The baserri was not at all what Kepa expected. He had thought it was likely a rural outpost, surrounded by trees, just like the baserri he shared with his ama back in his own time. This baserri, however, was about as far from that as one could imagine.
Latxe had led Kepa through the tunnels until they reached a ladder that led through a small hole in the ceiling. Latxe pushed a stone in the wall and a small compartment opened up. Inside were several bundled packages. Latxe rummaged through them, muttering to herself. “Female, large. Male, small. Male, medium.” She grabbed that one and tossed it to Kepa. “Female, small.” She took that one for herself.
“Go ahead and get changed,” she said as she started pulling off her robe. “These robes will be too conspicuous up there.”
Kepa blushed as he started pulling off his robe. He turned as he saw a flash of Latxe’s naked skin, blushing as he revealed his own body, naked except his underwear. For whatever reason, he felt more awkward than he did when he wore that transparent bodysuit. He quickly tore open the package she had given him and put on the clothes without really looking at them. When he was done, he turned.
Latxe was already dressed and looking at him curiously. “Not quite your style, I don’t think, but it will do,” she said with a smirk. Kepa looked down at himself. He was wearing red rubber pants that almost squeaked when he moved. His shirt was white, but with billowy arms that ended in large square cuffs. The hem of his shirt was also square shaped.
Latxe, on the other hand, looked stunning. She had on a white bodysuit that hugged her body tightly. Ribbons of color wrapped around her at various angles and slightly hovering over her body. One arm was covered in shades of blue, the other in shades of red. They merged as they met her body, blending into purples that encircled her torso before splitting again into reds and blues, this time on opposite legs.
Latxe winked at him before she shoved their robes into the cubby and closed it and then started climbing the ladder. On the other side, hands waited to pull him up and out. Two other figures, both women, grabbed his hands and pulled him into the sunlight.
They all stood at a blank wall at the base of one of the city’s many skyscrapers. As they stood there, a few random people walked by, not paying them any attention. They were dressed in some of the strangest outfits yet and Kepa wondered if anyone would really notice them wearing their robes.
The two women kept glancing up and down the walkway. After a few moments, there was a lull in the pedestrians. “Orain,” said one of the women. Kepa watched as the other woman, tall and dressed in all black except her eyes, which were stark white, pulled out some kind of handheld tablet device and started tapping at the screen. A moment later, Kepa watched in astonishment as a door materialized out of nowhere in the wall.
Latxe ushered Kepa in as the two other women hung back. “Welcome to the baserri,” she said.
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The phrase Zazpiak Bat – the seven [are] one – signifies the unity of the seven Basque provinces – four in Spain and three in France. It is also the nickname of the Basque coat of arms – the Euskal Harmarriak. But wait, there are only six panels in the coat of arms! Hold on… I see the seventh… the red lion and the fleur-de-lis are two separate ones, representing two different provinces, right? Nope! So, what’s going on here…?
Though there are seven Basque provinces, there are only six fields on the Zazpiak Bat. That’s because Nafarroa and Nafarroa Beherea share the first field, the chains of Nafarroa. The chains first appeared during the reign of Theobald I of Nafarroa, in the early-to-mid 1200s. Legend says that the chains, and the emerald that sits in the middle, represent the chains broken and the emerald captured during the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212.
Next comes the coat of arms of the province of Gipuzkoa. The original design, dating back to 1466, had a king on his throne holding a sword in the upper half and three trees, likely yews, above the sea in the lower half. The king is likely either Alfonso VIII or Enrique IV, while the trees represent the inherent nobility of the people. In 1513, twelve cannons were added to upper panel, to the right of the king (as illustrated here). They represent the cannons captured during the Battle of Belate the year before. In a decision made in 1931 but not enacted until 1979, the king and cannons, representing monarchy and feudalism, were removed. The official coat of arms of the province now only contains the trees and the sea. Some versions of the Zazpiak Bat have the older version while some have the newer version.
The last field on the top row comes from Bizkaia. There are again a couple of versions. The actual coat of arms of the province has the tree of Gernika superimposed on a silver cross surrounded by eight red Xs (or saltires). Before 1986, Bizkaia’s coat of arms also included two black wolves, each with a lamb in its mouth, representing the House of Haro. Legend has it that two wolves crossed Jaun Zuria’s path before his victory at the Battle of Arrigorriaga. Sabino Arana suggested that the wolves represented monarchy and was anathema to the Basque spirit, so they were eventually dropped.
First on the bottom row is the coat of arms of Araba. Around the edge is written “en aumento de la justicia contra malhechores” meaning “in heightened justice against wrongdoers.” There is a castle upon a rock with an armored arm holding a sword sticking out of the rock, defending the castle against a rearing red lion. The castle represents Portilla Castle, an important defensive point in the Kingdom of Nafarroa. The appearance of the castle in Araba’s coat of arms dates back to the 13th century.
Lapurdi comes next. Its coat of arms consists of a red lion holding a sword or a dart on a gold background and a gold fleur-de-lis on a blue background. These were directly taken from the coat of arms of the town of Uztaritze when it became capitol of the province. The lion likely represents the rulers of the region and the fleur-de-lis represents the union with France under Charles VII.
Finally comes Zuberoa, which is a gold lion on a red background. It was originally the coat of arms of the lord of Mauléon, the capital of the province.
The Laurak Bat, the coat of arms of the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC), comprised of Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, and Araba, has three fields for those three provinces, plus a fourth blank red field. Until 1986, the last one contained the chains of Nafarroa, but the government of Nafarroa filed suit and the Spanish Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that the BAC could not use the chains any longer.
There are lots of variants of the Zazpiak Bat as it isn’t the official coat of arms of any specific legal entity. The order of the fields changes from version to version and so too does the detail of each specific field.
Maite stood at the edge of the patio and looked over the city. She watched as, in real time, a new building, a tall sky-scrapper, appeared in the distance. First its core structure grew literally out of the ground. Then the walls. It was another one of these organic structures, with numerous pods growing out of the sides covered in trees.
“How?” she asked in awe as she turned back to De Lancre.
“Nanotech,” he said with a shrug. “I admit, I understand none of it. It is so far removed from what we had in my time. But, my understanding is that there are literally billions of little robots that swarm together to build these things. Like an army of ants, but doing our bidding.”
“Who’s bidding, exactly?”
De Lancre shrugged again as he took another sip of his coffee. “Not mine, if that’s what you are asking. If I could control them, then I would have routed Marina a long time ago.”
“There is some central computer that guides them. It does simulations of what is needed most to adapt the city to the needs of the people. It anticipates growth, changes in the economy, those kinds of things. And it builds new structures or takes down old ones based on those simulations.”
Maite shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts. “It’s so amazing.”
“I thought you might find it interesting. At the ground level, it is hard to appreciate how the city is almost a living organism, and I mean that literally. But, from up here, you can watch it change, watch it grow and almost breathe.”
Maite sighed and turned back toward the table. She sat down, grabbed her coffee cup but just stared at its surface. She looked up at the man across from her, who she realized had been watching her intently. She had to admit that he was an attractive, even handsome man. And he certainly had his charms.
She quickly took a sip of coffee to hide the blush that rushed to her cheeks.
Once she had regained her composure, she put her cup down. “So, what now?”
“That’s up to you,” said De Lancre with a smile that made Maite’s blood go cold. “I’d like you to stay, to get to know you better, and to show you this world I’ve helped make. However, unfortunately, I can’t let you leave. You are simply too dangerous to be out there, plotting against me. So, you’ll stay regardless. It just depends on if it will be as my guest or my prisoner.”
A cold shiver ran down Maite’s spine, but she did her best to hide it from De Lancre.
“I…” she began. “I would like to get to know you better too.”
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Perhaps one of the most defining things that separate humans from the rest of the animal world is our command of fire. Fire is essential to who we are and how we have developed as a species. Indeed, it has been suggested that our taming of fire, and our development of cooking, is what let us evolve to Homo sapiens. Thus, it is no surprise that fire is a key element in Basque culture. Several expressions highlight the central role of fire to the Basques: su bako etxea, gorputz odol bagea – a home without fire is like a body without blood; sua eta ura morroi onak, nagusi gaiztoak – fire and water are good servants, but bad masters. But fire’s role goes beyond a few nuggets of wisdom.
At one time, the population was counted not by person, but by the number of fires, or families, in the province. A house could have more than one fire, and thus more than one family (a large baserri or caserio could house more than one family, sort of duplex style). The Book of Fires, from 1366 in Nafarroa, counted 18,219 fires in the province.
The Fueros of Nafarroa stipulated that, particularly in towns that were short of firewood, neighbors had to share fire, with strict guidelines on how the fire of the hearth had to be maintained and how the one who needed fire, with a pot of straw, was to take away their own embers.
Until the end of the 19th century, most domestic fire was produced using flint and tinder, where the tinder was made, at least in Gipuzkoa, from beech trees. The tinder would be cooked with water in ash and then dried completely. This tinder could be easily lit with sparks from a flint. With the advent of matches, this method quickly disappeared.
The kitchen fire is central to the concept of home and was considered a supernatural spirit, symbolizing the home and serving as a vehicle to ancestors. Many favors, including aiding the second teething of children, purifying foods, and consecrating outside people and animals into the house, were asked of the fire. If one wanted to attract a new person into the family and house, they would walk around the fire. Every year, at Christmas Eve, the fire would be renewed with a new log.
Fire was also used to announce the death and burial of people in the home. Fires were lit either at the crossroads near the home or at the doorway, heralding the burial of a family member.
The trip to the baserri was uneventful. Marina guided Kepa through dark tunnels until they came to a fork. There she handed Kepa off to another woman, dressed in the same dark robes as the men and women he had met earlier.
“Don’t worry,” Marina said as she left down the left fork. “It is best to split up for the time being, to throw them off our tracks. Latxe will take you from here.”
Kepa gave a numb nod, not really caring where he went at this point. All he could do was think about Maite.
Latxe led Kepa down the right fork. While she was hidden behind her robes, her voice was soft and gentle as she spoke. “Everything will be alright. Olatz has kept us safe so far.”
“Not all of us,” mumbled Kepa.
Latxe stopped, putting her hand on Kepa’s shoulder. “I know this is hard. I lost someone back there too. But we’ll get them back. And it will all be worth it.”
“What will be worth it?” replied Kepa. “What are we trying to do?”
“Change the system. Preserve our freedoms.”
“I only just got here,” said Kepa, “but it seems to me everyone up there -” he pointed to the ceiling, indicating the masses of people he imagined swarming around on the ground above them “- are happy. Do they want change?”
Latxe glanced up, as if she could see those people. “Sometimes, people don’t know what is best for themselves.”
“But you do?” asked Kepa.
Latxe turned back to look at Kepa. She pulled off her hood. Kepa was shocked to see that her face was covered with a jagged scar that ran down from her forehead, down the bridge of her nose, and across her left cheek until it stopped at her lip. Her brown eyes trembled with emotion.
“I don’t, to be honest. But what I do know is that things can’t stay the way they are. Any voice that speaks out, that dares questions the way things are, is violently silenced.” Latxe ran a finger along her scar. “I got this during a raid on my parents’ apartment, when I was barely a teen. My parents were advocates for change, for the freedom to question the way things were. They wrote articles and even appeared on the feed a few times. But, they got too big, I guess. The government burst in and took them, leaving this as a reminder when I tried to get in the way. I haven’t seen them since.”
Kepa just stammered. “I’m so… sorry.”
Latxe sighed. “All I’m saying is that, while the people think they are happy, it’s only because they follow the lanes set by the government. Any time anyone questions what lane they are in, or what direction they are going, the government is there to stop them. And, if that power gets in the wrong hands…”
“Zalazar,” whispered Kepa.
Latxe nodded. “In the wrong hands, it could get so much worse.”
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During the Spanish Civil War, particularly the years of 1936-1937, thousands of women and children, many of the latter without their parents, were evacuated from the Basque Country to a variety of countries, including the Soviet Union, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Denmark. I’ll write about some of these others in the future. However, a key destination for many of these children was the United Kingdom.
On May 21, 1937, the ship SS Habana left the Basque port of Santurce with some 4,000 children, headed for the British city of Southampton. They stayed in the Stoneham camp, consisting of some 250 tents, organized by the Basque Children’s Committee. The evacuation to Britain was not without controversy, as some in the British government viewed it as a breach of the non-interventionist policy and others argued it would prolong the war by reducing the number of “mouths… that don’t have to be fed” by the Basque government.
The children were placed all across the country in what were called colonies. For example, about 60 children were placed at Beach House, in Worthing. The government provided no support – rather, the hosting families and other volunteers raised the necessary funds and clothing to support the children. In fact, the government demanded that the Basque Children’s Committee guarantee 10 shillings per week per child to pay for the care and education. The children stayed there for a few years before most returned to the Basque Country. A plaque was recently placed on the Beach House by the Basque Children of ’37 Association to commemorate their role in aiding these children.
While most children eventually returned home to the Basque Country – by 1940 only about 500 remained in the UK – others made new lives in their adopted countries. Sabino Barinaga and Raimundo Perez Lezama, two of the 4,000 children to arrive in 1937, became professional soccer players. 14 years old when they arrived in the UK, they honed their soccer skills on British fields before returning to Spain. Barinaga played for Real Madrid while Lezama was a goalkeeper for Athletic Bilbao. They met in the 1943 Spanish Cup final where Lezama’s Athletic Bilbao team beat Real Madrid 1-0. Other refugee children also made careers in soccer following their encampment in the UK.
Another 230 children were sent to Wales. The Basque Country and Wales have a long history of interchange, with Basques working in Welsh industrial cities in the 1880s and Welsh workers doing the same in the early 1900s. 56 of these children made it to Caerleon and soccer was again a distraction from the harsh realities of being so far from home in the middle of a war. They formed a team, called by some “The Basque Wonder Team” and “The Basque Unbeatables,” that became somewhat of a sensation in southern Wales. One of the boys, Enrique Garatea Bello, became a professional goalie back in Spain after returning home.
Kepa sat in a dark room, huddled with several others who had made their way from the control room to this safe room. Olatz, or Marina – Kepa still wasn’t quite sure how he should think about her – was on the other side of the room, conferring with what Kepa assumed were her lieutenants; Argia was among them. He could hear them arguing and see them gesticulating, but he really didn’t care. All he could do was think about Maite, beating himself up for leaving her behind. He wondered where she was.
Olatz stood, turning to the crowd in front of her.
“The control room is gone,” she said. “We destroyed everything before we left, so they shouldn’t be able to trace us, but we’re going to have to rebuild before we can restart our operations. You should all disperse back home, according to our protocols, to ensure you aren’t conspicuous and traced back here. Those of us with no home to go to -” was she looking at Kepa? “- we’ll regroup at the baserri in twenty-four hours. It is imperative that you aren’t followed. Better to not show up than to let the enemy find us, again.”
A murmur rippled through the crowd as they began talking amongst one another. A few stood, embraced, and then disappeared through one of the doorways that exited the room. Over the course of the next few hours, people slowly trickled out until all that were left were Olatz, some of her lieutenants, and Kepa.
Argia sat down next to Kepa.
“Sentitzen dut,” she said.
Kepa looked up. “Huh?”
“I’m sorry, about Maite.”
Kepa just nodded absentmindedly.
“I’ve lost a number of friends during the course of this… revolution,” continued Argia. “It never gets easier, but eventually you sort of get numb.”
Kepa’s eyes flashed, a spark of anger coursing through him, but he let it pass before he said anything. “I never want to become numb to losing those important to me.”
Olatz – Marina – walked over to them and squatted down in front of Kepa. “We’ll find her, I promise.”
Looking up at her, Kepa asked “How do you even know she’s alive?”
“De Lancre – Zalazar – wouldn’t kill her, I can promise you that.”
“Your promises seem somewhat… hollow.”
Marina brushed aside the slight, instead opting to change the topic. “We need to get to the baserri.” She stood and offered a hand to Kepa. “Time to go.”
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Today is my dad’s birthday. He would have turned 78.I miss you dad.
My dad had a bit of a temper, especially when I was younger. My brothers and I were on the receiving end of more than one spanking. And dad certainly mellowed as he (or we…?) got older. But the times I remember most aren’t when he got mad at me for some stupid thing I did, but the times when he didn’t.
One time, we were at a friend’s house, loading wood into dad’s pickup truck. It was a Ford F-250, if I remember right. Dual tone, purple and white or grey. Dad really used that thing, towing his tractor and, once, even his loaded hay truck. Anyways, dad and his friend were cutting up a tree and we – my brothers and I – were loading the pieces into the bed of the truck. I didn’t want to be there. I don’t remember how old I was, maybe early teen, but I guess I had better things to do. I was grumpy and I was carelessly tossing the logs into the back when one of them bounced just wrong and went through the sliding window on the back of the cab. I was so sure I was going to get chewed out or worse, but dad just asked if it was an accident. When I said yes, he sort of shrugged and went back to work.
But the most surprising time happened when I was even younger. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet, so this was before I was fourteen (Idaho has a young driving age). It was cold out, sometime in the winter, and dad asked me to start the pickup – that same F-250, I think, but he had a few different ones over the years so I’m not sure – to warm it up. I climbed into the cab and, just like he had taught me and I’d seen him do a hundred times, I turned the key and gave the engine a little gas to get it flowing. The pickup suddenly lurched forward, smashing through the garage door and all the way through the garage until it hit the chest freezer in the back, where it finally came to a stop. Mom still has that chest freezer, with a big dent in it.
The whole thing took literally seconds and I don’t think I realized what had happened for a few minutes. When everyone came out, dad asked why I hadn’t put in the clutch before starting it. I stammered, telling him I didn’t know about the clutch, that I did what he had always done and what he told me. It turns out that he had parked it in gear, which I’m sure he always did but I never realized. I’m sure I was in a state of shock. He was sure upset, but not mad like I might have expected.
I don’t remember what we did next – I guess removed the remains of that garage door and got the truck back out. I don’t recall if dad ever made it to wherever he was going. Mom and dad couldn’t afford a new garage door, so dad simply put up a couple of sheets of plywood on hinges to create a huge swinging double door. The garage sort of became his own Txoko – a place where he could do his thing, hang with his friends. He’d sit in there often, cleaning and braiding his garlic, sometimes with a few buddies and a bottle of wine, a six-pack of beer, or whiskey. His salt box, where he cured his hams, was in there too, and he’d often have a leg out that he’d slice off pieces of ham for him and his friends. They played more than one game of mus in there. Dad took the box of lemons I gave him and made some awesome lemonade.
It wasn’t until many years later, long after I’d gone to college and graduated, that mom and dad finally replaced those sheets of plywood with a regular garage door.
Ok, there is one time I remember when he got really mad at me. I don’t remember the context, but we were all at our house, and mom and dad had some friends over. We were all supposed to do something, something exciting that I couldn’t wait for. I want to say it might have been Christmas, and maybe we had to do something before we could open presents. I’m not sure. Anyways, dad was sitting in his recliner, talking with his friends in Basque. I kept trying to get his attention, because I really wanted to do whatever it was we were going to do. And we had to wait for him and his friends. Over and over, I kept saying “dad,” “come on,” “let’s go,” but he was engrossed with his friends and ignoring me. So, I decided to get his attention. I hit him in the balls. That sure got his attention! Dad got really mad. Mom said something like “He didn’t know what he was doing.” Dad shook his head, his face red in anger, and said “He knew exactly what he was doing.” I got a spanking right there and then. But, dad was right, I knew what I was doing. I was getting his attention!
Thanks to Lisa Van De Graaff for encouraging me to record dad and his stories when I could.
This article originally appeared in Basque and Spanish at Euskalkultura.eus on January 13, 2022.
On this Memorial Day, we bring you the story of Joseph Etcheverry and Helena (Santana) Etcheverry, a story of our diaspora that, like many others, unites and connects origins in Euskal Herria — in this case Ortzaize and Arrosa, in Nafarroa Beherea — with trajectories that take us through the Basque communities in the world, in this case Ayacucho, in Argentina, and Battle Mountain, in Nevada, where the couple formed a home and raised their family. Joseph Etcheverry, who participated in the European stage of WWII, died in 1988, and Helene followed him on October 2, 2021, just after turned 100 years old.
“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.
Throughout 1929, a new generation of young Basques arrived in the United States of America. On April 3, at the age of 17, Joseph Etcheverry Oxoteguy, a native of the Nafarroa Beherea town of Ortzaitze, made that journey. Along with him, a group of compatriots in their twenties arrived at the port of New York aboard the ocean liner Paris; among them Jean Bastanchury, Jean Elgart, and Jean Ernaga, all three from Urepele, Jean Bidegaray, from Mendibe, Pierre Duhalde, from Biarritz, and Germain Elissondo, from Bithiriña. They all joined the sheep industry in the American West as sheep herders, pursuing the dream of a better life that many of their ancestors had conquered.
Little could these young immigrants imagine that a few months after their arrival, on October 29, the New York Stock Exchange would collapse, initiating one of the largest economic recessions in US history. The so-called Great Depression began and lasted until 1933. If at the beginning of 1929 unemployment stood at 4%, in 1930 it became 9%. In 1933, it reached 25%. The 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrathby John Steinbeck, made into a film by John Ford in 1940, perfectly reflects the horrors of the consequences of the recession and the deep despair of those who, at one point, saw their own Promised Land in America.
Joseph Enlists in Nevada
Joseph was headed to Battle Mountain, a town in central Nevada, on the way between Reno and Salt Lake City, Utah. His cousin Pierre “Peter” Oxoteguy, who had entered the country three years earlier when he had just turned 17, lived in this small, predominantly mining town in Lander County. From his arrival until his enlistment into the United States Army in October 1942, Joseph worked as a shepherd. At the time of his enlistment, he was working for the Eureka Land and Stock Co., living in the small rural town of Eureka – about 140 miles south of Battle Mountain – popularly known as the friendliest town on the loneliest highway in the country. He was 30 years old.
His family tells us that Joseph was aware of the invasion and brutal occupation of his native country by Nazi Germany in 1940. Two years later he had the opportunity to enlist and he did not hesitate to take advantage of it, although he was not even a US citizen, like tens of thousands of other immigrants who fought in World War II under the banner of the stars and stripes. In fact, despite his sacrifice and loyalty to his host country, Joseph would not achieve American citizenship until June 19, 1950.
In the European Theater of Operations
Joseph was assigned to the 485th Air Service Squadron, 9th Service Group, which would be mobilized and deployed to the European Theater of Operations. The 9th Service Group was based at Andover Aerodrome, in Hampshire, England. It was part of the 70th and 71st Fighter Wings (composed of P-47 Thunderbolt and P-38 Lightning fighter-bombers) of the Ninth Air Force, which was the tactical combat component of the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe and fought enemy forces in Normandy (D-Day), France, the Netherlands, and in Nazi Germany.
According to his daughter, Bernadette Etcheverry, Joseph participated in the Normandy invasion in June 1944. “I have a photo,” Bernadette relates, “of a big wedding that took place just after the Normandy invasion, in which the couple were so pleased with what had just happened that they asked the troop commander if a couple of men could take part in a photo with the wedding attendees. My father was one of the men.”
On January 10, 1946, Joseph was honorably discharged with the rank of Private First Class in Namur, Belgium. At the time he was assigned to the 473rd Air Service Group Headquarters and Base Service Squadron. Joseph was awarded the Bronze Service Star (attached to his Europe, Africa, and Middle East campaign ribbon) for his unit’s participation in the Northern France campaign (July 25, 1944 – September 14, 1944) which liberated most of France and Belgium.
From Belgium, Joseph headed for Ortzaitze to visit his family. It had been 17 years since he had left. There he met Eléna or Helene Santana Anchartechahar, a young woman from the neighboring town of Arrosa, with whom he fell in love at first sight, marrying on February 27, 1946.
Helene was born on August 6, 1921 in Ayacucho, in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where her parents had immigrated after marrying in 1911, hoping to start a new life. Three other daughters of the couple (Marie, Catherine, and Stephanie) were born in Argentina and a fifth (Marie Angel) would be born in Arrosa after the family returned to the Basque Country to take care of the maternal farmhouse, “Gerechitenia,” at the request of the family. While, in theory, Helene’s maternal uncle should have taken over the farm, he had died in the Great War. Helene was about two years old when she undertook what would be her first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
Born in Ayacucho, Return to Arrosa
Helene and her sisters grew up in the Arrosa farmhouse. The family tells us how “life on the farm wasn’t always easy, but Helene loved working in the fields with her father and taking care of the animals.” “On Sundays she spent the afternoons with the nuns learning to do different sewing tasks.” The Great American Depression dragged down much of Europe’s financial and economic system. France also succumbed to the effects of the crisis, especially starting in 1931. Unemployment and poverty were a constant. Helene survived both the Great Depression and the subsequent Nazi occupation of Iparralde between 1940 and 1944, which “helped her deal with extreme hardship throughout her life.”
Joseph returned to Nevada shortly after their wedding, where he again worked as a sheep herder for the W.T. Jenkins Sheep Company. Joseph would never return to Euskal Herria. In 1947, Louise Jenkins Marvel, a great friend of the Basques, sponsored the visa of Helene and that of her son Alexander “Alex,” who was born on October 11, 1946 in Arrosa (Alex would die on November 6, 1965 near Reno, in a highway accident).
Helene and her baby flew from Orly Airport, Paris to La Guardia Airport, New York on Air France, arriving on July 13, 1947. Helene was 25 years old and Alex was 9 months old. They later boarded a train that took them to Reno, traversing most of the country. Her daughter Bernadette Etcheverry points out that “with her on her journey there were several Basques who helped her along the way, something for which she was always grateful.” Among them were two young men from her husband’s hometown, Joseph Oilamburu and Jean Lekumberry. The latter would later become the owner of the famous Gardnerville Basque bar and restaurant, Nevada JT Basque Bar and Dining Room. The emigration story of Helene’s parents was thus repeated a generation later with her and her son. They had crossed the Atlantic again in search of a new beginning. Joseph met his son for the first time, and he and Helene were back together.
Basque, the First Language of the Etcheverrys in Nevada
Louise Jenkins set them up at the Martin Ranch, a small cabin within the Jenkins’ main ranch. “The first few years were difficult for Helene,” says Bernadette. “But she went ahead with her plans to create a home for her growing family” in Nevada. Alex was joined by John, Raymond, and Bernadette. Her daughter remembers how Helene used to tell them that she “cried every day for the first two years of living in Nevada, but the dry, dusty heat finally made it hard to produce tears.” When Helene arrived in the country, she did not speak English and was self-taught, learning the language by reading books. At her house they only spoke Basque and this was the only language that her three oldest children learned at home. By interacting and playing with other children they began to learn some words in English. Only when they started school did they learn to communicate in English.
Sometime in 1948, Joseph began working in the mines in Natomas, a mining district about 20 miles south of Battle Mountain. The family moved into housing provided by the mining company. They remained there until 1956, the year in which they moved to Battle Mountain. Joseph got a job as a butcher at the town grocery store. He also built fences part-time for the Artistic Fence Company in Reno, Nevada, which later led him to building guardrails along the highway from the Wendover state line on the Nevada-Utah border. Utah, to the California state line, on the Nevada-California border. Joseph was getting older and finally took a job with the Lander County Water District, from which he retired when he couldn’t work anymore.
In 1985, after 37 years in the country, at the age of 63, Helene finally fulfilled her dream of becoming a US citizen. “She loved America and was always grateful for its help during the war, and for the kindness she received when she came as a stranger to a country she couldn’t even speak the language of,” confesses her daughter Bernadette Etcheverry. “Her greatest joy,” she continues, “was seeing the American flag fluttering in the breeze, and she couldn’t listen to the Star-Spangled Banner without tears coming to her eyes.” “She was Basque-American and she loved this country. And she still had a part of her heart that was 100% Basque.” Helene returned to her homeland for the first time to see her family in 1989, after 42 years, and she did so again in 1998, both times in the company of her daughter.
‘Oberenak,’ the Legacy in Nevada…
The story of Joseph and Helene follows paths similar to those pursued by many other families and generations of Basques. Euskal Herria is only understood in its entirety when the stories of those who for one reason or another had to leave its geographical confines are included. The country’s emigrant sons and daughters largely reflect the society they left behind. Joseph died in 1988 at the age of 75, at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Reno. Helene passed away only last year, on October 2, 2021, just two months after celebrating her 100th birthday.
Bernadette tells us that Helene celebrated her 100th birthday “with a parade full of balloons, flowers… and lots of well wishes from friends, family, and community members. Helene experienced the celebration and dance with joy in her heart. She sang along with music in Basque. At the end of the day,” her daughter emphasizes, “Helene mastered more than five languages, which is not bad for a girl born in Argentina in 1921, who she says she did not pass the fifth grade. Yes, she built a house in another place, but she worked hard to keep the memory of the house that her family came out of long ago. That day, her home came back to her.” Helene was one of the founding members of the Battle Mountain Basque association “Oberenak,” created in 1997. A lauburu and the words “Eskualdun-Fededun”, engraved on their tombstones summarize a Basque legacy in the United States that Helene and Joseph passed on to their four children, 14 grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren, and 13 great-great-grandchildren.
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Counting is one of the most elementary human tasks, one of the first things we learn as children, rattling off numbers as we hold up our fingers to record our count. In most of the western world, we count by tens, a natural extension of our ten fingers (and thumbs). Basque is different, with a system based on twenties (this doesn’t mean Basques took off their shoes to get to twenty). However, that is only one of the intriguing aspects of Basque numbers.
It is a well known, and often pointed to, fact that the Basque number system is based on 20 rather than 10; that it is vigesimal. The first ten digits (1-10) have their own names, the teens (11-19) are, for the most part, 10+X where X is a single digit, but then comes twenty, hogei in Basque. From then on, to 100, the counting goes as 20+X, where X is a number between 1-19. So, 35 is literally expressed as 20+10+5 (hogeita hamabost).
But, that is only the beginning. First, there is the question of where the names for the numbers come from. It’s hard to be certain, and finding etymologies of the names for the Basque digits – bat, bi, hiru, lau, … – requires a lot of linguistic reconstruction, sleuthing, and pure guess work. In their recent paper Reconstruction of the Ancient Numeral System in Basque Language, Gomez-Acedo and Gomez-Acedo provide possible etymologies for the first ten numbers in Basque, relating them to the words eri and ahur, finger and palm, respectively. They come to the conclusion that, for example, bat originally meant something like “there is a finger,” hiru meant “two fingers in the palm” (meaning three are up), and bost meant “see the whole hand.” I’m no linguist, so can’t comment on how solid these proposed etymologies are, but it is an interesting hypothesis.
The base-twenty number system was used by Basque sheepherders to count their sheep. As detailed by Araujo in his paper Counting Sheep in Basque, two Basque sheepherders would work together to count the flock. One would hold five stones or nails – or really anything small – in one hand. As he counted, when he hit twenty, he would move one of the stones to his other hand. When all five had been moved, that meant 100 sheep had been counted and he would yell out “ehun!” – one hundred – to the other herder, who would then make a mark on a stick. When they were all done, the total number of sheep would be however many hundreds indicated by the marks on the stick, plus however many twenties represented by the stones moved from one hand to the other, and wherever number between 1-19 the first herder was at when the last sheep went through the gate.
While, like much of the world, Basque uses the Arabic numeral system to actually write out numbers, Basque millers had their own system involving a series of lines and circles. The details varied from region to region, but with this system they could easily indicate numbers up to 100 with seemingly complex patterns. They could even account for fractions. The system used in Dima seems to have been based on 40 rather than 20, with 40 having a unique symbol but 20 being essentially two 10s.