Goian bego, Aita.

IMG_4582Pedro “Pete” Uberuaga Zabala

In the early morning of Thursday, November 26, 2015 – Thanksgiving Day – Pete passed away while sleeping peacefully in his home in Homedale, Idaho.

Pete was born on June 1, 1944 in Gerrikaitz (Munitibar), Bizkaia, Spain, to Teodoro Uberuaga and Feliciana Zalaba. He was the eldest of 8 children.

When he was 18 years old, he followed his three uncles to the United States on a three-year contract to herd sheep in the hills around Silver City, looking for opportunities to better his life. During a second three-year contract, he was introduced to his future bride, Monica (nee Telleria) Uberuaga, by her father, Jose “Joe” Telleria, in Jordan Valley, Oregon.

They soon relocated to Homedale, where they started their family and Pete began his long career as a truck driver, primarily hauling hay to local dairies. While the days were long and often took him far from home, he enjoyed interacting with the various people on his routes. He had many stories of taking his truck down treacherous roads in horrible weather and of his many attempts – not all successful – in evading weigh-station masters. He began his career working for Felix Anchustegui though eventually struck out on his own to be his own boss, living his version of the American dream. His dream culminated in his sons being able to go to college.

In 1997, after suffering a series of heart attacks, Pete was lucky enough to receive a heart transplant. His family always joked how the new heart – from a young woman – had made him a kinder, gentler man. And, he got a lot of years out of that heart and got to see a lot of special events – all of his sons graduating college, getting married, and having kids of their own. Eventually, while he fought a long and brave fight, he succumbed to multiple complications, dying in his sleep at his home with his family.

Pete was preceded in death by his parents, Feliciana Zabala and Teodoro Uberuaga, and three of his brothers, Santiago, Jose, and Antonio.

Pete is survived by his wife, Monica, his sons Blas, Tony, and David, and their wives Lisa, Christmas, and Shelley, and his grandchildren Teodoro, Estelle, Rose, and Kepa, his brothers Martin and Jose Luis, and his sisters Rosario and Begona.

New insights into the origins of the Basques

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 5.28.02 PMA few months back, a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) (Ancient genomes link early farmers from Atapuerca in Spain to modern-day Basques) caused quite the stir on the Basque portion of the internet. The paper examined the genetics of various populations, including Spanish, Italian, Russian, and, of course, Basque, and compared those genetics to determine where the Basques came from. Many reports had sensational headlines like Cave DNA unravels riddle of the Basque people, Ancient DNA cracks puzzle of Basque origins, Basques Linked to Ancient Iberian Farmers, Basque ancestors were farmers, Mystery of Basque origins solvedScience Seeks Answers to Riddles of the Mysterious Basques, and Unusual ‘relic language’ comes from small group of farmers isolated for thousands of years.

To the best of my understanding, what the paper claims is that the Basques are most closely related to European farmers from the Atapuerca region of northern Spain. My interpretation of the previous theory was that the Basques were a remnant of the paleolithic populations of Europe, the hunter/gatherer Cromagnon peoples effectively. What this new paper says is that, no, the Basques are more closely related to farmers that arrived in the region during the Neolithic or Chalcolithic periods of time, not the earlier Mesolithic period.

However, the Basques still exhibit genetic differences with their neighbors, such as the French and the Spanish. Rather than being isolated since stone age times, the authors of this study attribute these differences to more recent isolation. After the farmers spread through Europe, the ones that would eventually become the Basques were isolated from the Caucasian/Central Asian and North African populations and the later Moorish influence in Spain. While their neighbors intermixed with these populations, they did not.

The paper also claimed that this shed light on the origins of the Basque language. At least to me, that isn’t so clear. While the genetic history of a people might correlate to some degree with language, it is not an absolute connection and the language that those farmers-who-became-Basques spoke could easily, it seems to me, have even older roots. While these new genetic studies provide valuable new insight into the history of the Basques from a population point of view, they can’t directly inform the linguistic history. The paper admits this, saying that the farming populations that migrated to the area and mingled with the local hunter-gatherer populations to form what would ultimately be the Basques “could have” spoken some non-Indo-European language, but what it was, they don’t know. And they may have brought it with them, or it could have been there already.

That said, I am certainly not a geneticist and I would love to hear from people who are actually in the field and might be able to provide even more detailed commentary on this paper. It seems to have fascinating and important implications, but I would certainly like to know more.


A Basque Day of the Dead Story

BlasScan003One of the most interesting and surreal experiences I had when I lived in the Basque Country during 1991-92 was when I went with my great uncle to the Gerrikaitz-Arbatzegi emetery. Cemeteries in the Basque Country are not as expansive as they are in the United States.
While there is a small tract of land set aside for burials, many of the deceased are placed in tombs within a mausoleum that faces the main cemetery grounds.
BlasScan002I went with my great uncle to the cemetery because it was time to consolidate a few family members. He had a brother that had died young and they were digging up his grave to collect his remains. I remember this part pretty vividly because they seemed to have lost the location of the grave, which caused a bit of anxiety on the part of my uncle. If I recall correctly, the grave had been marked but it seemed that the coffin was exactly where the marker was.
Ultimately, they found it, but the next step was to open the mausoleum of my great uncle’s mother, my great great grandmother. The point is that multiple family members would share the same mausoleum and they were going to put my great uncle’s brother’s remains in the same mausoleum as my great great grandmother. She had died maybe 17 years before. As they opened her tomb, my great uncle encouraged me to photograph her remains. There, staring back at me, were her empty eye sockets. Her body was dressed in her black burial clothes with her arms still crossed across her front. I’d never seen a real skeleton before, especially one that was effectively removed from her coffin. It was fascinating, but also very strange.

BlasScan001They collected her major bones — skull, pelvis, maybe a few others — to be kept in the mausoleum, while the rest were not. I’m not sure what they do with the others. To be honest, my memory is a bit vague on some of the details. But, I do remember that not everything was kept.

They placed the bones of her son into the same mausoleum and sealed it.

The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (review by David Cox)

This book has been on my to-read pile for a while, but I haven’t gotten the English translation yet. Long-time contributor David Cox is ahead of me and has not only read the novel, but kindly provided this review. Eskerrik asko David!

9780007525324The Invisible Guardian
Dolores Redondo

Translation by Harper Collins 2015 (UK, Canada) Atria (USA) Isabelle Kaufeler

Police Inspector Amaia Salazar comes from the small Basque town of Elizondo, a place surrounded by mysterious forests and full of family secrets. Trained in North America and now working in the large city of Pamplona, she’s called to investigate the murder of a teenaged girl in her home town.

In this novel – first of a trilogy – that’s had great success in the Basque lands, across Spain, and in about 30 translations, Spanish/Basque author Dolores Redondo takes us into the deepest heart of Basque mythology and tradition.

Inspector Salazar struggles against chauvinistic prejudices, closely-kept secrets, superstitions, and traditional values as she attempts to solve not one, but now a series of brutal and bizarre murders that begin to take on a pattern.

Before solving the murder she must confront the ancient beliefs in the basajaun, legendary guardian of the Basque forest, and at the same time, begin to deal with her own personal demons as well. You can believe in the basajaun if you wish to, but the personal and family issues she faces are all too real.

While Basque women are stereotypically strong characters in reality, many of the female characters in this novel take on supernatural powers, and whether for good or evil, it’s not always clear.

No matter how hard we try to escape it, the past always imprints itself upon the present. All the more so in the Basque Country, where the modern industrial city is literally within sight of the peasant communities from which it evolved, often quite recently. While Amaia lives the life of a professional in busy Pamplona, her Elizondo past is never far from the surface.

While perhaps not the most adept at tying up “loose ends” – and remember, this is a trilogy – Redondo is expert at painting a picture of the people and landscape of northern Navarra, an area with a strong Basque identity and attachment to the language.

The area was known for its “witch hunt” during the days of the Inquisition, and many times the author references the fact that the old beliefs never died out and were never far below the surface, hidden under the veneer of official Catholicism. (Just as the Basque identity itself, so long suppressed under various governments, remained strong despite official Spanish being imposed).

Without delving into the intricacies of the mystery, it is sufficient to say that much of it revolves around a traditional Basque bakery or pastry shop, and its products. This kind of family business is a bastion of the matrilineal, bourgeois Basque society and a marker of belonging.

It’s unusual if perhaps refreshing to read a book set in the Basque Country with no reference to recent struggles. Redondo completely avoids all references to recent and contemporary politics, which is essential if a book is to avoid controversy and gain a wider readership. It is, for instance, impossible to enter any Basque village without reference to the political signs and banners calling for repatriation of Basque prisoners. While it is almost impossible to mention such events without alienating someone, the complete omission of any such references is a matter unto itself. In this light the characters may, or may not, symbolize groups or events within the current struggle. Those so inclined may wish to analyze the book in that aspect.

This is a lively read, especially if you get past the first 100 pages or so, and survives a somewhat clunky translation – one doesn’t “fall pregnant” in English, however much they may do so in French or Spanish – to give just one example; but in a mystery of this pace that’s not a deadly sin. A number of the scenes are truly frightening and horrifying; this is maintained in the translation.

The strength of the book is the attention to detail; Elizondo is vividly evoked and the myths and legends of the place seem ever-present. The ties that appear to bind many Basques to the family and to the land are palpable elements in the story.

This book has taken a long time to appear in English – it had already appeared in most European languages including Basque, Galician and Catalan two years ago. A short and helpful glossary is provided, as well, for those unfamiliar with local terms. But I must say it lacks the sparkle of, say Stephen Sartorelli’s translations of Andrea Camilleri’s detective fictions set in Sicily. It’ll be interesting to see if Redondo makes any impact on the English-speaking market.

For anyone interested in European-based detective/police stories or those with an interest in Basque culture, it’s a worthwhile read. And I’m certainly looking forward to the remaining stories of the trilogy.


Gernika, 1937: The Market Day Massacre

978-0-87417-978-1-frontcoverApril 26, 1937. Market day in the Basque village of Gernika. Though the Spanish Civil War raged around them, villagers still gathered at the market. However, that day would come to live in infamy as the Condor Legion of Germany, at the behest of the Franco and his forces, bombed the symbolic Basque town. Not only did they bomb it, they strafed the fleeing populace. They planned an attack that maximized casualties and terror, avoiding the few strategic targets in Gernika, such as the factories, while destroying nearly every thing else. As the first civilian population that was bombed solely to inflict terror and maximize damage, Gernika has become a symbol of the horrors of war.

Of the three countries involved in the bombing — Spain, Germany, and Italy — only Germany has issued any statement of apology. During Franco’s dictatorship, Spain never even acknowledged that Gernika had been bombed by him and his allies, instead blaming the destruction on Basque “Reds” that burned the city for propaganda. Because of the denials and the lack of a consistent historical record, and as a consequence of new documents brought to light from a variety of sources, Xabier Irujo, in his book Gernika, 1937: The Market Day Massacre, details the evidence for both the involvement of those three countries in the bombing as well as the level of destruction it created.

Irujo’s analysis describes exactly how meticulously planned the attack was. According to Irujo, the German Air Force, lead by Hermann Göring, used the bombing as a demonstration of the power of an air force to inflict fear and terror on the populace. The goal was to show Hitler and the rest of the German military the might of the air force. As such, documents record various participants as saying that the mission was a complete success, even though the few military targets were not hit.

The number of casulties is still in dispute. The entry on the bombing at Wikipedia, for example, claims that while there was some exagerated claims in the past, recent consensus places the number of deaths at around 400 or less. However, Irujo argues convincingly, based on numerous eye-witness testimony and the structure of the bomb shelters in Gernika, that the number is significantly higher, more likely near the 1500 or more that was originally reported by the Basque government.

It seems remarkable that the facts surrounding such an event are in so much dispute. This is the true motivation of Irujo’s study, quantifying at every possible point the numbers associated with the bombing: the numbers and types of planes, the locations and capacities of all bomb shelters in Gernika, the attacks on neighboring towns before and after the bombing of Gernika (Gernika was not the first Basque town, nor Spanish town for that matter, to be bombed (my dad’s home town of Gerrikaitz was also bombed) but it was the first to be attacked in a manner to destroy the civilian population). At some points, the recounting of these numbers becomes a bit heavy, as the litany of facts distracts from the narrative of the bombing itself. But, these facts serve the vital role of precisely documenting exactly what is known about the bombing, as a counterpoint to those that would still downplay the events of that day.

The historical importance of events such as the bombing of Gernika cannot be lost. Particularly the context of the bombing, the Spanish Civil War, has uncanny parallels to our own time, in which proxy wars seem the norm. The Germans and Italians could deny involvement in the Spanish Civil War because the democratic powers wanted to avoid what was increasingly seen as an inevitable world war that would engulf all of Europe and beyond. Thus, they willingly turned a blind eye to what was going on in Spain, even though there were official policies, agreed to by all parties (Germany and Italy included) to not intervene. After the bombing, Nationalist forces quickly overtook Gernika and hid from the world all evidence of the bombing, making it nearly impossible for an accurate accounting. Feels eirily like multiple warzones in 2015.

In the end, Irujo does the world a service in detailing the facts about what is known about the bombing of Gernika, providing an updated historical record for future generations. Gernika, Dresden, Hiroshima… these cities represent the capacity for humanity’s destructive tendencies towards ourselves and must not be forgotten.

Did you know…?

Interesting facts about Basque Whalers/Sailors that I learned from Christine Echeverria Bender during a presentation she gave at Jaialdi:

  • The first recorded transaction involving Basque sailors selling whale oil was in the year 670. The customer was a French abbey.
  • The contracts of Basque sailors stipulated that they would receive a specific amount, 2-3 liters, of sagardoa — Basque hard cider — each day.
  • euskal-etxeak-whalers-1In addition, all of the people on the ship, including the cabin boys, were paid, at least in part, with oil.
    • This model was unique in Europe.
    • It provided a greater incentive for success.
  • The churches in the Basque Country taxed each ship returning to port, wanting the tongue of the whale and some percent of the oil.
    • Many churches were financed by Basque whale oil.
  • Often, cabin boys were left behind on foreign shores, such as Newfoundland, to learn the local languages.
  • Some times, local populations fought each other for the right to trade with the Basques.

Images were found in this issue of Euskal Etxeak.

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