Eighty years ago, Spain was mired in a civil war that pitted the Republican government and its allies against the Nationalist forces of Franco. As Franco’s forces gained ground in the Basque Country, thousands of people, mostly children, fled to other lands, becoming refugees. Britain alone took nearly 4000 children. This is the story of one of them, Maria Patchett (nee Incera).
Those of us that are the sons and daughters of Basque immigrants that came in the early or middle 1900s often have a somewhat romantic and, maybe, antiquated view of the Basque Country. While traditional pursuits such as folk dance are still very prevalent in the Basque Country, they aren’t as pervasive as a typical Basque festival in the United States might imply. The Basque Country is a vibrant and modern locale, combining past traditions such as dance but also folk instruments and rural sports, with the most modern of social trends, including heavy metal music, state-of-the-art research and development, and avant-garde cuisine.
To provide some perspective on the Basque Country of today, here are some free online resources. These would be ideal for someone just discovering their Basque roots and wanting to learn more about the home of their ancestors or for a friend who wants to learn more about this Basque place you are always talking about.
The first is The Basque Country: Insight into its culture, history, society and institutions. This PDF, produced by Eusko Jaurlaritza, or the Basque Government, provides a brief but sprawling and all-encompassing overview of not only Euskadi — the three provinces comprising the Basque Autonomous Community — but also Euskal Herria, the traditional Basque Country that includes Nafarroa and Iparralde. It touches on a wide range of topics, from the history and politics of the Basque Country to the current economic situation to cultural points, including gastronomy, music, art, and architecture. This would be an excellent place to start a journey into the modern Basque Country.
The second set of resources comes from the University of Nevada, Reno, home of The William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies. Over the years, they have put together a number of textbooks and hosted a number of conferences that touch on a range of topics, including Basque cinema and cyberculture to the impact of the Guggenheim museum to Basque gender studies. Many of these are now offered as free PDFs, available for download and use under a creative commons license. The wealth of information is staggering and provides deep insight into various aspects of modern Basque life.
I first learned about Santiago Ramón y Cajal from Vince Juaristi’s great book Basque Firsts: People Who Changed the World. Ramón y Cajal, a Spanish scientist born in Nafarroa, was the father of modern neuroscience, developing the neuron doctrine of the brain that said the brain was composed of neurons connected by synapses. In his work, he combined an artistic sensibility with deep scientific insight to produce wonderful drawings of the cellular structure of the brain. For his work, he won the Nobel Prize in 1906, shared with Camillo Gogli, who originally developed the technique Ramón y Cajal used to visualize cells in the microscope.
During his career, Ramón y Cajal produced numerous pictures of the cellular structures he saw in his microscope. As highlighted in the New York Times, his work is now the subject of a traveling exhibit organized by the Weisman Art Institute and the Cajal Institute. 80 of his drawings will be part of an exhibit that will visit Minneapolis; Vancouver, British Columbia; New York City; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The Basque people have been studied by various branches of science because of the uniqueness of their language — Euskara, a language isolate, has no living relatives — and their genetic history. The latter, however, is often mired in controversy, as are all questions about genetic differences and uniqueness. Some of this is understandable, because such claims can be used to justify policies and attitudes that are less than egalitarian.
However, beyond any political implications, the genetic history of any population provides new insight into their cultural history and that of the neighboring peoples. Thus, in my view, studies of the genetics of the Basque offer a fascinating window into the prehistory, the history before the written word, of Europe.
That said, it is very difficult for a non expert to parse all of the reports written about the various scientific studies that are published. Some claim that the genetics of the Basques are no different than their neighbors while others find that there are unique differences that point to a different cultural history. As with all scientific reporting, it can be hard to parse the technical verbiage of a scientific paper into something that is easily digestible by the lay person. Compound that with the fact that everything Basque quickly becomes political, with the accompanying spin, and it becomes a significant challenge to know what, in reality, the scientific consensus, at least for now, is regarding the issue.
In an article on About Basque Country, John R. Bopp tries to at least put some of the headlines in perspective. While the article doesn’t reach any definitive conclusion, it highlights the challenge with some of these studies and puts various popular reports in context. While I would like to see an article that details the various pieces of evidence one way or another, Bopp’s article at least provides some needed context.
Basques have had their impact on world history and there are key historical figures that most Basques already know. St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, was born in Loyola. The first person to (deliberately) circumnavigate the Earth, Juan Sebastian Elcano, was from Getaria. However, there are many other Basques that have made important contributions to their profession and to the world. Vince Juaristi, in his book Basque Firsts: People Who Changed the World, delves into the lives of some of these people.
Juaristi has chosen a collection of Basques that have made seminal contributions to the world, the first to do something extraordinary in their field. He profiles seven such Basques:
- Elcano: the leader, after Magellan died, of the first expedition to circle the globe
- Ignatius: the founder and first leader of the Jesuits
- Santiago Ramon y Cajal: a neuroscientist that first detailed the cells of the brain
- Cristobal Balenziaga: a pioneer in fashion
- Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta: the driving force behind the Mondragon cooperatives
- Paul Dominique Laxalt: governor, advisor and first friend to an American president
- Edurne Pasaban: the first woman to scale 14 8000-meter peaks
Each of these profiles is rendered with a clarity and passion that is engrossing. Given the wide range of subject matter, one could fault Juaristi if some of his profiles were less coherent. However, Juaristi has a gift for conveying difficult subject matter in an easy style, a style that feels at ease with the subject matter, as if Juaristi has been studying the field for much of his life. Moving from religious to scientific to political topics, one always has the sense of familiarity with the subject. Juaristi portrays his subjects with confidence and skill.
While I had clearly known about some of the figures in this book, there were new faces for me too. For example, while the Mondragon cooperative has gained world-wide recognition for its business model and has become the subject of numerous studies, I hadn’t had the opportunity to learn about the man behind the vision. In some sense, this vision was guided by the notion that “Socializing knowledge truly democratizes power.” The man had vision that others initially failed to comprehend, such as the need to found a bank for the cooperative.
The profile of Ramon y Cajal most resonated with me, because of my own scientific background. He combined a scientific mind with the sensibilities of an artist, seeing the beauty in nature and trying to convey his scientific insight through illustration. He saw “Nature… with the heart of an artist.” After much struggle against his father’s own desires for him, Ramon y Cajal eventually enrolled as a pre-med student, where his artistic tendencies found a scientific outlet. In studying cadavers, he remarked “I saw in the dead body not death with its host of melancholy thoughts, but the marvelous workmanship of life.” He also saw his science as a mission on behalf of his native Spain, a way to bring glory to his nation. As his friend Sir Charles Sherrington remarked, “His science was first and foremost an offering to Spain.” As he aged, he took it as a new mission to educate the next generation: “The teacher must not spend his declining years in a sad solitude, but must approach his end surrounded by a through of young pupils.” In his last book, published after his death, he wrote “When facts are faced squarely, we must admit that it is not so much the thought of our own death that grieves us as the realization that by it we are snatched from the bosom of humanity and thus robbed forever of the hope of seeing the unfolding of the heroic struggle constantly being waged between the mind of man and the blind energy of natural forces.” This is a man that saw the poetry in nature and the beauty in science.
All of the profiles are equally inspirational and illuminating. Juaristi provides a strong case for the importance of Basques in world affairs by simply laying out the lives of these important figures. One can only wish that he follow up with a second volume of Basque Firsts.
Basque literature is a relative newcomer to the world literature scene and every Basque writer is faced with a number of critical decisions as he or she embarks on their journey. Iban Zaldua explores the history and modern context of Basque literature through these decisions in his book This Strange and Powerful Language. By examining the choices that Basque writers are faced with, Zaldua not only provides his own perspective on these questions, but essentially provides a guide of Basque literature through these decisions and how other authors have addressed them.
Being a relatively new addition to world literature, and being the literature of a minority culture, Basque literature and the authors behind it face interesting and, in some cases, unique questions that not only shaped the stories that have been produced but helps interpret the context in which Basque literature has developed. These questions include: Should a Basque writer write in Basque or potentially obtain a wider audience by writing in Spanish or French? How should a Basque writer deal with The Thing, as Zaldua refers to the Basque conflict? Will the author be a nationalist or non-nationalist? Will the author emphasize their indigenous exoticism, dwelling on the primitive and mystical aspects of Basque culture?
Zaldua, in an almost rambling way, addresses these and other questions and builds a history of Basque literature through the lens of these decisions other authors have made. It becomes a tour of Basque literature that highlights how stories in Basque have evolved. Zaldua has extensive footnotes that point to English translations of various Basque authors and, as such, the book becomes a tour of Basque literature for English speakers.
Zaldua highlights how Basque literature has evolved from a point where simply writing in Basque was an achievement — “There was a time when it was enough to write a grocery list in Basque” — to today, where there are books in Basque that are the equivalent of the trashy novel, not even claiming to some elevated status of literature. However, because of the relative youth of Basque literature, it has suffered from “Adam’s syndrome: namely, attributing added value to a work because, supposedly, it’s the first time that something like that — a police novel starring a retired detective, the chronicle of a journey by a scooter across two or three continents, a poem in which water lilies and high-fiber cereal are mentioned, and so on — has been written in Basque; the truth is that with a tradition like ours, what’s difficult is not being the first to do something.” This passage not only highlights one of the challenges of writing in Basque, but also Zaldua’s wit in conveying these challenges.
Regarding the point about the folk image of the Basque Country, Zaldua quotes Itxaro Borda: “it is obvious that ‘we could never live in a ‘well-mannered’ way on this planet, because we were always required to fit into one of the two fixed stereotypes: that of the shepherd-like nobel savage, or that of the expert terrorist of the highest order.'” Zaldua asks if, with the end of ETA’s terrorism, maybe the only trick Basques have left is that of the nobel savage? I imagine this is a common question of many minority cultures who have been pigeon-holed by the world-at-large into very specific cultural roles.
One thing I’ve come to realize during my time with this website is that, in the Basque Country, most things have a political side to them. Even the presumably simplest of questions, such as “what is the Basque Country,” stir up passions. Basque literature directly dives into this territory, addressing these types of questions head-on. Zaldua navigates that landscape, providing needed context that is often difficult for those not living in the Basque Country to appreciate. While Basque literature may not be as rich as the literatures of countries such as Spain, Britain, or Russia, it is much richer than is immediately obvious to a non-Euskara speaker and Zaldua makes this very clear. With his tangents and side excursions, Zaldua paints a picture of Basque literature that is both illuminating and piques interest in all of the literature that the Basque Country has developed. I’m certainly much more interested in delving into more of the stories he highlights in This Strange and Powerful Language.