Category Archives: Diaspora

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)


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:

The Basque History of Shoshone, Idaho


The Basques have been an integral part of the history of much of the world, from their role in Magellan’s voyage around the globe to their participation in the Spanish conquests of America. The Basques also touched a lot of the American West, and, while I should by now be accustomed to the pervasiveness of the Basques in the West, I’m still surprised when I hear about the story of places like Shoshone, Idaho.

Shoshone is a small town, just east of Gooding (another center of Basque-American culture). It’s a town I’ve certainly heard of, but have never visited. It turns out that Shoshone was one of the important stops for Basques making their way west after their voyage across the Atlantic and their landing on the east coast. Shoshone, at one time, boasted 7 Basque boarding houses (today Shoshone has a population of about 1400, so that would be about one boarding house per 200 inhabitants, probably the highest density in the country). Today, only 4 survive. But, the pride of that Basque heritage lives on.

Tomorrow, Shoshone will celebrate the 1st Annual Lincoln County Basque Heritage Day. Sponsored by the Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce and the Ben Oneida family, the event will showcase the Basque heritage of Shoshone, featuring a lecture by Prof. Dave Lachiondo of the Center for Basque Studies at Boise State University and a screening of the film Basques in the West. In addition, there will be sheep camps, photo displays, and history displays. The event is free and all are welcome.

Sounds like a wonderful event! It is inspired by the Basque immigrants who helped shaped the history of Shoshone. I’m curious what those boarding houses look like today, and what secrets they might still hold!


Zorionak NABO!

index.5679874652This year marks the 40th anniversary of NABO — the North American Basque Organizations. NABO’s goal is to bring together the Basque clubs of North America (NABO has member clubs in Canada and the United States) to help those clubs in their efforts to preserve and promote Basque culture. NABO is thus a collection of organizations and is able to provide opportunities that individual clubs would not be able to, such as the national Mus tournament and the Udaleku summer camp.

I first encountered NABO about 14 years ago, via my involvement with the Seattle Euskal Etxea. At the time, Bob Echeverria was president. Grace Mainvil, who has been a constant presence within NABO, was treasurer. I remember being overwhelmed by all of the experience that was represented in that room and all of the great ideas that were being tossed around. As with any such organization, NABO had more ideas than it could realistically realize, but it was great simply seeing the energy of the people involved. I remember that there were ideas for a directory of Basques in the diaspora (a very ambitious idea that unfortunately didn’t go anywhere, partially because they tapped me to be involved and I, well, sort of dropped the ball…). I don’t remember many more specifics, but I simply remember being part of something big and grand.

More recently, I’ve been to a NABO meeting a few years back, in Salt Lake City, as president of the New Mexico Euskal Etxea. While some faces have changed (the current president is Valerie Arrechea), others are familiar (Grace is still treasurer), the energy and ideas were as vibrant as ever. One simply cannot forget the energy that John Ysursa brought with him, and the grand visions regarding Basque identity and building the desire for embracing that identity among young Basques in the diaspora.


Last week, NABO celebrated their 40th anniversary in Elko as part of the 50th anniversary of the Elko Basque festival. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend, but it sounds like, by all accounts, it was a grand weekend.

NABO offers a valuable presence in the Basque community by pooling together the resources and expertise of all of the individual clubs and providing a common voice that can help promote projects that are simply too big for any one club. It also offers a network for Basque clubs and their members that helps develop a national and international Basque identity, where Basques are exposed to other Basques from other parts of North America. Basques in California get to interact with those in Washington DC, Quebec, and Florida. This expands the concept of “Basqueness” in the diaspora, as each of these communities has a different history, from the sheepherder experience, to the jai alai players, to more distant roles in exploring and settling North America. By providing this umbrella, NABO expands and redefines what it means to be Basque.

Zorionak NABO! And here’s to another 40 great years!

Hella Basque is Hella Blog

Writing a blog, putting posts out there on a regular basis, requires dedication. Writing a blog that pulls in readers and engages them requires charm and wit. Hella Basque has both. Billed as “youthful musings on Basque American culture and community,” Hella Basque is the work of Anne Marie, a young Basque-American who has been immersed into Basque-American culture for many years and is now pouring out those years into a blog that is both insightful and a delight to read. Hella Basque has posted about the band Amuma Says No, the Top 5 Things Not to Say to a Girl’s Aita (I will have to note these down for the very distant future when my little girl gets to that age),  and You Know You’re Basque American When… (which has been shared many times on Facebook), among other topics.

Hella Basque has only been posting for a few weeks, but the writing and the choice of topics makes it a top choice among Basque blogs. I highly recommend it!

Big Basque News: Basque World Heritage Site and .eus Basque Internet Domain

Two big news items related to Basques this week.

redbay20nw1First, long time contributor David Cox, who also happens to be Canadian (we don’t hold that against him), sent this article about the possibility of the Red Bay National Historic Site in Labrador becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Canadian Officials are currently lobbying UNESCO to make that site, and another in Canada, World Heritage Sites. Red Bay is home to a 16th century Basque outpost on the eastern coast of Canada. Drawn initially by cod, it seems, the Basque sailors found whales as well and setup the site to process the whales. The site has been excavated and a cemetery, a number of ships both large and small, and processing stations. The article points out that the establishment of this processing center in Canada marked the beginning of commercial whaling and that establishing it as a World Heritage Site would indicate “that the story of the Basque Whaling in Red Bay is a story that should be protected and presented for all humanity.” To get a feel for what it might have been like for Basques living in Labrador in the 1500s, check out the Last Will and Testament of Juan Martinez de Larrume.

logo_enSecond, as some of you may now, there has been an effort for quite some time now to get a top-level domain (think .net, .com, .edu, .es) on the internet for things Basque. I’ve featured a link in the top right corner of my page to the group that is advancing this cause, The PuntuEus Foundation. A couple of weeks back, ICANN, the organization that decides these things, approved the creation of the .eus domain. Now, there is a corner of the web dedicated to things Basque. If a site ends in .eus, you will know it is Basque related. Having a domain like .eus will aid groups in promoting Basque culture and language. Thanks to Pedro Oiarzabal for pointing this out to me. Zorionak PuntuEus!

Thoughts on Longmire: Death Came in Like Thunder

longmire-death-thunder-1-tx_On June 10th, A&E broadcast the episode of Longmire that features the crew dealing with a Basque community in Wyoming, Death Came in Like Thunder. For those who missed it but are interested in seeing it, you can catch it on A&E’s website.

The plot centers around the murder of a Basque sheepherder, the grandson of Basques who lost the rest of their family in the bombing of Gernika. While investigating the murder, the cast of Longmire visit a Basque festival, in progress, and the scene that a bunch of Basques (and non-Basques) were recruited to lend authenticity — you can read about the actual filming experience here. They later find one of the sheepherders, brother of the dead man, in the mountains tending sheep and then go to the home of third brother. Throughout, various references to Basques are made with varying degrees of accuracy.

Overall, given the difficulty of both cramming in as much Basqueness as possible while still staying true to history, I felt they did an admirable job. They had the sheepherder and his dog featured in the beginning of the episode, with the herder sporting a big black beret. The star, Walt, tells Vic, the sidekick, that the Basques came to Wyoming to escape World War II. This is the first inaccuracy, as the reason Basques left Euskadi are more varied and more complex, but Basques in Spain weren’t directly affected by WWII. The Spanish Civil War, on the other hand, would have been more accurate. But, there were Basques in them thar hills before the war. And most of the Basques in Wyoming, I believe, are from the French side, so maybe they could have been escaping WWII, in principle. This didn’t bother me too much, actually, as it isn’t a documentary, but one character giving his explanation. As in real life, and as is true of many Basques themselves, he can be wrong. While investigating the cabin of the dead herder, they find a postcard of Picasso’s Guernica. Thinking on the date, Walt realizes that today is the day of St. Ignacio and there is a Basque festival (never mind that St. Ignacio’s feast day is in July and this episode is supposed to take place in the spring…).

longmire-death-thunder-5-tx_The festival is an interesting mix of both big, Jaialdi-style festivals with booths for food, sport, nicknacks, and alcohol, but with a very small festival feel. They have the Basque colors everywhere and some traditional dress (the crew made the costumes for the women dancers). There really isn’t any dancing though — the dancers carry a hoop around but there is no dancing. I guess there wasn’t time for it. There are traditional sports: tug-of-war and orga jokoa, a game in which men lift wagons and turn them as much as they can. The filming showed relatively small guys lifting what were supposed to be 400 lb weights into the wagons. That didn’t make the cut, presumably because they realized there is no way the little guys could do that. Walt and Vic approach one of the food booths and Walt eats what is implied to be a longmire-death-thunder-9-tx_Rocky Mountain Oyster (in reality it was a meatball). I haven’t ever seen one of those at a festival (though I have in my parents’ fridge) but it isn’t the kind of thing I would seek out either. Otherwise, the scene has people wandering, talking, drinking, and having fun, much like any real festival. The sausages were far from chorizo, but no one could see them anyways (you can barely make out that dashing cook preparing that fine fare). I thought they did a nice job with the festival.

longmire-death-thunder-29-tx_Next we find Walt and Vic in the mountains, confronting one of the brothers. Of particular note here are the aspens with the arboglyphs, a well-documented feature of the Basque presence in the western mountains (though I think many cultures carved images into the trees). The herder describes how the arboglyphs recount their family’s history with the land and how the timber company wants to take their land and trees. (Here, my father-in-law, a former logger, pointed out that timber companies don’t want aspens, they are useless as lumber.)

This brother thinks the timbermen killed his brother so he fights them and gets arrested. While in jail, he describes how his grandparents’ families were killed in the bombing of Gernika. Walt then stares at the postcard of Guernica and recounts a poem by Norman Rosten, made into a song by Joan Baez, which has the phrase “death came in as thunder while they were playing” — hence the title of the episode. He then goes on to state how the Basques would always look someone in the eye when killing them, an odd reference indeed.

longmire-death-thunder-30-tx_The final glimpse into the Basques occurs when Walt and Vic go to the third brother’s home. There is a painting on the wall, a painting that was done by a friend in Santa Fe. But, there isn’t too much said about the Basques in this scene.

One last thing is worth noting. The two living brothers refer to the dead brother as “basati”, which means wild or savage in Batua. Not sure if anyone would use it in the context of calling their brother crazy or wild. Anyone know?

So, in the end, things weren’t perfect. Some things they got off a bit, particularly with the motivation for the festival, but, that said, I thought it was an overall very nice portrayal of Basque-Americans. It was refreshing to have a positive spin on Basques, even if it was at the expense of those evil timbermen (sorry Dave!), as opposed to crazy jumping warriors or the stereotypical terrorist. Of course, the time of the Basque sheepherder is nearing its end. Most sheepherders are now from South America, often from Peru (at least in the Treasure Valley of Idaho). Though Basques are still involved in the industry, they have often moved up the ladder and own the outfits. Still, this was a positive portrayal, one that I’m proud to have been a part of.

In addition to the photos in this post, I’ve put a gallery of some other screen captures from the episode here.