Buber’s Basque Story: Part 29

Kepa and Maite walked down the passenger boarding bridge, hand in hand, as they debarked in New York City. The last week had been a blur. After their encounter with Marina, they had almost completely forgotten about the zatiak as they had been in a frenzy to finalize their preparations for their trip. The flight across the Atlantic had been uneventful but tiring. Neither Maite nor Kepa had traveled so far from home nor been forced to sit for so long at one go. As they stepped into the terminal, they paused to stretch and look out the windows at the city in the distance.

Customs took so much longer than they had ever expected. After sitting for hours on the plane, the last thing that either had wanted to do was stand in line for hours, but they had little choice in the matter. Exhausted when they finally collected their bags, they stumbled through the exit.

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“What does Edurne look like?” asked Kepa. Maite’s cousin was supposed to pick them up.

“Well, it’s been a while since I saw her in person, but we chatted a few times via video as we planned our trip. She’s about thirty-five, has dark curly hair that falls past her shoulders. But, I think she’ll be holding a sign or something letting us know who she is.”

Indeed, as soon as they made their way through the exit into the throng of family and friends awaiting other passengers, they could hear one voice in particular, yelling “Maite! Maite!” Searching for the origin of the sound, they saw a woman who Kepa could only presume was Edurne jumping up and down, holding a sign above her head with “Maite!” in big bright letters. 

Maite smiled as she weaved her way through the crowd toward her cousin. “Edurne!!” she exclaimed as she reached him, letting her suitcase drop as she gave Edurne a big hug. “It is so good to see you!”

Kepa was immediately struck by how gorgeous Edurne was. Her long dark curls framed a face that seemed taken from the movies. She wore a sleek jacket and slacks that flattered her slender figure. Her brown eyes sparkled when they saw Maite.

“And you, cuz! It’s been too long. I never thought that the next time we would see each other would be in the US.”

“Nik ere ez! I kept hoping to see you back at the baserri!”

Edurne shrugged. “You know how it goes. Work and family. There isn’t much time to take big vacations to the home country.”

Kepa let out a small cough.

Maite smiled. “Barkatu,” she said with exaggeration. “Edurne, let me introduce you Kepa.”

Edurne engulfed Kepa in a big bear hug. “Nice to meet you, Kepa! I hope you both had a good flight.”

Kepa exaggerated a large yawn. “It was fine, but so long. Nekatuta naiz.”

“I completely understand. I’ve done that flight so many times. But, don’t worry, we’ll take things easy tonight. We’ll get you to the house and let you shower and refresh before we meet aita and ama and the rest of the family for dinner.”

“Zer…?” asked Kepa. “Dinner, tonight?”

Maite just smiled as she took her suitcase from him. “No different than what we do for them when they come to visit.”

Fighting Basques: Objective Burma: Julio Eiguren, the Basque Spy Who Did Not Exist

This article originally appeared in Spanish at El Diario. You can find all of the English versions of the Fighting Basques series here.

Family photograph of Julio Eiguren, with his brothers and sisters, parents and uncle, after the end of the war. Standing, from left to right: Pedro “Pete”, Julio, Fernando Eiguren (uncle), Luis “Louie” and John. Seated from left to right: Victoria “Bessie”, Bonifacio Eiguren and Lucia Bermeasolo (parents) and Connie (Courtesy of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise, Idaho).

The invasion of Burma (now Myanmar) – in the hands of the British Empire since 1886 – by the Empire of the Rising Sun at the end of December 1941 was another strategic military coup of great importance against the power of the allied powers in the Southeast Asia. The British would capitulate in April 1942, with Burma becoming a key player on the military board of the Japanese in a final attempt to subjugate China and gain prominence in the region. While the Basque-Nevadans of the US Air Force – Joseph Malaxechevarria Plaza, Santy Arriola Onandia, John Montero Bidegaray, and Domingo Arangüena Bengoa – heroically flew over the skies of Burma, on the extremely dangerous route between India and China, at the end of 1944 in the south of the country, a secret agent of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the first centralized intelligence agency abroad in the history of the United States (USA) – was deployed: Julio Eiguren Bermeasolo, born in 1919 in Jordan Valley, Oregon, to Biscayan parents. Two years before the creation of the OSS, on April 13, 1942, Eiguren had enlisted in the army in the city of Boise, Idaho. For two months he attended the Military Police Replacement Training Center at Fort Riley, Kansas, which was established in April 1942 to train soldiers and military police for replacement of losses abroad. On June 8 he would be transferred to the South Post, Fort Myer, Virginia. His military occupational specialty was “messenger.”

“Echoes of two wars, 1936-1945” aims to disseminate the stories of those Basques and Navarrese who participated in two of the warfare events that defined the future of much of the 20th century. With this blog, the intention of the Sancho de Beurko Association is to rescue from anonymity the thousands of people who constitute the backbone of the historical memory of the Basque and Navarre communities, on both sides of the Pyrenees, and their diasporas of emigrants and descendants, with a primary emphasis on the United States, during the period from 1936 to 1945.

THE AUTHORS
Guillermo Tabernilla
is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association, a non-profit organization that studies the history of the Basques and Navarrese from both sides of the Pyrenees in the Spanish Civil War and in World War II. He is currently their secretary and community manager. He is also editor of the digital magazine Saibigain. Between 2008 and 2016 he directed the catalog of the “Iron Belt” for the Heritage Directorate of the Basque Government and is, together with Pedro J. Oiarzabal, principal investigator of the Fighting Basques Project, a memory project on the Basques and Navarrese in the Second World War in collaboration with the federation of Basque Organizations of North America.

Pedro J. Oiarzabal is a Doctor in Political Science-Basque Studies, granted by the University of Nevada, Reno (USA). For two decades, his work has focused on research and consulting on public policies (citizenship abroad and return), diasporas and new technologies, and social and historical memory (oral history, migration and exile), with special emphasis on the Basque case. He is the author of more than twenty publications. He has authored the blog “Basque Identity 2.0” by EITB and “Diaspora Bizia” by EuskalKultura.eus. On Twitter @Oiarzabal.

Josu M. Aguirregabiria is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association and is currently its president. A specialist in the Civil War in Álava, he is the author of several publications related to this topic, among which “La batalla de Villarreal de Álava” (2015) y “Seis días de guerra en el frente de Álava. Comienza la ofensiva de Mola” (2018) stand out.

Despite being a very young organization, established only in June 1942, the OSS expanded rapidly, albeit with difficulties and to different degrees of penetration, through the different theaters of operations, with the exception of the Pacific which had been sharply vetoed by General Douglas MacArthur. (Later in 1944 and 1945, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz would make use of the pioneering OSS maritime unit in the invasion of the Philippines.) After the liberation of France and the stabilization of that theater of operations, the priority of the OSS immediately shifted to Germany, and after the end of the war in Europe to the Asian front. Excluded from the army and navy controlled sectors of the Pacific, the OSS devoted all its efforts to the distant China-Burma-India Theater, largely unknown to the public and regarded as the “forgotten war” of World War II (WWII). While the OSS staff assigned to that region did not reach 14% in October 1944, between June and September 1945 the region held 36% (about 4,000 people) of the total agency staff. It was the “ideal” terrain – sparsely populated with dense jungles, and a devastating monsoon climate plagued with tropical diseases – for the kind of unconventional warfare behind enemy lines that the OSS had perfected in Nazi-occupied Europe. In this way, for the first time, the OSS sent abroad a first detachment of special forces, formed by sections of special operations and secret intelligence, called “Detachment 101,” which operated in the north of Japan-occupied Burma between April 1942 and 1945. The OSS had about 800 Americans and a guerrilla force of about 10,000 indigenous natives (about 9,000 Kachin who formed the “Kachin Rangers”) instructed by the American agency to deal with the Japanese imperial troops.

OSS misssions and bases in southeast Asia, September 1945 (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/intelligence-history/oss/pg_36.jpg/image.jpg).

Similarly, the OSS formed “Detachment 404” whose operational area primarily covered southern Burma, the Arakan coast (with a strong presence of the Muslim Rohingya minority, armed and trained by the British); the south of French Indochina (Cambodia and southern Vietnam), Siam (now Thailand); Malaysia; and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). The “404,” officially identified by the nickname of the “US Experimental Division”, was active for 21 months. It was formed by about 200 agents selected from the commandos of the operative groups, the intelligence section and the maritime unit, which acted between 1944 and 1945, with the help of Malaysian agents trained by the OSS in the United States. The headquarters of the “404” was located in Kandy (then British Ceylon, today Sri Lanka), where the Headquarters of the Allied South East Asia Command was located between 1943 and 1946, led by British Admiral Louis Mountbatten and US Lieutenant General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who jointly coordinated their actions (unlike the “101” which retained its tactical autonomy). On February 14, 1944, Eiguren was transferred from the army to the OSS, receiving highly specialized training to serve abroad. On November 23, 1944 he was assigned to the “404”.

John enlisted in the US Army in 1942 in Boise (Courtesy of Eiguren Family / Basque Museum and Cultural Center, Bosie)

Despite the close relations between the OSS and the Basque Government in exile, and particularly between its director, General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan and the Lehendakari José Antonio Aguirre, the incorporation of Eiguren, and other Basque-Americans, occurred outside of this collaboration. The potential of an entire generation of young Americans of Basque origin who would join all the different branches of the US Army and on all military fronts during the course of WWII went incomprehensibly unnoticed by the Basque Government itself and its intelligence service. How many military units, exclusively Basque, could have been formed had they had hundreds of Basque-American recruits? It is particularly in the context of the 75th anniversary of the constitution of the Gernika battalion, the only Basque combatant unit in WWII, where the inquiry into the reasons behind the non-use of the Basque-American contingent by the Aguirre government becomes unavoidable.

One of the sections of the OSS that stood out, along with that of secret intelligence and special operations, was the Task Force Command (comparable to the special forces unit of the British Army, the Special Air Service (SAS) founded in July of 1941), responsible for the selection, training, equipping and activation of resistance groups in guerrilla warfare (a kind of “secret army”); for select discretionary attacks; and for surprise combat operations, limited in scope, by small special forces units. These commando units – uniformed unlike their companions in special operations – were made up of immigrants with command of foreign languages resident in the United States or by second-generation Americans who had retained their mother tongue. Most of its members were recruited from the armed forces. Native populations, ethnic or religious minorities were extolled and empowered in an effort to mobilize different populations in favor of the Allies, whether they were the “Kachin Rangers” or the failed Basque commandos of Rothschild (or Airedales) [1].

For example, among the operational groups, OGs, that served in France, those made up of French, Norwegian Americans or Italian-Americans stood out. By 1944, the OG had 2,000 men, including Germans, Greeks, and Yugoslavs (the OSS trained both partisans of the Communist Party under the leadership of Josip Broz “Tito” and the Chetniks, nationalist and anti-communist guerrillas loyal to the monarchy, of General Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović), and Thai or Chinese anti-colonialists (the latter in 1945). As can be seen, the formation of exclusively Basque operational groups would not have been strange at all since it followed the OSS’s own idiosyncrasy.

Eigure on a Harley Davidson WLA (Courtesy of the Eiguren Family / Basque Museum and Cultural Center).

According to the military file requested from the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Eiguren worked for the “404” Services Section as a “courier” or “dispatcher,” although his “special ability” was that of an “aircraft worker” without mention of the missions in which he took part. The messaging service (“courier”) consisted of handling the transmission of highly classified documents, for which very high caliber personnel were hired, their work being vital for communication between the various components of the detachment. In a very few months Eiguren rose very quickly, from private to sergeant.

Confidential transfer order of Eiguren to the OSS (NARA).

Among other activities, the “404” mapped the Arakan coast (full of mangroves), compiled thousands of intelligence reports, reported on Japanese submarines, helped rescue downed Allied pilots, infiltrated enemy territory, carried out dozens of sabotage missions, and organized numerous and successful operations in Thailand, including the formation of a Thai guerrilla force (some of them, students in American universities, were trained by the OSS in the USA) that did not go to war due to its immediate end. The “404” also collaborated with agents and guerrillas of the Ho Chi Minh Viet Minh in Vietnam, provided them with weapons, medicine and training, and carried out their own missions in Vietnamese territory. With the capture of Rangoon on May 2, 1945, Burma was largely liberated from Japanese occupation. The actions taken by the OSS made it easier for Thailand to maintain its sovereignty after the war, under the orbit of American foreign policy, and away from the old colonial pretensions of the United Kingdom.

Eiguren died aged 58 without revealing his real identity and work done during WWII (Basque Museum and Cultural Center).

After nine and a half months of service in Burma, Eiguren ended his work with the OSS on November 6, 1945, as part of the general demobilization program for American troops. Upon his return to the United States, he was transferred to Fort Meade, Maryland, on November 14, where he was discharged from the army. He died of a heart attack on his ranch in Emmett, Idaho, on August 7, 1976 at the age of 58. For the general public, Eiguren was another soldier in the army who served his country with honor abroad. But in reality he was a secret agent whose work in the OSS “Detachment 404” is unknown, and whose contribution to the end of the war on the Southeast Asian front was completely unknown. According to his superiors, “Sergeant Eiguren was one of the most exceptional soldiers in this Detachment” with excellent physical abilities, leadership skills and motivation, among other qualities. For the rest of the world, Eiguren was never in Burma.

[1] Oiarzabal, Pedro J. and Tabernilla, Guillermo. “The enigma of myth and history: ‘Basque code talkers’ in World War II. The OSS and the Basque Information Service — the Airedale Organization.” Saibigain Magazine, No. 3 (2017). “The enigma of myth and history:‘ Basque code talkers ’in World War II. The OSS and the Basque Information Service — the Airedale Organization “

Basque Fact of the Week: The Massacre of La Hoya

For over 1000 years, the village of La Hoya grew and evolved, becoming a flourishing trade center. Then, suddenly, about 2200 years ago, it ceased to exist, completely obliterated. Thanks to the efforts of scientists from the University of Oxford, the National Center for Scientific Research in France, Arkikus, and the Alava Institute of Archeology in Vitoria-Gasteiz, in work published in the journal Antiquity, we now have a better understanding of what happened to the people of La Hoya, if not why.

Left: plan of La Hoya sector III, including the location of the human skeletons and skeletal elements studied, some of which are photographed in situ on the right. Figure and caption from Antiquity 94, 1245 (2020).



  • The site of La Hoya is located near Laguardia, Araba, some 40 kilometers south of the capital of Araba, Vitoria-Gasteiz. Laguardia has a rich history, with a wall ordered built by Sancho the Strong and several important churches. It was also the birthplace of Blanche of Nafarroa, one-time Queen of Castile. However, perhaps the most fascinating bit of history relates to the Iron Age site of La Hoya.
  • First discovered in 1935, it wasn’t until the 1970s that excavations began in La Hoya. The village existed over three distinct ages: the Middle/Late Bronze Age, when the buildings were built of wood; the Early and Middle Iron Ages, when new mixes of stone, wood and adobe were used in construction; and the Late Iron Age, which saw the introduction of Celtiberian elements and the paving of streets. The people who lived in La Hoya were probably Berones, a Celtic people.
  • La Hoya sat in the valley of the Ebro River, making it a key spot for the flow of people and goods. At its peak, it had numerous shops, communal spaces, and a population of about 1500 people. It seemed to have facilities for pottery and metal production while cremation remains suggest it was ruled by a “warrior aristocracy.” However, it was situated in the low valley, with only its wall to protect it.
  • Some time around 200-300 BCE, the village was destroyed. At least thirteen bodies have been discovered and studied, ranging from both men and women as well as children and even an infant. It seems that their bodies were left where they fell, with no funerary rituals or burials. Their bones are charred, suggesting that, after they were killed, the village was burned to the ground.
  • The remains reveal a violent end to the lives of these people. At least one man was decapitated, his head missing from the remains. One man and one teenage girl had their right arms amputated — the girl’s arm was found with bracelets still adorning it. No weapons were found, suggesting that the populace was either defenseless or the attack was a surprise. Most items of potential value were left untouched, suggesting that plunder was not the motivation. This massacre effectively ended La Hoya as a human settlement.
  • This new understanding of the fate of La Hoya rewrites some previous assumptions. In particular, this massacre occurred before Roman contact. It had been thought that large-scale warfare came to the Iberian peninsula with the Romans, but this site reveals that it existed before.

Primary sources: Euskonews; T. Fernández-Crespo, J. Ordoño, A. Llanos, R. J. Schulting, “Make a desert and call it peace: massacre at the Iberian Iron Age village of La Hoya,” Antiquity 94, 1245 (2020).

Remembering Dad and Telling His Story

Dad with his brother Martín at my brother Tony’s wedding. Photo taken by Lisa Van De Graaff.

Five years ago, early on Thanksgiving morning, Dad died. He’d spent the last eighteen years battling a multitude of health problems that stemmed from heart failure and the heart transplant that saved his life. That new heart gave him eighteen more years, but not all of them were wonderful, as a myriad of other issues popped up, things like gout in his hands (Dad said it was the most pain he ever felt), a weakened body from laying in bed for months waiting for a heart, and kidney failure, forcing him to start dialysis. He would always say that the motor was working fine, but the chassis was falling apart. Most days, at least when we – and especially the grandchildren he got to see because of that new heart – were around, Dad put on a brave face and made the most of his time with us. But, I can only imagine the harder days, where it didn’t feel like it was worth it, days only Mom really saw in any detail.

Dad, at my brother Tony’s wedding. Photo taken by Lisa Van De Graaff.

There are so many questions I wished I’d asked. So many things about Dad that I don’t know. His childhood is one big black box to me. There are no photographs and very few stories. One of his favorites was about a time when he really wanted to take his dad’s motorcycle to town. It was Sunday, and his mom was harassing him to get up for Mass. Dad, snuggled under his blankets, pretended not to hear, pretended to be asleep, until his mom gave up and left without him, beginning the thirty minute hike to town on her own. As soon as she was gone, Dad threw off the covers, fully dressed in his best Sunday suit, and found the motorcycle. He figured that he would be forgiven if his mom thought he had overslept and needed to get to town fast to make it to Mass on time. I don’t recall if it was on the way to town, or on the way back, but Dad had a minor accident as he guided that motorcycle down the narrow and curved roads that are so typical of the heart of Bizkaia, and tore a hole in his suit. He panicked, full of fear at the wrath of his mom. He made it home before she did and hid on the roof of the baserri with the guys that were replacing their roof that day. He stayed there, waiting and hoping his mom wouldn’t find him. Eventually, of course, she did, and she found the hole in his suit. Dad made up a story about having played handball in the fronton with his friends, of him falling down and tearing the suit on the stone floor. Whether his mom bought the story or not, she had the suit fixed. Dad said you could barely tell there was ever a hole. I’m not sure he ever told her the truth about the motorcycle…

Dad and me when I was about 5 months old.

But, such stories are few and far between. Before his transplant, I would occasionally help Dad out with his hay runs. In reality, I didn’t do a whole lot: I help untie the ropes from the hay stacks on the truck, or help tie them on a new stack if he was loading. I would sit on the end of the grapple on his tractor and he would lift me up to the top of the stack. Once in a while, if the hay bales weren’t tight enough for the grapple to grab them, I would help rearrange them (though given I was a 98-pound weakling, I was only moderately helpful). Mostly, though, I was there to help move the tractor around while he moved the truck.

These runs would mean getting up too damn early – Dad would want to be at the hay stack at dawn to maximize light, and we wouldn’t stop until sunset for the same reason. We’d drive hundreds of miles in the dark, both ways (though it wasn’t always uphill both ways). You’d think that would have been a great opportunity to pull some stories out of Dad. And, I didn’t even have a phone or some other device to distract me! But, we usually sat there in silence, neither of us really knowing what to ask the other. We never talked about girls, about the future, or about anything, really. When I was older, and had made my own connection to the Basque Country, sometimes Dad would tell me stories about the old country, but I didn’t always follow as the names and places weren’t familiar. As a teenager or even in my early twenties, maybe I was just too self-absorbed or thought Dad would be there forever, but I simply never asked.

Dad laughing at someone’s story. Photo taken by Lisa Van De Graaff.

Life is so transient. We are born and then we die. Maybe people remember us for a generation or two, but after a few short years, we are just whispers on people’s lips. Maybe the best we can hope for is that we live on, perhaps through our children and their children or through our deeds and the impact we make on a few of the lives around us. We have the amazing ability to write, to break the barrier of time and share stories that can last beyond what our memories would otherwise allow. But, even so, it seems that, for most of us, our time passes and we are soon lost to memory. It doesn’t help when, if you are like me, you have a horrible memory and your own childhood is a black hole… And I don’t have the five million photos we seem to take daily of my daughter to jog my memory…

On the other hand, we all have fascinating stories. Each of us is the main protagonist of our own drama we have lived through, complete with highs and lows; heartbreak, tragedy and joy; and unique twists that would confound the best story writers. I wish I knew more about Dad’s story. I wish I’d asked him more questions and pulled just a little more out of him. I’m on a personal mission to fill in as many gaps as I can. While not as good as getting it directly from Dad himself, I’m hoping I can get glimpses of his story from those who knew him, his family, friends, and acquaintances. Maybe ultimately it is futile to fight the so-called sands of time, but knowing just a bit more about Dad’s story would make my own a bit more fulfilling.

An Interview with Gloria Totoricagüena

Conducted in Spring 2006

Dr. Gloria Totoricagüena, a prominant researcher in the field of the Basque diaspora, was recently named the director of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Center for Basque Studies. In this interview, conducted over email, I asked her about growing up Basque, her plans for the Center, and her views on what it means to be Basque and the role that the Basque diaspora has in the future of the Basque Country.

Buber’s Basque Page: When you were growing up, what did “being Basque” mean to you? Was the Basque culture a large part of your childhood?

About Gloria:

Dr. Gloria Totoricagüena (Ph.D. London School of Economics) has conducted unparalleled comprehensive research on Basque communities from twenty different countries, with extensive fieldwork in Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Australia, England, Belgium and the United States. She collaborates in research projects with specialists at the University of the Basque Country, the University of Navarra and the Public University of Navarra as well as in international networks of researchers from Israel, Korea, Russia, Armenia, Ireland, Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. She also serves as a consultant for diaspora related themes to the Basque Government and to other ethnic communities around the world.

She has authored four books and numerous articles in the fields of Basque migration, identity and diaspora studies. She is the project director for four works of the “Urazandi: Basques Across the Seas”, a fifteen book series regarding Basque migration, identity maintenance, and transnational networks around the globe. She is also the series director and author of “Basques in the United States” for the Enciclopedia Auñamendi, which includes over 800 pages of text and 350 photographs for the Internet encyclopedia. Totoricagüena was selected by the President of the Basque Government to represent diaspora Basques at the World Congresses of Basque Collectivities of 1995, 1999 and 2003, and was chosen as keynote speaker in 2003. She presents her research at international conferences regularly and most recently has given papers in the Basque Country, London, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Lima, Sydney, Melbourne, San Francisco and New York.

Dr. Totoricagüena has received much recognition and many awards for her teaching excellence including the Tufts University Inspirational Teacher Award, the University of Idaho Teaching Excellence Award, Target Teachers Excellence Award, State of Idaho Governor’s Initiative Teaching Excellence Award, the Idaho Humanities Council Teacher Research Fellowship, and selection for Who’s Who Among American Teachers in 1994, 2000, and 2002. Her research has been recognized with the UNR Junior Faculty Research Award 2004, and the Mousel-Feltner Award for Research and Creativity 2004. In 2005, her book Boise Basques: Dreamers and Doerswas the Finalist for the Idaho Best Book Award.

Current research interests include quantitative and qualitative analyses of the Basque diaspora political experience and comparisons to other ethnic diasporas; collecting oral histories from Basques in fifteen countries; transnational identities and globalization; and analysis of Basque Government policies and relationships with their diasporic communities around the world. Totoricagüena is the Director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Gloria Totoricagüena: For me “being Basque” as a concept has changed and evolved greatly. As a child, being Basque meant that I had an unsual name and that I had to answer alot of questions about who I was and where I came from. “I am from Boise.” I didn’t think of myself as so different from anyone else, maybe because in elementary school I didn’t want to be considered different. However, simultaneously I did understand that I was unique and I loved that. I actually liked spelling my name and giving the 30 second Basque history lesson. I enjoyed Basque dancing, the festivals, spending time at the Basque Center every Sunday with other Basque families. My parents were quite politically inclined and I heard many discussions about the politics in the Basque territories. I remember that our parents allowed us to drink champagne the night that we heard that Franco had finally died. We were children (7 brothers and sisters), but my mother insisted that we drink champagne so that we would never forget that day and what we were celebrating. This greatly influenced my education and career decisions and I earned my PhD in Political Science at the London School of Economics.

BBP: As the new director of the Center for Basque Studies (CBS), what do you view as the biggest challenge for the Center? What do you look forward to the most? 

Gloria Totoricagüena: The most significant challenge is to maintain excellence in programming, selection of projects and PhD students, and to innovatively steer the CBS into new disciplines. I am planning to initiate new programs that exponentially increase Basque Studies in English speaking universities. Rather than giving fish, we need to teach others to fish. By that I mean that the CBS has produced numerous English-language materials; we have seven different publications series; on-line courses, on campus courses in Reno; adult learning summer courses; outreach projects across the United States. However, I think it’s time to prepare existing US university professors who already have an interest and some expertise in Basque Studies to teach Basque Studies courses. I am looking to organize summer intensive workshops that provide curriculum and didactic materials for university professors who will then go back to their own campuses and teach a course in Basque Studies. Each summer we might focus on a different discipline and promote that across campuses in the country.

BBP: In your view, why is Basque Studies so important?

Gloria Totoricagüena: Basque Studies includes questions and theories of individual and group identity, and answering why, how, when, and where of human development. By understanding the Basque experience we can look for patterns in human behavior and then compare them to other ethnic groups for similarities and differences. Basques also have an endangered culture and langauge, and in the same manner that we work to protect endangered flora and fauna, I believe it essential to protect endangered human cultures.

BBP: What role do centers such as that at Reno have in the context of modern Basque culture? What connections does the Center have to the Basque government?

Gloria Totoricagüena: University research centers attempt to conduct quality research, following rigorous scientific methodology, in order to explain why things are they way they are. We try to describe, explain, and then predict or generalize to other circumstances and situations. Modern Basque culture includes similar elements to any other culture in that they attempt to answer questions of human existence and to improve the human condition.

The CBS has several positive and productive relations with Basque Government directorates, agencies, Departments, Diputaciones and municipalities. We serve as consultants, Chairs and often Principal Investigators for research projects, database creations and conferences. We are asked for our professional opinions on everything from political party strategies to building musuems, or a national library.

BBP: Much of your research has focused on the Basque diaspora. What do you find so interesting about this subject? What is the most surprising thing you have uncovered in your research?

Gloria Totoricagüena: The most interesting and the most surprising is that just when I think I have discovered a quantitative pattern in the data I am collecting, a new trend arises that I did not expect. When all of the local wisdom says that the migration to a certain area was basically all Bizkaian, I have found Census data showing that actually it was half Navarran. Or in Australia where the going understanding was that the first Basques arrived around the 1900s, I found about 50 that entered as a part of the Gold Rush in Ballarat, Victoria in the 1850s. No one had ever conducted passenger list research in Australia. I did. Every afternoon I enjoyed a tremendous headache (and dizziness) from trying to read the handwriting and deciphering the information on miles of microfilm. I also found numerous Basques that were listed as Italians.

I find diaspora research interesting because millions of people live a diaspora existence. They are transnationals; just as Basque as American. My Americanness doesn’t make me any less Basque, and my Basqueness doesn’t make me any less American. I am very proud to be both. I think it’s is interetsing to add identities, not make them exclusive. We add languages, we add knowledge, we add experiences, and of course our identities change.

BBP: What role does the Basque diaspora have in the future of Basque culture? Is the potential of the diaspora being realized?

Gloria Totoricagüena: The are several Basque diasporas and several Basque identities. We are a plural culture and indeed quite heterogeneous. That does not make those identities any less authentic or less legitimate. Do we measure how American a person is? We don’t usually say, “Wow, she is really American.” Or, “She is more American than I am.” However, we do tend to say that about our Basque relatives and friends. “She’s a real Basco.” This idea of hierarchies of Basqueness is detrimental because it implies that there is one “correct” way to be Basque. That one way, in the USA, is often based on 1950s ideas of Basque nationalism and abertzalismo.

The Basques living outside of Euskal Herria have much to offer in the way of opening up the Basque Country itself to other cultures. We can also serve to promote the homeland as informal ambassadors, travel agencies, press agents, educators and so on. We can counteract the negative image of Basques that the Spanish media portray and control by giving facts and data, not myth, but factual details about Basque economics, culture, history, religious beliefs, cuisine, art, cinema, and politics. The potential of the Basque diaspora is vastly underutilized and often ignored by homeland institutions. Many still think of us as “decaffeinated Basques” or “vascos lite”. We are a decentralized diaspora (which has its advantages) and for the most part a non-partisan diaspora. Our expertise and willingness to promote all of the positive of our seven territories is hardly called upon in any serious manner. This is a situation that I hope to change.

BBP: You mentioned above that, in the USA, expressions of Basque identity are based on a 1950’s idea of Basque nationalism. It seems to me that it might even be more limited in the sense that many Basque-Americans view Basque culture as consisting of dance, maybe jai-alai, and the irrintzi. They don’t seem to have any real connection to or knowledge of the modern Basque reality. Is this a concern?

Gloria Totoricagüena:I think a Basque American’s understanding of Basque culture depends on several variables, including their generation in the USA, their age, and whether or not they have ever traveled to the Basque Country after the late 1980s. So much has changed so fast there. I used to organize tours to the Basque Country for NABO, in 1992, 1993, and 1994 and the people I took there were usually shocked at the post-modernity. They couldn’t believe the new cars, mobile phones (before they had ever seen them in the US), punk teenagers, microwave ovens, modern dress, blue hair and nose rings/ eyebrow rings, etc.

Cultures are organic, they develop, expand and contract. If they don’t they are dead and we read about them in encyclopedias or go to museums to learn about them. Basque homeland culture has broken from the cages of the Franco regime, and joined Europe and the rest of the world in representing human existence in art, literature, music, cuisine, sport and so on. However because the majority of Basque immigrants to the US left a traditional culture of pre-1950, it is the only thing they know. It does not mean that it is less valuable for being traditional or being pre-1950. The problem results from people thinking that the Basque culutre today, is still like that. One part of it is, but a much larger is not.

We don’t have to be one or the other (traditional or post-modern), we can be both simultaneously and enjoy the best of what impacts us. I happen to enjoy Basque religious music and Kepa Junkera, both expand my horizons of music as an art form.

Basque American culture is also dynamic and changes with geography (the importance of pilota to Basques in California vs politics to Basques in New York), generation, level of formal education, languages spoken and so on.

BBP: Do Basque-Americans have a responsibility to understand how things are there now?

Gloria Totoricagüena: I would like for Basque Americans to be interested in Euskal Herria’s daily reality, however, many of us are not even aware of our own community’s events, issues, problems. I do not favor the descriptors of “more Basque” or “less Basque” for people who know more or less about the Basque Country, and it bothers me when I hear it.

BBPAbove, you expressed a desire to change the role that the diaspora has in being an ambassador of the Basque Country. Are there specific things you would recommend to Basque-Americans that they can do to better serve as ambassadors?

Gloria Totoricagüena: Rather than expecting all Basque Americans to be interested and knowledgeable about politics and economics in the Basque territories, I think it would be more effective to create epistemic communities (knowledge based groups of specialists) that would specifically lobby in favor of particular Basque issues, especially dealing with civil and human rights abuses from Spanish institutions, for example the closing of Basque language newspapers and radio stations, or the prohibition of certain Basque political parties.

For the general Basque American, I would hope that they would take the extra minute to explain their surnames; to give a 60 second history lesson every chance they have; to ask local higher education campuses to offer courses on Basque history or culture; to ask their radio and television stations for more news from France and Spain; to correct biased newspaper articles and to write letters to the Editor when they read sloppy journalism that incorrectly portrays Basques and Basque Americans as something we are not.

BBPIn terms of Basque identity, you said that there isn’t one correct identity, that we must be open to multiple views of what being Basque is. The Basque word for a Basque person is “Euskaldun,” meaning one who speaks Basque. Do we, as Basque-Americans, have some obligation to trying to learn the language? Will we be fully Basque if we don’t? Are we not helping the culture survive and grow as much as we could if we did learn the language?

Gloria Totoricagüena: Language is one of many identifying factors for ethnic groups along with religion, homeland, shared memories and shared myths of history, shared ancestry, culture and traditions, sport, cuisine, music and art, and so on. I am not “less Basque” because I am not an artist and do not produce Basque art. You are no less Basque because you are not a specialist in Basque migration and political studies. We have to get away from hierarchies of Basqueness, and in my own opinion speaking Basque does not make anyone “more Basque” or more valuable to the Basque community anymore than someone who spins yarn the way our great-grandmothers did.

No one has any obligation to do one certain thing in order to belong to the “us” of Basqueness. Each has one’s own interests and manifests it accordingly. I don’t care for the “full Basque”, “half Basque”, “more Basque”, “less Basque” descriptions. They are exclusive, and in today’s world there is plenty of room for adding identities and for transnational instead of essential defintions of personhood. Again, I would like for all Basques to want to learn and to use Euskera, but they don’t anymore than all Basques want to learn and to play txistu. Actually these attitudes have driven some people away from the existing Basque Centers because they felt like they didn’t measure up to the expectations. They felt like they had to meet qualifications or standards.

An ethnic culture does not develop because of the specific language being used to communicate ideas. If Irish culture had to be expressed only in Gaelic in order to “be Irish”, there would not be very many Irish people on the planet, nor would there be many expressions of Irish culture. Basque culture in the USA would likely be significantly decreased if only Euskera could be used to “be Basque”. I much prefer the dynamics of allowing people to define themselves as THEY choose to, and having them choose their own individual characteristics and not be defined by an other. Who is to tell another what one has to do, feel, or be in order to be Basque?

BBPEskerrik asko, Gloria!

See also this interview of Gloria by Pedro Oiarzabal.

An Interview with Xabier Ormaetxea

Conducted in Summer 2006

Long time visitors of Buber’s Basque Page will recognize Xabier Ormaetxea. He was the driving force behind the Surname Research Project that was such a big part of Buber’s Basque Page in the early days. Those surname pages are still among the most popular areas of Buber’s Basque Page. However, beyond his great interest in genealogy, Xabier was also a member of the Basque Parliament for nearly 20 years. 

Here, Xabier describes the work of the Basque Government, why he is so interested in genealogy, and his current work helping orphans in the Ukraine.

Buber’s Basque Page: You spent 17 years in the Basque parliament as a representative of PNV. For those not familiar with the government in Euskadi, could you briefly describe what the main powers and responsibilities of the Basque government are?

About Xabier:

Xabier Ormaetxea was born in 1961. His is married with three children. His primary area of study has been law. He has been a member of the Basque National Party since 1976 when he was 15 years old. From 1988 to 2005, he was a member of the Basque Parliament over 5 legislative sessions. During that time, he was President of the Industry Commision three times and President of the Foreign Affairs Commission once. He was also the coordinator and vice-speaker of the Nationalist Parliamentary Group.

Outside of his political experience, Xabier has been the manager of a small public company and a lawyer. Amongst other things, Xabier is currently the founder and president of the Ekialde Foundation.

Xabier Ormaetxea: A complete answer to this question could take a big book. But I will try to do it briefly.

The most important thing in our autonomy system is the Economic agreement between Spain and the Basque Country. Almost all taxes are regulated and collected by the Basque Country. When the Spanish Parliament approves the yearly budget, the Basque Country pays to the Spanish Government 6.24% of the matters that are not under the rule of Basque institutions. BC pays 6.24% of Spanish budget concerning the Army, Foreign affairs, the Judicial system, Crown/Royal expenses etc. But we don’t pay for those matters that are ruled and administrated by the Basque Government, such as police, public health, education, culture, industry, agriculture, environment, transportation, etc. The Basque Government and Parliament has a great deal of autonomy in almost all matters that affect the daily life of citizens with full legislation and administration power. In some matters the Spanish Parliament can rule on the basic aspects, and legislative development is a power of the Basque Parliament.

I began talking about the so-called economic agreement, because the base of government everywhere is the capability of self-finance, and even when, from a legal point of view you do not officially have certain powers, if you have money you can act. An example is scientific and technological research; legally this is a power of the Spanish Government, and we Basques pay 6.24% of the Spanish budget in research, but Spain dedicates almost all of the investigation in other areas, so Basque institutions use their own funds to develop and maintain in the Basque Country a very good infrastructure of technological and scientific research. Even if we think we must have greater autonomy, we recognize that our autonomy today is very important and is probably bigger than that of the states in the USA or the German lender.

BBPThe Basque government has, historically, pushed for more powers. Recently, there was news that they were, again, pushing for more powers. What are the main powers that the Basque government is trying to obtain?

Xabier Ormaetxea: More powers are important for us, because we know that we can manage public matters better than Spain can. But before talking about those new powers we ask for other things that maybe are not powers but are even more important: The recognition of Basque Country as a people or nation formed by 7 regions or provinces ( 3 in France and 4 in Spain), living today in 3 different political statuses (Basque Autonomous Community, Navarre Foral Community, and the French Basque Country), that must be enabled to establish between themselves the relations that they themselves will decide.

The recognition of the right to self decide, or the right of self determination. To establish what we call an “armoring” of our autonomy system, so that the Spanish government cannot diminish it, as it has happened during the last few years using fraudulently the so-called basic legislation. And finally to create a new impartial system to solve the conflicts between the Spanish and Basque governments, because today the organs that decide in the cases of conflict of powers are always the Spanish courts.

About new powers that are particularly important: to have our own judicial system would be important for us as well as the recognition of certain international representation, such as, for instance, the possibility of have our own national sport selections, or more importantly to have the right of direct relations with European institutions. It is not logical that the Basque Government has full powers in certain matters such as fishing, agriculture, industry etc, but that the defense and representation of our interests and polices in those matters inside the European Union correspond to the Spanish government. To summarize our mentality, we are in favor of the creation of the United States of Europe, and we Basques want to be the “Rhode Island of Europe” and not a county of a bigger state.

BBPDuring your 17 years in Parliament, what were the biggest changes you observed in the Basque government?

Xabier Ormaetxea: There has not been very big changes. During those 17 years there have been two stages. The first was that of the coalition government between the socialist party and the Basque national party. During that stage, the advances in self government were not big, but we greatly improved the quality of our administration, and our health and education systems were put at level equal to the rest of Europe. In the second stage, the government was held by EA and IU, and the government has been trying to obtain a higher level of self-government. In any case, the constant of these 17 years has been to search for paths to obtain peace and put end to the terrorism of ETA, to increase our level of self-government and to obtain a recognition of our national status, to improve our economy and create better welfare for our citizens, and to maintain a high standard in good public administration.

BBPWhat projects were you yourself involved in? What were, for you, the most rewarding aspects of being in the Parliament?

Xabier Ormaetxea: I was president of the Industry Commission during 3 legislatures, and president of the foreign affairs commission in the last one. As president of the Industry Commission I was in close contact with all of the activity held in our country to reform and stimulate our Industry after the great crisis, and also with the process to improve our energy processing system. From the parliament we supported, as much as we could, the plans of the Government in both areas and now we can say that Basque Country was successful in that. Now, we have renewed Industrial activity, the health of our companies is better, we are leaders in Spain in applied technological research, our ratio of unemployment is lower that the average ratio of the European Union, and our gross income per inhabitant passed over the last 15 years from being only 85% of the European average to 115%.

As president of the foreign affairs commission, on the other hand, I cannot feel satisfied. I think our Country has not given enough importance and resources to that aspect; we have a lack of good planning and view of the future in that area. It is still one of our pending matters and we are loosing many opportunities.

Apart from my activity in those commissions, I also worked in the education commission, universities, and in many political debates. The most rewarding aspects of being in the Parliament are the possibility of being in touch with many different aspects of political activity, one day you study and work in the University, the next day you talk about the peace process, and the following about energy. You are learning and learning everyday, and you get a wide view of your country, its problems, and the efforts to improve in many different areas.

BBPI also recall that you were involved in helping the Kurdish parliament-in-exile meet in Euskadi. Are there typically strong ties between all of these governments without a nation?

Xabier Ormaetxea: Not ties, but yes a mutual sympathy, and of course a very good position to understand the historic revendications of peoples without a state. You use the word nation in a very different way from how we use it. For us, nation is the same as people. A nation is a group of people who share a common origin, culture, language, and of course a common will. State is an artificial structure created by different historical situations. We feel strong sympathy for any people that fight by democratic and pacific means to obtain its right of self-determination and are always ready to help them.

The Kurdish, Scottish, Flemish, Catalan, Tibetan, etc, and even Native American peoples, and many others around the world have the right to be themselves and decide their own future.

BBP: I was wondering how the developments in Catalonia affect things in Euskadi. Recently in the news, there was discussion of the Statute of Autonomy that Catalonia passed. What is the “relationship” between Euskadi and Catalonia? It seems that they sort of play off of one another, with one area achieving some small step towards more autonomy and the other using that to demand more. Is this a purely informal relationship, or is this coordinated to some degree?

Xabier Ormaetxea: There has always existed a mutual sympathy between Catalonia and the Basque Country, and we can’t deny that we are always watching what the other is doing. There has always been attempts to establish a coordinated effort between the main national parties, and of course there are periodic contacts, common manifestos, etc., but unfortunately we cannot talk about a real coordinated action. Each one has its own interests and strategies and plays its cards the best it can depending on the political situation in either the Basque Country or Catalonia: the necessity of pacts with the Spanish ruling party and the requirements of existing pacts with the Spanish ruling party.

But above all these differences there exists an unwritten pact between us: no matter if we agree with or not, we will support your decisions that concern your own country. Our demands of stronger autonomy have been promoted in very different manners: Basques began the process in a more radical way, and with stronger demands, with the total opposition of the Spanish parties, while Catalans have done it less radically and with some help from the Spanish Socialist Party (while the Catalan socialist party is more Catalan, the Basque socialist party is much less Basque). Finally they accepted a very diminished version of what they approved in their parliament; their pragmatic way of acting made them accept it. Our process is different and now very linked to the peace process; our revendications are more radical. Let’s see what the final result will be, because we still think that our old statute of autonomy is better than their new one (mainly because we solved long ago our tax-finance autonomy).

BBPYou have been very involved since your retirement from the Basque parliament in helping orphanages in the Ukraine. What got you involved in this effort? How are you helping these kids?

Xabier Ormaetxea: I have always been interested in foreign relations, especially in foreign cooperation of development. When I was president of the Foreign affairs commission of the Basque parliament, I saw that Ukraine was a very interesting country for many reasons. It is a big country trying to recover its national identity after many years of Russification. It is a very interesting country for economic reasons with an important technical and industrial tradition, and the Ukraine must make a very important decision about its future in the European Union, or in the region of Russian influence.

When I visited the Ukraine for first time I formed a very special friendship with an outstanding man, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kiev Stanislaw Shirokoradiuk who is also president of Caritas-Spes Ukraine. I got involved in their charity projects and decided to create a Foundation (Ekialde, which means east in Basque) to help Ukrainian children. Many Europeans are used to seeing the poverty and misery in Africa and South America but don’t know that we can also find it in the heart of Europe. What I can do in this aspect is little, but, believe me, this activity with children gives me much more satisfactions that any other thing I have ever done in my life, including politics.

BBPYou are currently working on your dissertation on Basque history. Which aspect of Basque history did you focus on? What have you learned during your research?

Xabier Ormaetxea: I focus on the part of the Basque XIX century during which we lost our fueros or semi-independence, and the defense of our ancient rights, mainly the period between the first and the third Carlist Wars ( 1833-1876). During this period the idea of historical rights began to appear in debates, books and articles. Most politicians of the time believed that it was possible to go back to the old situation with a new pact with Spain but that course of action was impossible and that is why Basque nationalism was born.

What I have learned is that the birth of Basque nationalism is the end of an historical process, and that the main ideological influences in the formulation of the bases of modern Basque Nationalism were not from Carlism as historians use to say, but from the so called Liberal Basquism or fuerism that elaborated political theories about the Historical rights.

BBPYou mention Liberal Basquism. Is this the same as a defense of the fueros, or is it something more? Can you elaborate on what you mean by Liberal Basquism?

Xabier Ormaetxea: Yes, it is usually believed that, during the Carlist Wars, the Carlists defended the Fueros, and the Liberals were against them, but this is not the case. On the liberal side, there were a very important group that today is known as the liberal-fueristas. They made an important defense of the Fueros, and elaborated a political theory about them that can be considered the antecedent of Basque nationalism. If one read their works, the final conclusion would be the right of independence and self-determination. They didn’t make that conclusion because they all thought that it was possible to come back to the Fueros. Sabino Arana was the man that realized that it was almost impossible to go back to the formula typical of the ancient regime and that self-determination or independence was the only possible way.

As Sabino was a Carlist, and since for him religion was very important, it has been believed that his political theory came from Carlism. I have clearly seen that he took obvious elements from the Carlists but he also used many theoretical elaborations of Basquist liberals, plus, more importantly, he added the new “principle of nationalities” that would play a main role in the Europe and the World of the XX century.

BBPWhen you and I first met, we began interacting because of genealogy. You have continued being very active, now especially in the Yahoo basque-genealogy group. Why is genealogy of such great interest to you? You often go out of your way to help Basques in the diaspora with their genealogy questions. Why do you think it is so important for the diaspora to learn about their ancestry?

Xabier Ormaetxea: We all have a need to have our own identity. There is a sentence of A. Lincoln that says (I will translate from Spanish) “I don’t care about who was my grandfather, I care about what will happen with his grandson.” Well I don’t agree with him; it is not a matter of choosing between the past and the future. We all need both, even if the future is more important.

We are like noble trees: the greater part of each of us is above the surface but we also have roots, and it is good to know our roots. I find it fascinating to research one’s genealogy and find so many ancestors. Each generation you go back, you double your ancestry; if you trace back 10 generations, you have 512 ancestors, and each generation you double that number.

For the diaspora, genealogy is interesting for that reason. It helps them to get their identity. In my case I enjoy helping them because it is a way to help them to know about their ancestors, and in many case to discover that they have Basque roots. For many people that never heard before about our people, genealogy has been a way to know about our existence.

BBPFinally, how do you, with your years of experience in the government, view the future of the Basque Country? Where will the political process end?

Xabier Ormaetxea: I cannot know. I am a dreamer and will never abandon my dream of an Independent Basque Country in a United Europe; that will be my goal for the rest of my life. But in any case, it is enough for me to know that our people will continue existing, and that we can create a better country for our citizens in all aspects. A political process never has an end; there will always be new frontiers to cross.

An Interview with Pedro Oiarzabal

Conducted in Winter 2006-2007

Buber’s Basque Page: You just finished your PhD at the University of Nevada, Reno. What was your thesis about?

Pedro Oiarzabal: My dissertation was titled The Basque diaspora webscape: online discourses of Basque diaspora identity, nationhood, and homeland. It is an interdisciplinary empirical research at the crossroads of migration and diaspora studies, and Internet and Web studies. In the words of Bill Douglass, who intervened in my dissertation defense as an observer, not as part of my committee, “you are the pioneer of this new subfield of Basque Studies. I congratulate you for the dissertation and welcome this dissertation. This will be the baseline for new studies.” My study focuses on the official web sites created by Basque diaspora institutions throughout the planet. In this regard, I studied 98 associations’ sites throughout 16 countries as of November 2005. Over 140 people participated in the study. I interviewed community representatives, diaspora institutional leaders and webmasters from over 20 countries. I carried out fieldwork in Basque communities in the American West and in Argentina. Finally, I analyzed the content of all those web sites. This entailed not only hundreds of texts, but also hundreds of graphics and thousands of hyperlinks of the Basque institutional diaspora online. Ten years ago the first Basque institutional diaspora site was created — in Venezuela. Now, this study is the first of its kind on analyzing the Basque diaspora presence on the Web. Why does the Basque diaspora use the Internet? Who are the webmasters? What are the online discourses that the Basque diaspora create?

Pedro J. Oiarzabal received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Deusto, Bilbao (Basque Country, Spain), and he then pursued his studies in the Department of Modern History at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. Later on, Queen’s University of Belfast in Northern Ireland awarded him the Master of Philosophy degree in economics, and he received his PhD in Basque Studies (political science) from the Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.

Pedro’s book, La Identidad Vasca en el Mundo, can be purchased here. Pedro also runs the website euskaldiaspora.com.

Also see this interview of Pedro by Idoya Salaburu Urruty of EuskoSare.

BBPHow did you find yourself in Reno?

Pedro Oiarzabal: I left my home town of Bilbao, in the Basque province of Bizkaia in September 1993, to study Irish migration in Ireland for a year. I stayed in the emerald island for eight years. For three years I lived in Maynooth, close to Dublin, and for five years in Belfast, where I witnessed the whole Northern Ireland peace process. Then, I decided that I wanted to pursue my doctoral career on Basque studies and I chose the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. My initial decision was to stay for two years, and this is my fifth year.

BBPWhere are you from originally?

Pedro Oiarzabal: I was born in Bilbao in 1971 and I woke up every morning for a great part of my life looking at the green slopes of the Pagasarri, under iron rainy skies. Now, I wake up every morning looking at endless skies of infinite blue, surrounded by the most beautiful desert in the world.

BBPIn your studies of the Basque diaspora online, what was the most surprising thing you learned?

Pedro Oiarzabal: One of the most surprising things was that the Basque institutional diaspora has a larger presence on the Web in comparison to other similar diasporas such as the Catalan and the Galician. As of November 2005, ninety-eight of the existing 155 Basque diaspora associations (i.e., 63.3%; federation of clubs, community-based clubs, cultural, educational, political, and business associations) from sixteen countries (i.e., 70% of total twenty-three countries) had a presence on the Web. As of January 2005, according to the Catalan Autonomous Community Government’s Foreign Office (Generalitat de Catalunya, Secretaria de Cooperació Exterior, http://www.gencat.net/governacio-ap/casals/index.htm) the Catalan generic diaspora associations or Casal Catalans, established in thirty-seven countries, totaled 105. However, only forty-nine sites (i.e. 46.6%) in twenty-three countries (i.e., 62% of total countries) had a presence on the Web. Similarly, as of April 2004, according to the Galician Autonomous Community Government’s General Secretary of Emigration (Xunta de Galicia, Secretaría Xeral de Emigración, http://galiciaaberta.xunta.es/conselleria/) there were 463 Galician diaspora associations or Centros Galegos in thirty-six countries, but, only 56 (i.e., 12.1%) from twelve countries (i.e., 33.3% of total countries) had a presence on the Web.

BBPWhat did you conclude about the role of websites in the Basque diaspora?

Pedro Oiarzabal: On one hand, the majority of the Basque diaspora webmasters believe that the Internet, for example, offers Basques of the diaspora a variety of ways to be informed in real time, connected, and communicated as ways to articulate a translocal community of Basques abroad. Consequently, they believe that the Internet has the potential to maintain Basque identity in terms of information, interaction, and communication. On the other hand, more skeptical webmasters believe that offline communities cannot be overridden by online aggregations of individuals, electronically networked by their connection to the Internet. They argue that face-to-face communities are the base for identity maintenance. My opinion lies somewhere between the two positions.

BBPWhat do you think are the biggest weaknesses in how the Basque diaspora is utilizing the internet? What could we be doing better?

Pedro Oiarzabal: Theoretically, the majority of the webmasters understand and are aware of the Internet’s potential for offering update information and facilitating interaction and communication. However, in practical terms, they fail — or perhaps they are not interested — to take advantage of those potentialities. For example, web sites are not updated regularly, preventing current information to be accessed by their associations’ members and general users. In addition, the web sites’ interactive tools are minimal, while their communication with co-webmasters is almost inexistent. And finally, the ability of reaching a global audience is almost exclusively ignored as the webmasters focus on the immediate physical locality and the local members as their target audience. There is a wide gap between theory, based on webmasters recognition of the potential benefits of the Internet, and practice, based on the actions taken by webmasters to reach such benefits. In this sense, the webmasters have a long way to go in order to bridge such a gap.

BBPYou recently published, with your brother, a book on Basque identity. What were the biggest similarities in how different regions expressed their Basque identity? The biggest differences?

Pedro OiarzabalLa Identidad Vasca en el Mundo [The Basque Identity in the World] transcends national borders in order to include all those Basques who defined themselves as such regardless of their geographical location. In this sense, the book analyzes diverse definitions of Basqueness from sixteen countries, including the Basque homeland. It breaks in an unprecedented way the classical dichotomy of homeland Basques and diaspora Basques in order to expose the meaning of being Basque in a global and transnational perspective in this new century. Consequently, the book explores the symbolic institutionalization of contemporary Basque collective identities and their construction and maintenance. It focuses in a series of themes such as the significance of the family and elderly or the assumed authenticity and singularity of the Basque culture.

BBPThe question of “who is a Basque” often comes up, and there are different views. Some say that blood matters, other language. In your research, do you see the idea of Basque identity changing, evolving, and if so, in what ways?

Pedro Oiarzabal: Taking into account that we, as individuals, experience identity in different ways, because of our different ages, generations, diverse socio-economic and historical backgrounds, political traditions, and geographical locations, we attempt to identify with certain collective identities such as the Basques. In this regard, different Basque people relate to certain specific aspects of our Basque collective identity such as ancestry or language over others. Although more studies are needed on Basque identity in the homeland and particularly in the diaspora, Basque homeland identity is moving towards a more subjective interpretation of identity. That is to say, according to the latest surveys the majority of the Basques in the Basque Country believe that the main condition to consider a person Basque is “to feel Basque.” However, Basque diaspora identity tends to be defined by more objective criteria, based on language or ancestry, as a strategy to protect the “boundaries” of Basque culture abroad.

BBP: You mentioned that many Basque websites, while in theory understanding the power of the Internet to educate people, focus on the local community. How would you suggest that webmasters build a more global perspective? What can webmasters do to improve our utilization of the Internet as a resource?

Pedro Oiarzabal: The Basque diaspora webmasters target audience is local, which is quite logical. However, despite using a global information and communication technology such as the Internet, the webmasters do not utilize the possibilities that the medium offers. Basque diaspora communities share similar concerns and problems, which go beyond their associations and communities. I think that webmasters should not only focus on their immediate constituency but they should open channels of communication with the Basque diaspora at large as a way to tackle their common difficulties. They need to begin thinking in post-geographical terms and attempt to reach other Basque communities within and outside the physical and political borders of their countries. The use of the Internet can help them to achieve their goals.

BBPAs you mention, there are conflicting views on the role of the Internet in maintaining Basque identity, and that your view takes the middle ground. In your personal view, how does the Internet help in maintaining identity? Are there specific things that can be done to build community specifically through the Internet?

Pedro Oiarzabal: Technology is there for the Basque diaspora to use, but we cannot forget that nothing can substitute our daily experiences. Both online and offline realities are part of the same equation, and we need to articulate ways for them to become increasingly interlinked, so we can all benefit from each other. The Internet offers the ability for us to be informed, to learn, and to connect with others with common interests, regardless of their location, time, and the languages spoken. We need to capitalize on it. In this sense, we can maintain our identity, for instance, by learning about our culture, language, and traditions, and sharing our experiences with others, Basques and non-Basques, in an unparalleled way. For example, our dancers can easily log into any Basque dancing web site and download photos, videos, melodies, music scores, and lyrics, and learn the steps of any traditional dance. A “real” instructor is being complemented by an online multimedia database, which is open 24/7. In addition, we can educate ourselves by consulting the online homeland media, and be informed about current affairs.

BBPIn today’s world, maintaining identity, especially minorities, is becoming increasingly harder as mass media homogenize the globe. As a result, many minority languages are dieing off. In your view, does the very concept of identity have to evolve in order to survive? How can minority cultures not only survive but flourish in today’s world?

Pedro Oiarzabal: Nowadays most mass media from local, regional, national, international to supranational domains have access to global instruments of communication such as the Internet. In this regard, the media are utilizing global technologies in order to set up diverse political, economical, and cultural agendas. Some commentators would argue that globalization and its global media homogenize the globe — some short of “MacDonaldization” of the planet. However, it is my opinion that alternative movements to this globalization and this homogenization are also utilizing, for instance, the Internet in order to raise their own perspectives. They are also maintaining, recreating, and promoting local cultures such as the Basque. English is the lingua franca of today’s commercial, academic, diplomatic, business, and technology worlds. I don’t think that minority languages such as the Basque die only because of mass media, globalization, or the existence of a world-wide lingua franca. The issue is much more complex. Since the return of democracy to the Basque Country and the reestablishment of an autonomous government and educational programs, and positive discriminatory policies towards the Basque language, the numbers of people who have learn Basque are immense. However, those who have learned the language are failing to speak it in a social context outside their classrooms. Is this due to contemporary globalization forces that attempt to create a global culture? Aren’t the Basque culture and its language also a global culture?

BBPNow that you’ve finished your PhD, what is next for you? Will you continue to focus on Basque identity, or will your research take you in other directions?

Pedro Oiarzabal: Right now, I am involved in different projects regarding the Basque diaspora and my own research. For example, I am working for the University of Nevada Oral History Program (http://oralhistory.unr.edu/) on a book about the Center for Basque Studies history, which is currently the leading international research center on Basques outside the Basque Country. This is its 40th anniversary, and the book will be available to the public within the year. At the same time, I am researching the history of the Basque community in the San Francisco Bay Area as part of the Basque Government’s the Basque diaspora series, called Urazandi (http://www.sfbasque.org/urazandi/index.htm). I have a wonderful team of people from the SF Basque community helping me with the project. This community-based approach to the project is an added-value of great significance for its success.

An Interview with Guillermo Zubiaga

Conducted in Fall 2007

Guillermo Zubiaga is a graphic artist living in New York, though he was born and grew up in the Basque Country. We met through my website, when Guillermo contacted me about a link to his site. In this interview, Guillermo describes growing up in post-Franco Euskal Herria, his experiences in the US comic book industry, and his current project about a comic book on the history of Basque whaling.

Buber’s Basque Page: Please tell us a little bit of your background. Where are you from? Where do you live now?

Guillermo Zubiaga: I was born in the year 1972 in Barakaldo, Greater Bilbao, Bizkaia, the Basque Country, Spain. When I was 5 years of age my family and I moved from the industrial city to the idilic Basque countryside, to the town of Laukiniz in the Mungialdea-Plentzia region of Bizkaia.

About Guillermo:

I was born in the year 1972 in the greater Bilbao city area on the Basque province of Biskay, Spain.

When I was 5 years of age I moved with my family from the industrial city to the idyllic Basque countryside. At the age of 18, I traveled to the U.S.A.

Today I live in New York where I work as an illustrator and Graphic Designer. Prior to this I attended my senior year of High School at DeSoto High School in DeSoto , Texas. After High School I went to Syracuse University where I graduated in 1996 with a Bachelor degree in Fine Arts. The year before graduation I began working for a local animation studio, Animotion, inc. The following year after graduation I moved to New York City where I started my work “ghosting” in the comic books industry. After a relative period I successfully managed to find credited work drawing as an assistant penciler for Marvel comic’s X-Force. In 2003, I began working as an inker on such comic books as Dark Horse’s B.P.R.D. and Image’s The Romp.

I have recently finished my own graphic novel based on traditional Basque whaling.

Since 2004 I have been working in the apparel industry as a designer for companies such as Freeze and Changes. In addition to that I combine traditional fine art in drawing, painting as well as new technologies such as Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Flash, or HTML, with being a College level History and Art History teacher and lecturer.

Visit Guillermo’s website at www.guillermozubiaga.com.

Today I live in Long Island, New York. 

BBP: What was growing up Basque like for you? How did being Basque affect your childhood? Do you speak Euskara?

Guillermo Zubiaga: It was only 3 years before Franco’s death and the end of his dictatorship that I was born and, even though at such an early age I was not aware of it, I clearly remember going to an “underground” Ikastola my first school year when I was in kindergarten. I remember this quite vividly because the Ikastola was but a few classrooms literally underground in the basement of a local cafe. In the morning our parents would drop us off covertly and, once inside the “cafe,” we would have to pass underneath the bar’s counter to the other side of it and, through a hidden trap-door on the ground, we would descend to the underground basement classrooms. (It was something almost out of the movie “Carlito’s Way” when he makes his escape through the hidden passage…) It was but a few years later that I truly began to realize the sacrifice and the big risks my parents took for us.

Later on after Francos’s death, with the legalization of Ikastolas and after we moved to the countryside, I really began to identify much more closely with the Baserria lifestyle as the bedrock of Basque identity and the repository of our unique culture in the face of advancing urbanization and industrialization. 

Today, even though I live in the United States, I make a point to pass on our heritage by teaching Euskera to my son. 

BBP: Your experiences going to school to learn Euskara are amazing. I knew it was a hard time for the Basque language, but I didn’t realize those kinds of things were going on. You and your family risked a lot so you could learn Euskara.

Given your experiences, what does the Basque language mean to you? How do you view the role or place of Euskara in Basque culture? Can the Basque people survive as a unique culture without the language?

Guillermo Zubiaga: In spite of it all, I think that there is no doubt that I truly consider this particular aspect of our culture to be at the very core of our identity. Naturally beyond any political ideology (and excusing all those Basques who for whatever circumstances were unable to learned it) for me Euskera is at the epicenter of our character. Therefore, the role of Euskera in Basque culture is an integral part of our singularity. This is along with (and in close second place) our capacity to be guided by our own sense of destiny, the reflection of which can be seen in the creation of a unique sociopolitical structure, the Fueros. The Fueros are an elemental and masterfully crafted sense of compromise between absolute political independence and loyalty to whom ever would respect our own laws in exchange for self-rule, sovereignty or autonomy. 

Indeed for the Basques, as with so many other “foreign” concepts such as feudalism, its lineage and/or its entire structure of nobiliary hierarchy had to be adapted as time went by as Basques came in contact with such things. In relation to many of these concepts, such as the “universal chivalry or gentlemanliness” of all Basques, we can notice how this became expressed in the very “Fuero” as it was adapted to a concept from the outside.

All of this is equivalent to the sense of belonging to a Country (Territorialidad) versus kinship (Gentilidad) since the first concept did not appear (or it did not began to be applied or to acquire a practical use) until the coming of the Romans to Euskal Herria. According to the records of the classic authors (Stabro, Silo Italico, Ptolomeo, etc, etc) who placed much more importance on the concept of kindred or “tribal” affinity than on the sense of territory. It is here, and specifically from “within,” that we find a deeply rooted distinction, from the point of view of kinship and in particular linguistic connection, between the own language (euskera) and the other (erdera). This is the grounds or basis for a marked transcendence in order to understand the relations between the “Basque” (from the purely linguistic sense) with other peoples (and naturally other cultures…) 

In other words, first the names such as vasconesvarduloscaristiosaquitanos etc, etc appeared and later we begin to see the development of geographic or political demarcations such as VarduliaVasconiaAquitania etc, etc. And much later, and first by means of the Vascones and later through the influence of the kingdoms of Pamplona and Navarra, we begin to see names such as Bizkaia or Gipuzkoa etc, etc, respectively.

And of course, in my opinion, without the strong and specific identity of the land at the very fore front of which I must place Euskera, neither the Basque Country collectively nor the individual historical territories such as Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Labourd, Navarra etc, correspondingly would exist. 

With out the Basque language, the Basque Country and its historical territories would be anything else but………

BBP: Considering the important role that Euskera has in Basque identity, then, how do you see the future? Especially with globalization, immigration, and all of the pressures that small nations such as Euskal Herria experience, how can the Basque language survive and thrive in the modern world? Are you optimistic about the long-time viability of the language?

Guillermo Zubiaga: I think that, given what Euskera has gone through its history, we can acknowledge without fear of being wrong that our beloved Basque language is currently going thought perhaps one of its most prosperous periods, enjoying as it does official status within the Autonomous Community of Euskadi as well as, but in a lesser degree, in that of Navarra. I believe there is some work to do in Iparralde…..

The Basque language has proven itself to be more than ready to face the challenges of the future, and fortunately, with an approximate figure of 600,000 speakers, it no longer belongs to the “endangered species list”. In 1643, the Basque Scholar Pedro Agerre “Axular” in his book Gero said: 

Baldin egin baliz euskaraz hanbat liburu, nola egin baita latinez, franzeses, edo bertze erdaraz eta hitzkuntzaz, hek bezain aberats eta konplitu izanen zen euskara ere, eta baldin hala ezpada, euskaldunek berèk dute falta eta ez euskarak.”
(As many books could be written in Euskera as in Latin, French or as many other languages, since Euskera is as rich and satisfactory of a language as these others, and if that has not been so the blame should not go to the language itself but to those who speak it.)

The Famous American cinematographer and friend of the Basques, Orson Wells, in his film The Land of the Basques, stated that Basques are not worried about the future since we figured we have survived this far so we will continue to survive. It “is a kind of sense of dignity and being close to each other, proud of the past, easy on the present, and not afraid of the future”.

Therefore I believe that the best way for our language to survive is for us to continue using it, just as the old Basque ode reminds us:

“Hizkuntz bat ez da galtzen dakitenak ikasten es dutelako baizik eta dakitenok erabiltzen ez dutelako”
(A language is not lost when those who don’t know it don’t learn it but when those who know it don’t use it.)

It is up to us to continue to pass it on to the new generations, and that way we discover the positive signs that strengthen our identity and our linguistic consciousness.

BBPFrom your point of view, does the Basque Country, however one might define it, need to be an independent entity for Euskera to thrive, or can it do so within a situation like the current arrangement in Spain and France?

Guillermo Zubiaga: As far as the need for the Basque Country to be an independent entity for Euskera to thrive, in my opinion I don’t think is an absolute necessity. Our language has survived in spite of the Basque Country not being an independent State. Besides, being part of the European Union, matters such as independence, borders, currency etc don’t seem to have the same outlook and significance as years ago. On the other hand, in essence, and except for international or foreign relations, the Basque Country already functions practically as an independent State within the Spanish State, controlling its own budget pertaining to finance and financial matters, especially of the local autonomic government and taxes. Not to mention an unparalleled self-rule unseen in any of the countries belonging to the EU, well above the German Landers, or even the Swiss Cantons (not in the EU).

I think deep down the pro-Independent option in the Basque Country has a lot to do with pride and the urge to be recognized internationally or the lack of presence in international events, etc. I myself already know what I am, I don’t need of a flag at the United Nations to determine whether or not I belong to a sovereign people.

Furthermore look what happened in Ireland with their Gaelic language, for example. Soon after their independence they seemed to be so content with their new “status” that it appears as though they no longer have the same impetus to vindicate their language or claim responsibility for it and, as a consequence, the status of the Gaelic language I would say is in no better place as before their independence. Since they already are an independent State, it seems as if the weight to justify their language has lessened in precedence and passed to be relegated to a less significant role. I believe this, thanks to a great numbers of Irish friends who wether here in the States or back in Europe: none or very few show the same bond to their language as the majority of Basques do, certainly not in terms of its use given the significant differences between both populations.

But that is just me; maybe being far away from home for such a long time has made my mind open up to the world. As a youngster, I had no doubts towards my pro-independence, but today I am perhaps more cautious. Then again, even though I am not one of those who is pushing for a referendum, if that referendum was to come, I’d probably vote in favor.

BBP: Tell us about your work. You are a graphic artist, working in particular in the comic book industry. What projects stand out for you? What are you working on now?

Guillermo Zubiaga: When I was 18 I came to the United States and after completing High School in Texas I attended school at Syracuse University where I graduated in 1996 with a Bachelor degree in Fine Arts. The year before graduation I began working for a local animation studio, Animotion Inc. A year after I graduated, and shortly after I moved to New York City, I started my work “ghosting” in the comic book industry. 

After some time, I successfully managed to find credited work drawing as an assistant penciler for Marvel Comic’s X-Force. In 2003, I began working as an inker on such comic books such as Dark Horse’s B.P.R.D. and Image’s The Romp

Since 2004, I have been working in the apparel industry (t-shirts, sweaters, swing trucks, etc) as a designer for different companies through out the NYC area. I still get to draw a lot but I also spend a great deal of time on the computer finishing the artwork (I taught myself a great deal of computer applications which I found to be very helpful considering how fast the world spins…..)

In addition to being a designer and illustrator, in the last 6 years I have supplemented my creative activities with being a college-level History and Art History teacher and lecturer. I have stayed relatively connected to the comic book industry and I have recently finished my own graphic novel about Basque whaling, which happens to be a favorite subject of mine. Originally, and since I had made some connections in the industry, I thought it would be easy to have it published. However, most editors are interested in having a secure and established “core” market and since anything to do with Basque is so little known, let alone the people, imagine our whaling history……So go figure. Ultimately I’ll probably have to self-publish it in very small runs and distribute it myself through conventions or by offering it to a number of whaling museums through out Long Island and/or New England, Rhode Island, Connecticut, etc… Yet, I still hope the project gets picked up since this is really the one project that best reflects me and, I think, stands out for me.

In all truth this project has been a very personal work that I have chosen to do out my own restlessness and personal interest on the subject. I always felt that for us Basques, the whaling period, the fisheries in Biscay and Newfoundland, are very important national symbols, which come to represent a heroic age, or a “western” period unique to our own idiosyncrasy, equivalent to the cowboy to the Americans, the viking to the Scandinavians or the samurai to the Japanese. This subject also casts a very insightful light on the late medieval period, the Renaissance and early American exploration, which in my opinion is a much more beautiful and interesting content. Hey! After all, the oldest written document in North America is in Euskera (the testament of XVIth Century Basque whaler Johanes de Echaniz) so this topic is not only a part of Basque history but American as well! (Quite an irony, though. Since the last will never made it back, no body saw a dime of his will, yet again, if that would have been the case, today we would not have an invaluable piece of history and the undisputed evidence of early Basque presence in North America.)

BBP: I remember those issues of X-Force! They had some great art. I knew the name Adam Pollina, who I guess was the main artist on those issues, but never realized an Euskaldun was involved. That is really cool. And I definitely look forward to seeing your graphic novel published. I can see your point about the Basque whaling sort of being the Basques’ “American West”, especially in that it was an epic period of their history, but it also has a dark side, I guess especially viewed with today’s sensibilities.

It has been hard for you to get a work that focuses completely on the Basques to get published. I am wondering if comics can be used in other ways as well to promote Basque culture. For example, could you envision a super-hero that had a strong Basque identity? From your experience, is there a way that American comic books can be used to promote Basque culture?

And, does the Basque Country itself have any kind of graphic art-form culture? Is there a role for comic books or comic strips in the Basque Country? If not, could this be a vehicle to promote the Basque culture from within in a novel way?

Guillermo Zubiaga: Indeed X-Force had some great art, in fact it was my friend and mentor in the comic book world, Adam Pollina, who bolstered the sales of that particular title when it had been declining for a while. I became involved “ghosting” on the series X-Force(the name “ghosting” is given because the artist’s work goes uncredited and therefore while his or her work exists, his or her presence is “unseen”) on issue 75 but it wasn’t until 79 that I finally got recognition for my work by getting credited on the books. So from issues 75 to 78 I added lots of subtle (and not so subtle) details, throughout the backgrounds: a lauburu here, a Basque Rock band banner there, a E.H. sticker over there (only to find out much later that in NY E.H. stands for East Hamptons,…oh well!!). Since I knew I wasn’t going to get recognition, I tried to add my own personal details by leaving, should we say, an unmistakable Basque mark.

I find the comic book industry to be highly competitive and difficult, so it has been hard to get work, period. Let alone work that focuses on or promotes a Basque theme. I often ponder that comics can be (or should be) used in ways to promote culture, and this means Basque culture as well, or any other culture for that matter. Unfortunately, I have grown very skeptical of the “educational” use of any media these days overpowered by a devastating and purely entertaining and commercial objective.

As far as envisioning a super-hero with a Basque identity, as much as I would love that (especially if I was to get such a privilege), I see that extremely difficult in the mainstream. That is why alternative medias are so important and that is where my own character (Joanes, the Basque Whaler) comes in, even though he is not a super-hero, nor even a hero. He is more like the archetypical anti-hero, sort of the Han Solo character, or the “Man with no name” played by Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns”, which is, coincidentally, at the center of the influences surrounding my book.

From my own experience, if there is a way that American comic books can be used to promote Basque culture, that is at the core of what I am trying to do. I’d love to introduce some “Basqueness” into the American comic book world and the fact that it hasn’t happened yet is no deterrent for me to be discouraged. In all truth, I did my graphic novel out of my own personal experience and interest and, of course, because I always felt that for us Basques, the whaling period, the fisheries in Biscay and Newfoundland, are very important symbols. On the other hand, I always wanted to pitch an idea to Marvel about a story with Wolverine (since he is the only character old enough for the subject, nothing to do with the fact that he is my old time favorite) during 1936-1937 as a participant in the Spanish Civil War as a Canadian agent with the international brigades in Euzkadi, fighting along Gudaris on the iron belt, or liberating Paris with the Gernika Battalion!

As far as Basque comic books right now, or the role of comic books in the Basque Country, I know of (although not personally) the work of Lopetegi and Alzate, who apparently have been very active and are currently causing quite a stir. I think they deserve it since this is quite a life of sacrifice. Bejondeizuela you two!! However, I remember, when growing up in the Basque Country, two brilliant adaptations to comic books on Navarro Villoslada’s Amaya and the Basques of the VIII century (in both Basque and Castellano) as well as the famous Battle of Orreaga. Both were very limited runs sponsored by local banks or “Aurrezki Kutxa”s (cajas de ahorros) so are very hard to find, yet they are more my “cup of tea” since they deal with “historical” themes.

BBPI never noticed those Basque touches in X-Force. I’m going to have to dig my issues out of storage and look at them again. That is very cool. As do those two Basque comics. I wonder if there is a way to get them on the internet now? I imagine that there are a lot of Basque topics that would be great for a comics adaptation, like the Song of Roland from the Basque point of view. Have you ever considered doing something like a web comic with Basque themes?

Guillermo Zubiaga: You’ll be surprised what you can get on the internet this days. Here is the URL of the editorial that publishes the work of Basque artists such as Raquel Alzate: www.astiberri.com/a_cruzdelsur.asp

About the “Song of Roland” from the Basque perspective, that was one of those comic books which I told you about, entitled Roncesvalles in Spanish or Orreaga in Basque. Nevertheless I consider it to be nothing short of exceptional and I would love to get my hands on a copy of it.

As far as doing a web comic with a Basque theme, that is something that I have thought about. In fact my next “personal project” which I am currently developing is animating my graphic novel as a Flash movie to be broadcast over the web as an interactive comic. But then again, just like with the actual drawing and inking of my graphic novel, which I did in my spare time, this comic “adaptation for the internet” is going to require the same amount of that precious commodity, time.

BBPYou’ve mentioned a number of projects you are working on or would if you had a lot more of that commodity, time. What are your dream projects, either in the main stream comics industry, personal projects, or other media?

Guillermo Zubiaga: Indeed I have too many projects I am either working on or would like to develop further if I only had more time.

I would love to see my graphic novel finally published and/or finished as a movie. Once I have that in “the can,” I would love to present the whole project as a multimedia exhibit; the book, the movie projection and the gallery of the original artwork (as well as the thousands of sketches…) on the walls. Other than that, I would like to put together a book on Iberian Mythology, which of course includes Basque mythology.

And why not! The children’s book market is one that I still have to venture in…..

BBPBeing so far from the Basque Country, how do you keep the Basque culture in your life? How do you pass on your culture to your family?

Guillermo Zubiaga: As far as how I keep the Basque culture in my life being so far from the Basque Country as I am, I have been a member of the Euzko-Etxea of NY since 1998, where I go often and get to speak in Euskera to lots of different Basques from the tri-state area (NY, NJ, CT) or simply be in a Basque context outside of the house. On the other hand, my brother-in-law, the father of my niece and nephew, is from Donostia and I speak with him as well as with his son and daughter exclusively in Euskera on an almost daily basis. For his part he does the same with me and my son (his nephew). We also happen to be each other’s kid’s godfathers.

Besides the daily use among us, and as well as between my son and myself, I read a lot in Euskera: books, online articles, newspapers. I also spend some time writing in Euskera almost on a regular basis. In addition to that I listen to Basque Music (if not exclusively, quite a lot!!). Of course a big part of that music I play to my son who happens to take to it very kindly.

BBPWhat Basque groups do you listen to? I just discovered Buitraker and am always looking for more great recommendations. What type of Basque music do you listen to? Folk, punk? Any recommendations?

Guillermo Zubiaga: I am very eclectic when it comes to music. My Ama is a classical trained Doctor in music who teaches at a Conservatory of Music and plays several instruments, so at a very early age I was exposed to classical stuff, specially Wagner and (according to many, his Basque counterpart) Francisco Escudero.

But as far as groups and or Basque Music I like to listen too, I would include the following: ROCK (punk and “ska-Hardcore”):  HertzainakKortatuBaldin Bada and many of the so-called Rock Radical Vasco scene from the 80’s. 

As far as PUNK rock, which I happen to like quite a bit, I honestly think that two of the best PUNK bands (in the world) to come out of the Basque country (even if they sing in Spanish) would be Eskobuto (Santurtzi) and more recently Lendakaris Muertos (Iruña). 

I even like Basque “reggae and Rap” with Negu Gorriak and Fermin Muguruza.

Basque HEAVY METAL with bands such as Su ta Gar or EH Sukarra or even Urtz (some of whom I got to meet when they came to NY, in fact, I actually had the chance to sit next to them on the flight back to Europe). Then, there are very cool bands that mix Rock with traditional Basque instruments such as the alboka (without a doubt one of my favorite sounds, gives me Goosebumps!!!) such as Exkixu. I also like the classics such as Benito LertxundiOskorri, and of course Mikel Laboa, and rock folk artist such a Ruper Ordorika.

I love the modern and international takes on Trikitixa and Txalaparta of Kepa Junkera and Oreka TX respectively (the last I also met last November when they stopped and played at the Euzko-Etxea as part of their visit to NY to promote their new movie Nomadak TX).

A few years back I discovered a really cool band by the name of Bidaia (before they were a quartet, now a duo) which combines alboka, with zarrabetia (hurdy-gurdy), ttun-ttun etc with guitars and other “normal” stuff, really good!!

I hope I am not leaving anyone out (although I probably am…). Certainly, I recommend every single one.

My son likes Kids Classics such as Pintxo-PintxoParistik NatorreTxirriMirri ta Txibiriton and the sound track of Dotakon (euskeraz).

You can find many of these in YouTube and as far as Basque lyrics you have this link:  eu.musikazblai.com.

BBPEskerrik asko, Guillermo!

An Interview with Mikel Morris, Part I

Conducted in Summer/Fall 2008

Mikel Morris, an American with dual US/Spanish nationality living in Zarautz, Spain, has written the definitive Basque-English dictionary and is currently working on the Morris Magnum which promises to be the largest bilingual Basque dictionary in existence. 

In this first part of a multi-part interview, Mikel shares his thoughts and hard-hitting observations on the status of the Basque language, the efforts the Basque government is making to promote Euskara, and his own tribulations in getting his dictionary published. 

A follow-up to this interview is forthcoming.

Buber’s Basque Page: To begin with, could you tell us a little about your background? Where are you from? Where did your passion for the Basque language originate?

Mikel Morris: It is rather hard to say where I am from. I was born in Colorado but I lived in Angola (Portuguese West Africa) during the key years of 10, 11, 12. In Angola, I went to a British school and was forced to learn Portuguese at home since our servants spoke no English. At my school, I learnt quite a bit of Afrikaans and some French as well. That essentially launched my interest in languages.

Mikel Morris(center) and friends at a fiesta in Zarautz

After Angola, my family moved to Jackson, Mississippi of all places but thankfully my father got transferred to Colorado and I spent the rest of my Junior and High School years in beautiful Colorado.

In the summer of 1975, the last year of Patxi, a.k.a. Francisco Franco, I went with my Spanish teacher to Pamplona-Iruñea to learn Spanish or, in my case, to tone down my Portuguese in my Spanish. To this day, despite some 25 years in this country, Portuguese is still far easier for me to speak than Spanish since I learnt Portuguese in my childhood, Spanish later on.

Mikel Morris is an American and Spanish citizen who has lived in Colorado, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Angola, and the Basque Country, where he has lived since 1979. In 1988, he founded the Morris Academy, in Zarautz, an English school and publishing house. With degrees in International Relations and Hispanic and General Linguistics, his passion for languages is evident. 

Mikel has written the definitive Basque-English dictionary, a project that took 19 years to complete the first edition. While Mikel has taken on new projects, developing dictionaries for both Thai and Chinese, he also continues to develop his Basque-English dictionary, with the Morris Magnum in the works. This dictionary will be the largest bilingual Basque dictionary in existence.

It was there, in Navarre, that I came across Basque. I knew that it existed, mostly thanks to a movie in which Basques leapt around from rock to rock like mountain goats, belting out irrintzis and wasting Indians attacking them. I stayed with a Basque nationalist family when I was learning Spanish in Pamplona-Iruñea. One day, I visited Lekunberri and heard Basque for the first time. I was taken back for various reasons. For one thing, I had thought that Basque had essentially died out and found that it was very much alive. For another, I was amazed at all the Spanish words, many of which were swear words, that they used and yet, I could not make anything out other than those cuss words. Indeed, in those days, I could not tell the difference between Basque and Spanish other than I understand nothing of Basque and quite a bit of the Spanish. Nevertheless, it all sounded the same to me. When I used some Basques, I was lionized and praised to no end. I was even invited to a few drinks and a few dinners as well. I got to know about the plight of the Basques and Franco’s cruel oppression of them.

I managed to graduate from college in three years and I was determined to do something interesting during my “free” year. I decided that it would be learning Basque.

I came back to the Basque Country on December 31, 1978. In those days, there were no euskaltegis per se and the only places were “gau eskolak” with primitive textbooks. There were no Basque newspapers or Basque television. The only radio that I could listen in Basque was the rosary in Basque and a few programs for baserritar types. I was especially frustrated by the lack of good dictionaries, especially English-Basque dictionaries. For instance, when someone told me “ezkurra”, I could not understand. They provided me the Spanish word, “bellota” but that was equally incomprehensible. I had to look in a couple dictionaries before I could figure out that “ezkurra” meant “acorn”.

One day, in discussing the problem with somebody, I mentioned that someone should do a Basque-English dictionary. His reply was, why don’t you do it? I answered that I did not know how to write a dictionary. His retort stunned me: Who knows how to make a dictionary here? You could be as good as anyone else, if not better. I started on it the day after that conversation, on March 15, 1979. That first step plunged me headlong into Basque lexicography, Basque linguistics, Basque philology, Basque culture, and even Basque politics. I hoped to have the dictionary done in a year or two. Little did I know that it would be a 19 year odyssey.

BBPYou have a unique perspective in that you are a foreigner who has integrated himself into Basque society. What kind of changes have you seen in the use of the Basque language, both in the general population and the society as a whole?

Mikel Morris: I have seen huge changes in Basque and, indeed, in the use of Basque since I started living in the Basque Country on a continuous basis since December, 1978. 

When I first came to the Basque Country in 1975, Basque seemed to be on the way out. Few people born around the late fifties and early sixties seemed to speak it very well save for rural town dwellers, peasants, or fishermen. Hardly anyone could actually write it very well, due to a myriad of historical and political reasons.

In 1978, relatively few people were educated in Basque in the southern Basque Country. Certainly less than 10%. Most were educated in Spanish only. Euskara Batua was around but known by very few people. I remember the Basque Nationalist Party using h-less Basque dialects in their election campaigns. Only the left-wing Basque parties seemed to use Basque with the letter h. There was no Basque on TV and Basque had a very token presence on the radio (mostly religious programs). 

Spaniards living in the Basque Country told me that Basque was primitive and wholly incapable of expressing anything beyond the ken of simple-minded hicks. When shown an article about nuclear physics in Basque, their usual retort was “that’s Batua”, not real Basque. 

Teaching of Basque was in its infancy and the methods for learning it were extremely bad if not misleading. I remember the textbook Euskalduntzen and Xabier Gereño’s Basque method as amazingly bad. There were no real euskaltegis (Basque language schools), just gaueskolak (night schools). Immigrants rarely learnt Basque and there were many cases of Basques who never learnt Basque from their parents and grandparents. 

I would say that the watershed for Basque was the establishment of Euskal Telebista and the gradual increase of Basque-medium education which continued throughout the eighties. By the turn of the millennium, most Basque children were either in Basque or Spanish-Basque medium schools. Spanish-only schools have declined remarkably throughout the Basque Autonomous Community and have practically disappeared in Gipuzkoa.

I do think that it was by sheer luck that Batua came about in 1968 because had it happened in the 1980’s, there would have been a PNV Batua, HB Batua, PSOE Batua, AP (and later PP) Batua, etc. I also think that pro-Basque policies were implemented by Basque politicians who really didn’t believe in the language. I have been told that many have been quite surprised by Basque’s success. 

Nevertheless, there are still important challenges for Basque.

One challenge is that I sincerely believe that most Basques, despite their futile protestations to the contrary, do not take their own language seriously. They wax lyrical about its ancient roots, its unique status as a language isolate (i.e. being unrelated to any other language in the world), and its tenacity to survive. However, many or most of them seem to suffer from a kind of inferiority complex. They are very aware that many people do not actually speak the language, even within towns where Basque is a majority language. They are quite happy to have a party or march or walkathon in favor of Basque but are certainly less inclined to read a novel in Basque, original or translation. 

Many have told me that they would never write a serious article in Basque because very few people would actually read it. Indeed, even the Royal Academy of the Basque Academy, Euskaltzaindia, uses Spanish, and sometimes French, as the “metalanguage” (i.e. language used in giving definitions and for commentaries) of its huge Orotariko dictionary. The original compiler, Koldo Mitxelena, used Spanish because he said that few Basques could actually read Basque when he started it. Even the man that took over, Ibon Sarasola, once pointed out he would not change a thing and would continue to use Spanish even if he started to compile the Orotariko dictionary again. One reason was so that outsiders could use it. No one dared call him out on that… except for me. I wrote to Berria that if the project were in my hands, I would have no hesitation in having Basque as the “metalanguage”. I pointed out that small languages such as Icelandic and Estonian had similar dictionaries with their own language as a metalanguage. Why not Basque? Is Basque really a serious language? Mr. Sarasola provided no answer. There is no serious debate here and I am one of the few who speaks their mind about contradictions regarding Basque.

Another challenge is that Basque still has to find its way in the modern world. It is an “orphan” language in that it is unrelated to any other language in the world. Catalan and Galician have been able to develop quickly because they are simply variants of Latin and Latin languages are fairly well-developed. Most Basque think-tanks (e.g. Elhuyar and UZEI) have Spanish as the main language to copy and imitate. That is because, quite simply, most of those working (there are some notable exceptions) in those places have little knowledge of other languages other than Spanish (or sometimes French). Spanish, in effect, is usually the only model that they take into account. Elhuyar and UZEI are usually quite out of their league when it comes to looking towards other languages. I have always called for think-tanks to look at English, German, Russian, Japanese and Chinese as alternative models. Indeed, Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, and even Turkish or Georgian deserve to be taken into consideration on account of the structure of these well-developed languages which are often rather similar to aspects of Basque structures and word formation. However, Spanish-centric Basque think-tanks are spectacularly not up to the task. A shame.

In short, the very world outlook for Basque being developed by the likes of Elhuyar is often little more than a find-and-replace procedure of replacing a Spanish “ca” with a Basque “ka”, a Spanish “rsa” with a Basque “rtsa”, etc. . One obvious example is with ancient proper names of mythology and historical names. All they do is get a Spanish form and make it “Basque” (etxekotu as they call it) by Basquising the spelling. Thus, Caligula is Kaligula since they take Spanish “Calígula” as the starting point, remove the accent and replace the “c” with the “k”. They even go as far as changing easily pronounced names such as Scipio and come up with “Eszipion”, which is the Basque version of “Escipión”. For them it is of no importance if Basques from Iparralde use euspañol forms or not. They also provide hugely complicated tables to justify their “euspañol” fudging. They are not intellectually honest enough to admit that they are just Basquising Spanish forms. The Basque masses look on with great indifference because they don’t really read in Basque anyway, even those who have gone to Basque-medium schools and most think that “Kinto Kurtzio” (Quintus Curtius) is rather ugly if not over the top. Many of them think that “Mahoma” is very acceptable for the prophet of Islam even though no one in Iparralde uses the Spanish word. 

Basque also has to be seen to be able to be a cool language, a language that can express things in slang that teenagers can identify with. Up to now, they only use Spanish slang. Most jokes seem to be told in Spanish, not Basque, even in heavily Basque towns. That seems to me that it is a case of a failure of using Basque in creative ways. Perhaps because the children watch a lot of Spanish media. No, Basques do not know Basque like Swedes know Swedish. Very few know how to say “aircraft carrier” or “knuckles” in Basque, even children educated in Basque-medium schools in towns like Azpeitia can’t. I gave talks to a Dutch and Basque audience, in English, to illustrate the point of diglossia (unequal bilingualism). Absolutely all of the Dutch could say “aircraft carrier”, “knuckles”, and “caterpillar” in their language while absolutely none of the Basques could (but most knew the Spanish word, hmmmm).

Basque has to widen its scope and be included in the daily life of Basques. Although Basque nationalists have a majority in the Basque Parliament, Basque is not used in proportion to that number of deputies (indeed, many abertzales cannot even speak Basque). Basque also needs to be used at the workplace. 

Basque dubbing of movies is so bad and so blatantly artificial, there is hardly a demand for it save for children’s programs. They will never improve the quality because they are unable to figure out what good Basque is (dubbed Basque eschews contractions, skirts any hint of dialect, and has a distinct overriding Spanish monotone accent). Perhaps they should take the Scandinavian route and use the original version and use Basque subtitles but I doubt that will happen in the near future. 

Finally, Basque has to be seen as something that belongs to everyone regardless of ethnicity or political ideology. There are encouraging signs: there are lots of children who are Black, Brown, or Yellow who speak perfect Basque. Many immigrants, at least in towns with large Basque-speaking populations, learn Basque and often use it more and better than Rh negative types. However, the fact of the matter is, and no one really talks about this in the Basque Country, much of “Euskalgintza” (Basque media and cultural movement), rightly or wrongly, is conceived by many people as a front for left-wing radicals. There are some publications, e.g. Aldaketa 16, that are obviously not controlled by the Basque Left (Aldaketa 16 is run by a well-known PSOE sympathizer, Gorka Landaburu). However, such media seems to be completely ignored by other Basque media. That is a shame and I hope that it changes.

BBPYou have written, what seems to me, the definitive Basque-English dictionary. Can you tell us about how you got started with the dictionary? What motivated you to take on such an ambitious project? What kinds of struggles did you have? And, were there any surprises along the way?

Mikel Morris: I learnt Basque in an ikastola, believe it or not. I came knocking on the doors of the Benedictine monks in Lazkao in January 1979. I was informed that since I was not present in October, I could not be in the course. They did let me rent a flat of theirs for a very cheap price. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I was at the Beasain Alkatasuna Lizeoa, learning Basque in the teachers’ room. I was extremely frustrated by the lack of materials at hand to learn Basque. The only textbooks around, for Batua anyway, were Euskalduntzenor Euskara, Hire Laguna. 1979 was a very confusing time to learn Basque. Only 4 four years after the death of Franco, the Basque language was waking up from a deep slumber of 40 years of often violent suppression and millennia of neglect.

Yes, it was devilishly hard to learn Basque in 1979. There was no ETB, little Basque on the radio, no Egunkaria (or Berria), the ikastola movement was just beginning and D-eredua non-existent. I was learning Batua while everybody in the street, in Beasain, was using Goierri Gipuzkoan … in “hika” (a very intricate way of familiar speech). When I asked what a Basque word was, e.g. ezkurra, I was told “bellota”. The problem was that “bellota” meant the same to me as “ezkurra”, i.e. nothing. Thus, to find out how to say a word in Basque, I had to look in an English-Spanish dictionary and then in a Spanish-Basque dictionary, often with very unsatisfactory results. I noticed that the ikastola kids learning English had the same problem but the other way around.

I asked around to find out whether there was a Basque-English dictionary. This was invariably either met with a laugh or a sigh. Eventually, I started the dictionary just a month after I started learning Basque in earnest. I expected that it would take me a year or two at most. Never in my life was I so wrong.

The first problem was just the spelling. I remember quite well how the “h” seemed to be a political statement. In the election posters, the left-wing parties, Herri Batasuna, Euskadiko Ezkerra, LKI and EMK used a Basque full of “h”s and free of “enyes” while the PNV-EAJ used an “h”-less Basque full of “enyes”. Down through the years, the “h” seemed to disappear in some words, notably “hibai” and “hilargi”, “harmatu” while surfacing in other words, quite unexpectedly like “hurra”.

The only Batua dictionaries around were Xabier Kintana’s Hiztegi Modernoa and Luis Maria Muxika’s Hiztegi Orokor-Teknikoa. They presented a picture of great confusion to me. On one hand, Xabier Kintana proposed writing Greek and Latin derived “international” words with “ph”, “kh”, and “th” instead of “f”, “k”, and “t”. Furthermore, he proposed writing “y” in Greek-derived words instead of “i” (e.g. mythoa instead of mitoa). Yet, inexplicably, he was dead against writing the hated letter “v”. Psykhologia was the recommended form as it was international but the provincial “bektore” was recommended in the same breath. Needless to say, such contradictions together with a people largely illiterate in their own language — and with serious reservations about the “h” in general — doomed the “kh”, “th”, “ph”, and “y” proposal.

Luis Maria Muxika, on the other hand, was not for this but he preferred inventing Basque words used a whole array of prefixes (azpi-., kontra-, aurre-). Most of his concoctions have gone the way of the dodo, needless to say.

If mere spelling and word formation were problems, fixing the vocabulary itself was, and is, still a great problem. The Euskaltzaindia, in its book entitled Zortzi Urte Arteko Ikastola Hiztegia, proposed numerous words for modern things. I remember using one of them, talka-geriza, in conversation, only to be met with raised eyebrows which failed to understand the intended meaning. For those of you (probably 99.999%) who do not know this concoction, it means “bumper”. Nevertheless, I still doubt whether most Basques understand — or actually use — the current word, “kolpeleungailu”.

Not only simple words such as “bumper” were a problem, even common everyday words had been lost in the collective memory of the Basque people. The word “knuckle” seems to have been almost completely forgotten. I asked many people how to say “knuckle” in Basque. I even asked writers, translators, and academics, and no one seemed to know. After several years of searching, an elderly monoglot woman from a town around Tolosa told me “esku-koskoa”. I also have been looking for the word “turncoat”. The best I have come up with have been “bitarako” and “pintto”, in addition to “arnegari”. In short, most Basque speakers seem not to know how to say common words such as “caterpillar”, “octopus”, “jelly fish” etc. thanks to decades of fascist oppression and millennia of neglect.

Adding to this already complicated situation is the problem of finding expressions such as “to have something in common” or “to give sb the benefit of the doubt” or “Something’s fishy”. The problem of language registers has also been a difficult problem. While it is relatively easy to find the higher register in Basque, the low, urban register seems to be non-existent. For example, how would you say “Hey dude, that’s really cool” without resorting to Spanish or French? Even translating four-letter words proved rather challenging.

If these problems were not enough for a poor twenty-one year old American fresh out of college with a smattering of Basque, the problems of undertaking the project itself were even more. I soon realized that I needed time and time, as we all know, is money. Friends told me to seek support from institutions. I remember approaching Mr. Satrustegi of the Euskaltzaindia, whom I had seen in a street in Pamplona, about my dictionary. Without as much as even taking a look at it, or even looking at me in the eye, he retorted brusquely “Ez dugu dirurik. Beste norabait joan beharko duzu”, and that was that. I went to banks, I went to companies. Who was I? What was I? I was a nobody and therefore my dictionary was nothing. Nevertheless I kept on.

I showed the dictionary to many people. One very famous Basque linguist told me in 1980 that my undertaking was “zoragarria” but that it would never be published, unfortunately. He also told me that there would never, ever be an Euskal Telebista. Another well-known Basque linguist, whose name I shall conceal to protect the guilty, told me that it was a pity because no more than 300 people would ever buy a Basque-English dictionary. Notwithstanding such dire predictions, I kept on.

I even reached the highest reaches of Basque political power with the dictionary. My wife’s cousin was one of Carlos Garaikoetxea’s classmates and so, through him, I was able to meet with him at Ajuria Enea in July, 1981. I remember walking to Ajuria Enea and telling the guard that I had come to see the Lehendakari, in Basque. The ertzaina, or rather “erchaina”, told me to speak Spanish and told me in so many words to buzz off and leave him alone. When I told him that I had an appointment, later confirmed by a telephone call he made, he was dumbstruck. Not only did I meet with Mr. Garaikoetxea for half an hour, I also met with Ramon Labaien at the same time. Garaikoetxea was favorably impressed and he asked Ramon Labaien to see what he could do for me. Ramontxo told me, “Deitu nire bulegora nahi duzunean” (Call me at my office whenever you want). When I called his office when I wanted, he was always out. That did not deter me from keeping on.

In the meantime, I went to the States and enrolled at the University of Colorado to study for my Master’s. The University of Nevada at Reno was very kind to invite me out to Reno to get to know them and to compare our projects. I will always be grateful to them for that kind invitation. In the course of the visit, unfortunately, it became apparent to some people there — but not to me — that our projects were “incompatible”. My offer of collaboration was thus turned down. Nevertheless, I kept on with my own project.

A year and a half after I had written to Ramon Labaien about the dictionary — I wrote him since he was never available in his office to see a nobody like me — I received a letter from a very unlikely source: the library of the Basque Parliament which told me in so many words that, seeing the needs of the budget, there was no money to help the dictionary project. Nevertheless, I kept on.

I came back to the Basque Country with my Master’s and ran into Xabier Kintana. This man, in my opinion, is a veritable euskaltzale if there ever was one. He at once made a couple of phone calls and I had an appointment with Joseba Arregi, the minister of culture; yes, the very Joseba Arregi who seems to be widely reviled today in Basque nationalist circles. Whatever his politics might be, he loves, or at least loved, Basque. He, together with another veritable euskaltzale, Martin Ugalde, told me that they were ready to help but they needed a guarantee and told me to see Ibon Sarasola. Ibon Sarasola verified, in glowing terms, that I was doing something worthwhile and so they told me that I would get a “dirulaguntza” (grant).

In the meantime, the PNV (ruling Basque Nationalist Party) split. There was total chaos in the administration. The budget for 1985 was approved six months into that year. No one knew anything. Though the money was approved, it was not forthcoming. (It eventually came, nearly a year and a half late.) Out of a need to eat which I , and now my family, had acquired the day we were born, I had to juggle my time between the dictionary and finding work but I did manage to keep at it.

As my family grew and as my dire poverty was constant, it became apparent that I could no longer continue devoting so much time to the dictionary. In those days I had not acquired Spanish citizenship and so my employment prospects were extremely limited. My only option for any steady income was to start an English academy. Despite all the time I spent at the academy, I continued with the dictionary.

I soon saw that I would be needing money to pay translators to help with the dictionary’s biggest problems. The money which I received from the Basque Government was too late and too little. To be fair, they gave what I had asked for but I was misinformed as to how much I should have asked. No more was forthcoming. There is never much money for nobodies. Nevertheless, I kept on.

My life eventually became a hostage to the dictionary. I wasn’t happy if I wasn’t working on it. Vacation for me was an opportunity to work extra hours on it. I was always wanting to finish it soon. I was overoptimistic. Once in a while, I would appear in a newspaper in which I said it would be out soon. Yet, I was not satisfied with it. I wanted it to be as good as the Spanish or French dictionaries. I invested in computers, scanners, printers, and software. I did everything I could to finish but I just couldn’t. There was so much to do, too much to do. I probably lost credibility at that point. Few people believed I would ever finish anything. My business suffered, my family suffered, I myself suffered but I kept on.

I went to several Basque publishing houses, I went to the Gipuzkoa Provincial Government. To no avail. It was too much. It was too difficult. Who was I? What was I? My only answer to this indifference was to keep on. I had no choice.

After seventeen and a half years of rejection, marginalization, and indifference, not one but several people came to me like the Seventh Calvary to the rescue. Indeed, after seventeen and a half years of relative neglect, there were people who wanted, nay, who were most anxious to publish the dictionary. The Basque market was ready for the dictionary. Elhuyar was most anxious to publish it but was less than anxious to compensate me adequately for all those years of toil. They seemed to think that they were doing me a big favor by just publishing it although they were motivated by the market prospects, i.e., gaining another stream of revenue. I felt it was unfair for them to make several times more than me on the dictionary just because they were publishing it. The Klaudio Harluxet Foundation, some of whose associate members included EUSENOR, Elkar, and, unbelievably, Elhuyar, gave me the best offer. 

At once I had a team behind me. First of all, I also had to switch over to Apple Computers, for which I am now very grateful, since all publishers use Macs rather than clunky PCs. The material I had collected for seventeen years had to be corrected and there was a lot to correct! For example, 15 years ago, it was all right to say “jakinerazi”, now only “jakinarazi” is acceptable. 10 years ago, “Txipre” and “harrez gero” were kosher. Now it’s “Zipre” and “harrezkero”. A few years ago “Pedro Handia” and “Jose I.a” were the “norm” in the Basque encyclopedias. Today, it is “Petri Handia” and “Josef I.a.” Today, all this and much, much more has had to be adapted to current norms as set by the Euskaltzaindia.

The dictionary that came out on Saturday, February 28, 1998 was a mid-sized dictionary entitled Morris Student. I came to understand what Placido Mugica meant when he wrote in his dictionary “Ezina Ekinaz Egina” for which I found the English equivalent “Have at it and have it”. Many thought I would never finish but I did. I am not sure whether I would do it all over but I was sure of one thing, after nearly nineteen years of toil, I was now extremely happy… and exhausted. A smaller dictionary, the Morris Pocket, came out later in the fall of 1998. An updated, semi-corrected Morris Student, known as Morris Student Plus, came out as a result of my indignation over all the misspellings and incorrect hyphenation. Nevertheless, in their scramble to get the dictionary out, not all of the mistakes and typos were corrected. Indeed, new ones were even introduced. In their rush, they never got around to letting me see the galleys for correction, such is the seriousness of publishing in this country.

I really thought that my new dictionary would open new doors and horizons for me. I thought that, finally, I could be a part of “Euskalgintza”, the Basque language movement. No posts were on offer to me at any university, school, or institution. No invitations to the Euskaltzaindia were forthcoming. Nothing. Only silence. Someone told me that many people were tacitly put out since it took an American to write the definitive Basque-English dictionary and that I would never ever be forgiven for committing such an act. Indeed, it was years before I even realized that people, some people at least, mostly those under 30, even seemed to care about my efforts. Normal people would be happy to meet me and always made the nicest comments. The Euskalgintza people and, sadly, many of my fellow translators simply kept quiet about it although they privately, albeit grudgingly, acknowledged that my efforts were good.

My original aim was to come up with a dictionary which would match or surpass the Oxford or Collins or Larousse dictionaries. That was to come with time as I had all of the material collected. Indeed, with all the material I had already collected, I was to collaborate with the Klaudio Harluxet Fundazioa to compile a larger English-Basque dictionary and come out with other bilingual Basque dictionaries, starting with French and German, both of which had been substantially advanced already. However, with the demise of the Klaudio Harluxet foundation, all of this came to naught. Eventually, by hook or crook, or coup d’état, the Elkar/Zabaltzen people took over the dictionary. I talked to the head of the company, Jose Mari Sors about fulfilling the terms of the agreement. He replied that there was no money and little market. Perhaps I could come up with the funds and they would then publish the dictionaries. Eventually, over the years, Elhuyar and Elkar did come out with a French and German dictionary but they were modest in scope and poor in quality. 

Seeing the IT revolution in full swing, I decided to approach the Basque Government about the prospect of an online Basque-English dictionary. At first, they had not really heard of me. A bad sign, I thought. At the next meeting with them, they were suddenly enthusiastic about it. Three weeks after my second meeting with the Basque Government, I got an odd call. They asked me whether I had the copyright to the Morris dictionary. I replied that, according to my lawyer, I indeed did. They then went on to inform me that earlier in the morning, a couple of representatives from Plazagune had met with them about the possibility of an excellent online English-Basque dictionary. The Basque government people agreed to see what they had. Out of the portfolio they pulled out a proposal: putting the Morris Student dictionary on line, no less. I had never heard of Plazagune and was amazed that they would be hawking my work without as much as even telling me. 

The next day, a very, very irate Jose Maria Sors, the head honcho of Elkar, Zabaltzen, and much else, called me demanding to know how I had made a deal without telling them. My answer was with a question: why didn’t you tell me that you were going to put my own work online? His answer was “horrelaxe da gure dinamika”, which, loosely translated, means “that is how we do things”. He was incensed that his Plazagune people had made complete fools of themselves. Since then, I suspect, I was even more of an outsider to Euskaltgintza circles since I had proven to be an independent player, albeit a very minor one.

The Morris online dictionary eventually went up and is widely used around the world. It is the main non-Spanish link to Basque-language culture. I have found few bilingual dictionaries that can measure up to it in depth.

Over the years, I continued to press the Basque Government on providing funds for a large English-Basque dictionary. They balked. I eventually lost heart and hope in Basque politicians, the Basque language movement, the Basque people and even the Basque language. I started my dictionary efforts in new territory: Thai and Chinese. I grew tired of all the hassle of reviving a minority language and arguing with people who were hell bent on building up a Spanish-oriented Basque even if they were equally up to the task of burning a Spanish flag. An amazing contradiction. They still insist on “euspañol” idiocies such as “Kolon”, “Kaligula”, “Eszipion”, “Joan Kalbino” etc. instead of “Colón”, “Caligula”, “Scipio”, and “Jean Calvin”. Their proud ignorance exasperates me. Thus, it was a relief to be working with majority languages for a change. Thai and Chinese are really absolutely fascinating languages. Believe it or not, despite huge cultural differences, quite distinct cultural roots, and having different writing systems, doing such dictionaries is much easier than doing a Basque dictionary. At the moment, I have several people helping me on them in Thailand, Laos, and China though I presently have little time to devote to the projects.

Nevertheless, out of habit and a sense of masochistic tradition, I kept on asking around for funds for my noncommercial huge English-Basque dictionary. I went about to the Basque Government. As I had expected, no one seem interested. I approached the Provincial Governments of Gipuzkoa and Biscay but they referred me back to the Basque Government. I continued to go back to the Basque Government but was, like before, rebuffed. Ultimately, in a final meeting, I was told that dictionaries are absolutely not a priority for them. They did not support them, period. I was then invited to approach Basque banks for my project. 

Before doing that, I approached Aitor Esteban, an EAJ-PNV MP in the Spanish Parliament and a veritable euskaltzale, a can-do, no-BS man of action. The difference between him and the mostly Gipuzkoans I have dealt with was enormous. He is from Bizkaia and Bizkaians, in my experience, are generally more dynamic than Gipuzkoans. He looked at what I was aiming for and was visibly impressed. He replied that it was a very important thing for Basque and told me “nire kontu”. I had heard that before but I was hopeful. Two weeks later, he had talked to other MPs and the project, amazingly enough, passed unanimously in the Spanish Parliament. I had a tidy sum for the project and 5 years to make the definitive English-Basque dictionary. 

There was muted criticism on COPE, the ultranationalist Spanish network who asked, reasonably, why the Basques couldn’t have come up with the money themselves. The project was mentioned, without objection, in the Spanish press such as La Razón, El Mundo, and ABC. I was taken aback by this. The project was prominently mentioned in the Diario Vasco and Correo but, shockingly enough, it was completely ignored in other papers such as Gara and Berria or the local Kosta-Urola paper, Hitza. Not one word was ever mentioned about it despite the fact that they claim to love Basque and are anxious to report on all aspects of the language. That was very, very hurtful to me since I love Basque so much but their thunderous silence spoke volumes.

Despite this, everybody seemed to know about it, including the people who refused to report on it. I was congratulated by “normal” people but no one in the Euskalgintza even uttered a world about it. In fact, quite the opposite happened. The Elkar people stormed off to have a meeting with Aitor Esteban and others to protest. However, it all blew over. Nevertheless, on account of petty politics, the initial sum was halved and the time to do it in was cut down to just a year. A seemingly impossible task but I am trying to get it done. I am eternally grateful to Aitor Esteban and, indeed, the Spanish Parliament. I will do my best not to let them down.

The dictionary, when completed, will be the largest bilingual Basque dictionary to date. It will have thousands and thousands of illustrative sentences. I suspect that it will be much too much for so many people in the Euskalgintza since most of them (at least those over 35) know little beyond basic English but it will gain ever greater importance as younger Basques grow up and become more familiar with English, which is gradually supplanting Spanish as THE language of knowledge (though, of course, not as the language of everyday life) and is THE lingua franca of the European Community. Finally, it will be possible for Basques to look outside Spanish, or French, and see how things can be expressed in other languages. That is, indeed, a very revolutionary milestone in the evolution of Basque culture.

Now I truly understand what Placido Mugica meant when he wrote in his dictionary “Ezina Ekinaz Egina” for which I found the English equivalent “Have at it and have it”. 

BBPDo you feel that the Basque government is on the right track towards promoting Basque?

Mikel Morris: This is a very difficult question and everybody has their standard, canned, “thinking-within-the-box” answer, depending on their political ideology. To understand whether the right policy is being applied, one should first take a look at how different groups within the Basque Country see how Basque should be treated.

Those favoring the status quo (considered by some as “pro-Spanish” or “españolistas” or “constitutionalists” by others; I shall allow the reader to insert his or her adjective) say that the Basque government is actually going too far. They claim that Basque is being “imposed” upon an unresponsive, indifferent, mostly Spanish-speaking populace. They maintain that if Basque is forced down people’s throats, they will grow to resent it, even hate it. The more moderate wing of this line of thinking contend that things should be done gradually. Spanish-speakers should be encouraged, indeed, even invited to learn Basque.

The more radical viewpoint maintains that, according to the 1978 Spanish constitution, article three, Spanish citizens are obliged to know Spanish while they only have the right to know “regional languages”. Many of those adamantly opposed to making Basque really official in the full sense of the word say that monolingual Spanish speakers are discriminated against because all Basque-speakers know Spanish. I really don’t believe that those who hold the radical view that Basque should not enjoy full official status are Basque language haters. They all claim it should be preserved, but they would prefer it to be confined to the farm. Basque place names are all right by them provided that the Spanish one is first and the Basque name is written in that cute Basque font. In a word, they believe that Basque should be folkloric, heraldic, cute, rural, and quaint. It has no place in the modern real world. The French have done a good job on its regional languages in that way and Spanish nationalists look upon them with great envy.

It is their contention that by promoting Basque in all spheres, people from other parts of Spain, indeed, people from the Basque Country who speak no Basque, are discriminated against on account of the language they don’t speak. They contend that Spain is a nation of citizens and by promoting Basque, Spanish monolinguals suffer. In fact, some even believe that it is a dirty ploy to stack the bureaucracy with Basque nationalists since a very large part, though not all, of the pro-status quo parties in the Basque Country speak only Spanish.

Basque nationalists have another point of view. They contend that Basque was savagely discriminated against not only during the Franco years but also down through the centuries. Basque was prohibited in the Biscay assemblies as far back as the 1700’s. Basque was never allowed in schools. The only way to save Basque, in their opinion, is to favor a kind of affirmative action program aimed at bringing Basque to true equality, on par with Spanish in every aspect of life, be it public or private.

The great problem with that is that they don’t really believe it. Basque is now spoken, or at least known, by close to 35% of the Basque Autonomous Community (it differs in the other two political realities where Basque is spoken, Iparralde and Navarre), depending on how you define knowing Basque. Basque-speakers are so used to their diglossic status that they really cannot imagine being able to live their lives in Basque as Spanish-speakers are able to do so in Spanish (or French in Iparralde). Most Basque-speakers have a better handle on Spanish than Basque when it comes to working with it, when it is a question of vocabulary. Few Basques seem to know how to say “velvet” or “oats” or “knuckles” in Basque while they are perfectly able to do so in Spanish. This explains why Basques tend to tell jokes in Spanish rather than Basque.

Further proof that Basques don’t believe in their empty rhetoric may be seen in politics. Spanish is by far the most used language in the Basque Parliament. Basque is used far less then the 35% of the populace who are said to speak it. There are fervent Basque nationalists in the Parliament who wax lyrical about Basque, who vote on increasing the usage of Basque in education and even in government while they themselves are often quite unable to do so likewise. This blatant hypocrisy is what makes Spanish monoglots absolutely furious, even suspicious of the motives. As I said above, look at the nationalist press, Deia and Gara, which are mostly in Spanish. I will believe in their sincerity when we have newspapers entitled “La Llamada” and “Somos” with token Spanish with the rest in Basque.

The overall problem is that, for Basque to be present in every sphere, it means that Spanish must lose its absolute monopoly on all spheres of public use. That is where the rub is for the linguistically challenged “erdaldunak”, most of whom know only Spanish, not even English. They simply cannot understand why the monopoly of Spanish in every sphere (i.e. mass communication, law, pop culture, education, etc.) should not go on forever especially when they are convinced that the Spanish language is “unstoppable” in the world (although it is hardly used outside of Latin America and Spain, the official language in only one dinky, insignificant country in Africa and has practically disappeared in Asia).

In view of how different political groups view Basque and how they actually use it, the Basque Government has its hands tied. How can you copy Catalonia where even PP parliamentarians generally speak in the Parliament in Catalan? How can they copy Catalonia when even nationalists do not have a handle on Basque in the same way that CiU and Esquerra Republicana parliamentarians do on Catalan? I recall that Aralar negotiators were shocked to find that when they wanted to negotiate with the rabidly pro-independence Eusko Alkartasuna party, they had to do it in Spanish because the party’s negotiators knew no Basque. Mind-blowing hypocrisy. It was one of the reasons why nothing came out of said negotiations.

There is now some controversy going on in the Basque Country since the Basque Government, now, is drifting towards the “immersió” program that was first forged in Catalonia. There are now proposals to make Basque a working language rather than a language of translation in government. I personally welcome this but there should be efforts to make Basque the working language in nationalist organizations first. When I see Gara and Deia largely in Basque, I will start to believe their sincerity.

In the meantime, it is my humble opinion that the Basque Government, overall, throws money at the problem though it does not really have a smart plan. Plans, they have. Plans galore. Plan in industrial quantities. Basques are big on “plangintza” (planning). They have plangintzas for everything. Yet, no one seems to explain why nothing is being done in making Basque a normal language. They have normalizazio programs but international bestsellers rarely appear in Basque in “real time”. Is there a Da Vinci Code in Basque? There are the Harry Potter books, but why do they always seem to appear way after the French and Spanish translations?

There is no version for Basque on Apple computers but there sure are versions in Icelandic and Catalan. I have had to fight to get a decent English-Basque dictionary but it was the Spanish Parliament that came through for me thanks to an intervention by the forward-thinking EAJ-PNV parliamentarian Aitor Esteban. The Basque Government was never interested in such a project. They turned down the project several times. Amazing.

If Basque culture actually functioned as it should, they should have bent over backwards to facilitate projects such as mine. Basque needs a base, an intellectual infrastructure on par with other modern languages. Why is there no Latin-Basque dictionary? Greek-Basque dictionary? Indeed, why isn’t the Euskaltzaindia’s dictionary entirely in Basque? The Basque government is perhaps representative of this fudge factoring in the Basque mindset. It is also tragic that there are no private foundations in the Basque Country that promote the Basque culture in the same way that rich individuals promote and have promoted Catalan in Catalonia.

The Basque government prefers the bureaucratic and vertical approach to developing Basque. They are not creative nor could they ever be. They support various Basque magazines and book translations but why, oh why, are there no magazines like Muy Interesante in Basque? Why are there no stupid magazines along the lines of Seventeen or National Enquirer (or Hola in Spanish?). Why are there no car magazines or fashion magazines or sports newspapers in Basque? Why isn’t the Basque version of Wikipedia not promoted systematically? They are happy that there are 25,000 or 30,000 articles in the Basque version when there are nearly 400,000 in Spanish (English has over 2,000,000). That is what should be fomented if we want Basque to be a normal language. Interesting Basque-language materials should be available to cerebral intellectuals, political junkies as well as airheads crazy about Paris Hilton or sports maniacs who only live for football. And if they wish to read Danielle Steel in Basque, not just Victor Hugo or Cesare Pavese, why not?

The true salvation of Basque might just be impossible because it would call for a monumental rethink and thinking is not the Basque establishment’s forte. In the meantime, what are they doing? Teaching Basque to reluctant teachers and bureaucrats, funding a largely ignored, largely folkloric ETB 1, and providing some grants for various projects. The most visible thing that that they have is Euskararen Eguna and they have even created a cartoon character called “the Ukan virus” (Ukan is “have” and typically learnt by euskaldunberriak). This “virus” is to infect erdaldunak with enthusiasm for learning and using Basque. I kid you not, they have really promoted this.

I would propose that rather than infect Erdalduns with the “Ukan virus”, they should remove the “Edukirik ez” (content free) virus from Basque culture. By that I mean they should not only have festivals that celebrate the existence of Basque but actually promote creation in Basque by coming up with the materials I mentioned above and bring in an “East German” style program of spotting creative talent (e.g. writing, visual arts) and then actively encourage it, stimulate it, fund it lavishly. The common view in the street here is that things in Basque are wooden, stilted, boring and boorish. That is not always true but that is the perception in the street. If Basque-speakers think that, what is the motivation for Spanish-speakers to learn it, especially if Basque-speakers are so eager to speak Spanish anyway? If there is genuine creation in Basque then Basque culture will be genuinely attractive not only for non-Basques but to Basques themselves.

In writing what I have written, I have most likely made even more enemies for myself but I am increasingly indifferent to that. I really no longer care. I love Basque very much but many Basques’ attitudes have greatly discouraged me. That is one reason why Chinese and Thai seem so very appealing to me now.

An Interview with Christine Bender

Conducted in Summer 2009

Christine Echeverria Bender is a writer who’s historical novels have focused on the lives and adventures of prominent Basques during the Age of Discovery. She has written about Columbus’ voyage in Challenge the Wind, Juan Sebastian de Elcano’s role in Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world in Sails of Fortune, and, in her most recent novel The Whaler’s Forge, the Basque whalers who explored the North American east coast. Here, she shares with us how she researches the various eras and people she writes about, her inspiration, and gives us a glimpse into what her next novel will be about.

Buber’s Basque Page: First, let me begin by congratulating you on the publication of your most recent book, The Whaler’s Forge! I am excited to read it, having just finished Sails of Fortune.

Clearly, you are of Basque heritage. What is your background and your connection to the Basque Country and culture? Was the Basque culture an important part of your childhood?

Christine Echeverria Bender: Thank you for your kind congratulations. I’m so glad you enjoyed Sails of Fortune.

Taken from Christine’s Website

Fascinated by the intrigues of history, Christine carefully researches the past before sharing its bounty through powerful, vivid historical novels. Her writing has received awards and enthusiastic critical reviews, and her novels have become recommended reading by state Departments of Education. Christine has spoken to audiences about her writing and research at many venues, including appearances in California, Texas, Idaho, and Nevada. Honored as a “Distinguished Alumni” by Boise State University, she has also participated in the writer’s studio program at Stanford University.

Joining an archaeological team from the Smithsonian Institution in August of 2008, Christine helped uncover a 16th century Basque whaling site in Hare Harbour, Quebec at the edge of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Many ancient artifacts were found by the diggers on land as well as the dive team searching the depths of the chilly coastal water. This was the most recent of the research trips undertaken to enrich the authenticity of her novel The Whaler’s Forge.

Although Christine’s wandering feet have taken her to Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, England, Canada, and Mexico, and she’s lived in L.A., San Diego, and Chicago, she calls Boise her home. Her roots as a third generation Idahoan kept drawing her back to the people and places she holds so dear.

You can also check out this interview of Christine, done by Igor Lansorena of EiTB.

My father’s family comes from the village of Lekeitio. I grew up in Boise where we learned to dance with the Oinkari dancers and we participated in many other activities of the Basque Center. My Basque grandmother was a fabulous cook who gave me an appreciation for Basque food. My mother, though not Basque, supported our Basque cultural experiences.

BBPYour last three books (The Whaler’s ForgeSails of Fortune, and Challenge the Wind) all revolve around Basque characters during the Age of Discovery. What draws you to that period of history? Are there other periods you are also interested in writing about?

Christine Echeverria Bender: This was a period of great achievement for the Basques. As seamen, their expertise was rivaled by very few. Not many European voyages of exploration took place without Basque-built ships, navigators, captains, or crews. The Whaler’s Forge is set in 1364, a time when the seas as well as the land held perils and hardships almost unimaginable today. The level of courage and tenacity needed to survive was astounding, so the characters and stories are very compelling. I’m also interested in the pre-history of the Basques, and I hope to write a novel about that early era someday.

BBP: When reading Sails of Fortune, I had exactly that impression, that the difficulties and situations the crew encountered are just something I can’t imagine in our modern world. In that book, you describe the passage of Magellan’s fleet around the tip of South America, their encounters in the Philippines, and their dealings with the Portuguese at Cape Verde. I imagine in The Whaler’s Forge you also delve into such exotic locals and experiences. How do you put yourself into those situations? Did you try to retrace parts of Magellan’s original voyage?

Christine Echeverria Bender: When researching my first novel, I was fortunate enough to sail aboard replicas of both the Nina and the Santa Maria. Those experiences did much to help me empathize with my characters in the Columbus story as well as in Sails of Fortune. Although I did not sail the same waters as Magellan, I traveled to Getaria, Spain, the hometown of my protagonist Elcano, to gain insights into his character. For The Whaler’s Forge, my research took me to six Canadian province and on an archaeological dig with a team from the Smithsonian Institution. We found many artifacts at a Basque whaling site along the St. Lawrence.

BBP: Your two previous books, Challenge the Wind and Sails of Fortune, were based on specific voyages that presumably had at least some original source material from which to draw upon. For The Whaler’s Forge, it seems you are not focusing on any specific historic event but rather a time period. Was that harder or easier to write? What were the specific challenges in not having documents to draw from?

Christine Echeverria Bender: In some ways it was easier, in others, it was more difficult. Not confining the boundaries of  The Whaler’s Forge to specific accounts allowed me to bring out the most dynamic aspects of the New World during a little known era, and of the lives of Basque men plying a dangerous and fascinating trade. The initial relationships with Native Americans could also be explored more freely. However, my research delved even more deeply than usual as I investigated a wide array of historical, anthropological, and archaeological sources. It was important to me to present this broader story with historical integrity. One particular challenge was finding detailed material on the Naskapi culture. I eventually located individuals who have spent their lives in such study, and who generously shared their knowledge.

BBP:  Sails of Fortune describes Magellan’s voyage from the point of view of Elcano, a historical figure that few, if any, Americans know about. In school, we learn that Magellan was the first to circle the globe, even though, of course, he died along the way. Is Elcano a figure known in the rest of the world? Why do you think he is unknown in English text books?

Christine Echeverria Bender: In Europe, everyone seems to know Elcano’s story. Perhaps we in the U.S. learn only about Magellan because he was the organizer of the voyage, the one appointed by the king. While in school, however, we investigate the voyage very briefly. If this incomparable contribution to world knowledge were studied in more depth, Elcano would surely surface as a crucial figure.

BBPI imagine you are familliar with Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World, another accounting of Magellan’s voyage. His characterization of Elcano seems very different than yours. Bergreen’s Elcano is more self-serving, more after personal glory. Are these differences different interpretations by two authors of the original logs or are both Elcano’s present in those logs and you each chose to focus on different aspects? How much do we actually know about Elcano’s attitude and role during the expedition?

Christine Echeverria Bender: I’ve not only read Laurence Bergreen’s book, I’ve communicated with him concerning a few points upon which we disagree. The historical record leaves many gaps that do indeed allow for different interpretation of Elcano’s character. Elcano participated in the fleet’s mutiny, along with many others, but was this done because of selfish motives or did he feel compelled to follow the orders of his own ship’s captain? The most compelling evidence into his true motive lies in the fact that, after imprisoning all the surviving mutineers during their winter encampment, Magellan himself restored Elcano to his prior rank. This strongly implies that, having executed Elcano’s former mutinous captain, Magellan felt he could trust Elcano. And Elcano proved himself trustworthy again and again as the voyage progressed, ultimately delivering the only surviving ship back to Spain. Nowhere in the documentary record did I find conclusive evidence that disproved Elcano’s basic honor.

BBPIt seems that the story of Magellan’s voyage, especially with the characterizations you’ve put into it, would make for a great TV mini-series. Has anyone ever approached you about adapting the story for TV?

Christine Echeverria Bender: I haven’t been approached yet about Sails of Fortune, but I’d love to see it made into a film or TV series. This is a story that just hasn’t reached the public through film, and it has so much to say about this era as well as about man and his tenacity. Challenge the Wind was considered by a Hollywood producer for 6 months but, in the end, his company decided it would require too big a budget for them. Mr. Spielberg, I’m available.

BBPBesides pre-historic eras, are there other specific Basque personas that you are interested in exploring some day?

Christine Echeverria Bender: My next book is about Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, founder of San Diego in 1542, but a Basque navigator named Andres de Urdaneta will show up in the story. He was one of the few survivors of the Loaisa voyage (Spain’s second voyage of circumnavigation), as well as a monk, and the discoverer of the safest route from the East Indies to the New World. An amazing man.

BBPHow did you choose historical fiction as your medium, as opposed to purely fiction or a historical account that describes only the known facts?

Christine Echeverria Bender: History fascinates me, especially the little known elements of stories that have changed our world in notable ways. I tend to research like a non-fiction writer but fiction allows me to get to the hearts and minds of the characters. Although adult fiction, my books have become recommended reading by some departments of education, and I’ve been told it’s because people remember history if it touches them through a story. That means a great deal to me. It’s my goal as a writer.

BBP:  I’ll admit, I was a bit hesitant to begin Sails of Fortune as I tend to like my history more direct, without the embellishments of fiction, but I agree, I think I will remember your account much longer than I normally do precisely because of how you delve into the psyche of the characters. How do you approach doing this? I imagine that it is hard to, well, imagine how those people felt and thought since it was such a different time. How do you get into their mindset?

Christine Echeverria Bender: Through deep research of their lives and times, I try to form a detailed understanding of the characters. I search for what motivated them and how they most likely dealt with their challenges. I try to step into their shoes and determine how I would have felt and acted if I were born then, under those circumstances, and I had been given the same choices?

BBPThere are so many characters like Andres de Urdaneta. I could imagine Lope de Aguirre, Ignatius of Loyola, or more modern day figures such as Jose Antonio Aguirre would also make great protagonists. What most attracts you to a particular person, to choose that person to write about? Any Basque women on your list?

Christine Echeverria Bender: I tend to choose characters that played a fascinating role in world history. Some of the early writings of St. Ignatius may very well appear in my next book about Juan Cabrillo. As for Basque women, I may one day write about the Inquisition in the Basque Country and the women would definitely be featured.

BBPIs there anything else you’d like to say to the readers of Buber’s Basque Page?

Christine Echeverria Bender: I’m very grateful for those who’ve been so supportive of my work, including the producers of Buber’s Basque Page. I hope to continue to write of the historical contributions and adventures of the Basques for many years to come. Their stories need to be told.

BBPEskerrik asko, Christine!

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