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.

One thought on “An Interview with Gloria Totoricagüena”

  1. Thank you Gloria for explaining/defending what it means to be Basque in America. When I returned home to Boise in 1990 I joined Euskaldunak so my 4 year old daughter could learn about her culture and become a dancer. I “felt” I was an outsider for many years in the Boise community. It appeared somewhat of a closed community unless you were enough “Basque”, meaning family connection, ability to speak Basque, spouse etc. That feeling gradually left me as I kept attending events, making friends (who, interestingly, were the young people, not so much people my own age) and my daughter began dancing and making lifelong friends. My Amuma used to tell me when I was a little matumutie (sp) that if you want to be Basque enough then you can! Damiana Uberuaga

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