Early Basque Workers

Vince J. Juaristi: Intertwined: A Basque-American Fairytale

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.

image1Sprawled 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“.

A Basque-American Fairytale
By Vince J. Juaristi

During a bedtime story, a godchild of mine interrupted with a question, “Why are Basque people good?”

How fascinating, I thought. Mother Goose quickly went by the wayside.

“It has to do with a frustrated devil,” I told her. “One day, the devil climbed from the fire and smoke of hell to visit the Basque and turn them bad. With his red forked tongue, he whispered evil temptations in their ears. That’s how the devil works, you see, twisting hope and light into despair and darkness. But no matter how hard he tried, or how much he wagged his devilish tongue, he could not speak Euskera, the Basque language, so he had no power or influence over the Basque people. He finally gave up and returned to hell, and that, my dear godchild, is why the Basque are good to this day.”

The tale satisfied her, and I finished reading the three bears or the three pigs or some other less riveting fairytale for her proper education.

Her question had been a good one, even if it had no objective answer. Years later, I pondered it again, though I asked it differently, “Have the Basque thrived in America?”

The question really had two parts – first, the status of Basque in America, and second, their status compared to others in similar circumstances.

When I turned to the U.S. Census for something quantitative, I didn’t know what I might find. If the data showed the Basque lagging others in America, it would be as disappointing for me as it was for Pinocchio learning that he had descended from a piece of plywood and not the warmth of parents. Worse, it would be a far more difficult story to tell a godchild who already believed in Basque goodness.

But what I discovered confirmed a sentiment that was already tucked away in my heart of hearts.

Revellers hold up their red scarves next to a Basque Country flag during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona July 6, 2012. The annual festival, best known for its daily running of the bulls, kicked off on Friday with the traditional "Chupinazo" rocket launch and will run until July 14. (Susana Vera/Reuters photo)

Basque in Pamplona hold up the Basque flag and raise their red scarves as a sign of cohesion and solidarity, a strong sentiment that the Basque carried with them across the ocean to America where it only grew in strength.

More than 75% of Basque age 25 years or older have some level of college education compared to only 58% of Americans overall. The contrast is starker at higher educational levels where Basque are 50% more likely to hold a graduate or professional degree than other Americans.

This propensity for education makes them 10% more likely to be in the American labor force, and 31% more likely to hold jobs in management, business, science or the arts.

Their median household income is $70,159 compared to the U.S. median of $52,176. Their poverty rate is half the national average, and they are more likely to own their own home. When they do, the home is 48% more valuable than the average American home.

Had I not studied the data myself, I might have been skeptical of such a rosy picture. Indeed, skeptical I should have been. To compare a smaller homogenous group to a larger heterogeneous group risks statistical overreach. Yet to ignore the data would be equally egregious. What the data illuminate are the pointers, like Peter Pan’s northern star, showing areas where Basque excel, and confirming what I and others have witnessed anecdotally for generations.

These pointers – more education, higher wages, and better jobs – are good indicators of a thriving ethnic group. The analysis, consequently, begs a natural question – why have the Basque thrived when others have thrived less or not at all? Are the Basque, indeed, untainted by the devil’s poisonous whispers, or is there another plausible explanation?

Ideally, I’d like to point to a single quality or decision that explains Basque performance, but there isn’t one. Much like Little Red Riding Hood who studied eyes, nose, ears, and teeth to expose the wolf in grandma’s nightie, only a combination of cultural factors can explain the success of the Basque in America. There are no doubt many, but four resonate most – Basque cohesion, a strong work ethic, frugality, and an independent spirit.

First, the Basque are a cohesive group. They hail from a narrow part of the world, practice Catholicism, revere their own flag, and speak a language that is both ancient and nearly impossible for non-Basque to understand without years of concentrated study. Equally ancient are their special dances, color patterns, costumes, games of strength, and foods that reinforce a bond with each other, their past, and their origins in the Pyrenees.

Early Basque Workers

Basque sheepherders in the United States circa 1970 who toiled daily in the most austere conditions of the American West.

This cohesion does not guarantee Basque success, but it does create a social and economic ecosystem that helps the Basque spin straw into gold. Their bond generates trust, familiarity, cooperation, business associations, and even compeition among members of the group and with others outside the group. The Basque work with and for each other and often look inward for support. If one Basque needs something, another provides it.

The arrangement is common among other ethnic groups that have immigrated to the United States. What makes this tendency so powerful among the Basque is that they started as a cohesive group in Euskadi, their homeland. Amid the isolated peaks of the Pyrenees, they resisted the persistent influences of Spanish and French cultures, laws, and royalty. When they arrived as immigrants in the United States (or elsewhere), their bond only strengthened, which added to their highly productive social and economic relations.

This point recalls the fable of the father who summons his boys to his bedside. He gives them a bundle of sticks and says, “Break these if you can.” Each son strains and strains to do so but fails. Then the father unties the bundle and tells the boys to break each stick and they do so easily. “You see my meaning,” says the father, “there is strength in union.” The Basque know this lesson and stick together.

These shared qualities would advance them little, however, if not for a second characteristic – a driving work ethic.

Measuring work ethic is not easy. Without a record showing the clocked hours of Basque and non-Basque in a day, week, month or year; a productivity curve; or a calculation of watts, it is difficult to quantify or compare the work ethic of groups.

But still valuable evidence abounds. With a relatively small sampling of 57,000 Basque-Americans, anecdotes and personal accounts can offer weighty confirmation of group habits.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the ranchers of the west, for example, petitioned Nevada’s U.S. Senator Patrick McCarran to bring Basque shepherds from Spain for their herding expertise and their remarkable endurance to work from sunup to sundown with little rest and without complaint. At least 1,135 Basque sheepherders came to America and populated the West by this method.

My father and uncle were among them. I’d be negligent if I ignored their work ethic or my mom’s, or the work ethic of so many Basque men and women of their generation whom I watched and admired daily and counted as friends and neighbors for so much of my life. They herded the sheep, tended the bars, made the beds, cooked the meals, and mopped the floors, often seven days a week. A hundred Basque mothers and fathers come to mind still today who have calloused hands, sore backs, and a yearning to get ahead. Their stories cannot be ignored or denied.

As they worked, the Basque earned money, but they were not spendthrifts. On the contrary, their third quality was frugality. When I was a boy, my mother pointed a finger at me and repeated words her mother had taught her. “Spend half,” she said, “and put the other half away.” Her words echo in my head each time I collect a paycheck or balance a budget or launch a foundation, and they always will.

Mom’s advice appears common among the Basque. Annually, the average interest and dividends earned on savings by each American is $1,371. For the Basque, the average is $3,100, over 126% more.

“Oh, ant, why do you work so much?” asked Aesop’s grasshopper. “Come lounge with me.”

“That is not in my nature,” replied the ant. “Better to work and save for the winter.”

“Do what you must,” said the grasshopper.

The Basque are more ant than grasshopper. They work and save; it is simply in their nature.

Tied like a bow around this cultural cohesion, work ethic, and frugality is a fourth characteristic which John Adams, an American founding father, called a “High and independent spirit.” It might be the most important of all Basque qualities.

This spirit nests in the heart of every Basque and dates to ancient times. When the Romans invaded, the Basque resisted; when Isabel asked for allegiance, the Basque exacted a price; when a king imposed a tax, the Basque refused to pay and formed a militia; when Franco outlawed Euskera, the Basque defied the order. Despite these confrontations – and perhaps because of them – the Basque persevered, but not without pain or death. Their sacrifices only enriched their pride in language, culture, and an ancient heritage. Loss made what they had more precious.

They brought this independent spirit across the ocean where it blossomed in America’s free soil, a land that Goldilocks herself might have said was “just right.” The Basque shepherds who lived in the hills, fought coyotes and mountain lions, slept under stars, and ate by campfires each epitomized, in their own way, the self reliance that Emerson had spoken of a century earlier. They looked not to old Europe or government to shape their collective future, but to themselves and to each other.

Not surprisingly, this streak of independence makes the Basque 34% more likely than other Americans to earn their daily bread as self-employed entrepreneurs rather than salaried employees working for someone else. In my own family, mom and dad owned and operated two businesses, and two of their children are now CEOs of companies.

When my godchild, who is Danish and raised on a healthy diet of Hans Christian Andersen, asks again about the Basque, I can surely repeat the story of the frustrated devil, but I’ll have another story for her that reads very much like a fairytale. Numbers have confirmed what my heart and experience already knew. I’ll tell her of a people who came with nothing, worked until fingers bled, saved and stuck together, and stood independent and strong on two firmly committed legs. It’s a good story and almost complete except for one ingredient – the ending.

It’s too soon to say that all lived happily ever after. The Basque are still in the throes of the tale, still seeking their fortunes, and occasionally, still fighting big bad wolves. Yet all signs so far point to these Basque-American ducklings slowly emerging as swans.

martin and dad

In Memory: Martin Uberuaga Zabala

martin and accordionI first met my uncle Martin, my dad’s brother, during my first trip to Euskadi, back in 1991. At the time, he and his wife, Rosario, ran the Herriko Taberna in my dad’s home town, Munitibar. Rosario got up early in the morning, around 5am or so, to clean the restaurant and bar and begin the daily cooking. Martin would get up later, but he was the one who closed the bar, often up until 2am or later. All of this while raising a special needs child. I was amazed at their work ethic. I spent many hours just sitting in the bar as patrons came and went, absorbing what I could as Martin poured drink after drink and sold treats to the kids that could barely reach the bar to give their pesetas to him.

Martin was also in charge of doing much of the shopping and would often make runs to Gernika to buy supplies. I joined him a few times and every where he went, people knew him. He would take me on the rounds of the bars after we got done shopping, saying hello to what seemed to be half of the town.

Martin had been the scholarly one of the family. He had trained to be a priest in Onati but, right before being ordained as a priest, he decided it wasn’t for him. My dad told a story about when they were young and their mom was trying to provide them with more opportunities for education. Some nuns came to the basseria to take the kids to school, and while they could entice Martin to go with them (my dad said all it took was a few sweets) my dad instead hid until they left.

The one thing that stands out in my mind about Martin is his generosity. The last time I saw him was when my wife and daughter joined me in Spain. Martin took us to several local beaches where my daughter absolutely loved searching for seashells to take back home to her grandma and amuma. When we were done and getting ready to head back to his sister’s place, Martin insisted we stop in Gernika for one quick paseo. At every stop, he got us something to eat, even though we were about to have one of those massive Basque dinners in just a few hours. He ordered immense plates of jamon, which I gorged myself on, just because.

martin and dadMartin was also a stubborn man, a seemingly common trait of the Uberuagas. My brothers and I would argue all the time when we were kids, and my dad was always telling us to stop it. Being the only one in his family in the United States, I’d never seen him interact with his siblings. However, when Martin came to visit us, we saw the sparks fly. They would argue about everything! They even argued about what side of the car the steering wheel was in the postal worker trucks. Martin insisted that there was simply no way they could be on the right side of the car, even though my dad told him he had seen them. They argued endlessly about things like this, much like me and my brothers.

Maybe the most telling story about Martin comes from my second visit to Euskadi. I was staying with him and his family that time, and they let me borrow their little old car to drive around the country. On the very last day of my stay, his son, Ander, and I went to visit some family and, on the way I got too close to a retaining wall and damn near ripped the passenger door off the car. We got back to Munitibar and told Martin what had happened. I expected the fury of hell. However, he essentially dismissed it, shoved me into my aunt’s car, who was taking me to the airport, and saw me on my way. I can’t imagine that dealing with that car was a trivial matter, but he made it clear that I shouldn’t worry. Rosario always told me that it finally gave her an excuse to upgrade that car.

martn and roseMartin always seemed content with his life, but at the same time, always tried to expand his horizons. After he retired from the bar, he started learning how to play the accordion and he started playing the piano again after many years of neglect. He was always trying new things, except that time we took him to a Japanese restaurant in Reno and he simply couldn’t understand how anyone could eat dinner without bread.

Martin, my dad’s second oldest brother (my dad was the oldest), passed away last week. The Basque Country won’t be quite so inviting as it always had been before. For me, it will be just a little less full of life, a little less like home.

Goian bego, Martin.

Check out Alan King’s Website!

Alan King has been busy, posting some great Basque content on his website.

Laminak-Pont-with-caption-800x576-2He has added new stories to his Basque Story collection. The first, The Begging Siren, collects three different stories from Iparraldea, the Northern Basque Country, about the lamiak, mythological creatures that lured humans with their beauty. The second story, Kidnapped by the Basajaun, recounts a tale of a basajaun, or lord of the forrest, who first gains and then looses a wife. Alan has more stories on his site.

Alan is also the author of The Basque Language: A Practical Introduction. He has posted a PDF of an early draft of a different type of Basque language book, entitled “A Basque Course“, that was never actually published in the current form. It isn’t quite the “Practical Introduction” nor the “Colloquial Basque” that he has had published. Rather, it is something else, maybe with more technical linguistic content. Certainly worth checking out.

Alan regularly posts new articles with very interesting Basque content. He is certainly worth following.

Roosevelt with Kerman Iriondo

Vince J. Juaristi: Intertwined: Eleanor’s Children

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.

image1Sprawled 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“.

Eleanor’s Children
By Vince J. Juaristi

Never had a First Lady of the United States traveled to Europe without her husband. Despite the German Luftwaffe prowling the skies, Eleanor Roosevelt shrugged off the danger and flew to England in 1942. She had four sons in military service and wanted to do something for the war effort, if only to raise British spirits and carry a vital message across the pond, “America is coming.” She and Franklin had been visited by King George and Queen Elizabeth at the White House, so returning the call seemed only fitting. She also hoped to bring good tidings to the few American troops already in country and study the effects of wartime programs on average families. Additionally, a chief priority was spending time with refugee children, three in particular whom she had adopted and supported for years. Among them was a Basque boy, Kerman Mirena Iriondo.

Five years earlier in 1937, Kerman had been swept up in the aftermath of Gernika. In the first aerial assault in world history, Hitler’s Condor Legion dropped bombs for three hours on this center of Basque culture, killing men, women and children, and reducing homes and livestock to ash. Hundreds, if not thousands, died (the number remains disputed), as survivors fled to Bilbao, the last refuge against the indiscriminate onslaught. Fearful of a similar attack, the Basque parents of Bilbao pled with other nations to take their children and keep them safe. England was one of a few nations that answered the call.

Kerman’s mother and father bundled him, then only 8 years old, in a heavy jacket in spite of the warmth of May, and packed food for several days. They pinned a cardboard hexagon to his jacket that included an identification number and the words, “Expedición a Ingleterra,” and then escorted him, his older sister, and two older brothers to the harbor.

There were children everywhere, all clothed in heavy jackets with a pinned hexagon like Kerman’s. Parents hugged and kissed their sons and daughters once, twice then a third time, and loaded them on a boat. No child was older than eighteen, and others were not yet old enough to walk. There were tears, lots of tears, even wails from many children who did not want to leave, and from moms and dads who agonized whether giving up their children was foolhardiness or a supreme act of love.

As the ship raised anchor, Kerman remained stoic. A part of him looked forward to being on a ship at sea. His father had told him stories of the ocean and of men who had sailed to distant lands. It felt very much like an adventure. He waved to his mom and dad, who stood on the dock, and to his four-year-old sister, who wore a sun bonnet and sat in the crook of their father’s arm. It was a scene he’d recall well into old age.

Basque Children aboard Habana

The SS Habana pulled into the Southampton port in England on May 23, 1937. The ship’s capacity was only 800, but it carried 3,840 Basque children, 80 teachers, 120 helpers, 15 Catholic priests, and two doctors.

Kerman and his older siblings found a corner of the SS Habana and settled in. The ship had a capacity of 800, but on this day it overflowed with 3,840 children, 80 teachers, 120 helpers, 15 Catholic priests, and two doctors. They covered every inch, slept above and below deck, even in lifeboats, the legs of one child touching the head of another. The choppy waters caused many to wretch until the ship pulled into Southampton port two days later on May 23, 1937. Pale and dizzy from seasickness, Kerman stepped onto English soil with his brothers and sister and never again yearned for the ocean.

Few had noticed these thousands of Basque children fleeing their homeland, but Eleanor Roosevelt had. “I noticed yesterday that the Basque children taken to England were not very happy,” she wrote in her daily column. “It makes me feel more strongly than ever that our own contribution should be in money and these children should be kept as near their own country as possible.”

Her suggestion could not have been more astutely timed. The British government had agreed to accept the refugees but not pay for their upkeep or education. To do so would have violated a non-intervention pact with the Spanish government. Encouraged by Eleanor, a group of citizens formed the Foster Parent Program for these “Tomases, Marias, and Teresas.” The program solicited $15 per month to house, clothe, feed, and educate Basque children.

The children desperately needed the help. Soon after their arrival, Kerman and the other kids were taken to North Stoneham Camp in Eastleigh where rows of white tents stood ready to receive them. Each tent was designed for five but ended up housing 10 to 15, food supplies ran short within a couple of weeks, and septic overflowed. Despite these conditions, the children made the most of the ordeal, dressing in Basque costumes and dancing jotas on Sundays.

The camp at Stoneham proved temporary as children moved into foster homes throughout the country. Kerman and his brothers were separated from their sister and transferred to a convent in Darlington. He found the experience miserable, and it only worsened when, shortly after, he was separated from his brothers too and moved 250 miles south to Barnet, a borough of London. He was 8 years old, alone in a foreign land, separated from parents, brothers and sisters, and living among people he could not understand.

No one can say what Kerman might have felt at this moment, but fair guesses would include isolation, desperation, and profound sadness. But then a kind of other-worldly news reached him. He was told that he had been selected for adoption by a woman in America named Eleanor, and she was the president’s wife. He did not know the full import of the news, or even what the word adoption meant in this context, but he came to know her as the American Queen.

By supporting a Basque child financially, Eleanor wanted to set an example and encourage others to do the same. The motivation succeeded. Housewives across America dug into sugar and flour jars for quarters and dimes that had been squirreled away, churches passed extra collection plates, and schools and civic clubs knocked on doors for nickels and pennies. Her example fired up Hollywood, attracting contributions from Bing Crosby, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and Helen Hayes.

By the time Eleanor flew to England in 1942, her on-going efforts had inspired multiple programs in several countries, all raising money for Basque children and orphans from World War II. Most of the Basque children had already been repatriated to Spain, although 250 or so remained in England, including Kerman. His parents had died shortly after the Spanish Civil War, so at a young age, he had made a very adult decision to stay in London rather than return to the country of his birth with its terribly painful memories.

He was then 13-years-old and waited anxiously to meet the American Queen who had supported him all these years. He followed her in the London Times which reported her arrival on October 24, 1942, her stay with King George and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, her lively conversations with Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street, her visit to the bombed wreckage of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Nelson’s Tomb, and her review of American soldiers on bases around the country. To think that in a few days he would be in her presence set his heart aflutter.

Kerman was a shy, quiet boy, who struggled still with English. It gave him some relief to learn that he would not be meeting the American Queen alone. Two other children whom Eleanor had adopted would be present as well – Janina Dybowska, a 17-year-old Polish girl who had been orphaned after Germany’s invasion in 1939; and Tommy Maloney, a 4-year-old son of a London stoker who had been orphaned during the Blitzkrieg.

Roosevelt with Kerman Iriondo

During her visit to England, Eleanor Roosevelt met with her adopted children. Pictured are Roosevelt, Kerman Mirena Iriondo, a Basque refugee, standing behind; Janina Dybowska, a 17-year-old Polish orphan; and, Tommy Maloney, a 4-year-old English boy, on Roosevelt’s lap.

When Eleanor entered the warm living room at Hertford Heath, a children’s colony where the three had gathered, she greeted them in a stately black suit with a fur collar. In Kerman’s eyes, she lacked only a crown to finish her regal impression. Had any of the children been nervous, her toothy smile quickly soothed them, and a few toys from her bag drew their happiness. Janina was dressed in a traditional Polish outfit with beads and flowers braided in her dark hair. Little Tommy climbed on Eleanor’s lap as he might a grandmother’s. Not sure what to say or do, Kerman stood stoic, though clean and groomed with slicked-back hair and pressed clothes. Their conversations were not recorded, but the foursome sat for a portrait and seemed at ease in one another’s company. The meeting lasted no more than an hour, yet he would recall the encounter and “Auntie Eleanor,” which she had asked him to call her, until his dying breath.

Eleanor left England two days later. She continued to nurture the Foster Parent Program, and others that had evolved from it, through the war and beyond. With her guidance, several of the programs coalesced after the war into the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, which the world still knows today as UNICEF.

Kerman would not see Auntie Eleanor again, but she continued supporting him until his 18th birthday. During his teen years, he boarded in Carshalton London where he befriended and later married Manolita Abad, another Basque child from the SS Habana. He completed his studies at commercial college and entered the import-export and international banking business. His skills in Basque, Spanish, and English served him well.

The work took him back to Spain for the first time, back to Bilbao and Basque country, back to the memories of an eight year old waving goodbye to a mother and father crying on a dock. There he was welcomed by his little sister, the one in the sun bonnet, who had sat in the crook of their father’s arm.

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 – 775-753-2231


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.

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