Category Archives: People

Basque-ing in play by Begoña Echeverria

In this guest article, Professor Begoña Echeverria, a professor of education at the University of California, Riverside, describes how she uses songs to teach basic concepts of the Basque language to adults, focusing not on grammatical aspects, but rather conversation.

Eskerrik asko, Begoña!

Basque-ing in play: Using song to teach Basque in the American diaspora

Begoña Echeverria

Associate Professor and Associate Dean
Graduate School of Education
University of California
Riverside, CA 92521-0128

 

Introduction 

Efforts to revitalize Basque (Euskera) focus on showing its “equality” to dominant languages, emphasizing grammar and “correctness” in the classroom. But while the number of Basque speakers has risen in the last few decades, Euskera is still endangered.  Basque speakers will switch to another language (usually Spanish or French, but English in the diaspora) when only one non-Basque speaker is among them and speakers do not speak the Euskera they know:  by 2001, one-quarter of the population in the Basque Autonomous Community spoke Basque, but only 14% used in publicly (Urla, 2013: 133).  Standardization has increased native speakers’ insecurities so that “’the creative capacity of the Basque speaker is being lost, the capacity to play with and enjoy the language. And when that is lost, the language itself is on the way to being lost’” (Urla, 2013: 108, quoting Zuazo 2000: 132).

I took these lessons to heart when I taught a Basque class to adults between 2006-2010 for a Basque club in southern California.  The class was part of a larger effort through the North American Basque Organization, composed of Basque clubs in the United States and Canada, to promote the language (www.nabasque.us).  I was asked to take over the class by one of its students when the first volunteer teacher was unable to continue. I agreed to take on the class so long as it focused on conversational skills—and not grammatical “correctness”—in part, because I am not a trained foreign language teacher, but also because the research I have done in the Basque Country itself suggested that focusing on teaching “correct” Basque was problematic to the extent that it made many Basque learners (and sometimes native speakers) too self-conscious to actually speak Basque outside the classroom (Echeverria 2003).

In this sense, my work corroborates that of scholars in other minority language communities.  That is, while attempts to revitalize languages often focus on standardizing and modernizing their languages so that they become more instrumentally useful and more able to challenge dominant language hegemony, such strategies do not guarantee that the prestige and use of that language will increase. Eckert (1983) demonstrates that minority language standardization can just as easily alienate native speakers as empower them; Wong (1999) shows that native speakers might reject the standard imposed on them altogether. Gal (1979) and Milroy (1987) suggest that, because of the association often found between vernaculars and solidarity, some speakers will continue to speak vernaculars even if they are not instrumentally advantageous.

But another reason for my insistence on the class focusing on informal conversation rather formal grammatical rules or conventions was that I knew that in order for the experience to be worthwhile for me—it was on a volunteer basis, after all—it had to be fun. And that meant using songs and games as much as possible to teach the language.  In this paper, I focus on the songs I used and wrote to convey some of the basic vocabulary needed for conversation in Basque, and to illustrate some the features of the language that most challenged my English-speaking students.

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Mark Bieter visits Arzak and makes me want to too

A few days ago, I wrote about the latest edition of the top 50 restaurants in the world, and how the Basque Country had 5 of those restaurants.

At number 8 sits Arzak. Mark Bieter, who I’ve frequently linked to because of his wonderful way with words, has had the pleasure of dining at Arzak. In an article he wrote in 2012, he describes his experience: It’s just a restaurant, I thought, nothing to be afraid of.  And yet standing across the street from it, I was a little afraid. 

I’m not a foodie, as Mark also claims, but his description of his time at Arzak makes me think that even I might appreciate the wonders of a place like that.

Priest of Pirates by Guillermo Zubiaga

Azalak2The third and final installment of Guillermo Zubiaga’s epic about Basque whaling, Joanes or the Basque Whaler: Priest of Pirates, follows the final exploits of Guillermo’s hero, Joanes. This graphic novel, based on historical documents of Basque derring-do on the high seas, culminates the grand adventures of Joanes and his crew as they encounter deadly pirates, an even deadlier monster whale, and mythical creatures from Basque myth.

I won’t spoil the story, but suffice it to say it takes Joanes and his crew to the depths of the ocean, to the coasts of New Foundland, and through glacial fields. Along the way, Joanes and the crew encounter a monster killer whale, a lamiak, various Native American tribes, and British and Danish pirates. It is a roller coaster ride that is fast paced and covers a lot of ground and time. Compared to the previous volumes, it felt both grander in scope and thus a bit less action oriented (though there is plenty of action).

As with the previous volumes, there are so many references to history and myth that I really found myself wishing to know more. Guillermo opens the volume with a little bit of background, particularly regarding the skull chalice that graces the cover. I understand that Guillermo is working on collecting the three volumes into one graphic novel (which provides him with an opportunity to correct some mistakes that crept in). I sincerely hope that it is annotated to provide that historical and mythological context the story and art are based upon.

The story is a rowdy jaunt through Basque history that is delightful, both for the art and for the cultural references. I highly recommend it and look forward to the collected volume!

Zorionak Guillermo!

Robert Laxalt: Story of a Storyteller by Warren Lerude

Lerude ppbk cover.inddProbably most Basque-Americans are vaguely familiar with who Robert Laxalt was, though the Laxalt name might be more recognizable because of his brother, Paul Laxalt, who was a Senator from and Governor of Nevada. Robert was a writer who distilled the Basque-American experience into simple but stark stories of life in the Nevada hills. His stories explored Basque identity both in the American West as well as in the Basque Country, which was the focus of a couple of his books. My favorite book of his, though, doesn’t deal with the Basques at all. A Man In The Wheatfield deals with a small rural western American town and the people and their fears that govern the life within the town. It’s been a long time and I’ve forgotten most of it, but I remember a scene dealing with rattlesnakes that was pretty intense (clearly, I need to go back and read his books again!). The other minor anecdote I have about Laxalt is that, by pure chance, browsing a used bookstore in Albuquerque I ran across a signed copy of one of his books, a cool buried treasure I chanced upon.

If you haven’t read any of his books, I would highly recommend them, even to someone with minimal or no interest in the Basques themselves. Laxalt’s writing is wonderful and paints a vivid picture of life in the American West. It’s not for nothing that he was nominated for the Pulitzer twice.

This all brings me to a new book, a biography of Laxalt by Warren Lerude entitled Robert Laxalt: Story of a Storyteller, published by the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. I haven’t read Professor Lerude’s biography yet, but I’m hoping it captures that magic I encountered in reading Laxalt’s words. You can read some advance praise about the book here and here.

Kindred Basque Spirits

A couple of weeks ago, during a work trip to Washington, DC, I met up with a couple of the members of the DC Euskal Etxea. I’ve mentioned Mark Bieter a few times in the past, as he writes a very insightful blog about many things, including things Basque. Sam Zengotitabengoa (ok, I admit, I had to look that up) has been heavily involved in the DC club for a while. While I’ve chatted with them virtually, we’d never met, and I figured this was a good opportunity to meet a few more Basque-os.

Talking with these guys was a real treat. They both have strong interests in the Basque Country — the politics, the culture, the now of the Basque Country. For me, this is the heart of my own interest. I understand the importance of the things that are central to Basque-American culture, particularly the dancing, but the dancing and such holds little interest to me. My personal passion for things Basque was ignited when I went to live there. I went with the goal of learning Euskara, but during that year I discovered music beyond the accordion, both odd folk music such as txalaparta but also avant garde punk music that resonated more with me. I discovered rural villages where basseriak dotted the landscape and people lived off the land, but also thriving metropolises where anything and everything modern existed, including spectacular buildings, gorgeous beaches, and polluted rivers (big cities do have downsides…). I discovered a culture that was firmly rooted in tradition with an odd and ancient language celebrated through bertsos but also one that kept an eye on the future, invested heavily in cutting edge science and technology. It was this dynamic blend of tradition and progress that captured my imagination. This, for me, is the essence of the Basque experience.

So, it is always a great pleasure to meet others that share the same passion, the same perspectives on the Basque Country. Over maybe one or two too many beers, settled in a bar in a way that isn’t all that possible in the Basque Country (I do like both ways of enjoying fine beverages), we chatted about many things, including politics, identity, sports, and Basque culture in America. It was simply just nice to talk about Basque culture and the Basque Country with people who had a deep and personal investment in the Basque Country itself.

Eskerrik asko Mark and Sam. I look forward to future “meetings” in the pub.

In Defense of Pete Cenarrusa: In Memorian (1917-2013)

As many of you already know, Pete Cenarrusa, a long time politician in Idaho (the longest serving elected official in state history) died on September 29. It didn’t take long after his death for his life to be questioned in the Spanish press, particularly as it related to an incident in 2002 when the Idaho legislature, at the behest of Pete and then representative Dave Bieter, passed a non-binding resolution that supported the Basque right to self-determination.

In response, a number of Basque bloggers around the world wrote a joint defense of Pete Cenarrusa. With their permission and encouragement, I repost that blog here.

Since the time of the original post, journalist Dan Popkey has written an article published in the Idaho Statesman regarding both the initiative to defend Pete as well as providing some clarifying details: Cenarrusa still stirs pot in Spain.

In Defense of Pete Cenarrusa: In Memorian (1917-2013)

Pete Cenarrusa at Fish Creek homesteadPete Cenarrusa died last week at age 95. To begin with, it’s strange to speak of “defending” Pete from anything. He was a wonderful person, somebody many of us admired and respected. His parents were immigrants who grew up in neighboring Basque towns but who met thousands of miles away in the middle of Idaho. Pete’s first language was Basque, and he kept speaking it for the rest of the life, sometimes throwing in English words along the way.

Pete went to the University of Idaho, where he was on the boxing team and completed degrees in agriculture and animal husbandry (at age 92, he blogged that his favorite courses were nutrition, organic chemistry, and bacteriology—“I would recommend these courses to everyone in college.”) He joined the Marines in 1942 and became an aviation instructor. He flew for 59 years, more than 15,000 hours of flight time without an accident.

Pete was elected as a Republican to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1950 and served nine terms, including three as House Speaker. In 1967, when Idaho’s secretary of state died, the governor appointed him to fill the position, where he served until 2003. He wasn’t a politician from central casting. As his friend and successor said at his funeral, Pete wasn’t a good public speaker; but unlike most politicians, Pete knew it. Still, it’s hard to argue with success: Pete never lost an election, and he was in public office for 52 years, the longest-serving elected official in Idaho history.

Then the Spanish national newspaper ABC published an “obituary” by Javier Ruperez, the former Spanish ambassador to the United States. Ruperez calls Pete a “Basque separatist,” a man filled with “blind obstinacy” against Spain “until the very day of his death.” It was a piece written with venom saved up from an event that happened more than a decade ago, spewed out just a couple days after Pete died. Pete can’t stand up for himself now. That’s why we feel a strong obligation to do so.

PETE CENARRUSA (1917-2013)

IDAHO RANCHER, BASQUE SEPARATIST

Deceased at 96, Cenarrusa – which was the way he had shortened his paternal surname Zenarruzabeita – had the leading role in Idaho’s political and social scene for almost six decades, being elected several times to the local legislature and carrying out for years the role of Secretary of State in the rustic territory. His parents emigrated from the Basque Country to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, as many of their compatriots did in those days, in response to the call for sheepherders to run the significant number of livestock in the American West.

From early on, conscious of his Basque origins, he tried to promote individual and collective memories in the environment of his countrymen, an activity that took a noticeable nationalist tone in the 1960s. He wasn’t awarded the prize “Sabino Arana” to the “universal Basque” by the Basque Nationalist Party for nothing.

It was in 2002 when these nationalist inclinations took shape in the attempt to make the Idaho legislature adopt a memorial that ignored ETA’s terrorist activities, demanded a favorable disposition from Spain and France to negotiate “the end of the conflict,” and asked for the self-determination of the Basque Country. Cenarrusa was the inspirer and visible leader of the attempt, for which he had the support of Ibarreche’s Basque government and Batasuna’s contacts incarnated in journalists for “Gara” and “Egunkaria”, regular visitors of the land where they received the hospitality of then local legislator and now mayor of Boise, Idaho’s capital, David Bieter.

The government of Jose Maria Aznar warned George W. Bush’s White House about the maneuver, and made Idaho legislators realize the inconvenience of adopting texts which were offensive to a friend and allied country such as Spain. The spokesman for the Department of State made a strong statement during those days that said, among other things: “The Spanish people suffer the violence carried out by a terrorist organization called ETA on a regular basis.” Exactly what the memo Cenarrusa/Bieter/Ibarreche/ Gara/Egunkaria did not want to gather. And that to the dismay of its sponsors ended up written in the amended text, which was eventually approved by the Idaho legislature.

It was in January 2003 when Idaho’s Senate president had the opportunity to communicate to the representatives of the Spanish government his regret for what happened, blaming it on the extreme ignorance by local representatives about Spanish affairs and the generalized willingness to please Cenarrusa in the last initiative he took on before retiring from his role as Secretary of State. Robert L. Geddes had begged the veteran rancher and politician of Basque origins that “the next time he wanted to declare war on Spain he give him prior notice to avoid misunderstandings.” On that same occasion Idaho’s Senate made the Spanish ambassador in Washington honorary citizen of the State. And Spain officially named Adelia Garro Simplot, another Basque descendant, honorary consul in the area. Garro is the abbreviation of Garroguerricoechevarria. Cenarrusa, who had not thrown in the towel in his blind obstinacy against constitutional and democratic Spain until the very day of his death, wasn’t able to make himself the only representative of Idaho’s Basque community.

As Mark Twain would say, not all deaths are received in the same way.

And an important bit of background: Ruperez , the author, was kidnapped by the Basque terrorist group ETA in 1979. He was held for a month. After he was released, 26 Basque prisoners were freed from prison, and the Spanish parliament agreed to create a special commission to investigate charges of torture of Basque prisoners. We can’t imagine what Rupérez went through, and we wish it would never have happened. It would certainly shape one’s world view. But Pete had nothing to do with that horrible event, and we know he would have condemned it. And that’s where Rupérez is horribly wrong about Pete and about Basques generally.

Toward the end of his career, Pete announced the introduction of a declaration in the Idaho legislature that addressed a critical series of events in the Basque Country and Spain. The declaration, officially known as a “memorial,” called on leaders in the United States and Spain to undertake a peace process. In 2002, Ruperez caught wind of the memorial and immediately flew out to Idaho, alerted the Spanish prime minister, the State Department, and the White House. Suddenly, a declaration by the legislature of a small Western state blew up and became international news.

As the memorial got close to a vote, there was a lot of back and forth among the many parties that had suddenly become involved. But Pete’s reaction was pitch perfect—paraphrasing him: Since when did the United States start running its foreign policy by foreign governments? In the end, the Idaho legislature unanimously approved this memorial. It described the history of Basques in Idaho, the earlier actions by the Idaho legislature to condemn the repression of Franco’s dictatorship, the efforts of Basques to maintain their culture, and all “but a marginalized fraction” of Basques’ condemnation of violence.

Perfect or not, it was a unanimous statement by a democratically elected, autonomous state legislature. But it seems to have haunted Ruperez all these years. Barely 72 hours after Pete had died, Rupérez condemned Pete as “the inspirer and visible leader” of an effort that turned a blind eye at violence, an effort that an Idaho Senate leader later purportedly told him was the result of the “extreme ignorance by local representatives” about Spanish affairs and “the generalized willingness to please Cenarrusa in the last initiative he took on before retiring.” Rupérez suggests that Pete was not typical of Idaho’s Basque community, that there were others who are worthier representatives.

Ruperez closes with a quote he says comes from Mark Twain: “Not all deaths are received in the same way.” Maybe that’s true. Either way, we can assure Mr. Ruperez that Pete’s death was received with a great deal of sadness and with the respect worthy of somebody who had done great things with his life. We would like to conclude by using another quote from Mark Twain that clearly suits perfectly for people like Javier Rupérez: “Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

Agur eta ohore, Pete.

Signed by: