Nor Naiz, Gu Gara: PJ Mansisidor

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

Basque identity from a well-traveled, second-generation Basque living in Idaho.

By P.J. Mansisidor

Let’s start this off with a poke right in the eye.  Humans desire meaning and purpose to their lives so not having an identity is like missing part of one’s soul.  Identity gives us clarity to where we come from, who we are and where we are going.  Each identity, like the soul, is unique but Basque heritage provides a foundation that provides a unique bond.  It’s a bond that transcends generations, distance and backgrounds.  All great stories come in three Acts so let’s roll right into this.

Act I – Where I come from

I grew up in a Basque family on a small farm in a small town.  That sentence is an identity right there, but it could be anywhere in the world.  However, Homedale, Idaho has the benefit of having a Basque population and is less than an hour from Boise, Idaho, a large population of Basque people.  Every parent tells their child that they are special.  Being told you are Basque was the same thing in my family.  Both my parents were 1st generation children to Basque immigrants that owned and worked their own sheep camps and boarding house.  I based my background on stories of family work ethic, honorable nature and superhuman endurance to work as long and hard as the world required to uphold the family name that represented those values.  Interestingly enough, this wasn’t just a trait of being a ‘Mansisidor’, it was also the general trait for Basque people.  I was fortunate to be surrounded by those hard-working Basque people in Homedale and Boise.  I was born Basque, however, I didn’t identify as ‘Basque’ as much as I was related to them.  That identity wasn’t mine yet and I feared I wasn’t good enough or strong enough to live up to my ancestors.

Act II – Who am I

Developing an identity without a background is difficult.  I was fortunate to be born Basque, but I didn’t yet believe I was ‘Basque’.  Don’t understand my meaning?  Ok, go to church and ask a teenager, “Do you believe in God?”  They’ll pause, look worried and answer ‘Yes’.  Doubt is the biggest obstacle to faith of any kind.  Faith in God, faith in yourself, faith in others. I didn’t know myself well enough to have faith I even knew what my identity was or should be.  

My parents involved me and my siblings in the Basque community and festivals.  We took Basque dance lessons and performed at festivals.  However, by the time I reached Jr. High School (7 & 8 grade) dressing up and dancing around became a liability in front of my non-Basque school friends and sports.  It was hard to explain why I was dancing when I didn’t own or believe in that identity yet and my friends certainly didn’t get it.  At 14 years old Jay Hormechea changed that path when I told her I wasn’t joining the Oinkari Basque dancers in Boise.  She grabbed my arm, hauled me away from my mother and looked at me: ‘Your father danced, your sister and brothers danced… you will dance!’  Now that my mind had been made up for me, I joined the Oinkari.  (Turns out, Jay used the same tone when she met my Dad outside the Basque dance hall in 1960 and said ‘Are you Basque? Then get in here!’)

PJ with the ikurrina.

The Oinkari practice each Sunday in Boise so I went with my siblings and happily met new friends in the same boat as me.  We were all able to reinvent ourselves in the Oinkari and transcend our fragile school identities (Version 1.0) and begin our improved self-identities (Version 2.0). Among this group I found that people my age valued and aspired to the values of being Basque.  I became a better dancer and was appreciated for it.  I gained confidence and faith in myself.  This led to my identity epiphany.  Confronted by friends at school being teased about a photo of me dancing in Basque costume I suddenly found myself snapping back saying “Yeah, I’m Basque, we work hard, play hard and celebrate by dancing!” I looked at each of them, “What have you got?” The biggest one of them was the first to recover from his shock and with a head hung in shame he quietly said, ‘I don’t have anything, I’m actually jealous you have something so fun to be a part of.”  Faith in identity earned, I’m definitely Basque.

Act III – Where am I going 

After that epiphany, the veil that clouded my path lifted.  I’m not saying I knew where I was going exactly but I did know that I’d get there by improving my work ethic, honorable nature and superhuman abilities – being Basque.  I traveled with the Oinkari Basque Dancers across the country, making new, life-long friends and creating enduring memories attributed to being part of the extended family of Basques around the world.  No matter the language, dialect, background, we all had a common connection that we are Basque.  We shared dances steps, card games and all learned what it meant to be Basque from other places.  We found value in being Basque but also the type of Basque we were as individuals. I was separated from the Basque community for about 7 years working out of Spokane, Washington, and traveling around the world for work.  When I traveled to other parts of the United States, I had to remember to explain the history of Basque to everyone.  That’s right, not everyone knows we exist.  Europe was more aware of Basque but still just as curious about meeting a Basque from the U.S.  I eventually moved back to Homedale and joined the Oinkari again. I became President of the club and during one “new-kid” introduction where new 14-year-old dancers come to practice and introduced themselves I found my next path.  These kids were shy already but then standing up they explained a little of their lineage, “I’m only 1/2 Basque from my Dad/Mom”, “I’m only 1/4 Basque from my Grandmother”.  After the third time of hearing an ‘only’ and a fraction I stopped the group.  “Just so you all know, we are the ‘Basque’ dancers.  If you are here, you are Basque.  You can save the fractions for math class.”  I like to think I gave some 14-year-old a bit more faith in their identity that day.  Since that time, I have enjoyed welcoming visitors from the Basque Country and showing them how we celebrate our heritage.  I even had one girl say, “I had to come to the United States to understand what it means be Basque.”  We not only like and take pride in ourselves, we celebrate and share it with others.  It’s been eye opening to have non-Basque people come to our community and they, themselves volunteer, support, celebrate, donate, work hard and emulate all the traits I associate with Basque.  Though they are not Basque by blood they have endeared themselves to our community and been accepted into our village.

Curtain Call

Work takes up a lot of my time now. I’m no longer dancing with the Oinkari but I still remain active in the Basque community.  I’ve been dating a non-Basque woman with two young teenagers.  It’s not easy being a teenager or dealing with them as they search for their own identity.   But then I think about the teenagers I’ve taken around the country and the world with the Basque Dancers.  I took my two teenagers to the Sheepherder’s ball in Boise not long ago.  Their fascination and awe in the large group of people but all the friendly interactions and dancing reminded me that even a little example of who we are can have a positive impact on others.  It’s too bad that not everyone can benefit from having a village behind them to guide them to find their identities.  Many are left to dig up something from YouTube, Instagram and any other random outlet they can find to try and define where they come from, who they are and where they are going.  Now, my Basque may be different from your Basque, but I think we share a common pride that we are Basque and there are Basque traits we seek to see in ourselves.  I hope to continue to share my heritage with others to provide them with some background they can identify with and have faith in themselves as I do because I have faith that I am, because we are.

PJ Mansisidor was raised on his family’s farm in Homedale, Idaho.  He earned a B.S. Mechanical Engineering degree from University of Idaho and an MBA from Northwest Nazarene University. PJ has traveled extensively in the U.S. and abroad.  He spent one summer living in Donostia (San Sebastian) studying at Esquela De Pais Vasco. PJ currently works at POWER Engineers in Boise, Idaho as a Sr. Packaging Engineer.  He is active in the Boise Basque Ezukaldunak club as we all the Homedale Txoko Ona club.  He continues to play pala and esku and is the Expo Idaho Chairman for Jaialdi 2015 and Jaialdi 2020.

Basque Fact of the Week: Basque-ing in Green Energy

Basques seem to always be looking outside of the box. The same spirit that led so many young men and women to leave their homes to search for a better life in the remote American West leads others to experiment with molecular gastronomy, to embrace punk rock, and to build a Guggenheim. It also drives the Basque Country to look for new sources of energy to power their modern society. Basque companies such as Iberdrola and Gamesa are pushing the frontiers of solar and wind energies and beyond.

The wave power plant in Mutriku. Image from Wave Energy Basque Country.
  • Even though the Basque Country is not known for its high winds, and the Basque Autonomous Community (Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Araba) only represents 0.6 percent of Spain’s wind power, Iberdrola and Gamesa are the two biggest players in Spain in this space. Iberdrola already generates 143 MW of wind energy and is part of a joint venture to create new wind farms in the Basque Country. Other companies in the Basque Country are at the forefront of developing off-shore wind platforms.
  • Along with other companies, Gamesa is part of Windbox, an Advanced Manufacturing Center just outside of Eibar which aims to further develop wind power technologies and give Basque companies in this energy sector a competitive edge. Windbox provides testing facilities to examine the performance of various components of wind turbine systems.
  • Another surprise is the Basque involvement in solar. Given the constant grey skies and xirimiri that are so characteristic of Euskal Herria, one would think that solar has little role there. However, companies like Iberdrola are developing solar energy in other parts of Spain, such as two 400 MW solar parks Castilla-La Mancha. This is in addition to a 590 MW park in Extremadura.
  • Closer to home, the Basque Country is working to extract energy from the tides. Towns like Mundaka are famous for their surfing and the same waves carry a lot of energy that can be used to power local homes and businesses. In Mutriku, they are pioneering a wave-based power station, and have it connected to the grid, supplying enough energy to sustain about 600 people.

Basque Fact of the Week: Jaialdi!

As you’ve probably heard by now, 2020 is a Jaialdi year! Jaialdi, which means festival in Euskara, is the biggest Basque festival in the United States, possibly the biggest outside of the Basque Country. It is held every five years at the end of July, the weekend of San Ignacio.

Amuma Says No playing on the Basque Block at Jaialdi 2015.
  • The first Jaialdi was held in 1987, attracting some 30,000 visitors. At the time, it wasn’t envisioned as a recurring event, but, with the Idaho centennial in 1990, the then-governor of Idaho, Cecil Andrus, asked that another be organized. After the phenomenal success of the second Jaialdi, it was decided to hold the event every 5 years.
  • The first Jaialdi was held at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary. However, the festival quickly grew too large for that space and was moved to the Western Idaho Fairgrounds. I admit, I miss the intimacy and just cool feel of the Penitentiary. It was cool watching all of the events while being surrounded by those massive stone walls. But, progress means change and the Fairgrounds can accommodate all of the guests. Actually, Jaialdi is split between the Fairgrounds and the Basque Block in downtown Boise, where a lot of events and milling of people happen.
  • As one would expect, Jaialdi is full of Basque flavor. There are continual dance performances, featuring the most seasoned dancers from the United States and the Basque Country, to the youngest beginners, who always draw the most “oohs” and “awws.” There are lots of sporting exhibitions, from the most traditional txinga carry to more unique events, such as one in which the athlete has to use a rope through a pulley to pull a bail of hay up and down as many time as possible, using gravity to lift himself in the air. There are also lots of vendors selling the coolest Basque-themed gear you could ever want.
  • In addition to the events at the Fairgrounds and the music on the Basque Block, there are other special events, including Sports Night, a rural sports competition featuring weight lifting and wood chopping, and Festara, a celebration of Basque music and dance. And, scattered throughout the festival are other activities and lectures. At the last Jaialdi, for example, I attended a great lecture by Christine Bender on Basque whaling. These little gems make the festival so much richer.
  • Jaialdi is full of lots of Basque activity. However, that wasn’t really what drew my dad there. Sure, he’d watch some dances and some of the sporting events, but what really made him want to go was the people. He’d sort of just park himself somewhere on the Fairgrounds and there would be a continuous stream of people he knew but hadn’t seen for years, from old sheepherder friends to farmers and ranchers he knew from his hay route. It was almost like one huge family reunion, with all of the old timers reminiscing about the good old days. It’s similar for me, where the best part is just running in to old friends, making new ones. In the end, it’s all about the people, and there are lots of great ones at Jaialdi.

Primary sources: Euzkaldunak, Jaialdi 2020.

Basque Fact of the Week: Day of San Blas

Tomorrow, February 3, much of the Catholic world celebrates the fiestas of San Blas, or in English Saint Blaise. This festival is popular in the Basque Country, celebrated in many of the villages and cities of the country. It is noted for the unique pastries that are part of the celebration.

Cords and pastries on sale for the fiesta of San Blas in Abadiño. Photo from BBK Azoka.
  • San Blas, born in Armenia some time in the III century, is the patron saint of throat diseases. The story goes that, as he was being led to prison, where he was ultimately tortured and beheaded for not renouncing his faith, a woman came to him with her child, who was choking on a fish bone. The child was immediately cured, and hence San Blas became the patron of throat diseases.
  • Festivals surrounded San Blas abound in the Basque Country. On the day of his festival, believers take cords to church to be blessed. In Bilbao alone, 50 kilometers of cord are sold. Originally, the cords were wrapped around a piece of bread, and the blessing of the bread was also transferred to the cord itself. The belief is that, if one wears the cord around their neck for 9 days and then burns it, they will be protected from all evil. The bread itself, being also blessed, is protected from mold, and pieces are given to animals to protect them as well.
  • There are hermitages dedicated to San Blas scattered all over the Basque Country, including Gipuzkoa (Antzuola, Aretxabaleta, Bergara, Elgeta, Getaria, Mutriku, Tolosa, and Zerain), Bizkaia (Urregi), Araba (Zalduendo), and Nafarroa (Riezu, Ollogoyen, Olite, Muruzabal de Ilzarbe, Los Arcos, Lodosa, Larrasoaña, Larraga, Aradiel de Corella, Ujue and Milagro). The oldest dates to the 16th century. The one in Milagro is particularly noteworthy, as an arm of San Blas is kept as a relic. However, as noted by Collin de Plancy in 1882, “With a little research, we would find Saint Blaise armed with a hundred arms, like the giant of the fable. The fingers, teeth, feet of this voluminous saint are too scattered for us to undertake to bring them together.” 
  • Another distinguishing aspect of the festivals of San Blas is the food. When wheat bread became part of the standard Basque diet, in the 19th century, they began to bless these breads on the day of San Blas. They would enrich the bread with butter, honey, eggs, or sodas — in the Goiherri some added crushed black pepper to the bread, called piper-opillas (I couldn’t find a recipe… anyone have one?) — or the now-typical sanblases: cakes bathed with whipped egg whites and sugar, and then adorned with the name of the saint written with chocolate.

Primary sources: Wikipedia, Aguirre Sorondo, Antxon. San Blas. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2020. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/san-blas/ar-151530/

Basque Fact of the Week: Basque Money

Whether we like it or not, money makes the world go around. And it is one of the factors that gives a nation its identity. Can anyone imagine the United States without the greenback? And, that’s just one of the reasons why, for example, the United Kingdom didn’t forego the pound when it originally joined the European Union. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Basque Country has tried to establish its own currency at various points in its history.

  • Coins have been made in what one might call the Basque Country (though occupying a greater territory than what we now call the Basque Country) since the second century BC. These were inspired or motivated by Roman practices and mints appeared in numerous Basque places, particularly by the Ebro river. The first coins minted in the Basque region, that have been found, were in Arsaos, between 178 and 150 BC. Coins from this time often feature the so-called Iberian rider, holding a spear or pilum or some other weapon. These native coins were made until about 45 BC, when Caesar beat Pompey and Roman coinage took over.
  • It’s not until the 11th century that new coins are made in the Basque Country, by the Kingdom of Navarre. The first of these coins was made by Sancho the Great, King of Pamplona from 1004 until his death in 1035. His coins were probably made in Nájera. His descendants also had coins made and this led to the term “sanchete” for money. Coins were produced in Navarre until 1835, when money in what became Spain became centralized.
  • This is all in what became Spain. In France, coins were minted in Behe Nafarroa, or Lower Navarre, by he-who-would-become king Henry IV of France.
  • In 1937, the Government of Euzkadi, formed after the First Statute of Autonomy of the Basque Country of 1936, issued its own coins. These coins were actually minted in Belgium. They began with coins worth 1 and 2 pesetas, and had plans to make coins of greater worth, but the the victory of Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War brought an end to those plans.
  • Of course, today, the euro is the currency of the Basque Country, on both sides of the border. However, there have been other attempts to introduce new money. In the 1990s, the political party Herri Batasuna issued coins they called “nabarros” with the goal of promoting Basque independence.
  • Most recently, the idea of micro-currencies has grown, a reaction against the centralization and unification of monies. These micro, or local, currencies only work in a small geographic region with the voluntary participation of local organizations. The “eusko“, primarly used in Iparralde, is one example. Created in 2013 by Euskal Moneta, one of the goals of having a local currency is to promote the local economy. Only local businesses will take these notes, so that encourages people to buy from them. It also promotes solidarity and identity amongst the Basques of the region. 1 eusko is worth 1 euro. A Basque in Boise has a nice overview of the eusko.

Primary source: Auñamendi Entziklopedia. MONEDA. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, online, 2020. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/moneda/ar-81297/

Basque Fact of the Week: Basque Ultra-running

One of the biggest features at any Basque festival, at least in the United States, is the sporting demonstration, the herri kirolak or rural sports. Events often include weight carries, tug-of-wars, and wood chopping. These are all inspired by the activities one might encounter on the family baserri, the work that kept the family farm alive. Given how central these are to the human experience, it might be a bit surprising that running doesn’t feature more prominently. However, while ultra-running — running distances of more than 26 miles — is gaining popularity, the Basques have a long tradition of running great distances.

Korrikalaris. Competition between Txikito de Aruiz (black shorts) and Aldaz, in 1961, in the bullring in Tolosa. Photo from the Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia.

  • As far back as the 16th century, Basques were known for their endurance as runners. They were often employed by aristocrats to run messages for them. While others were also employed, Basques enjoyed a special reputation for their running prowess, leading to the phrase “to run like a Basque” in France and the recommendation by the writer Henri Estienne that letters be taken by “your Basque, who runs like the wind.” Indeed, one runner, employed by Vicomte Francois-Armand de Polignac, ran from Le Puy to Paris and back in 7.5 days, covering a distance of about 500 miles.
  • Actual competitions first appeared in the 18th century. Numerous races were held, and famous runners — or korrikalaris — were established. One of the most famous families was the Igarabides. The father, Domingo, was famous for his win in a race between Betelu and what is now Ordizia, a distance of 37 miles crossing the mountains between the two towns. His sons, Martín Miguel, Santiago, and Antonio were also famous runners.
  • These races were often between two runners, not a crowd, and not only did they involve endurance, but the runners had to pick their route. They weren’t given a course, they were just given the starting and finishing points and they had to figure out the fastest way between the two. However, as these races became more popular, fixed routes were established, to prevent fans from influencing the race. This also led to course records, where runners were not only running against their opponent, but also those runners who had already run the route.
  • With urbanization, running became a spectator sport and races were increasingly held in arenas, such as bullrings, starting in the early 20th century. One of the first such races was held in Eibar in 1911. One of the runners, Garrinaga, ran 60 laps, or 4.97 miles, in 25 minutes. At the time, the world record for 5 miles was held by Alf Shrubb at 24:33.4 minutes.
  • While distance running became more institutionalized with the advent of the Olympics and the Spanish Athletic Federation, the driving force for competitions in the Basque Country was always betting. Bets were made for who would win the race, how long it would take them to run certain parts of the race, and when runners would catch one another.
  • However, today, such races, involving only two runners over great distances, have disappeared, replaced by more popular races in which large numbers of runners compete. That said, Basques continue to compete in ultra-running. In 1983, Alfredo Uria ran from Bilbao to Madrid, almost 250 miles, in 48 hours. And, in 1996, he set what was then the fastest time known for running 1000 miles: 12 days, 17 hours, 59 minutes, and 19 seconds.

Primary source: The Great Running Traditions of the Basques by Andy Milroy.

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