Two Early Basque Towns: Los Angeles & San Francisco
By 1890, concentrations of Basque immigrants had appeared in small neighborhoods within San Francisco and Los Angeles. These communities, which we will refer to as Basque towns, featured clusters of hotels situated within compact geographical areas. Whereas the ostatuak that developed in California between 1850 and 1890 tended to be isolated resting spots frequented by travelers, the clusters of hotels that did business in the two Basque towns toward the end of the nineteenth century emerged as social centers for the greater Basque-American community in the state, and they also spurred the development of ostatuak in outlying areas. Decades later, Basque towns would also emerge in Bakersfield, Stockton, Boise, and Reno.
The Basque Town and Ostatuak of Los Angeles – Peak Years
There were large increases in the number of Basques in southern California and Los Angeles County between 1860 and 1880. By 1881 the population of the city of Los Angeles was 11,200, and more first-, second-, and third-generation Basques lived in Los Angeles than in any other city or town in the United States. Also as of that year five downtown lodging houses were either owned and operated by people with Basque surnames or were regularly serving Basque patrons. Although little is known about the operation of these early boardinghouses, the very fact that they were present in the area suggests that Los Angeles had an established Basque town by the 1880s, if not before.
The arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe rail lines and the establishment of the city’s wool industry stimulated Basque migration to the City of the Angels. Martin Biscailuz, an American-born attorney living in Los Angeles, believed that the emerging Navarrese and French Basque colony in southern California in the 1880s was sufficient to support a newspaper, so he started the Escualdun Gazeta around 1884, the first Basque-language newspaper in the United States. Unfortunately this effort proved premature, and the newspaper folded three months later. It was not until Jean Pierre Goytino founded Califomia’ko Eskual Herria in 1893 that Basques in the United States had a successful newspaper. A journalist by trade, Goytino established distributorships in San Francisco, San Diego, and Mexico City, thus maintaining ties between Basques in the American West and Latin America. In addition, each bimonthly issue featured columns with local news and advertising from other Basque colonies such as Tehachapi, San Francisco, and Bishop Creek, California or even more remote places such as Van Horn, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Since California’ko Eskual Herria was published for five years in the mid-1890s, we can theorize that the southern California Basque colony reached maturity during those years. We know that this publication contained many advertisements of the boardinghouses of the day. In the December 30, 1893 , issue of Eskual Herria, for example, five Basque hotels in Los Angeles sponsored advertisements. They were the Hotel des Pyrenees, the Hotel d’ Europe, the Buena Vista House, the Eskualdun Ostatua, and the Hotel de Bayonne.
The peak years in the life of Los Angeles’s Basque town began with the founding of Eskual Herria in 1893 and lasted through 1910. Census information demonstrates that the Los Angeles County Basque population quadrupled between 1900 and 1910. In 1900 there were 269 Euskaldunak in the county, and ten years later the number had increased to 1,030. There was also a well-established network of hotels within the city’s Basque neighborhood during this ten-year period.
Los Angeles continued to be the largest of California’s Basque communities until the census of 1910, when San Francisco’s Basque population surpassed that of Los Angeles.
By 1905 Los Angeles’s Basque town had begun a gradual decline. For the first time in two decades, Los Angeles Basques were closing their hotels rather than moving across the street or selling out to other Basques as they had in earlier years. Yet hundreds of Basques still called the Aliso and Alameda neighborhood home in the 1910s, and thousands of Euskaldunak from other parts of the West visited the area.
Residents of Los Angeles’s Basque town considered the half dozen ostatuak their homes. As one early resident, Dominic Sorcabal, remembered, “We butchered hogs right in the middle of what is now downtown Los Angeles.”i Sorcabal remembers that one of his chores was feeding the sheep-dogs that accompanied the herders to his parents’ hotel. The Oyamburu, as the Sorcabals’ place was called, had a small pen behind the hotel to accommodate the sheepherders’ dogs.
Another of Dominic’s pastimes was a daily visit to the handball courts on Alameda Street. His favorite was the one adjacent to the Olasso hotel, located around the block from his parents’ hotel on Alameda and Aliso Streets. When Dominic was a boy, there were at least three courts available for use within a two-block area. Like other young boys, he loved to watch the pilotariak compete, and, when he had the opportunity, he would play against his neighborhood friends.
Dominic’s memories of his childhood in Los Angeles are strikingly similar to descriptions of young Basques in Euskal Herria watching the pilotariak compete near the old plaza churches. Among the first and second generations of American Basques, the passion for sport—particularly handball—lived on. The pilota court was built against the church walls in the Old Country and along ostatu walls in the New World.
A slow exodus of Basques from the city to the outlying areas of Tehachapi, Bakersfield, Santa Barbara, and Orange County beginning in the 1910s and continuing into the 1920s eroded the community’s Basque population. No doubt, the decline in the southern California wool industry, droughts, and large-scale urbanization were major factors contributing to the decrease in the Basque population in Los Angeles. The 1920s and 1930s mark the final chapter for Los Angeles’s Basque town. New and more involved transportation systems crisscrossed the area. The construction of an electric train line on Aliso Street in 1912, the new Pacific Electric, running through the heart of Los Angeles’s Basque town, was the beginning of major changes for the neighborhood. A large highway severed Alameda and First Streets and eventually became an interstate. Older buildings were torn down so that roads could be widened, and a new mixture of ethnic groups, Chinese and Japanese in particular, began working and living in the old insular neighborhood, with “Japan Town” pressing in from the south. Eventually, when the construction of Union Rail station in 1930 entailed further demolition in the neighborhood, the death knell was sounded. By 1940 the downtown ostatuak had disappeared, and Basques had moved to outlying areas such as La Puente and Chino in significant enough numbers to support new ostatuak there.
The Basque Town and Ostatuak of San Francisco – The Early Days
The Basque community in San Francisco dates from the construction of Juan Miguel Aguirre´s hotel on Powell Street in 1866, a hotel that could be considered the first complete Basque hotel in the American West.
Unfortunately, we know very little about life in San Francisco´s Basque neighborhood in the years between 1860 and 1900 as compared to what we know of its counterpart in Los Angeles. The earthquake and subsequent fires of 1906 are largely to blame for the gap in the historical record. In addition to breaking up many of the city´s early ethnic neighborhoods, the disaster of 1906 destroyed large portions of civic archives and country records.
Nonetheless the city and county directories that remain provide sufficient information to indicate that San Francisco had a well established Basque Town by the 1890s. By 1900, for example, the Hotel de France, the Hotel des Alpes, the Hotel de Basse-Pyrennees, and the Hotel Europa, located in the Broadway to Pacific Street area, constituted the city´s Basque town.i Just as in Los Angeles, hotels had Basque proprietors and were clustered within a few blocks of one another.
One of the hotels that was doing business in the 1890 was Yparaguirrés. In the early 1880s, young Juan Francisco Yparraguirre of Echalar arrived in San Francisco. When visiting San Joaquin Valley, Juan Francisco met Marie Etchebarren of Urepel, France, at her aunt ́s home in Tres Pinos, California, and a short time later the two were married at the Our Lady of Notre Dame Catholic Church in San Francisco.ii In 1893 the Yparraguirres leased a hotel building on the corner of Powell Street and Broadway, which they named the Hotel Vasco. When it was originally constructed, the two-story wooden-frame building with a downstairs saloon stood between two private residences.iii A year after opening their business, Juan Francisco sent for three of his brothers in Echalar to work for him at the hotel. Not long after, the four brothers built a handball court on 823 Broadway near the corner of Powell.
Yparraguirre´s was a popular location among Bay Area Basques in the 1890s . Juan Francisco loved music and often invited musicians to play in the restaurant and barroom. Juan Francisco´s friend Vincent Arrillaga of the Arrillaga Musical College often frequented the Basque Hotel.v In addition, the owner was known for his singing, and he encouraged his clients to join him in Basque folk songs. The atmosphere and conviviality of the Basque Hotel, together with the handball court, attracted customers. In addition, Juan Francisco regularly advertised in California´ko Eskual Herria, luring Basques to visit from other parts of the West.
When the fire of 1906 engulfed the peninsula from Van Ness Street to the bay, Juan Francisco whisked his family down to the docks where they boarded a barge and crossed to the safety of Oakland´s harbor. Yparraguirre remained and attempted to protect the hotel from destruction until he was ordered to evacuate. By that time, evacuees were being directed to Golde Gate Park to wait until the crisis subsided. While Juan Francisco waited and watched, his hotel and the old Aguirre burned to the ground.Neither family attempted to rebuild their former businesses after the disaster.
The destruction of the city´s first two ostatuak and the neighboring hotels marks the end of San Francisco´s first Basque town. Although new Basque establishments emerged in the twentieth century, the two earliest hotels represented particular periods in Basque hotel keeping and Basque migration to the United States: one was reminiscent of gold-hungry adventure seekers, and the other of California´s “boom and bust” period.
Comparisons of the censuses for 1900 and 1910 for San Francisco and Los Angeles Counties help us clarify the development of the two Basque centers. In 1900 San Francisco´s Basque community was the second most populous in California after Los Angeles´s. Ten years later, however, San Francisco´s had surpassed Los Angele´s Basque town as the largest Basque community in the state. The Basque community in San Francisco expanded despite the disaster of 1906 and despite the fact that as compared to Basques in other enclaves in the Western states, residents of that community were the least involved in sheep raising. For Basques in California and other parts of the West, San Francisco was becoming a major point of entry, a regional cultural center, and an ideal vacation spot for Basque families living in the San Joaquin Valley, and a resting place for tired herders.
iLangley´s San Francisco Directory, 1890 (San Francisco: G. B. Wilbur, 1890), 661.
iiElvira Yparraguirre Root, interview by author, San Francisco, Calif., 14, 15 May 1987.
iiiPhotograph of Yparraguirre´s Basque Hotel in Talbott Papers.
ivSan Francisco Directory, 1905 (San Francisco: H. S. Crocker and Company, 1905), 1981.
vRoot, interview, 14, 15 May 1987; and Frank Bailey Millard, The History of the San Francisco Bay Region (San Francisco: American Historical Society, Inc., 1924), 280-81.
viCalifornia´ko Eskual Herria, December (Abendoaren), 30 1893, Lib. 2, no. 9, 3-4.