Kaletarrak eta Baserritarrak: East Coast and West Coast Basques in the United StatesEscuchar artículo - Artikulua entzun

Dr. Gloria Totoricagüena, Center for Basque Studies. University of Nevada, Reno

The day-to-day life experiences of Basque urban immigrants, and their experiences of maintaining Basque ethnic identity in New York, Miami, and Tampa share little with the communities of the American west, or with those of Central or South America. New York’s proximity to the Basque Country has facilitated constant travel and exchange, and the surrounding influences of living in the immigration gateway to the United States have impacted these East Coast Basques’ cosmopolitan definitions of Basqueness. They share multi-layered identities and have no problems whatsoever describing themselves as “Basque-Gallego-Hungarian-American”, as does Vivian Zuluaga-Papp, or, “I am Italian-Irish-Basque-American,” as stated by Elizabeth Aspiazu. Others, such as Xanti Mendieta and Karlos Iturralde simply define themselves as “Basques living in the United States.” Basques in Miami and Tampa are surrounded with Hispanic culture and access to international sporting, art, culture, and media events. Their physical environments envelop many ethnic groups who maintain their native languages, traditions, and values, and this eases the desires of the Basque communities to do the same.

Altube ranch, men on horses (1900).
Esteban Aspiazu in USA Merchant Marines.

Baserritarrak, literally “those from the farm” or rural, versus kaletarrak, literally, “those from the street” or urban, differences in understanding of life and identity are prevalent in most societies. In Basque Country society, these differences between people of the streets and people of the farms have been transplanted to the new host country of the United States and its east coast “city Basques” and west coast “rural Basques”. Western Basques have a stereotype of the easterners, and the easterners also have many misconceptions of western Basques in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. Not every Basque heading west became a sheepherder! Numerous Basques I have interviewed in New York consistently have asked me many questions about those of us in the west, and the overwhelming majority believed that “the Basques out there in the west” still live on vast ranches with massive land holdings and work in sheepherding and commercial gardening. There are Basques working in landscaping and gardening for commercial and private clients (mainly in California) and a few Basques do live on ranches, but these are a small minority of the thousands spread throughout nine western states.

Correcting this misunderstanding becomes a segment of almost every encounter between eastern and western Basques. The same is true of today’s west coast Basques’ lack of knowledge and understanding of the United States’ first incorporated Basque organization in New York, and the thousands of Basques who live and work on the eastern seaboard. Most do not live in fifty-story apartment buildings surrounded by gang violence, screeching busses, or pollution. Most of “those New Yorkers” own peaceful homes with gardens, drive their children and grandchildren to weekend soccer matches, and enjoy Sunday barbecues at home on the back patio. Yet there are obviously differences that attribute to life as a Basque in New York City or Miami, where a person is merely from one of hundreds of ethnic, cultural, or religious groups, as opposed to a Basque living in a more homogeneous Buffalo, Wyoming.

While historically, the majority of Basques in the American west experienced a country-to-country cultural shift from agricultural life in the Basque Country to agriculture in the United States, those moving to New York City experienced an additional country-to-city life cultural crisis. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the overwhelming majority of Basque immigrants to New York had never lived in a city, had never seen a building taller than three or four floors, and had never seen live Asian, Middle Eastern, or African people. “There were people from Lekeitio with me and they had never even seen a woman wearing pants, let alone all those other people and their ethnic clothes! New York was incredible for us, you know, we just couldn’t believe that all those things were real!” exclaimed one Basque immigrant.

The images upon arrival were truly traumatic for some, though liberating for others. Life in the city created completely different categories of stress factors for immigrants. These were no more, or less, significant than those of young Basque men who were left alone in the Nevada mountain desert with responsibility for 1500 sheep for weeks at a time. Immigrants to New York did not face the loneliness of the desert and physical isolation from other human beings, they suffered from the bombardment of hundreds of unknown languages, foods, styles of dress, religious worship, and human lifestyles which they had never even imagined existed. Human activity, noise, smell, and movement were inescapable in the early 1900s. It is not surprising that many of the Basque community activities involved day-cruises on the water, or day-outings to natural parks away from the concrete and noise of Manhattan. They were attempting to re-create a typical Bizkaian day’s outing to the beach, or duplicate a picnic with nature.

Bastanchury Ranch 1920s San Diego CA.
New York dancers in the streets.

Basques in New York were confronted with, and eventually enjoyed, contact with a myriad of distinct ethnic groups. Iñaki Aberasturi remembers that his grammar school classes had, “Everything, you name it. We had Italians, Irish, Jewish, Polish, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Gallegos, everything all mixed up. But, I never tried to blend in. What would I blend in to? I have always been just Basque.” Basques in the western United States communities were not typically exposed to so many different cultures nor surrounded by hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants on a daily basis. Of course there was constant new immigration in the west, however, the scale and concentration cannot be compared to that of New York or Miami. The thousands of Basques who have lived in Florida are mainly secondary migrants, having moved to the peninsula from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and other Latin American countries. They maintain Spanish language skills and a Basque ethnic identity, and do differentiate themselves from their various Latin American-origin neighbors. Others are former Jai-alai players -nearly all Bizkaian- and their families who remained in the United States after the boom of Jai-alai in the 1970s-1990s.

The urban experience is a cosmopolitan one, influenced by the rhythm of the city and the uniqueness of the access to culture which has shaped and helped to construct and re-construct Basque identity. It is interesting to note that Basques in the urban environment of San Francisco are still more similar to their fellow western Basques, than they are to their fellow city Basques on the east coast. The overwhelming majority of Basques in the Bay Area is constituted by immigrants and first generation born in the United States Basques, and is mainly from rural villages of Iparralde. Their occupations often have derived from rural type careers in landscaping and gardening, and though they live and work in the city, they might also have a small dairy or rice farm. San Francisco Basques’ constant interaction with the other rural Basques of the west makes their urban identity (if they have one) a minor aspect in the United States Basque society, and perhaps they have taken their cues regarding Basque identity from their own rural backgrounds in the Basque Country, and from the other Basque clubs in the west. However, both groups have similarly maintained Basque cuisine, dance, music, song, sport, and festivals days such as St. Ignatius and Aberri Eguna, or Day of the Homeland.

On the East Coast, the Basques of the New York Euzko-Etxea do tend to share the desire to utilize their unique position as New Yorkers to promote the Basque cause to the world’s media, intellectuals, academics, and general citizenry that pay attention to cultural, political, economic, historical, artistic and social developments. They want to promote all of the positive aspects of Basque society and especially tourism to the Basque Country. In 2001, the government of the historical territory of Bizkaia mounted a tourist campaign in Miami, utilizing the Basque community and the historic Basque aspects to the colonization of Florida, and they involved the highest social and economic circles of the city. According to the Basque Government Department of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, in 1992, the three Basque Country provinces of Araba, Bizkaia, and Gipuzkoa received 11,500 visitors from the United States, but by 1999 that number had multiplied to 53,000 and in 2000 there was another twenty percent increase.

Florida and New York Basques see these indicators as a significant opportunity and they hope that a future international Basque cultural center in Manhattan could help in that advocacy. The Basque International Cultural Center, BICC, is still an idea and not yet a reality. While other Basque communities around the world have tended to focus on their ancestrally Basque memberships and the preservation and maintenance of Basque culture and identity, the concept of a proactive offensive strategy to assertively promote Basque themes to the entire world is an unequaled New Yorkers’ interpretation of “Basque Center”. Their idea to construct a Basque International Cultural Center in lower Manhattan is one that is little understood in the west, where the Basque Centers usually consist of a bar and area for playing mus, and a dining and dancing area open only for members. The BICC’s mission is to promote Basque culture to the ‘outside’ world. Basque Floridians love the idea. In the west, a few of the younger Basques are also interested in changing the structures of their ethnic associations to be more inclusive, and to expand their range of activities, including educating the larger general public about the Basque territories, history, language, and culture.

Basque boys in suits in New York.
Elordi family, 1920, Jordan Valley, Oregon.

Basques in the west and the east do share the problematic issue of maintaining interest of their youth. Regardless of urban or rural setting, teenagers often are not interested in ethnic folk dancing, playing card games such as mus, tute, or briska, or hurting their hands playing pelota, or handball. The Centers have attempted to expand their offerings of activities, yet Basque clubs in Portland, Oregon and northern Idaho have collapsed. The Basque organizations in Las Vegas and Gardnerville, Nevada have almost no youth participating in their events. The Basques of New York have also arrived at such a crossroads, however, this time the gravity and the implications are monumental. Julen Abio queries, “We used to get involved with everything. We had our own club within the club, we had dances, we had the youth group. We were here every weekend. What happened? What happened to this club?” Perhaps it is not the club that changed, but the people in it, and precisely because the club did not change with the people, fewer young Basques now make the effort or take an interest in its activities. Recent younger Basque immigrants to New York, many of them artists from Nafarroa, have also stated they do not participate in the Euzko-Etxea activities because “they are not interesting,” and because “they are things of a past generation.”

Membership and participation in organized activities are dramatically decreasing in several of the Basque clubs, and fewer in the next generation know the history, current events, dances, songs, sport, language, or food preparation of their own Basque ancestors. How will they be able to maintain their identity and what will make them Basque if these cultural markers are lost? Basque people in the United States do not tend to be self-promoting, and this in turn often tends to be self-defeating. When accurate information about the seven Basque provinces is generally absent around the United States from libraries, newsrooms, travel agencies, academic, cultural, economic, and political institutions, that vacuum is either ignored or filled with misinformation by other agents. In the western states where Basques meet a critical mass in smaller cities and towns, information about local Basques seems to be more prevalent because there is so much less ‘competition’ for attention from other ethnic groups and news items, and of course, the local paper in Boise, Idaho cannot be compared to the New York Times or the Miami Herald. In the cities, we find the opposite in regards to news articles about the Basques; there is almost no coverage of local Basque events, but there is much better media reporting of Euskal Herria in the quality and quantity of stories.

The exclusivity of defining “Basqueness” by ancestry only, may be one of the most significant factors for debate in all of these ethnic colonies –east and west. As new generations take hold of leadership positions in the ethnic associations they are more likely to open the doors to membership from other ‘non-Basques’ who want to promote the Basque cause. It could prove to be a unifying movement that Basques around the United States would share. Perhaps the idea of promoting Basque identity to the world is one whose time has come.

Earlier versions presented in:

Totoricagüena, Gloria. Identity, Culture, and Politics in the Basque Diaspora. Reno: University of Nevada Press. 2003.

The Basques of New York: A Cosmopolitan Experience. Serie Urazandi. Vitoria-Gasteiz: Eusko Jaurlaritza. 2003.

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