- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2005

GARDNERVILLE, Nev. - In a way, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” was about their family. The agony captured on the famous canvas remains strong for the Basques who now call America home.

“I was only 5, but I remember flames and smoke everywhere, and dead bodies on the road,” recalls Mari Carmen Egurrola Totoricaguena, a 73-year-old survivor living in Boise, Idaho.

From their mountain hide-out, they could see German dive bombers swooping down on Guernica and neighbors fleeing for their lives.

“My mother was telling me: ‘Don’t move — they will shoot if they see you move,’” Mrs. Totoricaguena remembers.

About 2,000 people were killed and nearly 1,000 wounded on April 26, 1937, when German forces, supporting Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War, leveled Guernica.

A church, an old oak tree, and a few survivors are all that remains.

The Guernica survivors were among thousands fleeing turmoil that seems never to abate in the Basque country. A vicious crackdown followed the civil war. On Franco’s orders, Basque newspapers were closed, political parties banned, and school curricula sanitized of any mention of Basque identity.

“I was only 15 years old, but it made an awful strong impression on you,” recalls David H. Bieter, the mayor of Boise who is of Basque descent. “Searches without any real process at all; roadblocks were a common occurrence with no particular reason.”

In Spain today, the cycle of violence has entered a different phase, with bombs fashioned by the Basque separatist group ETA going off in broad daylight. But in Gardnerville, it’s quiet. The air is crisp and herds of sheep lazily graze in the meadows.

From time to time, a local radio station delivers a languid Basque tune before reverting to discussion of weather and baseball scores. There is good red wine at the town’s two Basque restaurants, where shy Basque teenage girls in old-fashioned aprons serve steaming dishes of chicken and lamb.

“We don’t have any of the political turmoil you see back in Spain,” smiles Marie-Louise Lekumberry, owner of JT Bar, a Basque restaurant. “It just doesn’t happen.”

About 200 Basques have made their home in this ranching town of 3,350. There are about 6,000 Basques in Nevada, mainly in Reno, Winnemucca, Elko and Ely. Overall, the Basque population in the United States numbers about 58,000.

Basques began as shepherds here. In the spring, the Idaho-based Totoricaguena company would take thousands of sheep to the mountains for grazing and would bring them back just before the first snow.

The Basques excelled at that — sturdy, taciturn men with enough stamina to handle animals and endure days of complete solitude. Women and children waited for them in cities, in so-called Basque hotels — boarding houses offering reasonable rates.

The preferred businesses of local Basques these days are landscaping, ranching and hotel management, members of the community said. And some Basque-Americans have gone to achieve national prominence, including former Sen. Paul Laxalt, a Republican who was Nevada’s governor before being elected to two terms in the Senate. His late brother, Robert Laxalt, was a historian and author once hailed as “Nevada’s Ernest Hemingway.”

Other Basques in public life include California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, and Pete T. Cenarrusa, who spent 52 years in public service as member of the Idaho Legislature and as Idaho secretary of state before retiring in 2002.

Basque heritage is celebrated throughout the West at annual festivals that feature colorful displays of Basque national costumes, dancing, singing and food galore. There are 38 Basque clubs and associations in the United States — all of which have foresworn any involvement in the turmoil currently wreaking havoc in their former homeland, says Gloria Totoricaguena, a professor of Basque studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“There is no known pro-ETA base here,” she says, echoing the views of other Basque-Americans.

There are Basque studies programs at University of Nevada and at Boise State University, where students can learn the language, history, economy and culture of the Basque country.

A large Basque cultural center and a Basque museum function in Boise, where a preschool offers publicly funded Basque language courses. A Basque Catholic priest based in San Francisco travels around the region to celebrate Mass in the Basque language.

“You can maintain your Basque identity and promote Basque culture in this country,” Miss Totoricaguena says. “This is not the case in Spain.”

Boise’s mayor, Mr. Bieter, shares that view. “The Basques here enjoy considerably more freedom than they would have in Spain,” he says.

Those who come to the JT Bar prefer to chat about sports and children — not bombs.

“We are just too busy trying to make our lives better,” Mrs. Lekumberry says. “Maybe we don’t really realize how lucky we are.”


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