in the department. They are doing so many cool things here! At lunch, some of the students took me out and we talked about what life was like working and living in Berkeley. So far, it has all been great! I can’t wait to tell you all about it.”

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“I’m so glad to hear that!” said Kepa. “Though, I knew you would do well. I always had confidence in you.”

“Thanks Kepa. So, one of the professors asked if I could meet her and her group for dinner, to talk about a possible position in her team.”

“Great! Where should I meet you?”

“Well, it’s all going to be shop talk, with just her and the other students.” She paused a moment. “Do you mind?”

“No, no,” answered Kepa as he slumped on to the bed. “You have fun. I’ll see you when you get back.”

“Mil esker, Kepa! You are the best!” He could almost hear the ‘click’ of her hanging up. 

“Yeah, the best,” he said to himself as he let the bouquet of roses he had been holding fall to the floor.

It was late at night when he finally returned to the hotel room. Maite was sitting up in bed with the light on and a book in her hands.

“Where were you?” she asked. “I was so worried. You weren’t answering your phone.”

“I was… out,” replied Kepa as he stumbled to the bed and almost literally fell on top of it, not bothering to get out of his clothes or brush his teeth. 

“Are you drunk?” asked Maite. 

“I only had a few drinks,” he said as he rolled on to his side, his back to her. “What do you care anyways?”

Maite reached out a tentative hand but then pulled it back. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“If you didn’t want me around, you could have just said so before I got on that damn plane with you.”

“What? No, of course I want you here…” she began.

“Not today though, huh? I’m not good enough to be around with your fancy new friends.”

“I didn’t mean… I didn’t think…” began Maite. For a moment, the room was quiet. “I’m… I’m sorry, Kepa.”

“Well, I’m tired, Maite. Gabon.”

Almost instantly, Kepa’s snores filled the room, almost drowning out Maite’s quiet sobs.

The Power of Story: An Interview with Begoña Echeverria and Annika Speer

Drs. Begoña Echeverria and Annika Speer will have a showing of their play Picasso Presents Gernika on April 24.

On April 26, 1937, the Basque city of Gernika was bombed. This, and other disastrous events during the Spanish Civil War, led to thousands of Basque children being evacuated from the Basque Country. In their play, Picasso Presents Gernika, Drs. Begoña Echeverria and Annika Speer, both professors at the University of California, Riverside, explore the human toll that the bombing, the war, and the evacuation had, particularly on the children. In this interview, they discuss the origins of the play, why a docudrama was the right way to present this story, and how the collaborative experience keeps evolving in unexpected directions.

Buber’s Basque Page: Begoña and Annika, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. How did your collaboration on Picasso Presents Gernika begin? 

Begoña Echeverria: We were introduced by Bella Merlin, Annika’s colleague at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) Department of Theatre, Film and Digital Production. Bella, who does a wonderful job playing several characters in the staged reading, and I met at a Women’s Faculty Retreat when she first arrived at UCR. Bella and I struck up a friendship and I shared the Picasso Presents Gernika script with her. She suggested I get in touch with Annika about possibly collaborating with me, given Annika’s expertise with docudrama.  

Fortunately, Bella was able to assemble a wonderful cast (including her husband, professional actor Miles Anderson) and some talented UCR undergraduate students she had trained, so I knew that important part was well in hand. I also had kept in touch (as one does) with my former elementary school teacher, Paul Larson, who is a founding member of the Chino Community Theatre. Paul generously offered the use of their theater for the premiere on May 19, 2019, and also agreed to direct.

BBP: What were the most challenging aspects of turning the play into reality?

Begoña Echeverria: Once we had the right team assembled we began to tackle some of the logistics. Because the play is a docudrama, it was important to incorporate primary source material into the text and the performance. Thanks to UC San Diego’s Southworth Spanish Civil War Collection (library.ucsd.edu) and the digital archives of the Association for Basque Children UK (www.basquechildren.org), I had an abundance of posters, pamphlets, photographs, children’s drawings, commemorative stamps, news reels, videos, and the like to choose from. But shifting through them and deciding which ones to use was the most challenging part of the process. And that’s where Annika’s expertise and enthusiasm came in. She helped me think about the primary source material with an eye for visual variety and theatricality. Which images would best serve the story? How could we incorporate the material in a way that drew the audience in, provided historical context, but didn’t upstage the actors? 

Begoña Echeverria is the daughter of Basque immigrants to southern California. A native Basque speaker with a PhD in sociology, she is a Professor at UC Riverside’s Graduate School of Education.  Her research on Basque language, culture and identity has been published in academic journals in education, sociolinguistics, anthropology, history and folklore.  She is also a singer-songwriter with the Basque-American trio, NOKA (www.ilovenoka.com), which has performed over 60 concerts domestically and internationally. Her historical novel, The Hammer of Witches, loosely based on the 1610 burnings of Basque “witches” from the Baztan Valley in northern Spain from which her family hails, was the Historical Novel Society’s Editor’s Choice for May, 2015. Other creative works include her docudrama Picasso Presents Gernika, which  considers the fate of Basque refugees after the bombing of Gernika in 1937, as well as the artistic journey of Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece, Guernica. (A film screening of the play will be streamed on April 24, 7pm).

BBP: Begoña, what was your inspiration for Picasso Presents Gernika? Your play is a docudrama. How did you balance historical documents with the fictionalization of your main characters?

Begoña Echeverria: When I was living in Donostia (San Sebastian) in the early 1990s, I learned that my neighbor’s father – and his brother – were among the children evacuated to England after the bombings. But their mother only asked for the brother to return to Spain, not my friend’s father, and he never knew why. That’s all I know of that story, but over two decades later, it inspired Picasso Presents Gernika. I decided early on to make one of the siblings a sister, as I wanted to explore the idea that war and political oppression often affect the genders differently. I knew from the beginning what those effects on the siblings would be – you have to watch to watch the play to find out! – but I also wanted to show the larger historical context in which this particular story played out. The evacuation of Basque children after the Gernika bombing – 20,000 of them, in all – predated the kindertransport of Jewish children during the Holocaust, but it is not nearly as well known. And, unfortunately, war and political instability continue to have repercussions on children even today. I sought to balance political message with artistry and wanted to avoid being heavy-handed in the delivery. Much of that comes from examining the history of the Guernica mural as well, when the Picasso character narrates how it has been used and seen as a symbol of political protest since its inception.

BBP: Annika, what are the unique advantages of docudramas in conveying a story? How do you balance “truth” from “fiction” in best telling a story?

Annika Speer: Docudrama is a theatrical form that blends primary source material with imaginative fiction. A unique advantage of this format is that in drawing from primary sources, by which I mean material such as news reports, trial transcripts, photographic journalism, etc., the docudrama taps into the lived experience of real people and shapes or contributes to the audience’s understanding of real events. However, docudrama also incorporates fiction, which distinguishes this format from traditional documentary. While some documentary scholars are opposed to docudrama – wanting documentary to be entirely comprised of primary source material – there is a difference between documentary, which may seek to be a journalistic truth-telling account, and docudrama which may seek to be a form of storytelling that allows fiction to show us theatrical truths or imagine the circumstances from alternative angles. And this difference opens up potential from a storytelling perspective. A strict reliance on primary course material ignores the fact that such material is constructed in the first place. Whose stories get told? Whose voices are on the public record? Who is left out? What are the discursive circumstances that shape narratives such as trial transcripts or journalistic interviews? Primary source material doesn’t exist in a vacuum and upholding it as somehow better, or more important, than fiction may be useful in a journalistic context but is potentially short-sighted in a theatrical storytelling context. Because Begoña’s script was tapping into the perspective of women and children, she was thinking about voices who were not necessarily given the same space in constructing the original primary source material. Our production incorporated primary source material through images, radio broadcast, letters, journalism, and then wove that material with the fictional story of Andrea (“woman” in Basque) and Aitor (“testimony”), the two young children being displaced by the war. 

BBP: Question: Annika, as someone who doesn’t have that same personal connection to the Basque culture, what did you find most interesting about Begoña’s play and the story behind it?

Dr. Annika Speer is a Professor of Teaching in the Department of Theatre, Film, and Digital Production at UC Riverside where she runs the public speaking program. She is the Co-Director of the Public Speaking Initiative, a UC-Wide program based out of UC Santa Barbara that prioritizes interdisciplinary training in speech and rhetoric. She prioritizes communication pedagogy through close work with numerous campus programs, providing a large variety of public speaking workshops for the Graduate Student Resource Center, the Chancellor Research Fellows, the Science to Policy Certification Program, and the Social Entrepreneurship Engagement and Development (SEED) Lab, to name but a few. Speer is also supporting faculty of the Medical Health and Humanities Studies (MHHS) program: https://anthropology.ucr.edu/minors/mhhs
In addition to academic work, Speer works as a dramaturgical researcher and script consultant for film, most recently for The Girl on the Train (2016), Men, Women & Children (2014), Walking Stories (2013), and Call Me Crazy: A Five Film (2013). She has directed plays as fundraisers for Women Help Women, Planned Parenthood, and Pacific Pride Foundation with the mission to generate collaborative, creative, and activist oriented theatre. 

Annika Speer: Although I do not share Begoña’s personal connection to Basque identity and culture, I do share a commitment to the power of story. I believe strongly in theatre as a vehicle for social justice and that theatre, film, and other forms of storytelling hold up a mirror to our society, educate us, and increase our empathy. What was powerful for me was both learning the personal story behind the play (about her neighbor’s father) as well as learning more about the history of the events of the bombing of Gernika. I also see the parallels between the treatment of the children and Basque families during the bombing of Gernika and the treatment of children and families on our border in this current political moment. 

BBP: Begoña, I imagine you have thousands of stories you could potentially tell. Why was this the story to tell now? What story will you tell next? 

Begoña Echeverria: Thank you for your confidence in me! I don’t know if I have thousands, but a couple stories come to mind.  I’m currently reworking a draft of my second historical novel, Apparitions, loosely based on the supposed appearance of the Virgin Mary to Basque children in the 1930s. In many ways its themes echo those I explored in The Hammer of Witches (basquebooks.com), a fictionalized version of the 1610 burnings of Basque “witches” from Baztan, the valley in northern Nafarroa where my family lives. In both cases, political instability and religious intolerance upended “traditional” structures of authority that ultimately led to the persecution or death of many innocent people. A few years ago, it came out that Franco and his followers had been stealing babies from his political opponents for decades, telling mothers that their babies had been born dead when they really had been given away to Franco’s supporters to raise as their own. (This is the subject of the award-winning 2019 documentary, The Silence of Others: thesilenceofothers.com). I’ve written a song based on that story, but I feel like that might grow into another play or book. Who knows?

As for why Picasso Presents Gernika was the story to tell now, I don’t really know.  Even though I’d heard my friend’s story about her father in the early 90s, it wasn’t until this century that it occurred to me that it might be a good story to tell – and it was very clear to me that the form it would take would be a play rather than a novel. I don’t have an explanation for that either; it just felt right.

BBP: Annika and Begoña, what does the future hold for Picasso Presents Gernika? Do you have plans for the play to tour? Are there other collaborative efforts you plan to work on together?

Begoña Echeverria: Thanks for asking! UC Riverside is sponsoring a showing on April 24 – the Saturday closest to the anniversary of the bombing of Gernika on April 26, 1937 (link to UCR screening).

We are also scheduled for a screening at New York City’s Euskal Etxea on Saturday, June 5, which will be 84 years and 1 day after the date Picasso completed Guernica. We’re hoping this screening will be in person (see https://www.newyorkbasqueclub.com/ for details). And Annika will be directing a staged reading at the Santa Monica Playhouse on Saturday, November 20—which is the day Franco died in 1975. 

Additionally, we have a book chapter about the process of staging the play coming out in October 2021 in the collection Theatres of War: Contemporary Perspectives (https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/theatres-of-war-9781350132948/).

We would love to have more screenings or productions, so let one of us know if you’re interested: b.echeverria@ucr.edu or annika.speer@ucr.edu

BBP: What has been the most rewarding part of this experience for each of you?

Annika Speer: For me the process of creativity and collaboration has been most rewarding. When Begoña reached out to me two years ago asking me to read her script, I said yes, but at the time had no idea that we would end up working together on the staged reading, the dramaturgy, a book chapter, and then the film adaptation. It has been a joy to work on this project precisely because it keeps growing and evolving in different ways and our collaboration really functions well because we have shared goals and working styles but bring different skills to the project and process.

Begoña Echeverria: It has also been a pleasure for me to work with Annika on this project. It was actually her idea to turn the footage of the staged reading into a film when the pandemic hit and we were unable to move forward with plans for live staged readings. This gave us the opportunity to integrate archival images into the film that we did not show at the staged reading itself, and that’s where Annika’s expertise in dramaturgy and docudrama really shone. It’s been rewarding to share more of the history of these events this way, in particular some haunting images showing a Basque couple waving goodbye to Gernika as it was bombed, and a mother and her two children crying at their kitchen table.  

For the staged reading, it was also gratifying for me to integrate personal touches into the play. I made a point of integrating personal artifacts into the production: the handkerchief that the mother in the play gives her daughter was my mother’s, the photos Andrea sifts through at the end of the play includes my father’s, and the leaf from the tree the mother gives her children for safe keeping is a tree from the actual tree of Gernika.  It also meant a lot to me that the staged reading premiered in my hometown with most of my family and many fellow members of the Chino Basque Club in the audience.

Basque Fact of the Week: The Makila, the Basque Walking Stick

Basque culture is ubiquitous with numerous unique symbols and iconography — the lauburu, the eguzkilore, the omnipresent font that decorates store fronts, and so much more. One of the most unique Basque symbols is the makila, a walking stick that is, today, ceremonially used to recognize important persons. However, did you know that it can take upwards of twenty years to make a makila? The art and craftsmanship behind the makila are quite outstanding.

Image from Alberdi Makila.
  • A makila serves not only as a walking stick, but also a weapon. The handle, often made of animal horn, can be used as a bludgeoning weapon while it can be held by the handle and be swung at an opponent or dangerous animal. However, buried in the shaft is a small sword or spike that can be revealed by removing the top, creating an effective stabbing weapon. There is some evidence that there used to be codified makila fights and even that Napoleon had a regiment of makilkaris for hand-to-hand combat.
  • The makila is an important cultural symbol for the Basques. It is often given as a form of recognition to dignitaries or other important visitors. A few notable people who have been honored with the gift of a makila include US President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, the author Bernardo Atxaga, and my father-in-law.
  • A makila can take twenty years to make. The process starts with the artisan finding a tree. While many woods can be used to make a makila, including beech, gorse or argoma wood, juniper, and holly, medlar is the common choice. A branch is carved with designs while it is still alive and part of the tree. The branch is then left alone until it heals and the design becomes part of its surface. After the branches are cut and baked, they are left to age upwards of ten years. This wooden shaft is then adorned with metal casings, usually silver or brass, that are engraved with Basque symbols such as the lauburu.
  • There is a story that, in 1879, a cache of silver coins was discovered, some of which were sold to a local hairdresser who then used them to crown makilas. It turns out those coins were over 2000 years old.
  • The family-owned business Makhila Ainciart Bergara, making makilas since 1780, was a finalist for the 2021 ‘Family is Sustainability‘, awarded by Primum Familiae Vini for “excellence in sustainability, innovation, craftsmanship and the successful transmission of responsibility and commitment from one generation to the next.” Unfortunately, they were not the winner, but their inclusion in the list demonstrates the high esteem the traditional Basque art of the makila has.

Primary sources: Estornés Lasa, Bernardo. MAKILLA. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2021. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/makilla/ar-91243/; Makila, Wikipedia; Makilas, el bastón de jefe vasco que se hace a mano y se tarda mas de 15 años en fabricar, Vanity Fair.

Buber’s Basque Story: Part 47

If you have comments or questions, or have simply been enjoying the story and want to say hello, please drop me a note!

As soon as Maite crossed the threshold of the doors, a young woman was there in the lobby to greet her.

 
“Are you Maite?” asked the woman. Her blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She wore a white lab coat that covered her clothes. Her blue eyes were framed by small circular lenses. Safety goggles were perched on top of her head.

“Yes,” replied Maite.

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“Welcome to the physics department. I’m Amy. I’ve been asked to show you around the department. Please forgive my appearance. I got in early to get some experiments done since I knew I’d be showing you around most of the day.”

“I’m so sorry, I certainly didn’t mean to inconvenience anyone.”

“No, no worries at all,” said Amy as she led Maite through one of the doors on the side of the lobby. “Others did the same for me when I first visited and it’s only right that I continue the tradition.”

As they walked, Amy pointed out a small conference room. “This is where you will be giving your talk,” she said. “And,” she added as they continued down the hallway, “this is where I sit. I share this office with a few other students. If you like, you can stash your bag in here.”

“That’s alright,” replied Maite. “I’d rather keep it with me, in case I need my computer or my notebook.”

“Sounds good.” They continued on. “Here,” said Amy as she pushed open a door, “is the department office. The secretaries will be able to help you with any reimbursements for your expenses and whatnot.”

Maite waived and said hello to the two women who sat behind desks covered in papers as Amy shepherded her past them. “And here is the department chair. He’ll be your first appointment. Oh, I almost forgot to give you this.” Amy handed her a piece of paper with times and names. “Here is your schedule. Your talk is right after your meeting with the chair. After that, I’ll take you to tour some of the labs and then we’ll grab lunch with some of the other students. In the afternoon, you have meetings with some of the other professors. Sound good?”

“Perfect, thank you so much Amy,” replied Maite as Amy knocked on the door. 

They heard a muffled voice from the other side. “Come in!” 

Amy pushed open the door. “Good morning professor. This is Maite.”

“Excellent,” said the man as he stood up from behind his desk and crossed over to shake Maite’s hand. “Thanks Amy, I’ll take her to the seminar when it’s time.”

Amy nodded. “See you soon, Maite,” she said as she closed the door.

The rest of the day was a blur. Maite’s talk, on the electronic properties of quantum materials, was well attended and engaging. She was constantly interrupted with questions, but she felt she defended herself well and that she had answers to most of them. 

Afterwards, the department chair had complimented her on her talk. “Excellent talk, and great work, Maite. I’ve got to dash back to the office, but I hope to talk to you again before the end of your visit.”

Amy then led her to various labs, showing her the equipment they had for interrogating the properties of quantum materials. There were the standard structural probes of transmission electron microscopy, but also more exotic tools including various laser spectroscopy systems and microwave amplifiers. Maite could barely keep all of the information in her head and was glad when it was time for lunch.

Amy and a few other students took Maite to the campus food court. She was able to ask the other students about living and working in Berkeley. The students came from all over the world and had very different views of both the campus and the city, with some loving the eclectic nature of Berkeley the city and others bemoaning the over-population. However, they were all universal in their love of the department and the science they were able to perform.

After lunch, Maite then met with a few of the other professors in the department, those that she felt she had some connection to in terms of research interests. They each explained their research history and the opportunities for students in their respective groups. Maite was again starting to feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information that was being funneled to her when, before she knew it, the day was over. She was both exhausted by the long day and excited by all of the amazing possibilities a place like Berkeley offered. 

Basque Fact of the Week: The Sanchos of Pamplona

If there ever was a single political entity that encompassed all of what we now think of as the Basque Country — Euskal Herria with its seven provinces — it was the Kingdom of Nafarroa, originally known as the Kingdom of Pamplona. On the border of what later became France and Spain, it enjoyed great influence and power for its size due to its location, controlling the mountain passes between the future powers. Weaved throughout its history are a series of kings, the Sanchos, that were instrumental in both the kingdom’s rise and eventual break-up. Their stamp on Basque history cannot be overstated, founding the capitals of the Basque provinces of Gipuzkoa and Araba.

The Sancho Kings of Pamplona and Navarra. Images from Wikipedia.
  • Sancho I, born around 860, was the King of Pamplona from 905 to 925. His father, García Jiménez, first established the Jiménez dynasty, though Sancho I was the one who really consolidated power and created a meaningful dynasty, with Muslim sources referring to the dynasty as the Banu Sanjo, or descendants of Sancho. During his reign, Sancho I fought often with the Muslim rulers on his borders, winning some key victories.
  • His grandson, Sancho II, ruled from 970 to 994, the Kingdom of Pamplona being ruled in the intervening years by Sancho I’s brother and son. Sancho II is the first to be called King of Navarre, so described in the donation of a monastery in 987. By virtue of his mother, Andregoto Galíndez, he also became the Count of Aragon. During his reign, the Codex Vigilanus was completed, a compilation of many documents that included the first western representation of Arabic numerals. His reign was also besotted with various military defeats against the Muslim lords to the south and, in an effort to stabilize his kingdom, he married off his daughter Urraca to one of them.
  • Sancho III, also known as Sancho the Great, was born around 992 or so. He was the grandson of Sancho II and ruled from 1004 to 1035. As the Muslim hold on the south began to fragment, Sancho III tried to unify the Christian lands. He expanded his rule, acquiring Castile and León as the consequence of various marriages, fighting, and military victories. At its peak, his rule reached from Galicia to Barcelona. Amongst other things, he also started a Navarran series of currency and was one of the first great patrons of the Way of Saint James. Upon his death, he split his kingdom amongst his sons.
  • Sancho IV, Sancho III’s great grandson, was King of Pamplona from 1054 until 1076, beginning his reign when he was only fourteen years old. Soon after his accession, many of the lords of his kingdom defected to León, ruled by his uncle, Ferdinand I. In 1062, they signed a treaty that established their border, with what is now Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba under Sancho’s control. Not long after, in 1067, the War of the Three Sanchos pitted Sancho IV against his cousins in Castile and Aragón. Sancho IV was killed in 1076 by his brother Ramón Garcés and sister Ermesinda of Navarre.
  • Sancho V, then also King of Aragón, took over upon Sancho IV’s death. He was Sancho IV’s cousin and Sancho III’s grandson. He ruled Pamplona until his own death in 1094. After a number of military victories, he was defeated by El Cid at the battle of the Battle of Morella and was killed in 1094 while inspecting the walls of a Muslim stronghold.
  • More than 50 years later, after the intervening reigns of Peter I, Alfonso I, and García Ramírez, Sancho VI the Wise ruled, officially changing his title from King of Pamplona to King of Navarra. Born in 1132, he ruled from 1150 until his death in 1194. During his reign, in an effort to solidify authority in the face of Castilian might, he founded the towns of San Sebastián/Donostia and Vitoria-Gasteiz.
  • Sancho VI’s son, Sancho VII the Strong, followed his father as King of Navarra until his own death in 1234. He was the first to establish the now-familiar chains as his blazon. He was also the last member of the Jiménez dynasty. He was a close ally of his brother-in-law Richard I of England. While campaigning in Africa, his kingdom was invaded by Castile and Aragon, a consequence of which was the loss of Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa to Castile. He died childless in 1234, likely the result of a varicose ulcer in his leg.

Primary sources: Wikipedia; please see the various links in the text above.

Fighting Basques: Antonio Guezuraga Besanguiz. From the Beaches of Algeria in 1942 to Apollo 11

This native of Busturia was NASA’s chief engineer and participated in the mission that took Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon.

This article originally appeared in its Spanish form in El Diario.

Antonio Guezuraga Besanguiz poses in his United States Army uniform in which he served with honor for four long years

How is it possible that a boy from a small town in Bizkaia, with just a few hundred inhabitants, managed to become one of NASA’s chief engineers, helping to put the first man on the surface of the moon? This is the story of Antonio Guezuraga Besanguiz.

Antonio was born on June 10, 1919 in Busturia, on the shores of the Cantabrian Sea. His parents were Lucio Guezuraga Ateca, born on December 13, 1893, in Axpe, a barrio of Busturia, and Estefana Besanguiz Echevarria, born on December 26, 1892, also in Busturia. According to Antonio’s son, Robert Guezuraga Uriarte, “Antonio’s mother took him to Bilbao, put him on a boat whose final destination would be New York and told him that when he arrived he would look for Basques in the city, and they would help him. That’s where he met my mother, María Uriarte.”

“Echoes of two wars, 1936-1945” aims to disseminate the stories of those Basques and Navarrese who participated in two of the warfare events that defined the future of much of the 20th century. With this blog, the intention of the Sancho de Beurko Association is to rescue from anonymity the thousands of people who constitute the backbone of the historical memory of the Basque and Navarre communities, on both sides of the Pyrenees, and their diasporas of emigrants and descendants, with a primary emphasis on the United States, during the period from 1936 to 1945.

THE AUTHORS
Guillermo Tabernilla
is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association, a non-profit organization that studies the history of the Basques and Navarrese from both sides of the Pyrenees in the Spanish Civil War and in World War II. He is currently their secretary and community manager. He is also editor of the digital magazine Saibigain. Between 2008 and 2016 he directed the catalog of the “Iron Belt” for the Heritage Directorate of the Basque Government and is, together with Pedro J. Oiarzabal, principal investigator of the Fighting Basques Project, a memory project on the Basques and Navarrese in the Second World War in collaboration with the federation of Basque Organizations of North America.

Pedro J. Oiarzabal is a Doctor in Political Science-Basque Studies, granted by the University of Nevada, Reno (USA). For two decades, his work has focused on research and consulting on public policies (citizenship abroad and return), diasporas and new technologies, and social and historical memory (oral history, migration and exile), with special emphasis on the Basque case. He is the author of more than twenty publications. He has authored the blog “Basque Identity 2.0” by EITB and “Diaspora Bizia” by EuskalKultura.eus. On Twitter @Oiarzabal.

Josu M. Aguirregabiria is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association and is currently its president. A specialist in the Civil War in Álava, he is the author of several publications related to this topic, among which “La batalla de Villarreal de Álava” (2015) y “Seis días de guerra en el frente de Álava. Comienza la ofensiva de Mola” (2018) stand out.

After traveling to the French port of Le Havre, he arrived in New York on June 29, 1936, on the ship SS Normandie. He was 17 years old. His father had lived in the city of skyscrapers since 1924. More than two weeks later, on July 18, 1936, the military coup against the elected government unleashed a war in Spain that lasted three long years. Antonio’s older brother would die during the war.

His studies as a marine engineer and his incipient career in the Merchant Marine were interrupted by the Second World War (WWII). Although not a US citizen, he was enlisted in the US Army on January 9, 1941, in Jamaica, New York. A few months later, in September, Antonio obtained American citizenship, serving during the war in two infantry regiments corresponding to as many divisions: the 39th (of the 9th Infantry Division “Old Reliables”) and 411th (of the 103rd Infantry Division “Cactus Division”) regiments. His experience during the war was vast and included the North African and European theaters of operations.

Decorations received by Antonio Guezuraga during his participation in World War II. Courtesy of Robert Guezuraga Uriarte

After arriving in Algeria on November 8, 1942, he began a journey that led him to participate in the campaigns of Algeria (being one of the first American fighters to fight on foreign soil) and Tunisia, where his unit acquired a more active role by leading the combat operations covering the advance of the 1st Armored Division, helping to subdue the Germans in North Africa in the aftermath of the war in May 1943. Later he would land in Sicily, where they fiercely fought for eight days for Troina. Transferred to the United Kingdom to prepare for the invasion of France, they arrived in Normandy on D + 4 Day, taking part in the fight for the Contentin Peninsula and fighting fierce battles that would take them to the south of Paris and later to Belgium. From September 19, 1944, his unit was involved in the terrible fighting in the Hurtgen Forest and later in the Battle of the Bulge. They were then sent to the Rhineland, from where they progressed into the interior of Germany. On an undetermined date, at the end of the war in Europe or just afterwards, he joined the 411th Infantry Regiment, which had the great honor of linking up with the North American troops fighting in Italy by crossing the Alps through the passage of the Brennero, linking the two fronts and reaching Vipiteno on May 4, 1945.

Antonio was discharged with honors on August 14, 1945, with the rank of fourth grade technician. His specialty was auto mechanics, for which he received the driver badge, to which he added a mechanic badge, but he would also see action with the infantry, obtaining the prestigious badge that accredited his entry into combat. His decorations included the Good Conduct Medal, the United States Defense Service Medal, the Europe, Africa and the Middle East Service Medal, and the Bronze Star, which was awarded to him in February, 1945. In the words of his son Robert, “Antonio loved America and he served it for more than 50 years.”

After the end of the war, Antonio married María Uriarte Ateca, born in 1920 in Brooklyn, New York, to Basque immigrant parents, Pedro Uriarte, born in Abadiño, Bizkaia, in 1891, and Eulalia Ateca Yspizua, born in Busturia in 1890. They had two children during a brief marriage that ended when Maria passed away after Robert’s birth. The children were sent to Busturia where they grew up in the home of Antonio’s mother, returning to New York in 1957, the year in which Antonio married Eleonora Gregoratti, born in Louisiana to an Austrian father and an Italian mother. Eleonora had served as a nurse for the US Navy in the Pacific during WWII. “She was a great role model for me,” Robert told us.

Antonio returned to maritime life, working, initially, for civil shipping companies. In March, 1947, he joined the US Army Transport System (ATS) based in the Port of New York, moving soldiers and goods to Germany and Italy, progressing rapidly in his engineering career. When the ship the Golden Eagle, on which he worked as a second assistant engineer since 1949, was transferred to the Atlantic area command of the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTSLANT; later known as the Military Sealift Command) in 1950, Antonio decided to continue being part of the crew, starting a new adventure in his life. He served aboard several US Naval Ships (USNS) between New York and Europe, primarily. On board the USNS Buckner, he received a special mention for his great gifts as chief engineer, a position he had held since 1952.

Antonio Guezuraga’s maritime career spanned from 1947 to 1984, serving in both Korea and Vietnam. Courtesy of Robert Guezuraga Uriarte

He also served on the USNS Vanguard (T-AGM-194; formerly known as USNS Muscle Shoals, T-AGM-19), a missile range instrumentation ship converted in 1965, and transferred to the Military Sealift Service in 1966. Designed to be an offshore missile tracking station, she participated in the Project Apollo test series and in 1969 she continued in these roles. She subsequently participated in the Skylab program and in the US-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz test project.

But undoubtedly the most notable experience was Antonio’s participation in the Apollo space program, with which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) intended to put a man on the moon. Antonio worked as a NASA chief engineer until 1984.

He was selected as the Marine Employee of the Year by MSTSLANT in 1969. In turn, he was also publicly praised by Michael Collins, Apollo 11 command module pilot, one of three men who went to the moon (July 16-20, 1969), along with Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Collins recognized Antonio’s individual contribution, through his work on the USNS Vanguard, in making that mission a success.

NASA presents the “Silver Snoopy” medal to Antonio Guezuraga in a ceremony that took place in February, 1970. “Silver Snoopy” is one of the NASA symbols that best represents the intention and spirit of space flight. Courtesy by Robert Guezuraga Uriarte

Collins wrote of Antonio, “His contribution was an essential factor in the success of Apollo 11.” Consequently, NASA awarded him the “Silver Snoopy” award for his professional excellence in February, 1970. (Antonio was then a member of the Office of Instrumentation Ships at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland). He also participated in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first international manned space mission that took place from July 15 to 24, 1975. For his work on this first joint mission in outer space, he also received a special mention from the crews of both the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Apollo-Soyuz team presented Antonio Guezuraga with a certificate and a metal medallion for his contribution to the success of this first international mission in space in 1975. Courtesy of Robert Guezuraga Uriarte

The exceptional accomplishments of the young emigrant who arrived in the country with only 17 years of age is measured by the achievements that Antonio reaped throughout his life. His mother Estefana not only sent him to the New World, but also enabled him to explore the endless opportunities that life offered him, helping to make the dream of walking on the surface of the moon come true. Along with his engineering skills, his social and linguistic skills accompanied him throughout his life, since he not only spoke Basque, but he also knew how to read and write it. According to his son Robert, “he was very proud of that, especially during the time of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain.” Additionally, he was fluent in English, Spanish, Italian, and German. Antonio passed away at the age of 72 on April 10, 1992 in Brevard, Florida. Little did Armstrong imagine (or did he?), when he said that of “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” that in reality he was describing the thousands of steps that in turn took so many other men and women who helped him reach the moon. Among them, a boy from Busturia. One of ours.

Collaborate with ‘Echoes of two wars, 1936-1945.’

If you want to collaborate with “Echoes of two wars” send us an original article on any aspect of WWII or the Civil War and Basque or Navarre participation to the following email: sanchobeurko@gmail.com

Articles selected for publication will receive a signed copy of “Combatientes Vascos en la Segunda Guerra Mundial.”

Basque Fact of the Week: The Flute and Drum, the Basque One-Person Band

Song and dance are an integral part of Basque culture. It seems that, whenever you get more than a few Basques together, they spontaneously break out in song and dance. At large dinners, whole rooms can bust out into song. At fiestas, small groups dance in the street. And where there is song and dance, you need music. The one-man or one-woman band – the txuntxunero or txistulari – comprised of the flute and drum fits the bill nicely.

Bilbao País Vasco Euskadi 23-08-2013 Txistularis in the Plaza Nueva durante la Aste Nagusia 2013 © FOTÓGRAFO: MITXI. From bilbaoturismo.net.
  • The txuntxunero, or more commonly called the txistulari today, arose somewhere in Europe sometime in the 13th century — there are a number of images depicting musicians playing the flute and the drum at the same time. For example, in the Basque Country, there are depictions of what we would call a txistulari in the monasteries of la Asunción de Tuesta and La Oliva. It’s not until the 15th century, however, that we find written references to these musicians in the Basque Country — people such as Réonart de Ufon, in the service of Carlos III in 1413 and Johan Romei, Johan de la Mota and Pedro Julián, who were in the service of Carlos, Prince of Viana.
  • The txuntxunero played so-called “música alta,” or loud music, intended for open air and meant to be heard, to be a herald or lead a procession. However, the most important role of the Basque musician was to lead dancing. The combined rhythm and melody of the txistu and drum provide the perfect soundtrack to dancing. However, the Church viewed dancing, with its lustful movements, as diabolical and musicians were excommunicated and even depicted as devils. Indeed, during the Basque witch trials, the only woman txuntxundera documented before the 20th century was accused of witchcraft and one man, Miguel de Xubiri, was executed in 1575.
  • In the 16th century, the solo nature of the txistulari resulted in their gradual decline, as ensemble groups became more popular. However, in the Basque Country, the txistu and drum are about the only instruments used to accompany dance. Further, it is about this time that cities and villages start to hire these musicians. By the 18th century, dances became regulated — handkerchiefs had to be held to prevent hands from touching, dances had to end by sunset, they had to be held at a specified place — and the hiring of musicians by the cities themselves was part of this effort. The txuntxundero also had very specific duties, such as announcing dawn on holidays and accompanying authorities in processions and parades.
  • It’s also about this time that the txistu started becoming more than a popular instrument, it became more “cultured.” Emphasis was placed more on the flute than the drum, eventually leading to these musicians being called txistularis rather than txuntxunderos. New melodies were written. The txistu evolved, became tunable so it could be played in groups. And txistu virtuosos arose, musicians such as Vicente Ibarguren and Baltasar Manteli.
  • However, in the 19th century, the txistu was considered old fashioned and again fell out of favor. The final abolishment of the fueros led to a new movement to maintain old Basque customs, and the txistu was no exception. It became one of the central elements in Basque cultural renaissance but also a political football, used by different sides to promote their agenda. One editorial said that “Before reason, the sounds of the txistu reach the heart.”
  • The Spanish Civil War, as it did to so many aspects of Basque culture, halted this renaissance in the txistu. In some cases, military governors, associating the txistu with Basque nationalism, confiscated all txistus. However, since then, new avenues for the txistu have arisen. Whole orchestras filled with txistus were created, elevating it to new heights. But, new competition, in the form of rock and pop music, also led to the txistu filling a niche and folkloric space in Basque music. Even so, the txistulari and txuntxundero today are as technically accomplished as ever, and there are numerous events promoting the musical form.

Primary source: Sánchez Ekiza, Karlos. Txuntxunero. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2020. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/txuntxunero/ar-133269/

Buber’s Basque Story: Part 46

If you have comments or questions, or have simply been enjoying the story and want to say hello, please drop me a note!

The next morning, Maite was up early. She lay in bed, going through her slides on her computer one last time as Kepa slowly woke next to her. He sat up in bed, watching her for a moment, not wanting to interrupt. She could feel his eyes on her, though, and after she finished looking through the current slide she turned to him. 

“Yes?” she asked.

“Just wanted to say good morning. Shall I run out and fetch some breakfast and coffee while you get ready?”

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“That would be great!” she exclaimed. “But first…” She set aside her computer and pulled Kepa toward her, her lips meeting his as she embraced him. More than a few minutes passed before she released him again.

Kepa smiled at her. “Are you sure you have to go to this interview? We could just stay here…”

Maite returned the smile. “We’ll have time for that later. And, besides, if I don’t go, they won’t pay for the hotel.” 

“Fair enough,” said Kepa as he jumped out of bed and threw on some clothes. “Be back soon.”

While Kepa was out, Maite took a shower and laid out her clothes for the day. It wasn’t long before he returned with a couple of cups of coffee, a few breakfast sandwiches, and a few pastries. “I couldn’t find any bollos de mantequilla, but hopefully these will do.”

“Mil esker, Kepa!” They sat on the small sofa on the other end of the hotel room as they ate. “So, what are you going to do while I’m on campus?”

“That’s a good question. I didn’t get a chance to look at what there is to do here in Berkeley. I guess I’ll just wander around a bit, see what there is to see.”

“I’ve heard they have some nice gardens here.”

Kepa shook his head. “That really isn’t my kind of thing.” He paused. “But, after being surrounded by so many people in New York, it might be nice to get away from people.”

“How about we plan on doing the gardens tomorrow then? Unless you want to get away from me too?”

“Ha! Ez, ez. You are the last one I want to get away from.”

Maite finished eating. “I’m going to finish getting ready,” she said as she stood. She grabbed her clothes off the bed and headed to the bathroom as Kepa continued sipping on his coffee. 

She emerged a few moments later. Kepa hadn’t seen her dressed up like this before, in a professional capacity, and he found her stunning. She had opted for a pantsuit and pulling her hair back into a bun. Her make-up was understated, accentuating her natural beauty. She stepped into the middle of the room and did a slow twirl. “What do you think?”

“Ederra,” replied Kepa. “Simply beautiful.”

Maite blushed as she grabbed her bag and stowed her computer and power cord inside. “Do you care to walk me to the campus, jauna?”

“I would be delighted,” replied Kepa as he grabbed his coffee and followed Maite out of the room.

The campus was beautiful, with large ornate and imposing buildings separated by fertile green lawns. A white clock tower pierced the sky in the distance. 

Maite pointed. “The physics building is next to that tower.” 

“It’s an impressive campus,” said Kepa. “I can see why you want to come here.”

“It’s not really about the campus. It’s about the people. Some of the greatest minds in physics have studied and taught here.”

“And you’ll be next.”

Maite let out a nervous chuckle. “We’ll see.”

As they approached the entrance to the building, Kepa reached out for Maite’s arm. He looked her in the eyes. “You will do great, I know it.”

“Mil esker, Kepa,” said Maite with a smile. “I’m so glad you are here with me.”

“Me too, and when you are done, we’ll celebrate.”

“Sounds good,” replied Maite as she gave Kepa a small kiss on the cheek and passed through the doors, turning one last time to wave.

The Linguistic Richness of the Feminine: An Interview with Begoña Echeverria

Photo by Linda Iriart.

Professor Begoña Echeverria is no stranger to Buber’s Basque Page. Back in 2014, she wrote a guest column describing her use of song to teach elements of Euskara. However, that is only one of the myriad of activities she is leading to not only promote but also to understand Basque language and culture. Her play Picasso Presents Gernika is currently making the virtual rounds, and we’ll discuss that soon in a separate post (though you can find more information about the next screening here). In this interview, we delve into Begoña’s latest book — “Witches” and Wily Women — where she examines the place of the feminine in Basque language and culture. Begoña recently gave a presentation to mark the launching of her book, and another is coming up on April 7 — check here for details (registration required).

Buber’s Basque Page: Both of your parents were from the Basque Country but you grew up in the United States. What was it like having Basque as your first language? When did you realize that not speaking English at home was unique?

Begoña Echeverria: Speaking Basque at home — and with my aunts and uncles when we visited them on Sundays — just seemed normal to me. I don’t recall thinking it was odd or anything while I was in school, and I didn’t really get that Basque itself was an unusual language until I got to college. My friends would overhear me speaking in Basque to my parents on the phone (back in the day when you had to go down the hall to use a payphone), and ask me questions about it that I couldn’t necessarily answer. Like how old the language was, or why it sounded so different from languages they knew.

Begoña Echeverria is the daughter of Basque immigrants to southern California. A native Basque speaker with a PhD in sociology, she is a Professor at UC Riverside’s Graduate School of Education.  Her research on Basque language, culture and identity has been published in academic journals in education, sociolinguistics, anthropology, history and folklore.  She is also a singer-songwriter with the Basque-American trio, NOKA (www.ilovenoka.com), which has performed over 60 concerts domestically and internationally. Her historical novel, The Hammer of Witches, loosely based on the 1610 burnings of Basque “witches” from the Baztan Valley in northern Spain from which her family hails, was the Historical Novel Society’s Editor’s Choice for May, 2015. Other creative works include her docudrama Picasso Presents Gernika, which  considers the fate of Basque refugees after the bombing of Gernika in 1937, as well as the artistic journey of Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece, Guernica. (A film screening of the play will be streamed on April 24, 7pm).

BBP: When did you first visit the Basque Country? What was your first impression of the land your parents came from?

Begoña Echeverria: We visited as a family over the summer when I was six; I turned seven while we were there.  I remember playing with my cousins, running around their farmhouses, chasing the chickens (my siblings and I each had our favorites). I have very fond memories of getting to know my extended family, and I still remain close to my cousins there. I have family on both sides of the border, so I spoke to all my relatives there in Basque, as it was the only language we had in common.

BBP: Your book, “Witches” and Wily Women, and much of your research focuses on the place of the feminine gender in the Basque language, the concept of “noka.” What is the importance of “noka” in the Basque language and culture?

Begoña Echeverria: The Basque language (“Euskera”) has no “she” or “he,” or “el/le” “la” (as in Spanish or French). It’s completely gender-neutral except for the second person singular pronoun, hi. The ‘noka’ forms indicate that the addressee is female, while the ‘toka’ forms signal that the addressee is male. (These forms are so old, readers will have to forgive Euskera for conceptualizing gender in binary terms.) But while noka and toka are linguistically equal in that they occupy the same place in the language, I have shown in my research that they are sociolinguistically unequal — noka is often considered rude or disrespectful, has no unambiguously positive associations in the culture, and is disappearing from speech at a much faster rate than is toka. I believe that this is emblematic of the male bias in Basque society as a whole, where men are celebrated as the main protagonists in history and the producers of culture, while the accomplishments of women are overlooked or unknown. The loss of noka also deprives Basque speakers of the opportunity to address women and girls with as much linguistic richness as they do boys and men, which is an inequity in and of itself. But by focusing on texts that use noka (as my book does in examining biblical materials, folklore and song since the 16th century) we uncover images of the “feminine” that are not otherwise obvious — images of women and girls playing active roles in their own lives and in Basque culture, telling tales we don’t normally hear — that enrich all of us.  We also learn that women have played active roles as creators of Basque culture; about a third of the folklore and song texts were written by women, but their names are usually just put in the footnotes or omitted altogether. 

BBP: In the presentation you gave at the launching of your book, you described how “noka” had been vilified, particularly as compared to the masculine equivalent “toka,” and that much of that could be attributed to how the Basque translation of the Catholic Bible portrayed “noka.” How did the Protestant treatment differ from the Catholic version?

“Witches” and Wily Women can be purchased at basquebooks.com.

Begoña Echeverria: It was quite a shock for me to learn not only that the two religions used pronouns differently but that Protestants published the Bible in Basque centuries before Catholics did. The Protestant Queen Jeanne d’Albret of Navarre commissioned Joanes Leizarraga to translate the New Testament in 1571, and the Protestant convert Pierre d’Urte published a fragment of the Old Testament around 1700. I came across the d’Urte Old Testament on a library shelf when another book I was looking for was missing, and I noticed right away that the pronouns were ‘wrong.’ It was using noka and toka for all speech directed to a single addressee, regardless of the social status of the people in the conversation: between God and Eve, Abraham and Sarah. This use of the familiar to address God (as in prayer) or between spouses is almost unheard of today. Then I looked through Leizarraga’s New Testament, and noticed the same pattern there: Jesus used noka/toka with God the Father, but also with the Virgin Mary, the Samaritan Woman, Mary Magdalena, and his Apostles.  Noka is used for every kind of interaction: positive, negative, everything in between. In contrast, the first Catholic Bible wasn’t published until 1865, when L. L. Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew) commissioned Jean Duvoisin for the task.  And it uses noka exclusively for very negative purposes: only in the Old Testament, when God is condemning a city or country for disloyalty, personified as female, using violent or sexualized imagery. 

BBP: To what extent are these differences due to the different outlook between Protestantism and Catholicism, versus each individual translator’s relationship with the Basque language?

Begoña Echeverria: Good question. I wondered that myself, but as I don’t have a time machine (or do I?) to see how the translators spoke in their daily lives, I compared other texts that they translated, and I found that the pronoun differences definitely had to do with theology rather than personal preference. Leizarraga, for example, uses the formal pronoun (zu) in thanking Queen Jeanne d’Albret, who commissioned him to translate the New Testament, which suggests he felt that the use of noka with an actual female monarch was inappropriate, even though his text uses noka to address every single female character, regardless of status. Similarly, Pierre d’Urte published a grammar in addition to the Old Testament fragment, and he uses zu in addition to hi (the familiar pronoun) in sample dialogues he includes.  As for Bonaparte, his preference for zu follows the pronominal tradition established in Roman Catholic texts going back to the 17th century. Zu is used almost all of the time; hi is used only for very negative interactional purposes, like when the mob mocks Jesus on the cross, or Jesus casts out a demon from a possessed person. The only use of noka I found was from Axular’s Gero from 1643, when God uses it to chastise a lazy person’s soul, which is addressed as if it were female. A negative precedent for noka, indeed.

BBP: In your presentation, you noted how there is an effort to create a gender-neutral versus of the familiar pronoun. Would it be easier to just ‘lose’ gender completely in the language? What, in your opinion, would be lost if Basque became truly genderless (losing both noka and toka)?

Begoña Echeverria: Much research has shown that whenever gender matters in a society or culture, that will be reflected in (and reinforced) by the language. So the answer is not to keep or get rid of noka and toka, but to create a Basque culture that is more gender-equitable that can support a gender-equitable language, whatever its pronouns are. Most Basque speakers do not know or use noka or toka, but they still use language to construct gender identities or (re)create gender power dynamics. For instance, in my research many years ago I found gender differences in language use even among bilingual Basques: girls and women spoke Spanish or French in domains outside the home where boys and men often spoke Basque. This was not due to language ability — female speakers were as linguistically competent as male speakers — but to the social values ascribed Basque. In processes I discuss in my book, over time the Basque language and identity have been constructed in terms that favor male speakers, because Euskera is used in positively-valued male-dominated domains (rural sports like pilota, activities like bertsolaritza), so that speaking Basque also has connotations with rugged masculinity.  But for female speakers, speaking Basque has not had such positive associations, and was actually used as an epithet. So girls and women, understandably enough, would speak Spanish and/or French at work or in social contexts outside the home to construct more positive “feminine” identities. This also made sense economically, as the more socially-mobile jobs for women required proficiency in languages other than Basque.

Even so, losing noka would be shame because it provides unique perspectives on the world that would be lost without it.  As Euskera is a language isolate, there is no other language it could bequeath noka’s insights to, if noka itself were to disappear.  The danger is not nearly as great with toka, as there are still many domains in contemporary life as well as the historical record to keep it alive.

Begoña historical novel, The Hammer of Witches.

BBP: Where is your research taking you now? What’s next?

Begoña Echeverria: Thanks for asking! I have a few projects in the works. I just started a collaboration with the Riverside Arts Academy called “Improving Literacy Using Music,” which we hope will ILUMminate (I can’t help myself…) ways to integrate music and perhaps other creative expressions into the K-3 curriculum in California. With Dr. Heather Sparling at Cape Breton University, I am co-editing a volume on “Music and Heritage Language Revitalization” for the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. With UCR colleagues Drs. Annika Speer, Bella Merlin and Richard Cardullo, I am conducting a workshop based on the film of my play Picasso Presents Gernika, which will be screened on Saturday, April 24, 7pm PST. (Visit here for more information.) Now that “Witches” and Wily Women is done, I hope to take a closer look at Basque versions of global fairy tales like Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin that use noka to see what perspectives and life lessons they might offer.  I’m working with illustrator Lara Scott on a series of children’s books: Basque-ing in Numbers is currently available through basqueimports.com, and we hope to have Basque-ing in the ABCs available for Jaialdi, 2022.  I also hope to have a Spanish version of my historical novel, The Hammer of Witches (basquebooks.com), loosely based on the 1610 burning of Basque “Witches” from Baztan, available by then. Right after finishing this interview, I will be revising the first draft of my historical novel in progress, Apparitions, which explores the supposed apparitions of the Virgin Mary to Basque children amid the political and religious tumult that preceded the Spanish Civil War.

We’ll see what other ideas come to me…

Baztan, image from Wikipedia.

BBP: What are your favorite places in the Basque Country? Your favorite things to do? 

Begoña Echeverria: My favorite places are wherever my family lives, in Baztan and the countryside around Baiona. As for things to do: visiting, singing and eating with family and friends — preferably all at the same time — and communing with old Basque books in the archives!

BBP: Do you have any parting words before we conclude?

Begoña Echeverria: I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Basque immigrant communities for all their support of my various endeavors over the years — and to you, Blas, for your continued interest in my work. I am having a book talk through UC Riverside’s Center for Ideas and Society on Wednesday, April 7, 3pm PST [check here for details (registration required)] for those readers who can make it. But if there are Basque clubs or other groups out there interested in additional presentations on my book, I’d love to hear from you!: b.echeverria@ucr.edu.

BBP: Mil esker, Begona!

Basque Fact of the Week: The Basajaunak, the Wild Lords of the Forest

Basque mythology is full of colorful characters and beings. With the dense forests that cover the imposing mountains rising from the sea, it should come as no surprise that the mythology features beings that dwell in those forest and are closely connected to nature. However, the Basajaunak — the wild lords of the forest — are a paradox wrapped in an enigma. While they are wild beings that almost embody the primal nature of the forest, they are also protectors of humans, especially shepherds. They are also repositories of knowledge, that humans have tricked to learn new technologies.

One rendition of a Basajaun. Image from the book Mitologika. Una visión contemporánea de los seres mágicos de Euskadi.
  • In one story, a group of four cowherds were watching their flock in Esterenzubi, on the border between France and Spain. When they slept, they would leave a ration of their food for Antxo, the local Basajaun, who would come and warm himself by their fire as they slept. One day, only the youngest left any food out for him and so Antxo, after eating his share and warming his body, took the clothes of the other cowherds. It snowed heavily that night and, upon waking, the three cowherds were dismayed to find their clothes missing. They begged the young boy to go find them, finally offering him a lame heifer as a reward. He found Antxo, who after some coaxing returned the clothes, but also gave the young man a hazelnut wand, telling the boy to hit the heifer one hundred and one times. The boy did, and the heifer eventually produced for him a herd of one hundred and one beautiful animals.
  • The Basajaun is covered in hair that falls to his knees, covering his chest and belly. He protects flocks from wolves and oncoming storms, announcing their imminence by shouting in the mountains. The character of the Basajaun sits on the border between nature and civilization. He is of nature, living in the forests, but he protects the shepherd from the worst that nature has to offer.
  • The Basajaun is a complex character, an amalgamation of many stories that have combined to create the being we know today. At least three main motifs coexist in the Basajaun:
    • The wild Basajaun, covered with hair, agile and vigorous, capable of running faster than wild beasts, wandering naked in winter or summer, never getting sick and feeding on forest animals and plants.
    • The shepherd, who helps human shepherds and collects their offerings (bread, milk, and warmth) in exchange for his help.
    • The victim of robberies perpetrated by malicious heroes such as San Martín Txiki or Haxerihargaitz; this last version is the owner of valuable riches or secrets.
  • Because of this synthesis of many stories over centuries, the character of the Basajaun is often contradictory. In some stories, he is a protector, defending the shepherds and flock from wolves and storms, in exchange for a small offering. In others, he steals from the shepherds and scares the sheep. In some, he is impervious to the elements, his hairy body protected from the cold, but in others he warms himself by the shepherds’ fire.
  • There are of course similarities and maybe even common origins with other beings in European mythology. There are beings that roam the Alps and the Apennines that teach humans important knowledge. And the Greek and Romans had deities such as Silvanus and Pan protected herds and promotes their fertility. However, any direct associations are, of course, lost to time.

Primary source: Hartsuaga Uranga, Juan Inazio. Basajaun. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2021. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/basajaun/ar-11720/

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