Preserving Basque Culture

Clubs, Organizations & Festivals

Basque Ethnic Institutions and the Creation of an Original Basque Identity: A Historical Perspective


Nowadays, approximately 200 Basque ethnic institutions are spread across twenty five different countries. They are key places where Basque immigrants and their descendants meet to maintain their identity. These institutions over time took different forms and addressed different needs. The institutions had to adapt in order to respond to the changing needs of the Basque community. Moreover, they played an important role in the construction of an original Basque American identity.

Basque ethnic institutions around the world.

As was the case of many ethnic communities, the institutions formed during the arrival of Basques in the United States developed around the main objective of assisting newcomers. This trend lasted until the 1950s, which coincided with the end of the massive immigration of Basques.

Benevolent Societies

Carnet for the French Mutual Benevolent Society.

These societies rendered help in times of need and provided a format for socializing. In 1854, in San Francisco, the Société Française de Bienfaisance mutuelle was organized for the French people of the area, preceded by the building of a French hospital in 1851. Still in San Francisco, the Béarnais founded the Ligue Henri IV in 1895, which offered its members “financial aid in times of misfortune, tragedy or sickness (by-laws).”

The Centro Vasco-Americano or Basque American Benevolent Association in New York. Gloria Totoricagüena: The Basques of New York: A cosmopolitan experience.

The first formal Basque institution during the mass immigration era was founded in Montevideo, Uruguay, with that same original objective and was given the name of La Sociedad Protectora de la Inmigración Vascongada Laurak Bat. The case of the United States is very interesting in the sense that very few benevolent Basque societies developed there. Evidence taken from research on Spanish and French immigration suggests that Basques participated in the institutions founded by these two communities. The only benevolent societies founded by Basques and for Basques in the United States appeared in Boise, ID in 1908 and in New York in 1905 (Basques in New York started their mutual assistance association in 1905 and later got organized formally around the Centro Vasco-Americano or Basque American Benevolent Association in 1913). Their primary goal was to help members in emergency medical situations, to act as insurance agents, to help with social security and provide death benefits or enable repatriation.

Basque Hotels

Although Basques in the United States did not form many benevolent organizations, they by no means lacked places to find assistance. The proliferation of Basque boardinghouses or Basque hotels in places where a significant number of Basques arrived deserves our attention. Newcomers could find a place to stay, employment information, psychological support and access to Basque-centered social events. In Echeverria’s words, they constituted a “home away from home.”

Borderre Hotel, Santa Barbara, California. Source: Mirta Bide, Argentina.

The proliferation of Basque hotels in the United States follows the settlement patterns of Basques on that soil as they were founded in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Basques. Echeverria, specialist in that question, rightly refers to these communities as “Basque towns.” Thus, Basque towns in the American West first emerged in Los Angeles  and San Francisco,  and later in Bakersfield, Stockton and then beyond California in Reno (NV) or in Boise (ID)…

The first Basque town in California was organized in Los Angeles in the neighborhood of Alameda and Aliso Streets by the 1880s (and probably earlier). In fact, until the 1910s, Los Angeles was the largest of California’s Basque communities. From that date forward, the Los Angeles area suffered a slow exodus of its Basque population to the surrounding counties.

Hotel des Alpes, San Francisco.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century as many as four hotels operated by Basques could be found in the Broadway to Pacific Street area in San Francisco: Hotel de France, Hotel des Alpes, Hotel de Basses Pyrénées, and Hotel Europa. Until as late as the 1960s, the Basque hotels continued to flourish with as many as six hotels operated by Basques around Broadway Street, illustrative of the still dynamic incoming flux of Basques from the Basque Country.

In Bakersfield, by the mid-1930s, three Basque hotels were operating in the Basque town of East Bakersfield: The Noriega Hotel,  The Pyrenees, and the Metropole Hotel.

After WWII, with the decrease in immigration, the need for an organization that would assist immigrants gradually diminished. Most societies were disbanded eventually due to the lack of members and of interest among local Basques, since most of them could receive insurance benefits through their work. From the 1950s onward, the hotel business declined, and those that remained open focused primarily on the restaurant part of their business, with a mainly non-Basque clientele.

The Emergence of Basque Clubs

As Basque immigration decreased and as the last wave of immigrants adapted to their new country, they no longer needed temporary room or employment information, but a place to socialize. Concerning first and second U.S.-born generations, they needed a place where to learn what it is to be Basque. The network of informal organizations, as a consequence, gave place to the Basque Clubs.

“Basque power” sticker.

At the same time, the USA roots phenomenon was taking place. This brought a sense of ethnic pride to Basque Americans along with other ethnic groups. Basques gradually became a self-conscious Basque American group, and the process of inventing a Basque American identity started (Douglass, William A. “Inventing an ethnic identity,” in Global Vasconia). Before that, in Douglass’ words, “Basque ethnicity was more a fact of life, a lived reality, than a project.” From the 1960s onward however, “ethnic identity maintenance became a salvage operation, something that had to be worked out, a project rather than a lived daily reality.” It was expressed by the creation of formal ethnic institutions, Basque Clubs, and the institutionalization of Basque festivals all around the West.

The Construction of an Original Basque American Identity

Two Basque hotel operators drinking picon punch. Jeronima Echeverria: Home Away from Home: A History of Basque Boardinghouses.

Within the Basque Clubs, an original Basque identity is put forward, one that incorporates elements of Old World Basque experiences –mass in Basque, music, mus, sports, dance- and New World Basque experiences –food served in the boardinghouses, sheepherding as the common Basque-American experience, picon punch as the Basque drink par excellence. Picon was a very fashionable drink in the Basque Country –more precisely in Iparralde- at a time when many immigrants arrived in the United States (until the 1950s). This aperitif crystallized among Basque Americans as the Basque drink, when nowadays in the Basque Country picon is not a fashionable drink anymore.

Basque and American flags during the Kern County Basque festival.

Thus, within the Basque Clubs, a dual identity is emphasized. People involved in the clubs constantly emphasize their allegiance to the United States and their pride in being Basque in the United States. As an illustration of it, all Basque American events showcase both the Basque and the American flags. Moreover, the Basque Clubs often seek the recognition of American authorities regarding the contribution of Basques in the making of the American West.

The majority of the Basque Clubs emphasized Basque and American dual identities since their inception. But a few of them also mentioned another identity, the Spanish or the French one. With the passing of time, however, Spanish and French have gradually ceased to be significant identifiers among both U.S.-born and Old Country-born Basques. As an illustration of this idea, the Boise Euzkaldunak original by-laws in 1949 stipulated that to become a member one had to be Basque or Spanish. The by-laws were amended in 1975, and the Spanish mention was removed. Since its inception in 1960, the San Francisco Basque Club developed strong ties with the French colony. In the functions organized by the Basque Club, the French, Basque and American flags would be displayed. Nowadays, however, only the American and Basque flags are displayed.

World Congress of Basque collectivities, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Araba, 2015.

Then, gradually, through the establishment of contacts between the various scattered Basque communities, a phenomenon accelerated with the creation of the North American Basque Organizations, Inc. (NABO). With it, a sense of general Basque identity beyond the old country’s regional barriers was shaped, and Basque Americans became increasingly aware of themselves as a group. Basque identity as manifested in the U.S. does not attach importance to Old World regional differences, and it even seeks to embrace Basque Country traditions in its entirety. But we can discern an additional step in the making of this identity, as contacts are now frequent between Basque communities of different countries. The international mus (card game) or pelota championships as well as the World Congress of Basque Collectivities organized every 4 years by the Basque Autonomous Government represent some of the many venues that are available to Basques of the diaspora to meet and build bridges. The diaspora increasingly becomes aware of itself and defines itself as the 8th province of the Basque Country (7 provinces constitute the Basque Country in Europe).

Basque Festivals

Organizing Committee of the 1959 Basque festival in Sparks.

The festival held in Sparks, Nevada in 1959 was the first one in the American West to display Basqueness publicly, and it appeared to be the catalyst for similar festivals that began to take place in more and more Basque local communities. Prior to 1959, several communities had their own annual picnics, such as Buffalo, Wyoming since 1908, Boise, ID since 1933, Bakersfield, CA since 1938, and La Puente, CA since 1946. But these events were organized by Basques for Basques, they were private gatherings. Many Basques who attended the Sparks Basque festival went back to their communities intending to organize something similar.

Crowd attending the Basque festival in Sparks, NV in 1959.

For most Basque Clubs, the Basque festival remains their major annual activity. The Basque festival usually takes the following format: A mass in the Basque language, Basque dances, Basque sports, a barbecue lunch, a public dance, exhibits or activities featuring the Basque American experience, linked to sheepherding. Basque Clubs, and their main activity, the summer festivals, are a symbol through which people announce their presence and claim reality. Basques, after the 1950s, wished to become “visible.”

Modern Basque Clubs

Existing Basque ethnic institutions of the diaspora were mainly formed after the 1950s. An association was founded in Stockton in 1907, which did not last long. In San Francisco, in 1924, the Zazpiak Bat Club was founded but eventually fell apart due to Old World regional distinctions. Three Basque institutions that were created prior to the 1950s still operate today: the ones in Bakersfield (1944), La Puente (1939) and New York (1913). The others are of more recent formation.

Basque Clubs show some common characteristics: The desire to teach old country traditions to the children, for example through dance classes; the importance of exposing and showcasing Basque culture to the wider public through festivals; and the development of recreational activities through dinners and other festivities.

Basque Cultural Center.

Unlike the Basque hotels, these new institutions do not operate every day of the year. Of the existing 30 Basque Clubs in the American West (institutions whose purpose is mainly educational are not counted here) three of them have a 500 up membership. Five of them have between 300 and 500 members, 13 of them have between 100 and 300 members, and nine have between 50 and 100 members. Eight of them have their own clubhouse: Chino since 1987, Bakersfield since 1974, and San Francisco since 1982 in California. Gooding since 2002, Boise since 1949, and Homedale since 2006 in Idaho. Elko in Nevada since 1977. Ontario in Oregon since 2007. Some clubs develop activities for members all year round, while other clubs’ activities include an annual picnic, a mus tournament and a few additional gatherings throughout the year. They face different situations: some are in a crisis, some are rebuilding, when others are growing. Ethnic Basque identification is increasingly voluntary and is a matter of individual choice. At the local club level, dance is the main activity attracting Basque American children. But not all the young Basques are interested in dancing, playing pelota or mus, and the various extra-curricular activities in which they are involved compete with the Basque Clubs’ activities. Aware of these challenges, several institutions have given it much thought, and offer the youth various non-traditional activities as an additional venue for them to become friends, build a sense of community among them and eventually get involved in the life of the club.

Formal Basque Ethnic Institutions in California

Zazpiak Bat Club, San Francisco, CA, founded in 1924, inactive.

Kern County Basque Club, Bakersfield, CA, founded in 1944.

Southern California Basque Club, Chino, CA, founded in 1946, formerly Southern California Eskualdun Club.

La Puente Handball Court, CA, founded in 1947.

San Francisco Basque Club of California, founded in 1960.

Menlo Park Zazpiak Bat Club, CA, founded in 1964, inactive.

Los Banos Basque Club, CA founded in 1964.

Chino Basque Club, CA founded in 1967.

Fresno Basque Club, CA, founded in 1978.

Susanville Basque Club, CA, founded in 1975.

San Francisco Basque Cultural Center, founded in 1979.

Los Angeles Oberena, CA, founded in the 1980s.

Basque Educational Organization, San Francisco, founded in 1984.

Marin Sonoma, CA, founded in 1989.

Anaitasuna, San Francisco, founded in 1991.

Ventura Basque Club, Itxaso Alde, CA, founded in 1993.

Iparreko Ibarra, Rocklin CA, founded in 2005.

The North American Basque Organizations, Inc. (NABO)

Emblem of the North American Basque Organizations, Inc.

With the creation of Basque Clubs throughout the West and the institutionalization of their festivals, a network was established between the scattered Basque Clubs by the end of the 1960s. In a context where the means and speed of communication improved, the need to create a link that would unite the scattered efforts was soon felt, and led to the creation of an organization that regroups most Basque American clubs, the North American Basque Organizations, Inc. in 1973, therefore marking a new step in Basque institutionalism in the United States.

In 1971 when Jon Bilbao and William Douglass, from the Basque Studies Program at the University of Nevada, Reno, were doing research for Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World, they visited Argentina among other countries.  There, they learned of the existence of FEVA, or Federación de Entidades Vasco Argentinas, that started in 1955 and regrouped most of the Argentinean Basque Clubs. Bilbao came back to Reno with the idea basically that something like FEVA would be a good idea here in the Unites States. As director of the Basque Studies Program in Reno, Douglass agreed to provide a venue for representatives of several Basque communities to meet and discuss the idea of starting a federation, and therefore organized a few meetings at the library of the University of Nevada, Reno. The venue started by the Basque Studies Program was continued by the newly created Idaho Basque Studies Center.

Flyer from the 1982 Summer Camp in Chino, CA.

In 1971, the Division of Continuing Education in Idaho’s State Department of Education submitted a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington D.C. for which they received a $52,285 grant for a two-year period to carry out several Basque projects. The Idaho Basque Studies Center (IBSC) in the Idaho State System of Higher Education was established to organize this effort and administer the federal grant. The North American Basque Organizations, Inc. is one of the projects the IBSC justified to the National Endowment as having accomplished.

Currently, NABO regroups over forty Basque American organizations whose delegates meet three times a year. NABO brings all the clubs together, works on the preservation of Basque Culture and contributes to make Basque culture more visible. NABO sponsors inter-club pelota and mus tournaments and annually organizes the Day of the Singer. Each year, a different club hosts NABO’s convention festival. NABO also prints a calendar every year that includes the activities of each NABO affiliated clubs. NABO also offers the various clubs a program to teach the Basque language. Probably the most important activity is NABO’s Summer Camp where young teenagers from various parts of the United States meet and learn about their Basque heritage.

Growing Interest for Educational Activities

There is an important educational dimension to the modern Basque Clubs. Through the activities developed in each club (dance and pelota instruction for example) Basque Americans learn what it means to be Basque.

There are now more educated people among the clubs’ leaders, compared to thirty years ago. Consequently, for them, the word education is understood in a more academic sense. As more Basque Americans are further removed from the immigrant generation and further diluted into American culture, the need to educate people on Basque history, culture, language is discussed more often locally in the local Basque communities and collectively at NABO level. More and more, Basque Clubs integrate educational activities. Recently developed programs to teach the Basque language illustrate this trend well. Basque language classes for adults are offered in several Basque Clubs nowadays. Moreover, in recent years, the number of educational Basque organizations has increased.

Basque Educational Organization (BEO).

The Basque Educational Organization (BEO) , based in the San Francisco Bay Area, promotes educational programs such as a Basque film series, conferences, and an essay contest. It has also supported a book on the Basques in San Francisco (Gardeners of Identity) and collaborates on the Memoria Bizia interview program   which gathers testimonies from elder members of the local community).

The purpose of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center of Boise  created in 1990 is “to perpetuate, to preserve, and to promote awareness of Basque history and culture through education, research, collections and social activities for present and future generations.” The Basque museum displays exhibits of the Basque experience in the Basque Country and the United States, as well as various collections such as an oral history archive. It also provides Basque language classes, resource materials in school libraries, and a Basque pre-school, featuring a total immersion program in the Basque language.

The Cenarrusa Foundation for Basque culture  was created to “preserve, educate and connect the Basque community and the rest of the world through research, projects and educational opportunities for all.” The Center successfully established a Basque studies program at Boise State University, which offers interdisciplinary courses on the Basque language, culture, history and a minor in Basque studies.

The Center for Basque Studies (CBS) at the University of Nevada, Reno was created in 1967. Its mission is to further Basque-related study by conducting and disseminating research in Basque-related topics. It provides classes in undergraduate and graduate level on the Basque language, Basque History and it offers a minor in Basque Studies and a Tutorial Ph.D.

At the same time, the past years have seen the creation of other kinds of Basque programs around the world, sponsored by the Etxepare Institute. Its mission is to promote Basque language and culture through its network of lecturers scattered in over 20 universities around the world. It is an initiative that comes from the Basque Country. The programs that are established in places where there is an already existing Basque community can benefit from and bring many things to the established Basque community. But mainly, these programs are intended to promote Basque language and culture toward non-Basque people. For instance, the University of California in Santa Barbara offers Basque language and culture classes as one of the many Basque studies programs sponsored by the Etxepare Institute.

Conclusion: What is the Future for Basque Ethnic Institutions?

Several scholars have predicted the ethnic institutions’ inevitable disappearance. Breton, for instance, argues that every ethnic institution goes through a life cycle, and that they ultimately disappear.

Given the fact that the members of the immigrant generation decreases; that the membership within the Basque Clubs stagnates and that only a small minority of self-defined Basques actually join the existing ethnic institutions, the question of the Basque Clubs’ future immediately arises. Will the Basque Clubs follow the fate of the boardinghouses and be a “thing of the past?” (Expression used by J. Echeverria in her book on the Basque boardinghouses.) Or will it open the way to a new evolution in Basque institutionalism in the United States? There is no single and easy solution to the issues experienced by the diasporic Basque institutions worldwide. The key here would be to constantly re-think the activities that are being offered in order to match the continually changing needs of the population.

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