Buber’s Basque Page is 25 years old! I first started working on what would become this site back in the fall of 1994. I had just started graduate school in the Physics Department at the University of Washington. I was very lucky to have a fellowship that freed me from teaching duties, so I used some of that extra time to learn HTML. That effort blossomed and flourished, becoming the site you see today. When I started, there was next-to-nothing in English about Basques on the internet and Buber’s Basque Page tried to fill that void, at least a little. Fortunately, the landscape is much richer today.
The first bits of content were taken from notes I had from my time living in Donostia. I had tried to learn Euskara, spending a semester in intensive Basque language courses at the University of the Basque Country as part of the University Studies Abroad Consortium, but it was always easier to speak Spanish (even with my crappy Spanish) and hang out with Americans and speak English. I did learn some, but not nearly as much as I wish I had. But, I took lots of notes and some of that became some of the first content on this site, such as this word list and the declension and conjugation tables.
Another critically important resource was the Basque-L mailing list. A collection of Basques scattered from all over the world, the discussion was usually pretty deep and pretty intense. But, there was a gold mine of information and, always with permission, I used some of that to build the early Buber’s Basque Page. For example, Maria Santisteban put together some Basque language lessons that I hosted on the site.
As the site continued to grow, some parts became particularly popular and important. Probably the most popular was Xabier Ormaetxea’s Surname Research. People could send in questions about their Basque surnames and Xabier would look them up in the various references he had. Others would then post comments on each entry. Unfortunately, I had to disable the comments as it was an easy way for hackers to get into the site. Eventually, Xabier became busy with other efforts and, for a while, Susan Ybarra took over. But, with the advent of other genealogical sites, particularly the group basque-genealogy, where people can post queries about their names.
One thing I quickly learned in building this site is that everything about the Basque Country is political. Anything you say about the Basques becomes a political football. Just saying that Nafarroa is part of the historical Basque Country brought out a lot of critiques, and I was just quoting a standard encyclopedia. The most controversy I ever encountered, however, was when the Spanish newspaper ABC tried to connect my nascent page to ETA.
The two proudest moments I’ve had in running this page are when NABO recognized me and my site with a plaque of appreciation in 1998 and when I was recognized in 2006 with the Buber Sariak, an award for the best Basque websites, named after this site! That was truly an amazing honor! This site has opened a lot of new doors and opportunities for me and I’m extremely grateful.
It has been a great 25 years. This site, dedicated to the memories of my dad Pedro Uberuaga Zabala and my grandpa Jose Maria Telleria, is a monument to all of the volunteers who have helped me collect, translate, and identify content that forms the heart of this site. But it couldn’t thrive as it has without the constant support of the readers and visitors. To everyone who has had a hand in helping create this site or has ever visited, Eskerrik Asko!
A year ago, I was thinking about how I could inject some freshness into my page. The page has been going for a while now, and the previous attempts I’d made to add something special — Nor Naiz, Gu Gara; Did You Know…?; The Basque-t Cases — didn’t go very far, for many different reasons. I wanted something that would post regularly, which people could count on appearing. I eventually settled on facts about the Basque Country. I posted the first one on January 6, 2019. Today marks the 52nd entry in Basque Fact of the Week!
I originally thought about posting a fact every day, but then realized, after the amount of time it took me to research the very first one on the Elhuyar brothers and their discovery of tungsten, that there was no way I could sustain that pace. Once a week, however, that I felt I could do.
I try to pick topics that are at least interesting to me. I figure that, at the very least, if I learn something new, then it is worth my time. I hope others also find the facts I post about interesting, and that they also learn something new. There is so much about the Basque Country, Basque people, and Basque culture to post about that there is always something new to explore.
My two biggest resources are Wikipedia and the Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopledia. Wikipedia is, of course, extremely convenient. And, while it isn’t perfect, studies have shown that it is about as accurate as the typical encyclopedia. However, Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopledia is a wealth of information about Basque topics that hardly ever reach the English-speaking world. So, I try to tap that as much as I can. My Spanish being only so-so, I rely heavily on Google Translate to help me. I also try to scour news articles for interesting topics.
I hope readers and visitors enjoy these facts. I’m particularly keen on hearing ideas for future facts. If you have a topic you would like me to look into, please let me know. I’ll do my best to get to it in a timely manner. Most importantly, I know I’ll learn something new about the Basque culture.
Guillermo Zubiaga sent me this strange and funny bit from Los Grandes Enigmas de Martin Mystere, Investigador de lo Imposible, a Spanish translation of an Italian comic published in 1982. In the comic, the hero encounters an unknown tribe in Belize. I don’t know anything about the plot, but there are a few scenes in which the tribesmen are talking amongst themselves and they inexplicably converse in Euskara.
However odd that might be, it doesn’t compare with what that the Euskara translates to…
If you are interested in finding out more about your Basque surname or your Basque ancestry, an excellent resource is the group basque-genealogy. For many years, the group has been hosted by Yahoo Groups. However, with their change in service conditions, the group owner, Cecilia Puchulutegui, is moving it to Groups.io.
If you’ve never checked out basque-genealogy, it is full of experts and just friendly people who will help you learn just a bit more about your origins.
In almost any Basque-themed celebration of Christmas, instead of Santa Claus, a very distinct figure appears, wearing not a bright red suit trimmed in white but rather a more mundane outfit, often a blue or black shirt with blue pants topped off with a black beret. In modern times, he is portrayed as a joyful peasant that loves to eat and drink, and brings presents to kids. But he has a more complicated and darker past.
One story related to Olentzero is that a group of people, possibly pagans, were dancing in the meadow of Matxabaleta, in Aralar, when they spied a dark cloud on the horizon. Frightened, they rushed to consult with the eldest of their elders, who foresaw that the cloud presaged the coming of Kixmi, of Christ. He exclaimed “Sortu dek Kixmi, Galduak gaituk. Jauzi mallotik bera! [Kixmi has been born, we are lost. Throw me from the cliff!]” After he was killed, the cloud came and the others started dying one by one, except for one, Olentzero, who rushed to the village to announce the coming of Kixmi. In some tellings, the race of people that were killed by the cloud were the jentils, the giants of Basque folklore.
Thus, the story of Olentzero can be taken two ways. He announces the coming of Christ, and is a herald of the new religion. On the other hand, he is the last survivor of the way of life from before, the end of the old culture.
In pre-Christian times, it seems that the figure of Olentzero (also called Olentzaro, Orentzaro, Orantzaro) symbolized the end of the winter solstice, or the annual cycle. In the 17th century, some people called Christmas Eve “Onenzaro,” which has been interpreted to mean “the season of the good ones.”
The actual figure of Olentzero takes many forms: In Oiartzun he is a coal worker who lives with his wife; in Zarautz, he has red, bloody eyes; in Elduaien, his face is black, smudged with coal; in Larraun, he has as many eyes as the days of the year, plus one; in Berástegi, he appears loaded with a bunch of branches and with a sickle in his hand.
Olentzero has a relationship to wood and to fire. In many places, a special wood, much like a Yule log, is burnt on Christmas Eve that is called, amongst other things, Olentzero-enbor and Onontzaro-mokor. In parts of Araba, bonfires are lit on New Year’s Eve and a wine skin, representing the year that is ending, is burnt.
The Christmas Eve log has many special properties. In some places, they had all domestic animals pass over it, to protect them from any accident. In others, they burned the log and fire in the fireplace very brightly, to prevent Olentzero from coming down the chimney and killing everyone with his sickle. In yet others, the log was brought into the house whenever a thunder storm approached to help ward it off. If the log goes out during the night, a member of the family will die in the coming year.
Olentzero was somewhat forgotten in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, but he was revived, albeit in a new form, starting in the 1950s, when he was conflated with the idea of Santa Claus. Now, he brought gifts to children, appropriating some of the customs that were previously attributed to the Magi. Today, he is an ubiquitous presence during Christmas time in Basque communities around the world.
Zorionak eta Eguberri On! Merry Christmas from Buber’s Basque Page!
Basques played enormous and outsized roles in the centuries of military activity of both France and Spain. Both countries had colonies across the world, held together through military might. Basques were a large part of that history. Perhaps one of the most distinguished military commanders in all of Spanish history is Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta. Because of all of the injuries he sustained in his military career, he has been called Pegleg and Half-Man.
Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta was born in 1689 in Pasajes, then part of Donostia. His parents were Pedro de Lezo and Agustina de Olabarrieta.
De Lezo first saw action in the War of Succession, serving as a midshipman. On August 24, 1704, during the Battle of Vélez-Málaga, as his ship traded shots with a British counterpart, he was hit by a canon ball. Despite the fact that the wound later requires him amputate his leg, during the battle he remained on deck, doing what he can to support his mates. His commander promoted him for his actions. He was 15 years old at the time.
After his recovery, he returned to service and became distinguished for his tactical skills, circumventing a British blockage and defeating a ship with clearly superior armaments. He was again promoted and placed in charge of protecting conveys ferrying weapons and supplies that reinforce the armies besieging Barcelona.
In a second seige of Barcelona, de Lezo was again injured, this time in the right arm, rendering it useless for the rest of his life. In yet another injury, he lost his left eye.
After the War of Succession, he continued to serve, this time being placed in charge of a shipment of silver between Spain and the Bahamas. He ends up spending fourteen years patrolling the South American coast to ferret out British and Dutch smugglers. For his efforts, he became Admiral of the South Sea fleet in 1726.
De Lezo continued to distinguish himself in various adventures in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Because of his remarkable achievements, he was eventually made Lieutenant General of the Navy with the position of general commander of the department of Cádiz. Posthumously, due to his stellar performance in the defense of Cartagena (in modern day Colombia), he was made Marquis de Ovieco.