Basque Fact of the Week: Ikastolas, the Basque Schools

Basque is an ancient language, predating the Indo-European languages of Europe that surround it. Despite this long history, it is only recently that Basque has become a literary language, with a healthy, if small, corpus of written works. Perhaps even more surprising is that the formal teaching of subjects in the Basque language is not so very old. Education in Euskara began just over 120 years ago.

Image from iVoox.
  • One of the first attempts to create a school that focused on education in Basque was by Resurreccion María de Azkue, who, sometime around 1896, founded the Ikastechea College. This school was exclusively for boys and men, and focused not so much on teaching subjects in Basque but rather the teaching of the language itself.
  • The first Ikastola, or Basque-language school, was founded in 1914 by Miguel de Muñoa in San Sebastián. The school, called Koru’ko Andre Maria’ren Ikastetxea, taught both elementary and kindergarten kids, and all subjects were in the Basque language. By the time of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, more than 12 other ikastolas were created throughout Hegoalde.
  • After the Spanish Civil War, speaking Basque, and thus the ikastolas, were made illegal. However, ikastolas continued their mission of education in the Basque language clandestinely. In 1943, Elvira Zipitria, who had fled to Laburdi during the war, returned to establish a school in Donostia, a school that was hosted in the house of one of the families. She also established a classroom in her own house, but it was very austere, such that one wouldn’t even know it was a classroom. She never had more than ten students and instruction in Euskara was only for two hours a day. However, her efforts, and the subsequent efforts of others, were the seed that led to the current Basque-language education system.
  • Today, tens of thousands of children attend ikastolas on both sides of the French-Spanish border. In Hegoalde, half of the students have Spanish as their mother tongue. In 1998, an ikastola, Boiseko Ikastola, was even established in Boise, Idaho, the only Basque-language preschool outside of Euskal Herria.

Primary sources: Wikipedia; Garmendia Lasa, María Carmen [et al.]. Ikastola. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at:

Basque Fact of the Week: The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

At the heart of Bilbao’s transformation from an industrial center to a world-renowned tourist destination sits the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. While today, one cannot think of the city without envisioning the museum, there was significant resistance to the construction at the time. Now, other cities try to reproduce the so-called “Bilbao Effect” or “Guggenheim Effect,” with contrasting results.

Image from Wikipedia.
  • Before the museum, Bilbao was still coping with its industrial past. The Nervión river (or Ibaizabal river, depending on perspective), running through the city past where the Guggenheim now stands, was highly polluted. The last 16 miles of the river were an ecological dead zone and it was considered one of the most highly polluted rivers in the world. However, beginning in 1990, efforts began to heal the river and today it is full of aquatic life.
  • In the process of transitioning from an industrial to a service-based economy, Bilbao made an agreement with the Guggenheim Foundation in New York to host the museum. In 1991, a competition was held for its design, which was won by Frank Gehry. His design, in the so-called deconstructivism style, featured two particularly unique elements: long curved forms that were challenging from a practical use perspective, and the titanium sheets (33,000 of them, made in Pittsburgh) that cover the surface. He not only won the design, but he ultimately picked the location for the museum, as it had not yet been decided at the time of the competition.
  • The Guggenheim was just one part in a complete transformation of the city. Other buildings followed, including the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert HallZubizuri, and the Metro Bilbao.
  • The Guggenheim, or Bilbao, Effect refers to the impact the museum had on the economy and transformation of Bilbao. In the first 3 years, almost 4 million tourists visited and an extra $100 million in taxes were collected, which more than paid for the museum. It is estimated that, in the first 7 years of existence, the Museum brought in $3.5 billion to the local economy. Many have tried to reproduce this Effect, most with middling or even disastrous results. Most simply try to build an iconic structure, without all of the other infrastructure and environmental improvements Bilbao focused on at the same time as building the Guggenheim.
  • At the time, not everyone was happy with the idea of building such a massive building and locating a franchise of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. In what some called McGuggenheim, people decried the cultural imperialism of bringing an American museum franchise to Bilbao, particularly since few local artists were featured in the museum. They were also concerned with the massive costs of the project. But, even some of the most severe critics, such as Joseba Zulaika, have changed their minds after seeing the transformative effect that the entire project, not just the Guggenheim, has had on the city.

Primary sources: Fernández Altuna, José Javier. Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at:; Wikipedia.

Invoking the Akelarre by Emma Wilby

The Basque Witch Trials epitomized a time of hysteria and violence. Inspired to some degree by the neighboring trials in France, almost 7,000 people were investigated by the Spanish Inquisition on suspicions of being witches or dealing in witchcraft. While not so many were executed, by European standards, the wealth and breadth of records associated with the trials on both sides of the border have been a trove for historians. Past works, such as The Witches’ Advocate by Gustav Henningsen, have focused on the beliefs of the accusers, trying to understand what they really believed about witches, with implications about what the Church believe about witches at the time.

Emma Wilby’s Invoking the Akelarre: Voices of the Accused in the Basque Witch-Craze, 1609-1614 takes the opposite approach. As the subtitle indicates, Wilby scours the records, the testimonies that have been preserved in various archives, to understand the world that the victims of the witch craze came from. What did they believe? What in their world led them to construct the fantastical stories they told their interrogators?

Wilby’s basic premise is that the beliefs of the victims lies buried within their testimony. While clearly some of what they told their interrogators was the result of leading questions and the interrogators’ own biases, and other parts came from some of the resulting hysteria that arose around the trials, much of what came through in their stories was based on their daily experience, their unique world views that the interrogators couldn’t have known much, if anything, about. She further tries to identify those elements that made the Basque witch trials unique compared to the rest of Europe. In doing so, she reveals a rich world in which the beliefs of the every day Basque peek through, a world that is, often, very foreign to us today. While Wilby admits that many of her conclusions are necessarily speculative, given the indirect window the testimonies we have offer to the lives of those Basques, she supports them with as much circumstantial evidence, both from the Basque Country and the rest of Europe, as she can to make a convincing case.

There are simply too many tidbits that I found fascinating to summarize here. However, here are a few that I particularly found intriguing.

  • We all know that the Basques have a relatively high frequency of Rh negative blood type. This can cause issues with fertility, leading to a relatively high rate of miscarriage, stillbirth, and death soon after birth. Wilby relates this to both the Basques perhaps unique perspective on young children (saying that Basques, and Europeans more generally, didn’t really view children as something to emotionally invest in until they were a few years old) and that this is one reason the Basque population remained relatively small and isolated during history.
  • She relates many of the activities associated with witches, particularly the stories of using parts of the dead in rituals and medicines and sucking blood from people, to the activities of women as healers and herbalists. Bloodletting was a common treatment at the time and victims may have conflated experience in trying to heal people with common medical practices. They often made special medicines, such as pain killers, out of animals and herbs that may have inspired other stories.
  • The descriptions of the Sabbath, in which witches feasted and held orgiastic celebrations, may have found some inspirations in the stories of Cockaigne, a mythical paradise where people could do anything they wanted, and where, for example, “candies and pastries would rain from the sky.” They may have also been inspired by confraternities, religious and secular groups that acted as some level of social safety net but also held celebrations for their members. Finally, Basque theater, with raucous descriptions of the Devil, may have also provided further inspiration.
  • Basques had a unique relationship with the Americas, with many men having gone away, leaving the women behind to deal with all aspects of domestic life. Upon their return, the men often had fantastic tales of American natives and their, for the Basques, bizarre religious festivals that often contained stories of cannibalism, that may have made their way into the stories that the victims of the Basque witch trials told their interrogators. Witches’ stories of cannibalism may also have been inspired by sometimes graphic descriptions of the transformation of the Eucharist to flesh and blood.
  • Basques may have also had a relatively liberal view towards sex. Wilby quotes noted historian William Douglas: “in some of the medieval literature from western Europe, the Basques are described as sexually promiscuous.” And Pierre de Lancre, the interrogator on the French side, was shocked by the way that Basque peasants “try out” their wives “for several years before marrying them, taking them as if on a trial basis.” This liberal attitude towards sex may explain the very explicit descriptions of sexual activity that found their way into the stories of the Sabbath.

These are only some examples of how Wilby mines the testimonies of the victims to shed light into their world, their beliefs, and their relationship to their religion. Her approach is very academic, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but the insight she provides on who these Basques were is both striking and illuminating. Their world is so different than the one we have and it is almost impossible to imagine living in it. Wilby provide a glimpse that leaves you wanting more.

The hardcover is out now and available at numerous booksellers. The paperback version will be out in the summer of 2020.

Goian bego, Aita.

IMG_4582Pedro “Pete” Uberuaga Zabala

In the early morning of Thursday, November 26, 2015 – Thanksgiving Day – Pete passed away while sleeping peacefully in his home in Homedale, Idaho.

Pete was born on June 1, 1944 in Gerrikaitz (Munitibar), Bizkaia, Spain, to Teodoro Uberuaga and Feliciana Zalaba. He was the eldest of 8 children.

When he was 18 years old, he followed his three uncles to the United States on a three-year contract to herd sheep in the hills around Silver City, looking for opportunities to better his life. During a second three-year contract, he was introduced to his future bride, Monica (nee Telleria) Uberuaga, by her father, Jose “Joe” Telleria, in Jordan Valley, Oregon.

They soon relocated to Homedale, where they started their family and Pete began his long career as a truck driver, primarily hauling hay to local dairies. While the days were long and often took him far from home, he enjoyed interacting with the various people on his routes. He had many stories of taking his truck down treacherous roads in horrible weather and of his many attempts – not all successful – in evading weigh-station masters. He began his career working for Felix Anchustegui though eventually struck out on his own to be his own boss, living his version of the American dream. His dream culminated in his sons being able to go to college.

In 1997, after suffering a series of heart attacks, Pete was lucky enough to receive a heart transplant. His family always joked how the new heart – from a young woman – had made him a kinder, gentler man. And, he got a lot of years out of that heart and got to see a lot of special events – all of his sons graduating college, getting married, and having kids of their own. Eventually, while he fought a long and brave fight, he succumbed to multiple complications, dying in his sleep at his home with his family.

Pete was preceded in death by his parents, Feliciana Zabala and Teodoro Uberuaga, and three of his brothers, Santiago, Jose, and Antonio.

Pete is survived by his wife, Monica, his sons Blas, Tony, and David, and their wives Lisa, Christmas, and Shelley, and his grandchildren Teodoro, Estelle, Rose, and Kepa, his brothers Martin and Jose Luis, and his sisters Rosario and Begona.

Basque Fact of the Week: Diego de Gardoqui, the Basque Friend of the American Revolution

The American Revolutionary War was successful in great part due to the aid of many other nations. We are all familiar with the role that France, particularly Lafayette, played in the war, providing both support and, in Lafayette’s particular case, leading troops into battle. However, other countries also provided critical support, including Spain. And one of the key figures that facilitated that support was a Basque, Diego María de Gardoqui y Arriquibar.

Gardoqui from Collection of Palace of the Governors, New Mexico, image found on Wikipedia.
  • Diego de Gardoqui was born in 1735 in Bilbao. His family, the Gardoquis, were wealthy proprietors in the city. His father, José de Gardoqui Mezeta, a native of Gernika, led multiple businesses that traded all across the world in many commodities, including sugar, wooden stick, hides, hawksbill, cebadilla, wax, pepper, cod, salmon, fats, wines, cocoa, and rice. Diego himself was a banker and one of the most active wool merchants in Bilbao.
  • During the war, Diego acted as an intermediary between the Spanish government and the colonies, funneling funds and supplies through one of those businesses, “Gardoqui e Hijos.” Through this channel, he was able to send “215 bronze cannon, 30,000 muskets, 30,000 bayonets, 51,314 musket balls, 300,000 pounds of powder, 12,868 grenades, 30,000 uniforms, and 4,000 field tents” (Wikipedia). It is estimated that the total value of the supplies and finances sent was $400,000. Even before this, Diego was in contact with American revolutionaries. Benjamin Franklin advised John Paul Jones to contact Gardoqui as he looked for support against the British.
  • In 1780, John Adams, as part of his tour of Europe when he was researching his A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, passed through Bilbao and met with Diego and his family. Adams wrote in a letter to his wife “At Bilbao, We fare very well, and have received much Civility from Mr. Gardoqui and sons.”
  • After the war, from 1785 to 1789, Diego was appointed ambassador, representing the government in Madrid in the newly established United States. In 1787, he was visited by George Washington, who had a very favorable opinion of the man, writing in 1790 that “… no man in his most Catholic Majesty’s dominions could be more acceptable to the Inhabitants of these States.”
  • Upon returning to Spain, Gardoqui was made Finance Minister. He died, in Madrid, in 1798.
  • As Spain’s representative in the United States, he was involved in a plan to establish a new Spanish colony, to be called “New Madrid,” west of the Mississippi. However, ultimately, the Spanish government balked at the idea of a colony with self-rule and freedom of religion and the plan went nowhere. He also proposed an idea of having the Argentine Pampa settled by Basque emigrants, another plan that went nowhere.

Primary sources: EuskoNews, Wikipedia, Larrañaga, Luis F. Gardoqui Arriquibar, Diego María de. Enciclopedia Auñamendi [online], 2019. Available at:

Basque Fact of the Week: Catalina de Erauso, the Lieutenant Nun

Back in the 16th century, there weren’t many options for the children of Basque families. Those that weren’t destined to take over the family baserri were often left with little choice but to join the military or a religious order. The situation was even starker for women. Catalina Erauso y Pérez de Galarraga was born into a relatively well-to-do and well-connected family. Still, by the age of four, she was sent to a convent. However, that is only the beginning of her story.

Image from the Enciclopedia Auñamendi.
  • Catalina was born, according to her baptismal records, in 1592, on the Calle de la Trinidad in Donostia-San Sebastián. Her parents were Captain Miguel de Erauso and D.ª M.ª Pérez de Galarraga y Arce, natives of Donostia. Her father was a military commander and his children, including Catalina, were trained in the art of warfare from an early age.
  • Catalina and her two sisters, Isabel and Maria, were sent to the convent but, only 11 years later when she was about 15, Catalina escaped. She converted her clothes into the style of men and began living life masquerading as a man, taking on a number of aliases over her life, including Francisco de Loyola (from the time she fled the convent to her time as a soldier in Chile), Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán (a name she adopted in Chile and used until she was discovered to be a woman), and Antonio de Erauso (the name she used until her death).
  • As a man, Catalina had many adventures. She worked in various situations where she encountered uncles and aunts and, once, ever her father, but none of them recognized her. She eventually made her way to the Americas, starting in the Indies, where she became a soldier. One one point, she is even welcomed by the governor’s secretary in Chile, her brother, Miguel, who does not recognize her.
  • In the Americas, she constantly runs into trouble. Often, after some insult, she either wounds or kills her offender. In trouble with the law, she often claims sanctuary in a church. On more than one occasion, she is set to be married, but she managed to escape these fates as well.
  • As a soldier, she was ruthless and brutal. As a conquerer, she participated in the massacre of many natives. Her cruelty ultimately led to her not being promoted to higher military rank. Her response was to vandalize the countryside, killing anyone she met. She ultimately killed her brother, Miguel, in a duel, and was imprisoned for eight months.
  • In 1623, in Peru, she was again arrested because of a dispute. This time, to save herself, she confessed to the bishop that she was really a woman. After being confirmed, she is protected by the bishop and eventually returns back to her homeland. It seems that she is given a special dispensation from Pope Urban VIII to live as a man. She does so until her death, back in the Americas, sometime after 1630.

Primary sources: Wikipedia; Rejected Princesses; Estornés Zubizarreta, Idoia; Izaga Sagardía, Carmen. Erauso y Pérez de Galarraga, Catalina de. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at:

%d bloggers like this: