Vince J. Juaristi: Intertwined: The Good Shepherds

As part of the buildup to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrating the Basque culture, Vince Juaristi is writing a series of articles highlighting the connections between the Basques and Americans. He has graciously allowed me to repost those articles as they appear on Buber’s Basque Page.

Sprawled between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, the Smithsonian hosts the National Folklife Festival each year. Hundreds of thousands attend from across America and around the world to study and learn about diverse cultures in the United States. From June 29-July 4 and July 7-10, 2016, this year’s festival will showcase the Basque. In the lead up to this important event, we are publishing a series of historical and human interest articles that demonstrate how Americans and the Basque have crossed paths for centuries. An introductory article ran in January. Additional articles will run monthly through June 2016. We call the series, “Intertwined“.

The Good Shepherds
By Vince J. Juaristi

Sheepherding is the world’s second oldest profession according to Genesis.

“Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.”

Then Cain killed Abel and received the mark, and his brother became the good shepherd whose namesake appeared a million times thereafter in scripture, mythology, nursery rhymes, literature, film, and economics. But it was not until the legislative maneuvers of U.S. Senator Patrick McCarran that Basque sheepherders, who followed Abel in his profession, ignited a fracas in American politics.


Senator Pat McCarran served as senator from 1933 until his death in 1954.

Senator McCarran of Nevada presided as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 1948 when millions worldwide lacked food and shelter, and yearned for a life of peace, economic security, and hope. They eyed America as their promised land. It was McCarran who determined if they could walk through those “golden doors” which the poet Emma Lazarus had written about in the “New Colossus” sixty-five years earlier.

At age 71, McCarran was a dour man with wavy silver hair, fleshy jowls, and a piercing squint. By seniority, he stood fourth in the Senate, though some of his colleagues whispered near the cloak room that he was first in power, and no one dared say otherwise.

Although he represented only 140,000 souls spread mostly in the rural countryside of Northern Nevada where sheep outnumbered people, he wielded nearly exclusive authority over America’s immigration laws. One of his earliest bills, the Displaced Person’s Act, granted residency to 200,000 refugees from Germany, Austria, Italy, and Czechoslovakia.

Less than a year after Truman had signed the bill, McCarran quietly pushed through a one-page amendment to grant residency to 48 Basque sheepherders. It went largely unnoticed. The request had come from ranchers in Nevada, Idaho, and California. Herds were shrinking; wool production was down. Ranchers believed that the able hands of “sturdy Basque sheepherders” could help staunch the decline of herds from a peak of 705,000 in 1935 to 321,000 in 1948.

Heartened by this success, McCarran put forward a bolder bill two months later that admitted 250 Basque sheepherders from Spain. “Unless skilled and competent sheepherders are promptly made available,” he said, “it will be necessary for the herds to be progressively reduced.”

But this bill did not go unnoticed, not because his fellow senators doubted the skill of Basques as shepherds, or because the country could not absorb 250 hard working men. They balked because more than a year had gone by and McCarran’s Displaced Person’s Act had restricted, not assisted, refugees into America. Some of his senate brethren suspected that he had poisoned the act on purpose with labyrinthine regulations to reduce the flow of refugees to a trickle, if not a drip. Until McCarran loosened the restrictions, his colleagues planned to delay his shepherd bill.

There was merit and a twist of irony to their suspicions. The war had been replaced in America with a fear of foreign and domestic communism, the great Red Menace. McCarran had become one of the most ardent crusaders, along with Joseph McCarthy, against allegedly ubiquitous communist sympathizers hiding among immigrant populations or lurking in the diplomatic corps of the State Department. He fancied himself always vigilant of communists and communist sympathizers. Yet as much as he tossed up roadblocks to the foreign born or launched witch hunts for men and women of questionable character, he ironically made special accommodations for Basque sheepherders born in a country ruled by a Fascist.

When challenged, he simply retorted that “communism is worse than fascism.” Even if Franco’s regime had purged thousands of Basque and other opponents after the Spanish Civil War, McCarran saw Spain as an ally against the Soviet Union. Moreover, cordial relations with Franco ensured a constant flow of Basque sheepherders for the ranchers of his state. “I am nothing without serving Nevadans,” he said.

In September 1949, he decided to investigate the refugee camps in Europe and evaluate for himself (some would say validate) the extent of communist influence. “Since I am defending the economy of the country,” he said, “I want to find out how many of these people should come in and why. I want to find out what they’ll do once they get here.” He also stopped in Madrid to visit Franco.


Juan Juaristi, one of the sheepherders who arrived in the United States under McCarran’s legislation.

After his return, McCarran did not loosen the restrictions on refugees, but he did back a $100 million loan to Spain, and even threatened the Secretary of State with a budget cut unless the department warmed diplomatic relations with the fascist country. “Until that policy is changed,” he said, “I’m going to look into this appropriation with a fine-tooth comb.”

All the while, his shepherd bill languished and the ranchers of Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, and California pressed him for action. Not until the summer of 1950 was he able to craft a compromise. He agreed to loosen restrictions on refugees if his colleagues accepted the 250 Basque sheepherders, and in a second measure, granted legal residence to 163 Basque sheepherders who had arrived in the United States between 1943 and 1949. The deal was struck, the House concurred, and President Truman signed both bills.

This matter had hardly settled when McCarran decided to rewrite America’s immigration laws. “Today, as never before,” he said, “untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain.” He warned that America’s porous borders and weak immigration policies had allowed 5,000,000 illegal aliens into the United States including “militant communists, Sicilian bandits, and other criminals.” Although he offered no proof of this claim, his fiery speeches riled the public and stoked fears inside and outside of government. “We have in the United States today,” he said, “hard core indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary, are its deadly enemy.” He joined with Congressman Francis Walter of Pennsylvania to introduce the McCarran-Walter Act.

The bill was an overhaul of America’s immigration policies. It retained a quota system for nationalities and regions and codified a system that gave preference to different ethnic groups based largely on labor qualifications. It defined three types of immigrants: immigrants with special skills; average immigrants, governed by quotas, not to exceed 270,000 per year; and refugees. Every immigrant had to be of “good moral character,” which prevented entry of anyone with ties or affiliations to “communist or other subversive parties.” The bill eventually passed, though drawing a veto from President Truman, which was quickly overridden. The bill became law on June 27, 1952. Many of its provisions remain intact today.

Under the new law, the once paralyzing scrutiny of refugees expanded to all immigrants. Basque sheepherders were considered immigrants with special skills, giving them preference over average immigrants. That they hailed from a fascist country no longer mattered. In fact, by cooperating with Franco’s government, McCarran was able to open a special immigration office in Bilbao to expedite the flow of Basque sheepherders from the Pyrenees to America. McCarran pressed the State Department to admit the annual quota of 250 Basque sheepherders immediately and another 250 in 1953.

With ranchers in Nevada and other western states rejoicing, he proposed legislation in 1954 to bring in another 385 Basque sheepherders which exceeded the quota in his own law. He declared wool production “essential to national security” and the work of Basque men vital for the preservation of America’s economic vitality in the world. He was riding so high that even Franco decorated him in Spain with the Grand Cross of Isabel Catolica, a rare honor for a foreigner.

Many senators did not share Franco’s admiration for McCarran, one in particular, Senator Herbert Lehman of New York, who blocked the bill. “This bill,” he said, “is for the benefit of one small group and one region of our country.” He sympathized with the need for sheepherders, he said, but “what about the American citizens who have mothers and fathers, grandparents, brothers and sisters, foster-parents or foster children in Italy, Greece, Norway, Portugal, Turkey, Hungary and Czechoslovakia? Are they not deserving of the same consideration as the sheep of Nevada?”

Restrictions on refugees had tangled into such a draconian noose, Lehman maintained, that more Basque sheepherders had entered America in the past five years than “all refugees, escapees, persecutees, orphans, and surplus population in Europe and Asia.” The claim was an exaggeration, but not by much. He then questioned McCarran directly, asking, “Would you raise your voice in behalf of special bills to admit some Swiss watchmakers, some Czech tailors, some Greek goat herders, some Italian farmers, and some Polish boot-makers in a non-quota status?”

Whether rhetorical or not, the question went unanswered.

The bill seemed doomed. Yet a day after blocking it and posing his question, Lehman lifted his opposition and voted for the measure. He gave no explanation, nor did the congressional record provide insight to his change of heart. Whatever argument, promise, swap, threat or special deal caused Lehman to flip his vote will likely stay buried in history. The bill passed and became law.

By 1954, McCarran had opened America to 1,135 Basque sheepherders. No other group of immigrants enjoyed such preferential treatment, or expeditious attention. If a Basque sheepherder in the Pyrenees applied for a visa, he received an interview at the American consulate, a physical, and a plane ticket. Within a month, he found himself with a dog at his side and a willow in his hand herding a band of 1,000 sheep in Nevada or another western state, sleeping by a campfire, and eating beans from a can.

The pace of Basque immigration would never be greater than during these controversial years, though the Basque would continue to settle western states during the rest of the decade and well into the 1960s.

In September 1954, not long after McCarran had won passage of his last shepherd bill and prepared another for 1955, he returned to Nevada to campaign for fellow Democrats. He left Reno in the early afternoon for a speech in Hawthorne. He stopped in Fallon for a haircut, but finding a line at the barber shop, and not wanting to be late, he paid a man so he could jump ahead. In Hawthorne, he gave his speech to rousing applause, and then, leaving the stage, he collapsed. McCarran had suffered his third heart attack in three years.

He left his mark on the state: an airport in Las Vegas, a boulevard in Reno. The good shepherds continued to thrive after him. Some worked for the rest of their lives in the sheep camps during spring and summer and lived solitary lives in nearby towns during the off-seasons. Others moved to town permanently, worked 9-to-5 jobs, raised families, and returned to the sheep camps only for a weekend to hear the bleats of lambs, or help deliver or dock or sheer.

After two generations, many of the 57,000 Basque who now populate America can trace their origins to these early sheepherders who left the Pyrenees for America’s western states. Today in the hills of Nevada or Idaho or California, a few Basque men still tend flocks like Abel before them. To see them work is to witness an ancient craft that is simple, wonderful and older than scripture.

Vince J. Juaristi was born and raised in Elko, NV. He is CEO and President of ARBOLA, a technology company, in Alexandria, VA. His newest book, Basque Firsts: People Who Changed the World, will be released this year by the University of Nevada Press.
Please donate to help the young people of the Great Basin Basque Program attend the Smithsonian event this summer. All donations are tax deductible and you will receive a receipt. Go to: http://www.campusce.net/gbcnv/course/course.aspx?c=246
If you would like to help the young people of the Great Basin Basque Program in other ways, contact Angie deBraga at Great Basin College. angie.debraga@gbcnv.edu.

An Interview with Christine Echeverria Bender: Uncovering a Forgotten Era in Basque History

Christine Echeverria Bender is a prolific author, focusing on the fictionalized adventures of Basques during the Age of Discovery. Her novels have touched on the first circumnavigation of the globe (completed not by Magellan, but the Basque Elcano) and the role of the Basques in Columbus’s voyages across the Atlantic. One of her most recent novels, The Whaler’s Forge, describes the Basque sailors who crossed the Atlantic, most likely long before Columbus ever did, in search of better hunting grounds for whales. The novel delves into the relationships that the Basques likely had with the Native Americans they encountered. In this interview, Christine takes some time to provide some background on her novel, some of the choices she made, and the research she conducted as part of her writing process.

You can visit Christine’s website and purchase her novels here.

Buber’s Basque Page: As with your other historical novels, you explore an era of Basque history through the fictionalization of the life of a Basque from that time. This time, it is a time during which relatively little is known in the historical record, the era of the Basque whalers off of the Canadian coast. What inspired you to choose this era and how did you do your research about the Basques in Canada?

515i8VRlcTL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Christine Echeverria Bender:  When I began researching the question of when Basques first arrived in North America I came across the discovery of the sunken galleons and whalers’ graves in Red Bay, Labrador. Just imagine the first ships’ crews landing there. It’s highly unlikely that those men had ever heard of moose, beavers, grizzlies, or the native Naskapi people, so their first encounters must have been startling. The early whalers also faced the extreme dangers of their trade while they battled the sometimes brutal climate conditions. The more I learned, the more determined I became to tell this story. To research the Basque whalers as well as the northern right whales I traveled to five Canadian provinces. I’m grateful to have received a grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts to aid in my research. A year later I was fortunate enough to join a team of archeologists from the Smithsonian Institution on a dig at Hare Harbor, a Basque whaling site in remote eastern Quebec. Many of the artifacts we found, from Basque and Innuit people, are reflected in The Whaler’s Forge.

Buber’s Basque Page: Without giving away too much of the plot, your novel spends as much time with the Native Americans as with the Basques themselves. What motivated this choice? How were you able to so vividly describe a people who have even less historical record than the Basques?

Christine Echeverria Bender:  The archeologic record, including finds from the Smithsonian digs, strongly suggests that the Basque whalers and native people lived and worked closely together. I felt the story would be less full, less true if I had not depicted this intimate relationship. While investigating the Naskapi, I found sources from European trappers and explorers who had lived with the native Canadians before their ways of life had all but disappeared. I also studied scientific evidence of the flora and fauna of the time, along with climate conditions, to help me describe their world.

Buber’s Basque Page: Your main character, Kepa, is a tormented soul with a complex past that influences his actions in your novel. What was your inspiration for Kepa? Is there a historical character you based him on or is he a creation entirely your own?

Christine Echeverria Bender:  Kepa is my own creation. I wanted him to have a past that told a great deal about his people and his time, so I chose his inate nature, education, hardships, and triumphs carefullly.

Buber’s Basque Page: I understand that you spent a lot of time on location at archeological sites to research your novel. How was that experience? What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research?


Christine at the dig site, from an interview she did for Women’s Adventure Magazine.

Christine Echeverria Bender:  The experience was unforgettable in so many ways. Our team lived on a small boat, so we got to know each other very well in a short period. I worked with the diggers on land while others dove offshore, and all of us found amazing artifacts. In addition to finding evidence of just how closely the Basque whalers and indigenous people lived together, sometimes occupying the same dwelling, we discovered that the buildings had been burned to the ground at least once. In a charred support beam I found a deeply embedded musket ball, which implies that the site was fired upon before being destroyed. This raised more questions than answers, such as when, by whom, and why the shots were fired.

Buber’s Basque Page: I imagine that, in some general sense, the Basque history of whaling is at least somewhat controversial, with the overall small populations of whales world-wide, a consequence of the world’s history of whaling. Did you run into any particular resistance or surprising encounters because of your subject matter? How has the subject of your novel been received?

Christine Echeverria Bender:  Most people I’ve talked with have been intrigued by this very early era in whaling, and wanted to know more. Although some folks asked if the Basques are to blame for the current low population of whales, I’ve explained that the accounts from this time period describe whales as so numerous that the ships had to nudge them out of the way to reach their anchorages. They also describe the number of whales visible from Red Bay’s harbor in the thousands. The Basques undoubtedly reduced these numbers at the time but it was the whalers of the 19th and 20th century, with their more modern equipment, that made far great reductions to the whale populations. As a matter of fact, recent DNA research conducted on northern right whale bones by Dr. Brenna McLeod of Trent University, concluded that it is highly unlikely that Basque whalers decimated the species. When I was speaking about the Basque whalers in Halifax, Nova Scotia last summer, I was delighted to discover that Dr. McLeod was in the audience, and I was able to discuss her research with her in person. Overall, the subject of The Whaler’s Forge seems to have captivated readers because it is a little-known and enthralling episode in our continent’s history.

Buber’s Basque Page: Based on your research, what is your understanding of the relationship that the Basques had with the Native Americans they encountered?

Christine Echeverria Bender:  The relationship was generally very positive. Because they worked and lived so closely together it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t mingling between the whalers and the native women. In Red Bay, along with the remains of about 135 whalers, excavators found several skeletons of children around the age of 12. These might have been Basque cabin boys, or they might have been half-Indian offspring of the whalers. DNA testing has yet to be conducted that might answer this question. There are accounts of the Basques leaving cabin boys with the natives over the winter so these children could learn their language and customs, and then teach the whalers who returned the following spring. This certainly implies the existence of a trusted bond. Also, the native tribes evidently competed, even fought one another, to hold the best working and trading connections with the Basques.

research3-004cebe4ae5a6d1617e4b4d89b04ee44Buber’s Basque Page: Just a curious point from my point of view: when I’ve tried doing genealogy research into my Basque roots, all of the names I’ve found back several centuries have been Spanish. Yet, all of your Basque characters have names that are Basque. How widely used were Basque names back then?

Christine Echeverria Bender:  Basques began trading and exploring more frequently with the Spanish in the late 15th and 16th centuries and some of our people were motivated to learn to read and write in that language, which very likely influenced professional names as well as the naming of children. The spread of Christianity into the Basque Country may have had an impact as well, with children being baptized with Spanish saints’ names. The Whaler’s Forge is set in 1364, at a time when I believe the traditional Basque names were still prevalent.

Buber’s Basque Page: One very interesting feature of the Basque interactions with the Native Americans was the development of a pidgin language to facilitate trading. You mentioned how Basque cabin boys were left on the American shores to learn the local languages. What else did you uncover about the linguistic interchange between these cultures? Did any Native words make their way into Basque?

Christine Echeverria Bender:  The pidgin that developed between Basques and the Algonquian and Inuit people all around the St. Lawrence is believed to be the oldest cross-Atlantic pidgin language in North America. Surviving words seem to have migrated from the Basque side to our continent rather than the other way around. An example is the word “caribou”, which was roughly translated from the Basque words kari and burdun to mean “destined for the roasting pit”. Among other experts on this topic, Peter Bakker of the University of Amsterdam wrote an article called, “The Language of the Coast Tribes is Half Basque”.

Buber’s Basque Page: In your novels, you’ve touched on the first circumnavigation of the world, the Basque whalers in the Americas, and Columbus’ adventures as well. What is next for Christine Echeverria?

Christine Echeverria Bender:  My most recently publshed novel is Aboard Cabrillo’s Galleon, telling of the 1542 voyage of discovery up the California Coast. Right now I’m working on a screenplay based on a to-be published novel about the Idaho City gold rush at the height of the Civil War. In the future I hope to write about the pre-historic Basques, perhaps venturing with them on their first voyage to North America during the Ice Age.

Basque Folktales, Lauburus in the Yucatan, Cultural Capital of Europe

In Basque circles, Alan King is perhaps best known for his The Basque Language: A Practical Introduction. Beyond his interests in Euskara, he also studies languages such as Nawat and Lenca, two indigenous languages in the Americas. On his personal website, he has begun posting translations of Basque folktales. As part of the Basque Story Project, which has grown out of the academic research of Begoña Echeverria. Alan has posted two stories so far on his website. The first, Pagomari, tells the story of a young shepherdess who dreams of true love. The second is a Basque version of the Cinderella story, about a girl called Pretty Star, though the twists in this one are significantly different than what we accustomed to in the versions we usually tell. Both offer unique perspectives into Basque culture. I certainly cannot wait until Alan posts more stories!


Byron Augustin is an ex-pat of the United States, a professor who has retired to the Mexican city of Valladolid. He and his family enjoy exploring the historic sites of the area. During some recent visits, he and his wife noticed an odd symbol on the ruins of a Spanish hacienda. Unable to determine what they were, he forgot about them until a visit to another site revealed the same symbols. Digging deeper, Augustin discovered that these symbols were the lauburu, which led him on a quest to understand the role the Basques played in the history of Mexico and, more generally, Central and South America. In a three part series of articles (here are parts one, two and three), he describes his journey in discovering these symbols and learning about the people behind them. It is a fascinating window into a little-known part of Basque history.


Donostia, or San Sebastián, the capital of the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, is one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2016, the other being Wroclaw, Poland. And there is no shortage of press on the city to help one prepare for a visit during this special year. Media outlets from all over the world are highlighting the things to do and see in Donostia. If you’ve been waiting for a time to visit this special city on the Atlantic coast, now might be the best time! Here are just a few articles describing this wonderful place:


Vince J. Juaristi: Intertwined: The Tail of the Comet

As part of the buildup to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrating the Basque culture, Vince Juaristi is writing a series of articles highlighting the connections between the Basques and Americans. He has graciously allowed me to repost those articles as they appear on Buber’s Basque Page.

Sprawled between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, the Smithsonian hosts the National Folklife Festival each year. Hundreds of thousands attend from across America and around the world to study and learn about diverse cultures in the United States. From June 29-July 4 and July 7-10, 2016, this year’s festival will showcase the Basque. In the lead up to this important event, we are publishing a series of historical and human interest articles that demonstrate how Americans and the Basque have crossed paths for centuries. An introductory article ran in January. Additional articles will run monthly through June 2016. We call the series, “Intertwined“.

The Tail of the Comet
By Vince J. Juaristi

Florentino Goicoechea (Basque: Florentino Goikoextea) lived in a 24-mile stretch of land between Hernani, Gipuzkoa, Spain, and Ciboure, France. He grew up in a small farm house without electricity or plumbing, hunted antelope and big-horned sheep in the hills south of San Sebastían, and fished the Bidassoa River that traced the Spanish-French border. He knew the Pyrenees that ran like a zipper from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean with more than 50 alternating teeth peaking above 10,000 feet. He knew the sounds of night and day and the animals that growled, chirped, snarled, or hissed in the dense foliage and jagged rock along the high mountain passes. He had no formal schooling, only the knowledge afforded by these 24-miles, but it was this familiarity most of all that came to serve America and the Allies during World War II.Florentino%20Goikoetxea

Florentino began to apply his knowledge and skill as a smuggler against Franco during Spain’s Civil War in 1936. Wearing a black beret not a helmet and carrying a walking stick or fishing pole not a gun, he crisscrossed the border to deliver secrets between commanders in the field and Basque exiles in France. If Franco’s soldiers, the Guardia Civil, spotted him, he smiled and passed as a harmless peasant in search of a meal; the soldiers would nod and go back to their patrol.

Despite his skullduggery, the Republic fell to Franco’s forces by 1939. Wary of going home, he settled in Ciboure, where he happily took up a quiet solitary life of hunting, fishing, and hiking on the French side of the Pyrenees.

Months later, his calm was shattered as it was for all Europeans when Germany’s invasion of Poland sparked World War II. The effects of war did not reach him for six months, and then only as reports in newspapers filled with shocking details of massacre and tragedy. Later, when food shortages forced rationing of eggs, cheese, potatoes, and wine, he smuggled supplies for himself and neighbors.

As a Basque man from Spain, a neutral country during the war, he was never called into military service. Still he felt he had to fight. His few words on the matter suggest that opposing Germany would vindicate the earlier loss to Franco, though no one may ever know his true motivation.

After France surrendered to Germany, Florentino found his calling. He learned of a kind of underground railroad called Réseau Comète – the Comet Line – that held as its motto, “Fighting Without Arms.” It smuggled downed Allied pilots safely from Brussels to Paris, but once Germany occupied France, it had to escort a pilot beyond Paris, across the Pyrenees, into neutral Spain to get him home.

The first guide for this dangerous journey had been caught and arrested. Who, then, would fill the vacancy? Who would escort these American, British, Canadian, and Australian pilots over the treacherous Pyrenees and deliver them safely home? Who would dare defy these Nazis and the Guardia Civil?

Only one man had the knowledge, skill, and cunning to pick up the cause – Florentino Goicoechea.

Every day Florentino walked across a bridge that connected his new home of Ciboure with St. Jean de Luz, and then drank wine or ate a meal at the Euskalduna Hotel. A mother-daughter pair worked there whom he had known since the Spanish Civil War. He marveled still at their sneaky talents. They hovered near tables to watch, hear, absorb, and convey secrets while serving drinks or clearing dishes. As much as Florentino was master of the Pyrenees, these two were masters of subterfuge which turned the Euskalduna into a kind of central nervous system for the French resistance in the south.

Florentino did not know when the pair talked with operatives of Comet, or when a downed pilot might require escort. In truth, he knew little of a pilot’s difficult journey up to the point he met him.

A pilot typically traveled by train or bus from Paris to Bayonne and then pedaled a bicycle sixteen miles to the St. Jean de Luz railroad station. He waited inside a bathroom stall until nightfall and then slipped out a side-door that opened to an alley. Concealed by the shadows for about 500 feet, he entered Euskalduna where the mother and daughter whisked him to a room or another safehouse.

The next day while drinking his wine or sipping his soup, Florentino would hear a whisper, “Expect a package.”

He watched the Ciboure Bridge at midnight for the unmistakable signs of a foreigner, usually a nervous man all alone or two men anxiously whispering and white-knuckling the rail of the bridge. With the stealth of a cat, Florentino sneaked up and quickly drew the one or the pair off the bridge into the shadows.

With the spryness of a younger man, he led them along the N10 road and then uphill into the tall grasses and thick pine and spruce around Ciboure. “It was everything I could do to keep up,” said one flier from Ohio. For nearly three miles, the pace never slowed until they arrived at one of three safehouses in Urrugne – Tomásénéa, Bidegain Berri, or Yatxu Baita.

Florentino knew the farmhouse owners. A wife of a French POW ran the first, a widow the second, and a single father with twelve children the third. Each risked all they had to help him. He alternated his visits to reduce suspicion on any one.

Already exhausted, fliers received warm milk at the farmhouse. Then each was outfitted as a Basque peasant with chord-roped espadrilles, blue workman’s clothes, and a black beret. He also received a Benzedrine pill to boost his energy. As soon as the milk bowls were licked clean, Florentino handed each flier a walking stick, and then he squinted and thrust his chin, for he was a man of few words, and they returned to the night.

In complete darkness, they climbed Mont du Calvaire. It was not high, but steep, burning thighs and calves with each step. At the peak, they collapsed, but Florentino pushed them beyond their limits, up a steeper mountain that the Basque call Xoldokogaina.

They climbed for more than two hours, sometimes on all fours over sharp rock, through pines and across shallow brooks, falling into holes, stumbling over branches, scraping arms and legs. A foot or two ahead were Florentino’s heels and if a flier lost sight of them and panicked, a sudden strong hand pulled him up and forward moving him on.

“There was a kind of peace at the top,” said one Ohio flier surveying the landscape from 5,200 feet. In the calm of this blackest night, they could hear the Bidassoa River in the distance and see the hazy glow of Fuentarabia, Irún and San Sebastían.

Yet between this high tranquility and the lights of freedom were German patrols and Franco’s Guardia Civil.

Florentino crouched with the pilots on Xoldokogaina to catch his breath and rest his legs and wipe sweat from his cheeks. They waited for the guards to change shifts at about 3 a.m. which opened gaps in the security. Then they descended as quickly as they could, sometimes in a slide, to the footpaths of Col des Poiriers.

Here was the most dangerous point in the journey. The terrain afforded little passable ground besides the trails, so they had to jog in the open, breathing heavily, risking exposure and capture. “I was scared as hell,” said a flier from Washington.

The exposure lasted only a few moments until they dipped into the winding Lantzetta Erreka creekbed that ended at San Miguel near the river separating France and Spain.

The Bidassoa River was unpredictable. In winter, it froze over for easy crossing, or froze enough that a man could hop from floe to floe. In summer, it rose in places to the knees. But in spring, it often swelled its banks, forcing Florentino and the fliers to strip and swim with clothes in a plastic bag or held over their heads as the water lapped their armpits. If they heard barking, they had to swim fully clothed.

Up the opposite bank they scrambled on to Spanish soil. By 5 a.m. a crisp dawn had cracked the horizon behind them. Lying on their bellies in the tall grasses, they listened for the Guardia Civil that had barracks only 1,200 feet downstream. Florentino expected the soldiers to be sleeping, not patrolling, and sure enough several fliers reported hearing snoring nearby.

They crept past the slumbering guards over a railroad and across the Irún-Pamplona road. It was a “steep and exhausting climb to Erlaitz,” wrote one flier. Every step was taken in stealth, yet every kicked pebble or snapped limb sounded like a pistol shot.

The terrain eased after Erlaitz and so, too, their anxiety. Florentino led them along old mining tracks to the Sarobe Farm, and for the first time in hours, they felt cautiously safe. The farmer served eggs and cheese, wine and bread. The fliers untied their espadrilles to air their bruised and blistered feet and soak them in salt water.

After resting an hour and pulling on new socks and shoes, they walked two hours over meadow and quiet pasture and well-kept roads.

In Renteria, Florentino bought tickets for the tram and he and the fliers boarded like ordinary commuters. None of the riders that morning knew how treacherous the last 10 hours had been for these dirty-faced, haggard strangers.

In twenty minutes, the tram stopped in Hernani, Florentino’s birthplace, where he took the fliers to a safehouse owned by an old friend of the family.

Then he bid them goodbye.

He never knew their names, nor they his. His daring acts were carried out anonymously – to know a name presented undue risk. He continued escorting fliers across his 24-mile stretch of land until D-Day and the liberation of France in August 1944. He never lost a pilot nor was any pilot captured under his care.

From the Hernani safehouse, the fliers traveled easily to San Sebastían and then to the British Consulate in Bilbao. Under Allied protection, the men made their way to Gibraltar in the south for passage home.

The Comet Line saved over 700 American, British, Canadian, and Australian pilots. Of those, Florentino Goicoechea had a hand in leading 207 over the Pyrenees to safety. While some hung up their wings to enjoy the comforts of home, others returned to the fight. Even though they did not know his name, the fliers wrote thank you notes, never forgetting the kind and quiet man who guided them over the mountains.

After the war, Florentino remained a wanted man by Franco’s Guardia Civil, so his deeds went unrecognized for most of his life. Yet when Franco died in November 1975, Florentino emerged from the shadows of Ciboure to receive widespread recognition in both France and Spain. He was also honored in England at Buckingham Palace, where he received the George Cross for gallantry and bravery. During the ceremony, he was asked, “What is it that you actually do?” In broken English, he replied, “I am in the import-export business.”

56a1aaae98dc1.imageVince J. Juaristi was born and raised in Elko, NV. He is CEO and President of ARBOLA, a technology company, in Alexandria, VA. His newest book, Basque Firsts: People Who Changed the World, will be released this year by the University of Nevada Press.

Please donate to help the young people of the Great Basin Basque Program attend the Smithsonian event this summer. All donations are tax deductible and you will receive a receipt. Go to: http://www.campusce.net/gbcnv/course/course.aspx?c=246

If you would like to help the young people of the Great Basin Basque Program in other ways, contact Angie deBraga at Great Basin College. angie.debraga@gbcnv.edu.

Vince J. Juaristi: Intertwined: John Adams Encounters the Basque

As part of the buildup to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrating the Basque culture, Vince Juaristi is writing a series of articles highlighting the connections between the Basques and Americans. He has graciously allowed me to repost those articles as they appear on Buber’s Basque Page.

Sprawled between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, the Smithsonian hosts the National Folklife Festival each year. Hundreds of thousands attend from across America and around the world to study and learn about diverse cultures in the United States. From June 29-July 4 and July 7-10, 2016, this year’s festival will showcase the Basque. In the lead up to this important event, we are publishing a series of historical and human interest articles that demonstrate how Americans and the Basque have crossed paths for centuries. An introductory article ran in January. Additional articles will run monthly through June 2016. We call the series, “Intertwined“.

John Adams Encounters the Basque
By Vince J. Juaristi

“Providence has favored me, with a very unexpected Visit to Spain,” wrote John Adams to his friend, James Lovell, on December 16, 1779. Over the next month, this landing on Spanish soil would test Adams like few journeys in his life, and yet afford him a surprise glimpse of the Basque, a people with such “a High and independent spirit, so essentially different from the other Provinces” that he would recall them years later during America’s struggle for a new constitution.56b5198375078.image

Weeks earlier, as battles raged along America’s eastern seaboard, Adams had left Boston harbor for Paris to begin dialogue for a peace accord. His ship, the Sensible, had run into a nor’easter two days out and sprung a terrible leak that forced all aboard to man the pumps day and night. After three thousand miles of winter weather on the Atlantic, the water-logged and rotting Sensible, manned by a desperate and exhausted crew had put into port at El Ferrol off the northern tip of Spain.

With peace possible and the fate of American, English, and French lives resting on his shoulders, Adams could not spare several months for ship repairs, so he decided to travel the nearly 900 miles over land to reach Paris. All the Spanish officials at El Ferrol assured him that his plan was a prudent course. The hospitality on the way was the finest in the world, they told him, the journey an easy excursion through lush countryside, even in December. It sounded very much like a vacation.

Determined and confident, Adams gathered his sons, John Quincy and Charles, and a few escorts, and headed out a day after Christmas 1779 in a caravan of thirteen mules like Don Quixotes from the New World.

Much of Spain at the time resembled what Adams had spent a lifetime fighting in Boston and then Philadelphia. Nearly all of the country fell under a trident of power. First, a monarchy levied taxes, drafted fathers and sons into Spain’s never-ending wars, and ruled by royal decree without election or the consent of the people.

A second prong was the clergy who had erected in town after town massive cathedrals, and then collected heavy tithing for their upkeep. Failure to tithe, warned the clergy, condemned a commoner to perdition’s flame. Most paid, and had paid for centuries, keeping peasants as peasants, destitute and powerless. Though a devout man, Adams saw through this ruse commenting, “Nothing appears rich but the Churches, nobody fat, but the Clergy.”

The noblemen comprised the third prong. They commanded vast lands and ships that kings and queens of the past had bestowed on their ancestral lines in exchange for political loyalty and obedience. The nobles imposed fees for the privilege of using their lands or ships to grow bread, catch cod, or build homes for families.

This trident of king, clergy, and nobles acted like a devil’s fork to draw life and blood from the people much like King George of England and the noblemen under his reign plagued the American colonies. “I see nothing but Signs of Poverty and Misery,” Adams wrote. “A fertile Country, not half cultivated, People ragged and dirty, and the Houses universally nothing but Mire, Smoke, Fleas and Lice….No Simptoms of Commerce, or even of internal Trafic, no Appearance of manufactures or Industry.”

Along the path, mile after mile, this gloom did not let up, not for a moment. From El Ferrol through Galicia, León, and Castille, the scarcity of terrain and the poverty of people weighed on Adams, his sons, and his party. The taverns offered little accommodation, so each man carried his own blankets and sheets, food and water, flint and steel.

In the December chill, he hoped only for a comforting fire at night, but even that simple luxury eluded him. “I have not seen a Chimney in Spain,” he wrote. Whenever a fire was lit, the room filled with smoke and soot, causing everyone around the small flame to cough and wheeze. With watery eyes, they turned gray as shadows and then black as coal, their faces “looking like Chimney Sweepers.”

The grime and filth wore down the whole party and by the new year, every one of them had come down with some kind of respiratory illness. The humid chill froze them to the bone. Adams admitted in a letter home to Abigail that reaching Paris by land may have been a grave error in judgment. “The Church, State, and Nobility, exhaust the People to such a degree,” he wrote, “I have no idea of the Possibility of deaper wretchedness.”

This glumness felt uncharacteristic for a revolutionary such as Adams. He was renowned for optimism, an undaunted fighting spirit, and intellectual vigor that had infused America’s revolutionary cause with philosophical underpinnings and legal reason. His was a character that would serve as Vice President to George Washington, and later the second President of the United States. Dejection felt ill-suited for someone cut of his sturdy cloth.

Yet by the time the mule train reached Burgos, his heavy feelings had turned to dark despair. “In short, I am in a deplorable situation indeed,” he wrote on January 11, 1780. “I know not what to do. I know not where to go.”

With heavy heart, he climbed into his mule-drawn carriage the next morning, and plodded through Bribiesca, Pancourbo, and Ezpexo. Sitting across from him were his children, John Quincy and Charles, listlessly rocking back and forth, each shivering, coughing, and sneezing. He worried for their safety, health, and proper schooling.

The carriage descended from a mountain peak, round and round, as if riding the back of a coiled snake, before it finally came into the valley of Biscay where the party would overnight in the town of Orduña.

No signs or landmarks delineated the boundary between the Spanish lands and the Basque territory, but Adams knew he had crossed an important line that stretched from craggy cliffs across a valley and north to the sea. His diary and the writings of others grew cheerful and upbeat almost immediately, like sunshine burning off the gray and cold of suffocating clouds.

In this new land, everyone rose before the dawn. The air had warmed, the chill had broken. “It is a beautifull, a fertile and a well cultivated Spot, almost the only one We have yet seen,” wrote Adams. Riding north, they met merchants on the path with salted fish, sardines, cod, and horse shoes, an assortment greater than any they had seen since Boston Harbor, and “the Mule and their Drivers look very well, in comparison of those We have seen before.”

On January 15, the mule train entered Bilbao, a city half the size of Boston, smelling of sea air and gutted cod, and buzzing with trade. Burly men, some in black berets, loaded and unloaded goods, dealt in the street and shook hands, dangled trinkets for trade, and marketed fruits and vegetables. Women sold yards of cloth and linen and hand-made scarves. Shops lined the road selling books, glass, china, toys, and cutlery. Most impressive of all, Adams beheld a splendid sight – a chimney! The hustle and bustle, all vibrant and freewheeling, felt so familiar to him. “In riding through this little territory,” he wrote, “you would fancy yourself in Connecticut.”

He and his party settled at a “respectable inn” where they could warm fingers and toes without breathing in ash. Hardly an hour had passed when a knock came, and there at the door stood a Basque merchant, Joseph Gardoqui, with an invitation to dinner. With a courteous bow, Adams happily accepted.

Gardoqui and his sons had built a thriving business that traded between Bilbao and the American colonies. He had sympathy for these revolutionary fighters, calling them “patriots,” and doing his small part, he believed, for their cause. Funneled through Basque territory and ports, his secret cargoes would include 30,000 muskets; 30,000 bayonets; 51,314 musket balls; 300,000 pounds of powder; 12,868 grenades; 30,000 uniforms; and 4,000 field tents.

At dinner, Gardoqui recounted with wild swings of arms and hands several Basque achievements. He spoke of the academy at Bergara, unlike any in Spain, where children of Biscay, Gipuzkoa, and Álava learned trade and the customs and cultures of Europe and America. He spoke of townships electing councils for decentralized governance and described how the Basque collected revenues in a common formula transparent to all. Adams listened with rapt attention, drinking wine of Gardoqui’s own vintage.

The two walked the streets of Bilbao after dinner to see the Board of Trade, a Basque institution that had been 150 years in the making. Merchants by lot and election chose members of the Board to settle all disputes of trade on land or at sea. Neither foreigners nor appointees of the King could serve.

Adams marveled how this Board had blossomed outside the King’s reach, writing of it in letters home and in his diary. Its origin mirrored events in Adams’ colony of Massachusetts that had sparked the American Revolution. In 1632, the King of Spain levied a tax on salt. The citizens of Bilbao refused to pay and then killed the officers who tried to collect it. The King dispatched three thousand troops to put down the rebellion, but the Basque organized, fought back, and killed or drove out the soldiers. Consequently, the King lost much of his authority over the Basque to collect duties or confer lordship over lands and ships.

That night Adams wrote in his diary, “The Lands in Biscay are chiefly in the Hands of the People – few Lordships.” He also dispatched a letter to Samuel Huntington, President of Congress in Philadelphia, saying, “It may seem surprising, to hear of free Provinces in Spain, but such is the Fact,…that a Traveller perceives it even in their Countenances, their Dress, their Air, and ordinary manner of Speech, has induced the Spanish Nation and their Kings to respect the Ancient Liberties of these People, so far that each Monarch, at his Accession to the Throne, has taken an Oath, to observe the Laws of Biscay.”

Adams might have stayed in Bilbao weeks longer to satisfy his profound curiosity, but he was eager to reach Paris. The next morning, he bundled John Quincy and Charles into the mule-drawn carriage, and assembled the rest of his party to leave Bilbao. They crossed into Bayonne three days later, and then Bordeaux two days after that. Paris came into view on February 9.

A year later in America, a defeat at Yorktown ended any hope England had of retaining her thirteen colonies. The Treaty of Paris brought the American Revolution officially to a close in 1783, due in no small part to Adams’ brilliance. The founding fathers then turned their attention to the long, painstaking challenge of forging a new constitution. They asked Adams to research and study the best political philosophies, the best models of history, and the best examples of the day, if he could find any, to illuminate their debate after so much sacrifice and miserable bloodshed.

In May 1787, he published his findings. Even though more than seven years had passed, and he had spent only eight days among the Basque, he remembered the people fondly and wrote of them with eloquence. “While their neighbors have long since resigned all their pretensions into the hands of kings and priests,” he wrote, “this extraordinary people have preserved their ancient language, genius, laws, government, and manners, without innovation, longer than any other nation of Europe.”

Adams declared the Basque a republic. Then abiding the example of these remarkable people in the Pyrenees, the wise men of Philadelphia with studious care crafted a republic of their own.


56a1aaae98dc1.imageVince J. Juaristi was born and raised in Elko, NV. He is CEO and President of ARBOLA, a technology company, in Alexandria, VA. His newest book, Basque Firsts: People Who Changed the World, will be released this year by the University of Nevada Press.

Vince J. Juaristi: The Work of a Generation

As part of the buildup to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrating the Basque culture, Vince Juaristi is writing a series of articles highlighting the connections between the Basques and Americans. He has graciously allowed me to repost those articles as they appear on Buber’s Basque Page.

The Work of a Generation
By Vince J. Juaristi

56a1aaae98dc1.imageSprawled between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, the Smithsonian hosts the National Folklife Festival each year. It’s really something to see with all the care and detail one expects of a Smithsonian exhibit. In the July swelter, hundreds of thousands attend to study and learn about unique cultures from around the country and across the globe. From June 29-July 4 and July 7-10, this year’s festival will showcase the Basque.

When I learned this news last year, I felt a bit of pride; well, not a bit, a lot. I thought about dad’s journey from Spain to America, and the journey of so many Basque like him during the 1940s. I marveled at how far the Basque had come as a people.

Their story is courageous, maybe heroic. In Spain after World War II, a boy or girl born with nothing grew up with nothing and died with nothing. That was the way of most things. It was a cold life, as it still is in much of the world. You got nuthin’, dad said in broken English.
Tired, desperate, and poor, the Basque came to America to start anew. Most arrived with five dollars in the pocket, and others arrived with even less. They did not speak the language. They had little education. They boasted no special contacts or prominent pedigrees. Their titles were sheepherder, laborer, waitress, maid, cook, or seamstress.

With strong backs and a thirst to do better, they worked until sweat dripped and muscles ached. For dad, as for most Basque, what had been nuthin’ grew more optimistic. You got nuthin’, you make sumthin’, he said. The Basque worked harder still, learned English, and gained citizenship.

They raised families and pressed education for their kids. Those children soon graduated from the finest colleges in the land, and then branched far and wide into business, politics, medicine, law, and science. The parents nourished the oak, the children enjoyed the shade.

The news about the Smithsonian Folklife Festival did indeed swell me with pride, but it was not for me. It was pride for dad and mom, and for all Basque who had crossed an ocean and then a continent to settle in the American West. These were men and women with courage and unbridled determination. They herded the sheep and farmed the fields, waited the tables and tended the bars, made the beds and mopped the floors, kept the language and honored the traditions.

The pride was for Ana Marie Arbillaga’s dancing lessons, for Bernardo Yanci’s accordion playing, for Gene Irribarne’s brilliance on the clarinet, for Chapo Leniz’s steak and beans, for Juan Juaristi’s sheepherding, for Nick Fagoaga’s castanet playing, for Pete Ormaza’s craftsmanship, for Jess Lopategui’s mastership of ceremony, for Felicia Basanez’s famous flan, and for so many others. Some are no longer here, only in spirit, but the pride is for them too.

This story is not a new story in America’s legacy as a beacon for the downtrodden and oppressed. But it is an important story. Dad’s optimistic words – You got nuthin’, you make sumthin’ – epitomize the spirit of his generation, and in a real sense, describe our country’s unique role in the world better than any statement I’ve heard.

Few groups have lived the story as well as the Basque. Few have worked so hard and achieved so much in so short a time. Fewer still have balanced a unique culture and language with the duties and obligations of being fully American.

Now even the Smithsonian recognizes the achievement. When the folklife festival kicks off this summer, I hope the Basque attend in great numbers. I hope the mothers and fathers come, and the children too. I hope they remember their personal journeys and share their stories. I hope they see where they’re at, amid the stone architecture, pomp, and democratic cradle of a great nation, and feel themselves an important part of history.

When Gernikako-Arbola, the Basque tree of freedom, is planted on the national mall, or a band of sheep grazes near the White House, I want the Basque to know that their story is a good story, and the work of a generation has been worth it. Out of nothing, the Basque have made something.


Vince J. Juaristi was born and raised in Elko, NV. He is CEO and President of ARBOLA, a technology company, in Alexandria, VA. His newest book, Basque Firsts: People Who Changed the World, will be released this year by the University of Nevada Press.

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