Basque Fact of the Week: The Basques of Bakersfield, California

The western United States saw Basque communities, often centered around the sheep herding trade, pop up across the landscape. Newly arrived Basques needed places to stay and contacts to help guide them as they tried to navigate this foreign land and the Basque boarding houses were born. Some of those endured over a century, their role as a pillar of the local Basque community evolving with time. That is particularly true of the Basque boarding houses and restaurants of Bakersfield, California.

The Noriega Hotel. Image from Bakersfield.com.
  • The first European to explore California’s Central Valley, the future location of Bakersfield, was Gabriel Moraga. The son of Joaquin Moraga, the lieutenant of explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and founder of both San Francisco and San Jose, Gabriel explored the region during the years of 1805-1808. He gave many of the rivers in the area the names we use today, including the San Joaquin River, which then gave its name to the valley. The town of Moraga is named after Gabriel’s son. Though Moraga is a Basque name, Joaquin was born in what is today Arizona.
  • Basques began to flock to the area, many as sheepherders and many from Iparralde, the French side of the Basque Country. Basque hotels and boarding houses arose to greet and host the new immigrants. The oldest, the Noriega Hotel, opened in 1893 in Kern City. Originally called the Iberia Hotel, the first owners were Faustino Mier Noriega and Fernando Etcheverry. Standing one block from the railroad station, it was the first place many young Basques, who had the words “Noriega Hotel– Bakersfield, California” pinned to their clothes, stayed. The hotel changed hands many times over the years. The hotel was forced to close in 2020 due to the challenges associated with COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Bakersfield is known for its Basque restaurants, including to but in addition to the Noriega Hotel. These include Benji’s French Basque Restaurant, Chalet Basque Restaurant, Pyrenees Café, and the Wool Growers. The Wool Growers was started in 1954 by Mayie and JB Maitia while the Pyrenees originally opened in 1899. The Chalet Basque was founded in 1969 by JB and Marie Curutchague. Benji’s is the new kid on the block, so to speak, opening in 1986.
  • Part of what would become Tejon Ranch, the largest ranch and private land holding in California, lying just south of modern Bakersfield, was originally awarded to Jose Antonio Aguirre, a Basque from San Sebastian (the article says Bizkaia, but I assume they mean Gipuzkoa) in 1843 as part of Mexican land grants.
  • The Kern County Basque Club was formed in 1944 by John Ansolabehere, Frank Maitia, Sr., Felix Etcheverry, Raymond Castanchoa, and Inocencio Jaurena. In 1972, the site was expanded with the addition of a fronton. The club now hosts the largest annual Basque festival in California. They also hosted the Mexican handball team for the Olympic finals in 1979.
  • As with all of our Basque communities in the Western United States, that of Bakersfield is changing, epitomized by the closing of the Noriega Hotel. Bakersfield native Beaux Gest Mingus, and his filmmaking partner Gina Napolitan, are working to capture that history before it finally disappears. Over the last 8 years, they have roamed the Basque-American landscape. The fruit of their labors is the film The Disappearing West, which they hope to release this coming Christmas. Selected scenes are available at beauxmingus.com. Kyle Baker’s The Eighth Province also captures the history and evolution of the Basques of Bakersfield.

Primary sources: History of the Noriega Hotel, Stephen Bass; Basques in Early California and Kern County, Stephen Bass; Kern County Basque Club

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