“Every 5 years there is a Basque festival in Idaho. Idaho is the second largest concentration of Basques in the world outside of the Basque country because the terrain in Idaho and the surrounding areas is the most similar to Spain as a whole, like having very good soil and being pretty flat with some mountains, and you can go fishing there and there is a lot of room for cattle. The Basque festival is in Boise, and they have a lot of food and street fare, and tapas which are small dishes which are traditional to the Basque heritage. They also have a strongman competition (a traditional Basque sport) where people see who can lift the largest boulder. They have traditional Basque dancing and a pelota [ball] game where you hit a ball against a wall, kind of similar to racquetball. There is lots of paella and there are drinks called ‘Calimochos’ which is Coca-Cola with red wine, which is a traditional Spanish drink and everyone drinks those.”
OA is a 21-year-old American student at USC. She grew up in Washington. Her family is of Basque heritage, so I asked her about any Basque specific traditions she has, since the Basque people are from a very small region in Northern Spain/Southern France. She told me about a Basque festival her family goes to in Idaho.
Festivals are a unique expression of cultural heritage because they can bring together people from a wide area in celebration of one specific thing, in this case Basque people celebrating and honoring their culture. Since it only happens every 5 years, it makes it even more special, and the people can honor their ancestors by partaking in the things they did traditionally. The geographical location of the Basque country in Europe explains why some of their traditions are similar to others in nearby countries, like tapas and pelota which are both Spanish words. But even with these similarities, this festival and these people are incredibly unique. It is special too that there is a huge community of Basque people who all live in a common area that represents their homeland in the way it is geographically similar to where they came from. These continued connections with the past can give people a sense of identity that are derived from the community they are in.
Context: The informant is my mother, identified as L.M., a woman born, raised, and living in Northern California. Both of her paternal grandparents were of Basque descent. Her paternal grandmother emigrated from the French Pyrenees as a teenager, arriving at Ellis Island speaking only the French and Basque languages, and taking a train across the country to live with relatives in Livermore, California, where she met and married my great grandfather. My mom’s father (my grandfather) was very proud of and identified closely with his Basque roots. One night at a family dinner, I asked my mother if she could describe an event we had attended in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, the Basque “Festival de Force.” I was also in attendance but was quite young and have only vague images for memories.
Main Piece: “This was about 16 years ago when you were six years old and your sister was 14. We had taken a family trip to the Pyrenees to visit the area where both my father’s mom and dad were from. We spent two nights in a pretty town named St. Jean Pied de Port and one day, you, your sister, your dad, and I took a long walk through the town to explore. Eventually, we found ourselves outside a small outdoor stadium, where lots of local people were buying tickets and going inside. We had no idea what was happening inside, and no one seemed to speak English, but it looked fun and interesting, and we decided to get tickets ourselves and check it out. We took seats in the bleachers and it was quickly obvious that we were very likely the only people there who couldn’t speak Basque or French and were not from the area. So, basically the event was called the “Festival de Force,” or in English a “Strength Festival.” The layout of the stadium was similar to a school stadium with a large open area in the middle and an oval running track around the perimeter. There were about six or eight teams of men, with eight to ten men per team, if I remember correctly, and they competed in several different events. I remember there being a log cutting contest with huge logs and axes; an ox cart lifting and pulling contest, with teams of men racing each other while pulling these large wooden ox carts around the track; another event where the teams of men were in a relay, and they were carrying what looked like two large metal milk jugs that they would then hand over to their teammates in the relay; a race while carrying a large sack of wheat over their shoulders; and also a tug of war contest with a huge rope that was the last event of the match. Each team represented a different town or region, and I think it was an annual event. There was a very loud and enthusiastic crowd with lots of team spirit, and the participants put everything they had into the competition. The winning team was declared at the end, and we filed out of the arena with everyone else and headed back to our hotel. It was one of the most memorable experiences of our trip for me, and I loved the energy, the spontaneity and the randomness of our finding this unexpected event during our vacation.”
Analysis: Basque strength tests have their origin in the farm and forest laborers’ daily work, and for centuries, Basque men from different communities would challenge each other to test their relative prowess at these Basque rural sports. Several strength tests originated with the field and farmworkers, including “Orga Joko,” the cart lift, where contestants lift a 350 kg cart on its drawbar and pull it for at least two and up to five laps of the track; “Lasto Altxari,” the hoisting of a 100 kilo bale of straw on a pulley for as many times as possible in two minutes; the “Sakulari,” racing while carrying 76 kilo sacks of wheat on one’s shoulders, and “Untziketariak,” the relay race with large, heavy, metal jugs of milk. Others come from the traditional woodcutters in the forest, such as the Aizkolaria” axe-cutting of oak tree trunks and the “Segari” sawing beech beams. Finally, the “piece de resistance” is the “Sokatira” tug of war, where two teams of 8 to 10 men, wearing the colors of their villages, oppose each other across a rope weighing about one ton, until in a process of elimination the champion is determined. The first and largest modern Basque Festival de Force began in 1951 in the town of Saint Palais, taking place each year on a Sunday in the middle of August. On this day, approximately 150 strongmen from the six competing villages face off in these spectacular and very old challenges to pull the rope, hoist a bale of straw, raise a cart, spilt wood logs, carry milk jugs, and run a bag of wheat on their shoulders. For both the participants and the spectators, this is a unique experience and one of authenticity rooted deeply in centuries-old Basque traditional games which were common, especially at the time of the wheat harvest. The Basque Festival de Force my mother described took place in the town of St. Jean Pied de Port, approximately 30 kilometers from Saint Palais in mid-July 2005, and although smaller in attendance, it had all of the same elements as the original from Saint Palais.
Context: The informant is my uncle and he is identified as J.I. He was raised in the Bay Area by my grandparents alongside my mother. He is of Basque descent and takes great pride in Basque culture and his heritage.
Main Text: “One of our traditions was pretty much every other Sunday we would go visit our Basque grandparents Marie and Ernest in Livermore, but our grandmother originally immigrated from the Pyrenees. She would cook Leg of Lamb for us and stick cloves of garlic in the lamb for flavor and roast potatoes in the bottom of the pan. The skin on the potatoes would soak up the juice and taste so good. On my first trip to Europe, my friend and I found our way to my Basque relatives’ home. The cooking reminded me of my Grandmother’s”.
Analysis: The connection between my great grandmother’s cooking and the cooking of the relatives my uncle visited in Europe demonstrates the strong-rooted Basque culture in food. One of the main occupations of the Basque from ancient times was that they sheepherders, and thus lamb has always been a traditional main course.
My informant is a twenty-one year old student at USC; she’s studying neuroscience with an eye towards medical school. Her father is Laotian and French and her mother is French.
“Both of my parents believe in ghosts. This happened to my mom — or maybe it didn’t happen to her but it happened to someone she knew? I’m not sure. This was in the Basque Region, on the French side. It’s, um, an interesting place. Super pretty, super old. Have you been? (I tell her that no, I haven’t) okay, but you’ve been down south, you know what I’m talking about. Super pretty, super old (laughter). They were at my grandmother’s house which is this super gnarly little cottage and the family has lived there, for like, ever. So they were eating dinner and a bunch of kids were fighting or something and all of a sudden this huge wooden table just flew across the room. Like, slammed against the far wall. They didn’t say they were scared or anything but they just knew that it was a ghost and that the ghost wanted them to know it was there.”
This seems like a classic European ghost story, in many ways. The ghost isn’t necessarily malevolent, but simply there to make its presence known. Much like the piece we read about Estonian ghosts, the ghost is another familial claim on the property and a more tangible connection between the family and the house itself.