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A Basque Tale

Boiseans return to Ellis Island to celebrate shared identity

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Amid a flurry of wet flakes—hemmed in on the north by a snow-blanketed Battery Park and the south by the icy slosh of the Upper New York Bay—we lined up, shivering. Hundreds of us, many from Boise and some from as far away as Spain and Quebec, had been cattle-packed into industrial metal gates that snaked around like a lower intestine before eventually spitting us out at the ferry for Ellis Island. Tall with curly blonde hair, I towered over the sea of short ladies with purplish-black bobs making small talk around me.

A casual onlooker could've mistaken most of the group as Spanish—dark features and loud, boisterous laughs—but the unfurled red, white and green Ikurrina flag at the head of the line said otherwise. They were Basque, and damn proud of it.

Like many of their ancestors from the little smudge of land straddling northern Spain and southern France had done decades before, the group waited—tired, huddled masses, so to speak—to make a reverse pilgrimage to Ellis Island. There, the Boise Basque Museum and Cultural Center's new exhibit "Hidden in Plain Sight: The Basques" was being unveiled.

Ninety years prior, on Aug. 21, 1920, my step-great-grandmother Luciana Aboitiz Garatea also made a journey to Ellis Island. When she arrived at age 15, Garatea stood stunned at the sight before her.

"[Ellis Island] was enormous. None of us had ever seen anything like it. It was a huge surprise to us, a tremendous surprise. We stayed right there. We were there for 11 days," explained Garatea in a video interview with the Basque Museum.

At the request of an aunt who ran a boarding house in Boise, Garatea had left her hometown, the small fishing village of Lekeitio in the Basque province of Bizkaia, on Aug. 8, 1920. Travelling with a 19-year-old female acquaintance and a male chaperone, the three headed to America. But before their plans could be put into place, they had to navigate the whirling chaos of languages and ethnicities that was Ellis Island.

"All kinds of people were coming; we didn't have a place to sit or nothing," said Garatea. "We'd just go back and forth, back and forth. Everybody, back and forth. Every day, more come ... We didn't have any place to change—we didn't change—just washed our faces in the basin."

Though Garatea jokes about the cramped sleeping quarters being like "chicken coops" or the big dining hall where everyone stole fistfuls of sugar, she also recalls a fear of the unknown and a sense of unspoken solidarity with other immigrants. "Everybody was mixed together and scared," said Garatea. "But they were just like we were."

Garatea's experience, while unique, echoes the quintessential American immigrant story we've all heard countless times in many variations. They left their homes, left their families, embarked to an unfamiliar place—often without speaking the language—and began their lives anew. And though that story is so ingrained in the American identity that it has become something of a cliche, it's not often that we stop to recognize exactly what "starting anew" entails. "Hidden in Plain Sight: The Basques" does exactly that.

The exhibit spans six rooms on the third floor of the Ellis Island National Monument Museum, featuring dozens of free-standing panels with stories, photos and artifacts that document Basque immigration and assimilation. The comprehensive exhibit winds through topics like immigrating, sheepherding, whaling and the bombing of Gernika. The Basque Museum spearheaded the exhibit, collaborating with the autonomous Basque government of Euskadi, the Boise State Basque Studies Program, the University of Nevada, Reno Center for Basque Studies and the Museo Vasco in Bilbao, among many others.

"Originally, the folks from the Basque government had visited maybe three or four years ago, I think it was around the time Ellis Island started doing the temporary exhibition program ... focusing on different ethnic groups," explained Basque Museum curator Michael Vogt. "The Basque people thought, 'Wow, what a great place to tell our story,' so they came to us, being the only Basque Museum in the country."

Unfortunately, the museum's original proposal was rejected and had to be tweaked. With the help of the Boise State Basque Studies Program, they submitted a second proposal, which was approved in May 2009.

"We figured with the size of the museum, people aren't going to spend as much time as we would like just in this one little space, so we really wanted to try and focus it to about 30 minutes for the casual visitor, just strolling through," said Vogt.

One of the exhibit's main themes, and primary obstacles, in telling the story of Basque immigration to the United States is the fact that "Basque" has never been an officially recognized nation-state. Though the Basque region—comprised of four provinces on the Spanish side and three provinces on the French side—has a culture, language and cuisine distinct from other areas of Spain and France, its people have been historically lumped into one nationality or the other.

"They say 'hidden in plain sight' because the Basques are invisible; they've never been recognized as Basque," said Basque Studies Program director Dr. Alberto Santana Ezkerra. "So, you have to look under this surface of Spanish or French and find the Basques. That is a real problem because we have a lack of real numbers and figures for Basque immigration."

In order to tell the story of Basque immigration that national figures and documents have glazed over, the Basque Museum turned to their archives and the Basque Oral History Project, which chronicles oral tales of Basques in the American West. They selected stories that spoke eloquently to the Basque immigration experience. Garatea, now approaching 105, recounts one of those stories at the start of the exhibit in a grinning video interview. The exhibition also tells the stories of brothers Alejandro and Ambrosio Otazua, who came to work in the West and Juan Lejardi, who skipped Ellis Island and jumped ship in New York City.

Lejardi, the eldest of a large family, left home at 15 or 16 to work for a dairyman in the Basque country before finding employment on cargo ships. During his second trip across the Atlantic, at the age of 18, Lejardi decided to jump ship and stay in New York City.

"When he was ready to jump ship, he said he put on a pair of pants and then another pair over it, and a shirt and another shirt over. He was prepared because he wasn't coming back," said his son John. "They were docked so he wasn't literally jumping. There was an individual on the ship who sent him to town with $5 to buy a pack of cigarettes. He bought the cigarettes and sent them back with someone else and kept the change. He always felt bad about that because he wanted to pay this guy back but he didn't have any money."

Once in New York City, Juan met up with Valentin Aguirre, a Basque who ran a well-known boarding house named Santa Lucia Hotel in Greenwich Village. Aguirre put Juan up for six weeks, providing room and board, then set him up with work as a cook's aid. After Lejardi had saved up some cash, he went out and bought a presentable suit.

"He bought a suit and had his picture taken and sent the picture back to the Basque country," said John, laughing. "Later he found out, of course, they knew it all along; they knew he was taken care of by Valentin."

Boisean Miren Artiach's father, Joaquin Renenteria, also jumped ship when he arrived in New York in his late teens. For reasons still unclear to Artiach, her father used a false name, Urza—the name of a family from his hometown of Navarniz—when he first arrived. Fortunately, he was able to head straight for Boise, where he had two brothers waiting for him with work opportunities.

"His mother had to raise a family of six—four boys and two girls—basically by herself, because [his father] wasn't able to work. For my dad, there wasn't any possibility—with no education and with a family where the mother was the main support—that he was going to be able to do much [in the Basque country]," said Artiach. "So, he took that brave step to come here, and he was probably more fortunate than others in that he already had two brothers here."

But after a number of years working in sheep, construction and logging, Renenteria eventually returned to the Basque country. There he met Artiach's mother, Trinidad Minteguia, a political prisoner under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and survivor of the 1937 bombings of Gernika. The couple returned to New York in 1948, when Ellis Island was no longer used regularly for immigration, and stayed with family in Brooklyn before eventually heading back to Boise.

"I was born 11 days after my mom got to Boise, so this whole time on this trip over she was so sick. The trip was supposed to take them nine days and it took them 17 because the ocean was so bad," said Artiach.

With more than 12 million documented immigrants entering the United States through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954, when the island officially closed as an immigration station, stories like Artiach's, Lejardi's and Garatea's are abundant. But one thing that separates Basque immigrants from other nationalities who came in the first couple decades of the 20th century, is they did not, by and large, immigrate because of religious persecution or national catastrophes. Migration has been a long-standing Basque tradition.

"Most of the traditional territories of what we call the Basque Country, especially the ones where the Basque language and ethnic culture has been preserved, are farmlands ... These farmsteads are the core of the Basque culture, it's where the family traditions, where culture, mythology and religion are transmitted to generation after generation," explained Ezkerra.

But these farmsteads, approximately 40,000 that have been in the same locations since the Middle Ages, are only 20 to 25 acres apiece. In a rainy climate with steep hillsides and acidic land, 20 to 25 acres can only produce enough food to sustain one family. Which means each generation, only one heir inherits the entire family farmstead and the others have to pack their bags and move on.

"What people have done since the mid-1400s is assign the whole package—the farmhouse, the forest, the orchard, the fields—to only one chosen son or daughter. And what do we do with the rest of our siblings? You pay for the ticket and for giving them an education and sending them somewhere else to start a new life," said Ezkerra. "So, the survival of this core element of the Basque civilization, the farmstead, depends on sending away all but one of the children, every generation."

After the discovery of the New World, those "sent away" Basques began migrating to new Spanish colonies in the Americas. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the vogue immigration destination had become the United States—where there was an ample amount of land out West. Many of those who left the Basque Country in the early 1900s for work opportunities—and, later, those who left because of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s—came out West to work with sheep outfits. The continuous flow of sheepherders necessitated Basque boarding houses where they could shack up. These boarding houses became epicenters for Basque culture, filled with Basque language, song and dance.

Lucy Garatea, my great-grandmother, worked in her aunt's boarding house when she first arrived in Boise, then in 1948 opened her own boarding house, the Plaza Hotel in Bend, Ore. Widowed 13 years earlier, Garatea ran the boarding house single-handedly from 1948 to 1963, cooking and cleaning for boarders and her four children.

"Mom was a very good proprietress. She was extremely clean. She always had a good clientele and she became known for her cooking," said daughter Rosie Williams. "Mom has fed politicians and all kinds of bankers. She entertained a lot of professional people because she was such a good cook. In the meantime, she still had to feed her little boarders and whomever else."

Boarding houses just like Garatea's in various towns across Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Utah and California were integral to keeping Basque cultural identity thriving for those who had recently immigrated from the old country. They were places where Euskara, the Basque language, was spoken, where Basque food was served and where many jotas were danced.

"The boarding house played a great role in keeping our culture alive, because music and dance and food and language, those elements were kept alive in the boarding houses," said Patty Miller, executive director of the Basque Museum. "As those started disappearing, really for lack of need because there weren't many people coming over, then the Basque Center started being built and Basque groups started being formed."

Back at Ellis Island, those Basque cultural groups were out in full regalia. An array of generations had traveled thousands of miles to celebrate their ancestors and their shared heritage. Before the official ribbon-cutting, the Biotzetik Basque Choir, comprised of older Boise Basques, warmed up the crowd for the Oinkari Basque dancers, 20-something guys and gals who came fluttering out in a whirl of high kicks, twirls and fancy foot tricks.

"As a group, we demonstrate the Basque culture to people who aren't quite familiar with it," said Oinkari president Tyler Smith. "The choir, having them there representing some of the older generations of Basque people, it shows the balance of the old and the young and how everyone is involved with their community and their ethnic culture."

While many were there to bask in the thriving Basque culture, many more traveled to New York to pay their respects to family.

"Somebody asked if it was more a celebration of our culture and what we're doing to keep things going. I said, 'Certainly that's true with the choir and the dancers and the band, we can prove that it's going on,'" said Miller. "But as important as anything, if you ask most people, is paying tribute and honor those people who came here and got this whole thing started. They're the ones that really sacrificed, coming without speaking the language and leaving their families."

Boise Mayor David Bieter, whose Basque grandparents also originally came through Ellis Island, was proud to return to New York and speak at the exhibit's opening.

"For a lot of us, it's close to 100 years since our relatives came through, and it's really something to have our group come back to New York after that much time," said Bieter. "To be able to come back as the mayor is a very, very nice thing. I don't think that [my] grandparents thought that their grandson would be the mayor."

Later that evening, the New York Basque Club hosted a ritzy multi-course dinner for the hundreds of Basques—and Basques-in-training, like me—who had traveled to New York. In true Basque form, the food and revelry were abundant—pintxos were passed around and wine glasses were continuously topped off. When the Boise rock band Amuma Says No commandeered the stage, mothers, daughters, fathers and sons grasped hands in a variety of group dances. Near 2 a.m., my grandma Rosie had to be dragged off the dance floor.

While events like this show that there's little risk the Basque culture of celebration will disappear, some are worried about the survival of the Basque language, the last remaining pre-Indo-European language in Europe.

Artiach, who has served the Idaho Secretary of State (both Basques Pete Cenarrusa and Ben Ysursa) for 38 years and whose husband, Jose Maria, owns the Basque restaurant Leku Ona, raised her two boys speaking Basque in their home. More than anything, she hopes they pass on that element of Basque culture to their kids.

"Maybe sometime in their life, if they ever get married, I would hope that they realize the importance of language," said Artiach. "The language is the most important element of our culture because of its uniqueness."

For Mara Davis, director at Boiseko Ikastola, a Basque language immersion preschool, preserving the language is as crucial for immigrants as it is for natives. After Franco declared Spanish Spain's only official language, the Basque language all but died out.

"Older generations in the Basque country now have always been almost afraid to speak it in the Basque country, so Spanish or English is usually their first language," said Davis. "Now that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are growing up and going 'Hey, wait a minute, this is who I am,' they're becoming more interested in learning Euskara and keeping it growing."

John Lejardi and his wife Gloria (a granddaughter of Lucy Garatea) also taught Basque to their two daughters—Miren and Yasone. The two girls have both shimmied with the Oinkari dancers, and Yasone recently got engaged to one of her fellow Oinkaris. But for Lejardi, in addition to maintaining the language, the continuation of Basque culture depends on the passing down of stories.

"We all have stories in our lives that are special. You fear that you'll lose something, and you will lose something a little bit, like when my dad passed away," said Lejardi. "But it is important to tell those stories, and I hope my kids will tell those stories to their kids."

Out at the colorfully decorated assisted-living community where Garatea now resides, she holds court, entertaining guests with her stories and wild gesturing. After the Basque Museum's exhibit went up, she became somewhat of a local celebrity.

"I'm famous. See how I do it? It's real easy. Well, not that easy," she jokes.

At almost 105, Garatea blazes through the hallways on her cherry-red walker. As she does her stretches at the daily seated exercise class, a Frank Sinatra song drifts through the stereo: "And if you should survive to 105 / Look at all you'll derive out of being alive / Then here is the best part / You have a head start / If you are among the very young at heart." If you ask Garatea how she's made it through the last century—leaving her home, making her way through an unfamiliar country, losing her husband and eventually her three sons—she has one simple reply, "I've always been happy in my heart."