Basque Fact of the Week: Pete Cenarrusa

Wherever Basques go, they make their mark, and that is just as true in American politics. In a twenty year run, spanning from 1967 to 1987, Paul Laxalt was Governor of Nevada and served the state as a US Senator. In California, John Garamendi was Lieutenant Governor and currently represents the 3rd district of California in the US House of Representatives. In Idaho, probably the most storied and successful politician of Basque heritage was Pete Cenarrusa.

Pete Cenarrusa holding an ikurrina in the Idaho state capitol. Photo from ElPais.
  • Pete was born on December 16, 1917 in Carey, Idaho. His mother, Ramona Gardoqui, was a native of Gernika while Pete’s father, Joe Cenarruza, was from Munitibar, both in Bizkaia. Pete attended the University of Idaho, majoring in agricultural sciences, and later taught in Cambridge, Idaho. However, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Pete enlisted in the US Marines, training as a pilot first in Corpus Christi, Texas, and then in Cherry Point, North Carolina. After the war, he returned to Idaho to teach, where he fell in love with one of his students, Freda Coates – they were married in 1947.
  • Pete began his political career in 1950, when he ran for the Idaho House of Representatives as a Republican and won his first election. This began a fifty year career in politics. In 1963, he was elected Speaker of the House. In 1967, he was named Secretary of State of Idaho. Upon his retirement in 2003, he had been the longest serving elected official in Idaho history.
  • Pete used his position to champion causes in the Basque Country. In 1970, he advised Idaho Governor Don Samuelson to send a communication to General Franco requesting that the Burgos Trials – military tribunals prosecuting 16 members of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna – be transferred from a military to a civilian court, that the defendants enjoy the right of a public trial, and the entire process be protected. Cenarrusa organized a committee with 200 other Basques from the state to exert pressure and send a telegram to Franco asking for clemency. Pete and his Basque colleagues were also able to gain the support of Idaho Senator Frank Church.
  • Pete and Freda made their first trip to the Basque Country – to the villages of his parents – in 1971. They also met with the Basque government-in-exile in Iparralde during this trip. He was interviewed by several news outlets, and surprised people by the quality of his Euskara and his relatively poor understanding of Spanish.
  • Upon his return to Idaho, he organized a declaration of human rights for the Basques, which asked the Spanish government to observe the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and which the Idaho legislature unanimously approved. Church presented the document in the US Senate.
  • Cenarrusa became an ambassador of sorts for the Basque people. In 1977, he traveled again to Euskadi as an official observer of their first democratic elections since the Spanish Civil War. In 1987, he accompanied Lehendakari José Antonio Ardanza to a reception with President Ronald Reagan. During that trip, Ardanza asked Idaho to declare itself the eighth Basque province.
  • In 2003, Pete and Freda Cenarrusa founded the Cenarrusa Foundation for Basque Culture, which promotes the knowledge and dissemination of the culture and history of the Basques. Pete died in Boise on September 29, 2013.

Primary source: Totoricagüena Egurrola, Gloria Pilar; Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia. Cenarrusa Gardoqui, Pete. Enciclopedia Auñamendi. Available at:

What do you think? Leave a Reply!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.