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Idaho: Basques in the Far West

Idaho, the interior northwest state of the United States and one of the most unknown in the union, is home to a dynamic and thriving Basque community. So proud of its origins, that every five years it organizes a macro festival that attracts Basques from all over the world to this kind of Mecca of Euskaldun pride. So influential that, in 2002, the Idaho Parliament was involved, induced by the Basque lobby, in a diplomatic incident with the Spanish embassy in the United States in which the then National Security Advisor of the White House had to intervene, Condoleezza Rice. Welcome!, or perhaps it is more appropriate to say, ongi etorri!

The state of Idaho is a kind of Yankee version of the "Teruel exists" homeland. Famous for not highlighting anything in particular, except perhaps for being the leading producer of potatoes in the United States, a scene of The Counselor It demonstrates the place that this state occupies in the American collective imagination. When Penelope Cruz and Michael Fassbender discuss the safest destination to be secret, she doesn't doubt it: what better place than Boise (capital of Idaho). Why? Stunning natural landscapes barely exploited, the real feeling country of the American West and the innate and unpretentious kindness of its inhabitants: and fully integrated in this land of eminently republican cowboys, an active and influential Basque community.


The first Basque immigrants arrived in Idaho at the end of the 19th century after the California gold rush, and found in grazing their way of earning bread. The figure of the Basque shepherd soon associated with the values ​​of honesty, work and effort among local farmers. The called effect did the rest, and not long after it was established a line of emigration between Idaho and the Basque Country, in particular of the central-eastern regions of Biscay (not surprisingly, since 1993 the municipality of Gernika is twinned with Boise). Today, and according to the US census data that since 1980 it includes the possibility of selecting “Basque” in the section related to ancestry, the Basque population does not reach 1% of the little more than 1.5 million inhabitants of the state.

The paellas of the Basque Market, a classic in Boise © Basque Market


The Basque-Americans Idaho's are not exactly a silent minority. They are not for many reasons, but the most notorious will surely be to have, in the heart of Boise (capital and main city of Idaho, 200,000 inhabitants), an entire apple dedicated to honor Basque history, culture and identity. And the gastronomy of course. The Basques are people of good food no matter how much they are third generation.

Two restaurants (Gernika Bar - Basque Pub & Eatery and Leku Ona - Fine Basque Dining); a grocery store, never better, that serves as a tasting bar (The Basque Market); a museum (The Basque Museum and Cultural Center); a pediment; and the meeting point and socializing par excellence of the Basque community, the Basque Center (The Basque Center) make up the officially named Basque Block Pentagrams with the music and lyrics of Basque folk songs, huge lauburus and rosettes with the last names of immigrants who arrived in Idaho decorate the pavement of the stretch of Groove Street between Capitol Boulevard and 6th Street.

Basque Center, epicenter of the Basque Block of Boise © Flickr / Chenutis (With CC license)

While the visitor can keep the idea that the Basque Block responds to a boast of Basque bluff, the degree of mobilization and involvement of the community indicates that, beyond the external image, there is a sincere effort to preserve Basque culture, history and identity. And the work of each of the entities that make up the Basque Block It is essential for this. Basque classes of three different levels in the museum, weekly rehearsals of the different groups of Basque dances, monthly dinners in which about 300 people meet in the Basque center, tournaments in the pediment ... The Basque museum is both driving force of the Boiseko Ikastola, a nursery that offers Your curriculum in Basque.

Belong or have belonged to Oinkari, the main group of Basque dances, is a sign of distinction of the Basque-American community. At the 2010 Universal Expo, which took place in Shanghai, the Oinkari, invited by the Basque Government, were in charge of the Basque folklore exhibition in the Spanish pavilion. An offer that perhaps not all Basque dance groups in Euskadi would have accepted. If something differentiates Basque realities on either side of the Atlantic, it is, with specific exceptions, its unequal politicization.

Basque dance in Boise © Oinkari

Around July 31, the feast of San Ignacio de Loyola, patron of Biscayans and Guipuzcoans, Boise celebrates her own San Inazios. Garlands interspersing Ikurriñas with American flags decorate the Basque Block during a weekend in which the Basque community of Idaho and much of the American West meet in Boise, verbena of pop classics in Basque included, by local group Amuma Says No.
Every 5 years, for the same dates, takes place Jaialdi, International Basque Cultural Festival; The macro pride party of Basque pride. For a week, Boise becomes the mecca of vasquitud, exalted in the form of cultural manifestation (dances, crafts, rural sports, music ...), gastronomic and ethyl; and that captivates an audience that makes a pilgrimage to Boise from not only the Basque-American community, but also from Euskadi itself or even from other sources of the Basque diaspora (from Argentina to Australia). In total, more than 40,000 attendees, when the Basques registered in Idaho are just over 6,500.


No one who has grown up in Boise escapes the indisputable reality that, at the time of having fun, the Basques take the palm. PJ Mansisidor, second generation Basque, former member and former president of the Basque dance group and usual shovel player in the pediment, reveals the secret: “It is not about the party for the party, but about the celebration of something that is important to us. Our ancestors arrived as immigrants and based on their loyalty and work the Basques earned a good reputation from which we continue to benefit today. Personally, it is that heritage that I celebrate; and it's much more intense than a party that lacks a similar component. ”

Mansisidor recognizes that this Basque pride is both a privilege and a responsibility. It is considered fortunate because, in comparison with other ethnic groups that also have particular historical links and differentiating features, in the case of Basque-Americans that inheritance has not been lost, it is still alive. "Do you know how many Americans have ever told me they would like to be Basque?"- this engineer boasts, three of whose four grandparents were born in Euskadi (the maternal grandmother was born on American land days after her parents entered the country for the first time). But this privilege entails a duty of conservation: “Call it Basque stubbornness, but we are not willing to disappear in the annals of history. The satisfaction derived from contributing to the preservation of our identity, that pride, both individual and collective, is priceless. And it is worth celebrating ”

Jaialdi celebration in Boise © Oinkari

This 2014 marks the 10th anniversary of the Basque studies program at Boise State University, the main university in Idaho. John Ysursa, a second-generation Basque and a Doctor of History, is the current director of the Basque Studies Consortium. Interestingly, the majority of students enrolled in the courses are not of Basque origin. For Ysursa, the festive component is sufficiently settled, but considers it important to continue working in education as a condition for the preservation of Basque identity. "Celebrating more educating means perpetuating," Repeat several times.

But what justifies the existence of a curriculum of these characteristics, which is executed as part of the faculties of Letters and Social Sciences, in an American university? Ysursa does not doubt it: “In today's society, universities play a fundamental role. If we want to be taken seriously, we have to be present in the field of higher education" Without going any further, in the neighboring state of Nevada, the third in the union with the largest Basque population, the University of Nevada Reno also has a center for Basque studies.


In this campaign for the promotion and preservation of the Basque heritage of Idaho, many children of Basque emigrants who ascended the social ladder have also played a significant role until reaching some of the political and economic leadership in Idaho. Of Basque origin are a few politicians, bankers, businessmen and lobbyists, who from his influential watchtower propagate the Basque Country brand.
The mayor of Boise himself, David Bieter, Basque of second generation is, for more signs, the only United States Basque speaking mayor. At a rally of the Democratic party in Boise in 2008, the councilor chanted the entire audience “Gora Obama!” (Long live Obama !, in Basque).

Dave Bieter - Gora Obama! from Guillermo (Bill) Yriberri on Vimeo.

But if there is someone who has stood out for his contribution to the preservation of Basque identity in Idaho, it has been Pete Cenarrusa. Died at the end of last September, Cenarrusa, son of Basque emigrants, was the elected position that he held for more time in the history of Idaho - 52 years, 36 of whom held, uninterruptedly, the position of secretary of state. Outstanding and respected Republican leader, Cenarrusa used his influence to defend the cause of freedom of the Basque people, in which he firmly believed. In 1972, after his first visit to Euskadi, he issued a statement that the Idaho legislature unanimously approved that condemned Franco's dictatorship and demanded amnesty for Basque and Spanish political prisoners.

In 2002 Cenarrusa promoted another statement that called an immediate cessation of violence in Euskadi, condemned any terrorist act and recognized the right of self-determination of the Basque people. The text was unanimously approved by the Idaho legislature, despite the diplomatic incident that originated with the Spanish Embassy in the United States and that required Condoleeza Rice's intervention, then National Security adviser to the administration of President George W. Bush. Before Basque than Republican, Cenarrusa was also patron and supporter of the implementation of the mentioned Basque study program at Boise State University.

The survival of Basque identity and culture precisely in the United States, the origin of the homogeneous and dominant cultural model par excellence, may seem like a utopia, but in view of the level of community involvement, it seems that conservation is guaranteed for now. To this also contributes that this diaspora has never questioned its identity in exclusive terms: They feel American and Basque at the same time.
* You may also be interested ...
- Sister cities: reasons and curiosities
- Guide of the Basque Country

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