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Cultural Depth

Despite a white-washed image, Boise's ethnic community is growing

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Bare toes cling to the Hare Krishna temple's cool white marble floor as thick clouds of incense whirl around freshly pressed saris before winding up to the room's bright, muraled ceiling. Bindis dot brown and white foreheads in celebration of Lord Rama's birthday. Chanting adults pause their rhythmic handclapping and bend down to smell yellow roses thrust up to their noses by kids decked out in sparkling finery.

"The chanting is like a detergent that scrubs the heart clean of misconceptions," explained temple co-founder Aruddha Gupta.

In the back room, away from the thud of bongos, Indian mothers drape gold tulle over their children, preparing them for a special performance.

Aruddha and her husband Arun Gupta moved to Idaho from India and founded the Boise Hare Krishna Temple 25 years ago on a residential street off Boise Avenue—a few blocks from the whir of traffic on Capitol Boulevard and skipping distance from Boise State. Yet despite its central location, many Boiseans don't even know its there.

"It's amazing that whenever anyone new comes here, we always have such wonderful feedback from them," said Aruddha. "They're shocked, 'Does a place like this exist here?' But they are always very happy by the time they leave."

Though Boise is often characterized as culturally stunted—according to 2011 stats, 90.3 percent of Boise's 200,00-plus-person population is "white alone"—that image is changing. With a solid Basque community—one of the largest outside of northern Spain—and growing Hispanic and refugee populations, Boise's cultural landscape is blossoming to include an array of religions, languages, cuisines and traditions.

While Canyon County is often seen as Idaho's Latino center—according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 22.2 percent of Canyon County residents are Hispanic or Latino vs. 7.1 percent in Ada County—Boise also has a flourishing Latino community.

"[Latino culture] is alive and well and kicking in Boise. It's very different than when I came 30 years ago. It's a lot better," said Sam Byrd from Boise's Centro de Comunidad y Justicia. "You couldn't even buy a tortilla at a grocery store. You couldn't buy any Mexican products."

But outside of Hispanic food stores like Campos Meat Market, taco trucks, clothing stores and barbershops, Boise's Latino community largely congregates on the soccer fields. According to Byrd, there are close to 100 Hispanic soccer teams between Weiser and Idaho Falls that compete regularly.

"It's one of the most organized of any Latino activity in Idaho ... it's serious competition. The whole family turns out," Byrd said. "It's really the place to go if you want to see that side of Boise. It's all 'telegraph, telephone, tell-a-Mexican.' It's all word of mouth."

That enthusiasm for soccer is shared by Boise's growing refugee population. According to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, there were 1,231 refugees resettled in Idaho in 2009, up from 557 in 2006. And though refugees in Boise come from countries across the globe—Bosnia, Afghanistan, Congo, Uzbekistan, Burma, Bhutan—soccer is a common thread that strings the varied communities together.

"Soccer is the fabulously universal game ... you see different groups coming together on the soccer field, and more than any other sport, that's definitely been a unifying factor," said Christina Bruce-Bennion, director at Boise's Agency for New Americans.

Bosnian refugees—many of whom resettled in Boise 20 years ago after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina—have preserved their culture through traditional dance groups like Mladi Behar and Bosnian-owned businesses like Bosnia Express.

"There certainly are more refugee-owned businesses than there were—everything from lawn care to florists to bakeries," said Bruce-Bennion. "It's not just about people coming here ... but that they're really integrating more into the community ... holding some more of their own festivals or owning these businesses and serving the community back in a different way."

And while Boise's Basque community is a well-established demographic with its own designated cultural block downtown featuring restaurants like Leku Ona and Bar Gernika, the Basque Museum and the Basque Center, traditional dancing has also been an integral factor in keeping the Basque culture alive.

"One of the elements that has fostered an interest in Basque culture in Boise has been dancing," said Basque Museum Director Patty Miller. "The children's dancing has gone on since the late '40s, and the formal group, the Oinkari Basque Dancers, they just celebrated their 50th anniversary."

In Miller's opinion, keeping diverse cultures thriving in Boise takes a generational dedication to passing down traditions.

"A fellow by the name of Johnny Ysursa from Boise said one time, 'to practice your culture is a choice.' Because you can decide to use your time in other ways," Miller said.

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