Basque Fact of the Week: Catalina de Erauso, the Lieutenant Nun

Back in the 16th century, there weren’t many options for the children of Basque families. Those that weren’t destined to take over the family baserri were often left with little choice but to join the military or a religious order. The situation was even starker for women. Catalina Erauso y Pérez de Galarraga was born into a relatively well-to-do and well-connected family. Still, by the age of four, she was sent to a convent. However, that is only the beginning of her story.

Image from the Enciclopedia Auñamendi.
  • Catalina was born, according to her baptismal records, in 1592, on the Calle de la Trinidad in Donostia-San Sebastián. Her parents were Captain Miguel de Erauso and D.ª M.ª Pérez de Galarraga y Arce, natives of Donostia. Her father was a military commander and his children, including Catalina, were trained in the art of warfare from an early age.
  • Catalina and her two sisters, Isabel and Maria, were sent to the convent but, only 11 years later when she was about 15, Catalina escaped. She converted her clothes into the style of men and began living life masquerading as a man, taking on a number of aliases over her life, including Francisco de Loyola (from the time she fled the convent to her time as a soldier in Chile), Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán (a name she adopted in Chile and used until she was discovered to be a woman), and Antonio de Erauso (the name she used until her death).
  • As a man, Catalina had many adventures. She worked in various situations where she encountered uncles and aunts and, once, ever her father, but none of them recognized her. She eventually made her way to the Americas, starting in the Indies, where she became a soldier. One one point, she is even welcomed by the governor’s secretary in Chile, her brother, Miguel, who does not recognize her.
  • In the Americas, she constantly runs into trouble. Often, after some insult, she either wounds or kills her offender. In trouble with the law, she often claims sanctuary in a church. On more than one occasion, she is set to be married, but she managed to escape these fates as well.
  • As a soldier, she was ruthless and brutal. As a conquerer, she participated in the massacre of many natives. Her cruelty ultimately led to her not being promoted to higher military rank. Her response was to vandalize the countryside, killing anyone she met. She ultimately killed her brother, Miguel, in a duel, and was imprisoned for eight months.
  • In 1623, in Peru, she was again arrested because of a dispute. This time, to save herself, she confessed to the bishop that she was really a woman. After being confirmed, she is protected by the bishop and eventually returns back to her homeland. It seems that she is given a special dispensation from Pope Urban VIII to live as a man. She does so until her death, back in the Americas, sometime after 1630.

Primary sources: Wikipedia; Rejected Princesses; Estornés Zubizarreta, Idoia; Izaga Sagardía, Carmen. Erauso y Pérez de Galarraga, Catalina de. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at:

Basque Fact of the Week: Legal to Kill Basques in Iceland

As part of their ever-expanding quest to find fish and whales, the Basques ventured further and further west across the Atlantic. Of course, they are well known to have established settlements in Newfoundland, where they had oil processing plants to process the whale blubber into oil. However, things didn’t always turn out so great everywhere they went. In Iceland, they were at the center of a massacre that led to a law allowing the killing of any Basque on sight.

Depiction of the Spánverjavígin by Guillermo Zubiaga, found on
  • The Basques whalers often put into port in Reykjarfjörður, in Westfjords, Iceland. It seems that the Basques and the Icelanders had an agreement whereby the Basques probably stopped to replenish supplies and to process their catches before further voyages. This happened in 1615, as usual, but that year had been particularly cold and there was still ice up to the shores in the summer. The Basque ships, after leaving Reykjarfjörður, where smashed into the rocks.
  • The sailors, most having survived, wintered in Iceland. The crews headed by Pedro de Aguirre and Esteban de Telleria returned the next year to the Basque Country. However, things did not go so well for the crew of Martin de Villafranca. In the town of Þingeyri, some of the Basque crew entered a house and stole some fish. On the night of October 5, a group of Icelanders entered the hut where the Basques were sleeping and killed 14. Jón Guðmundsson the Learned was particularly appalled by the displaying, writing that the bodies were “dishonored and sunken into sea, as if they were the worst pagans and not innocent Christians”.
  • Days later, a council met and decreed that all Basques were outlaws and to be killed on sight. On October 13, another 17 Basques were killed and their bodies mutilated. This was the last documented massacre on Icelandic soil
  • It wasn’t until 2015, the 400th anniversary of what has been come to be known as the “Slaying of the Spaniards,” or the Spánverjavígin in Icelandic, that the law was finally officially repealed, though there aren’t any records of Basques being killed since 1615. During a ceremony in which a few Basque representatives attended, the Icelanders presented a memorial to the Basque whalers, with Westfjords district commissioner Jonas Gudmundsson stating that “This decision was made 400 years ago and it has never formally been repealed until now.”

Primary sources: Wikipedia, The Guardian, The Old Salt Blog, Alchetron.

Thanks to Scott Powell for suggesting this Basque Fact of the Week.

Elena Arzak and Usune Etxeberria: Two Leaders of Basque Gastronomy and Cuisine

The Basque Country is well known for its cuisine. Building on a rich tradition of food — pintxos, txokos, fish, cheese, and more — Basques have also been leaders in pushing the boundaries of gastronomy. Two news stories popped up in my feed that exemplify both the importance of Basque cuisine and the leadership of the Basque Country in the world of food.

Elena Arzak is one of the two chefs — the other being her dad Juan Mari — that lead the restaurant Arzak, a three Michelin star restaurant and one of the top 50 in the world in 2018. In an article in GoodFood, she describes how important food is to the Basque culture. She highlights how the Basque Country’s distinct geography gives it the best of both the land and the sea and how that leads to a special relationship with food. The article highlights her own list of the best of the Basque Country, from avant-garde restaurants to craft brews.

Then there is Usune Etxeberria, a scientist who is pushing the frontier of so-called precision gastronomy, in which modern genetics are used to help develop very specific diets to help avoid disease while keeping the pleasure in the food. She and her colleagues have already shown how examining the gut microbe can be used to help develop diets that help prevent injuries in soccer players. They are also using artificial intelligence to complement these studies. The ultimate goal is to develop personalized menus that help combat disease specific to each of us.

Both women emphasize the life-long connection to food that being from the Basque Country brings. Whether it is developing world-class menus or specialized menus tailored to each of us, this connection is the foundation for revolutions in cuisine.

Basque Fact of the Week: The Sanctuary of Arantzazu

The Sanctuary of Arantzazu is nestled in the mountains just outside of the city of Oñati, famous itself for the University of Oñati, one of the oldest buildings in Iberia. Arantzazu is known for its uncharacteristic and distinctly modern look, “one of the most avant-garde religious buildings in the world“. The spires are covered in pointed stones evoking thorns while the entrance is overshadowed by abstract representations of the apostles. It was also the site of my uncle and aunt’s wedding.

Image from Oñati Tourism.
  • Arantzazu gets its name, and origin, from the supposed discovery, way back in 1469, of a statue of the Virgin Mary in a bush of thorns. The story goes that the shepherd who found the statue, one Rodrigo de Balanzategui, exclaimed “Arantzan zu?” (“You, in the thorns?”) However, there is also a town in Bizkaia called Arantzazu, suggesting it might be a toponymic name.
  • One of the original founders of the sanctuary was a serora, Juana de Arriaran, who was known as a famous healer, even consulting to queens. She made her home near the sanctuary so she could help heal passing pilgrims.
  • In the 1940s, the Franciscans who run the Sanctuary decide it is time for a new basilica and they hold a contest for the design, choosing Francisco Sáenz de Oiza and Luis Laorga’s avant-garde concept for the new basilica. The new project attracted some of the biggest names in the Basque architectural and art world, including Jorge Oteiza, Eduardo Chillida, and Nestor Basterretxea.
  • Oteiza was in charge of sculpture above the entrance. In the end, he settled on a scene of 14 apostles, 2 more than are in the Bible. A lot of stories surrounded where the extra came from, including that there is really only one apostle depicted, it is just various points of view of the same man. However, most likely, Oteiza chose 14 simply because it fit his space best.
  • During the actual sculpting of the apostles, the Church in Rome gets involved and decides that the style of art is too weird, too far away from acceptable religious art. For 15 years, a partially-carved set of apostles sits on the side of the road. After appeals by the Franciscans, Rome is still against the art, but allows the bishop in Donosti to decide. Eventually, he okays going forward.
  • However, Oteiza is having his own doubts and isn’t immediately interested in finishing the project. He had done everything he wanted to do in sculpture and had moved on to other art forms. Eventually, knowing the importance of this project to the Basque Country, he completes the sculpture.

Primary sources: Naiz (by Gara); Basque Country Magazine; Wikipedia; Mujika Aldasoro, Xabier. Santuario de Arantzazu. Oñati. Enciclopedia Auñamendi [online], 2019. Available at:

Nor Naiz, Gu Gara: Marc Cormier

Nor Naiz, Gu Gara (Who I Am, We Are) is a series aiming to explore the meaning of Basque Identity around the world, both within Euskal Herria as well as in the diaspora. For an introduction to the series, look here, and for a list of the previous entries, look here. I started this series back in 2010 and am reviving it. If you are interested in contributing, let me know.

I am most grateful to Buber for giving me the opportunity to tell you why I am an Euskadunen Laguna. I was born in one of the few places in the world with an Ikurriña as part of its flag: the islands of St Pierre and Miquelon. 

When I was a small child, my first exposure to the Basque language and culture was our famous Zazpiak Bat fronton right across from my elementary school in St Pierre, which we affectionately called the “Zazpi”. This massive concrete wall, probably the oldest in the New World, was a permanent presence in our lives: it was right at the end of the school yard. Every recess, we’d play near it. After school, the local Basque club would play Pala Ancha or Pelote and every August the Basque festival would bring music, games and joy to our town. 

Although I am not of Basque extraction, save a great-grandmother named Detcheverry, many of my friends’ names were Basque: Daguerre, Delizarraga, Teletchea, Goicoetchea … Our islands have roots in Normandy, Brittany, Ireland and the Basque Country and everybody is a little of each. The Basque language disappeared in Saint-Pierre et Miquelon in the 1950s, yet nobody mourned its extinction; this was just how things were in a French Overseas Territory in the middle of the 20th century. 

After graduating from high school, university studies meant packing my bags for France, a year at a time, and I chose to settle in the southwest city of Bordeaux for four years. Since I chose to study in the capital of Aquitaine, I ended up quite close to the French Basque Country. It was therefore, at the Université de Bordeaux, that I befriended a large contingent of Basque students from Hendaye, Bayonne, Biarritz, Behobie and St Jean de Luz. I spend many holidays in that part of France, often crossing over into Irun and Behobia and learning about the language, complex politics and traditions of the region and its peoples. I am to this day indebted to the people of that region for their hospitality and kindness. Often my friends would joke about making me an honorary Basque: “the paperwork is almost done” they’d say laughingly to anyone who queried. 

Years later, when I moved to Toronto, Canada, I decided to pursue my interest in the history of the islands of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon only to discover the strong ties between my native islands and the French and Spanish Basque regions, from the 19th century fishing companies to the 16th century establishments that had been described by Martin de Hoyarçabal and Pierre Detcheverry Dorre. Through my research, I was able to demonstrate that the name of Miquelon had, in fact, been given to the great island by the Basques. One must understand that many place names in Newfoundland and the islands were also given by mariners from that country. From Placentia (Plentzia) to Port-aux-Choix (Portuchoa), Burin (Buru) to Barachois, and Lizardie, the Basque toponomy was inescapable. I also owe a great debt to Selma Barkham who introduced me to the works of Hoyarçabal. 

To better understand certain archives and primary sources, I decided to learn some Euskara, only to realize the vast variety of dialects one can encounter in archives and other primary sources. To this day, I remain convinced archives from the Basque Country will yield more information related to the history of my islands and of the great fishing expeditions to the New Found Land. Decades later, the love affair continues and I shall always be an Euskaldunen Laguna. 

Born abroad, with Irish, Scottish, Mi’kmaq and Acadian roots from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Marc Albert Cormier was raised in Saint-Pierre et Miquelon. After four years at Université de Bordeaux in France, he moved to Canada in 1992 and studied at the University of Toronto, obtaining a Bachelors in Education. For 10 years, Marc was a director of a nationwide education system for homework help working with a virtual office staff of 20 professionally trained teachers from across Canada which year-over-year increased usability stats for students desiring to get better grades in school. In September 2018, Marc moved to back to his teaching roots to inspire kids in math and science. For his work as a teacher, principal and project manager in education, Marc was awarded two knighthoods for his groundbreaking work in online education and his passion for maintaining one’s culture.

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