Luze ta oparo bizi: Leonard Nimoy’s Basque connection

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 8.34.17 PMLeonard Nimoy, beloved actor who is best known for his role as Mr. Spock, died today at the age of 83. He is of course world-renowned for his contributions to the Star Trek franchise, but he was a versatile actor, appearing in many movies, television series, and on Broadway. What I didn’t know was that he also had a Basque connection.

This NPR story highlights how Nimoy, before he got his big break on Star Trek, was a journey-man actor, playing primarily ethnic roles. One of those roles was on the TV show Wagon Train, which follows a wagon train as it makes its way across the American West, from Missouri to California. In the 4th episode of season 3, entitled The Esteban Zamora Story, the plot deals with a trio of Basque sons, one of which is found dead with a knife. When their father joins them from the old country and learns of his son’s death, he is honor-bound, as are all Basques, to avenge his son. Leonard Nimoy plays one of the sons, Bernabe Zamora. Ernest Borgnine, that venerable veteran of film and TV, plays his dad, Esteban Zamora.

This bit from the Basque media outlet EITB, playing on the resemblance between Mr. Spock and the previous Lehendakari of the Basque Country, Jose Ibarretxe, examines in detail the show’s interpretation of Basque culture, including the quite stunning outfit that Mr. Borgnine wears in honor of his home town.

At the risk of spoiling the show, here is the synopsis from IMDB:

Scouting ahead of the train Flint discovers a young man bleeding to death from a stab wound and a knife nearby. He takes the body and knife to Sheriff Hixon who he knows. The Sheriff recognizes the body as that of the youngest Zamora brother who has a reputation as a trouble maker. His father Estaban Zamora, a Basque from Spain, is on the train planning to join his three sons in the new country herding sheep. The sons tell him a horse fell killing his son but Estaban quickly realizes they are lying. The Basque tradition requires the father to exact revenge for the killing of a son. Everyone including the sons want to prevent Estaban from following the tradition. As Esteban asks questions, he soon learns his youngest son was running with a group of sheep rustlers and the family name is smeared. The Sheriff tells Estaban there is little evidence showing him the knife Flint recovered. Estaban recognizes the knife as one he made for his sons and confronts the eldest son Manuel. His wife shows Estaban Manuel’s knife to protect her husband forcing Estaban to learn the painful truth.

Thanks to Guillermo Zubiaga for translating “live long and prosper” to Euskara!

 

Berriak for February, 2015

Here is a round-up of a few items I thought were notable.

463858986Inaki Williams became the first black player to score a goal for Athletic Bilbao in their 117 year history. You may know that Athletic Bilbao only recruits Basque players, players from the Basque Country. Inaki was born in Bilbao to parents from Ghana and Liberia. Clearly his parents have pride in their new home, as they named their son Inaki.

basque-soccer-friendly2Keeping with the soccer theme, there is an update on the effort to bring Basque soccer to Boise. The effort, lead by Argia Beristain, has secured participation by both sides. The teams have not been finalized, though it is likely to be the same Athletic Bilbao against a MLS team from the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, Portland, or Vancouver). And, a date has been set: July 29! More details can be found here.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 2.42.25 PMIrene Peralta of Munchies magazine has a five-part series on the food of the Basque Country. In 5 roughly 15 minute videos, she covers the txokos of San Sebastian, the markets, and some of the best restaurants in the world. A great introduction to Basque cuisine.

51ERBzMF2ULBegoña Echeverria is a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who has had a long interest in Basque culture and, more specifically, the world of Basque witches. Her researches led her down a path that has culminated in a novel, The Hammer of Witches. Inspired in part by songs she heard as a child, the novel explores the life of a young woman in a small Basque town that has its share of mystery.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 3.02.06 PMCanoe.ca has a series of photos of the ancient carnival of Ituren, in which men dress up as bears and other mystical creatures, a carnival centered on sheepherding. Some anthropologists argue that it is the oldest pre-Indo-European carnival still being practiced in Europe. Regardless of the origins, the photos are simply fantastic. Taking place at the end of every January, this looks like something to make a trip for.

musean.jpgThe site fivethirtyeight has an interesting article about games for kids, with the main point that a lot of kids’ games (think Candyland) do not really challenge kids in any real way. Interestingly, they highlight the Basque card game Mus as a game that does challenge kids and is highly rated precisely for the way it encourages critical thinking and mental skills.

Catalina de Erauso, the Basque Lieutenant Nun

Catalina_de_ErausoBasque history is full of colorful figures, and Catalina de Erauso is no exception. Born in San Sebastian in 1592, Catalina was born into a world where the prospects for women were very limited. The convent was one of the few options, and she was enrolled in one at the age of 4, but by the age of 15, Catalina realized that a nun’s life wasn’t for her and she ran away, dressed as a man, called herself Francisco, and had a life full of adventures masquerading as a man. She was a sailor and soldier, traveling to South America. She was in several fights, killing more than one man, and even had a few romances, at least one of which nearly led to a wedding.

Her fame grew, and at one point the Pope gave her a special dispensation to continue dressing as a man.

Her memoirs have been translated into English. The Spanish version can be read online. She was also recently featured on Rejected Princesses, which is an amazing site in its own right, highlighting women from history and myth that don’t conform to the typical Disney mold. The owner of that site, Jason Porath, has done a great job of summarizing Catalina’s life and drawn this illustration to capture the essence of that life. See his site for this and many other intriguing women.

Photo from www.donostiakultura.com

Donostia’s La Tamborrada

Photo from www.donostiakultura.com

Photo from www.donostiakultura.com

Every year, the fine people of Donostia celebrate my birthday in the most magnificent way. Armies of people dressed as chefs and Napoleonic soldiers parade through the streets, pounding on drums and generally making merry. The fiesta begins on midnight of January 20 and ends precisely 24 hours later — literally an entire day dedicated to celebration. Of my birthday. Seriously! Well, ok, maybe not.

According to Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge on the internet, what would become La Tamborrada (Danborrada in Euskara) began in the 19th century, as a way for the citizens of the city to mock the invading soldiers that marched through their fair city. There is also a legend that a chef was trying to get water from a well and that the women nearby began banging on pots, which caused the well to keep flowing. Today, as the Basques have few reasons to celebrate normally, they evolved this fiesta into a 24-hour bash.

I was fortunate to attend once, in 1992, naturally on my birthday. My 21st birthday, to be exact. Which was fortunate, since I could then partake in the festivities and consume my share of libations. Fortunately, Facebook did not exist back then, so there is no shameful documentation of that evening. But, it was during that night when I learned about “Arriba, abajo, al centro, al dentro” and something about throwing things off the balconies of the apartments lining the streets of the Parte Vieja. I don’t recall now if it was for beads, or people themselves.

I didn’t last the entire 24 hours. I think I was in bed around 10am. Not too bad for a guiri.

Anyways, the latest edition of La Tamborrada has come and gone. This year, the city of Donostia had a photo contest, where people could send their best photos from the fiesta. The winner would get to watch next year’s opening of the fiesta, La Izada, from the city balconies in the Plaza de la Constitucion. Some of the photos are up on Twitter. There are some pretty cool images there that highlight the grandeur of the fiesta!

Unfortunately, I only learned about this after my birthday had come and passed. Maybe next year. If you are there next year, you might keep an eye out for this contest, if they repeat it, so you can have the best seat in the house. And invite me to sit next to you.

The Tree of Gernika to be replaced

The famous Tree of Gernika, Gernikako Arbola, has died, and will be replaced next month.

The tree is a symbol of Basque independence and freedom. Before the wars during which the Basque fueros, or old laws, were slowly eroded, kings came to the tree to swear their respect of Basque liberties. Today, the Lehendakari, or President of the Autonomous Basque Community, is sworn in under the tree.

The new tree will be the fourth such tree planted on the grounds of the council of Gernika. Previous trees have survived war, including the bombing of Gernika by Hitler’s air force, only to succumb to fungi and extreme summer heat. That seems to be what killed the last tree, which only lasted about a decade on the site. It will be kept on the grounds, with the trunks of the previous trees.

More details can be found here and here. For more in depth description about the tree and it’s significance, check out this Wikipedia page.

JoeHands140602_5155_2

Gnarled and Twisted

I visited my dad a few weekends ago. On the way home after taking him to a doctor’s appointment, we decided to stop to visit a couple of friends. Old friends, friends that had come over, like my dad, from the old country, who, like him, had made their life off the land of the western US.

Our first stop was one I knew well. An old buddy of my dad’s, one that he still gets together with to make chorizo and play mus, as a dairy between Boise and Homedale. We pulled into his drive way and he came trudging out of the barn. He doesn’t have so many cows any more, but he still plugs away. He and dad chatted about lots of things — various people they knew, the changes in the dairy business since they were younger — while we all sipped on beer, wine, or diet coke.

We then moved on to our second stop. This friend had just harvested his grapes and was in his garage, getting things ready to make wine. He had big bags of walnuts too, collected from his trees. If I recall correctly, this old Basque had made his living in the mills near Boise. He and dad had grown up together in the Basque Country and their talk drifted towards the girls they knew back then (how different would life have been if my dad had settled with a girl in the old country).

While talking to these guys, or better said listening, as they would drift between English and Basque, with some Spanish cuss words thrown in for good measure (to break up the English cuss words), I couldn’t help but notice their hands. These are men who had used their hands as tools, just like I might use a hammer, it seemed. Their hands were massive, with large knots for knuckles. Finger nails were deformed, having been smashed multiple times during a life of hard manual labor. They reminded me of some old tree, a tree that has been hit by the multiple forces of nature and man, and while damaged and scarred, still stands tall. Hands with fingers that bend in ways that they didn’t when these men were children, like some twisted branches off of the trunk of a tree.

JoeHands140602_5155_2

Tio Joe. Photo credit: Lisa Van De Graaff.

I couldn’t help but think of my Tio Joe, who simply has these massive hands. Hands that seem primal in form, the result of a lifetime of use. Not abuse, as they have been extremely productive, but they show the wear and tear of a life of hard work. The fingers don’t have the dexterity they were born with, but rather are almost lumpy appendages that seem to get in the way more than actually help.

Then, I look at my hands, hands that are soft in comparison. Hands that maybe have a scar or two, but are overall in good shape. When I compare my hands with their hands, I feel a twinge of guilt, born of a career spent at a computer, using my hands not to wield axes or buck bales of hay, but of typing and writing. These men have hands that were strong. They may not be now, but they had such strength in their prime.

But, then, I realize that this is the whole point. My dad left the Basque Country to find a better life, a life with opportunity, at least more opportunity than seemed possible at the time in Spain. All of these men did. They worked hard at what they knew best, using their hands, their shoulders, their backs to make the best life they could in a foreign land. They worked hard to make their life and the lives of their offspring the best they knew how. My dad worked so hard so that I wouldn’t, at least not that kind of work. I work hard in my own way, but it isn’t the back-breaking work my dad, or his friends, did.

Those hands, then, are part of the legacy of the ambition that brought these men to the US. Hands that the women who came also have, hands that suffered decades of abuse in the name of a better life. Hands that provided that life for countless sons and daughters.

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