Basques - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Basque fishermen in Canada were seasonal sojourners, who crossed the Atlantic to hunt whales and fish for cod. The former were rendered into oil and the latter were salted for transport back to Europe. In the United States, Basques, as much as any and more than most immigrant groups, have been identified with a single industry—sheep husbandry. By the beginning of the present century, they were present in all phases of it, dominating the ranks of the sheepherders and nomadic outfits that moved about the public lands throughout the year. Some Basques also acquired their own ranch properties; others worked as camptenders and ranch foremen. Still others became involved as wool and lamb buyers and in livestock transportation. In recent years, open-range sheep husbandry in the United States has declined owing to increased labor costs and herder shortages, the abolition of certain predator control measures, the success of environmentalists in limiting livestock numbers on public lands, declining demand for wool versus synthetic fabrics, and foreign competition for meat products. Consequently, the Basque involvement in sheep husbandry is now more historic than actual. Many former herders and owners returned to Europe; others converted sheep ranches to cattle; and still others moved to nearby small towns to engage in construction work or establish small businesses (bars, bakeries, motels, gasoline stations, and so on). In San Francisco, Basques work as gardeners, specializing in caring for dozens of urban, postage-stamp-sized yards. They wrested this occupational niche from Japanese-Americans when the latter were interned during World War II. In the Greater Los Angeles area, several Basques work as milkers in large commercial dairies. Wherever jai alai (words that mean "happy festival" in Basque) is legalized, Basque players are recruited from Europe. They tend to be true sojourners, playing part of the year in the Basque country and the remainder in the United States. Basque-Americans are assimilated into the wider culture and therefore display the full range of American occupations and professions. There are Basque attorneys, medical doctors, and university professors, as well as a few owners and chief executive officers of major businesses and financial institutions. It is also true, however, that Basque-Americans have tended to cluster in small businesses, trades, and unskilled occupations. In part, this is a reflection of the Old World rural origins of their forebears and their own upbringing in rural and/or small-town America.

Trade. In the American West there is a Basque ethnic network that, if far from absolute, provides a certain Basque clientele to Basque-owned businesses and tradespeople. The Basque hotels are particularly patronized by Basque-Americans, although all depend upon their wider American clientele as well. In this regard, they trade on the excellent reputation of Basque cuisine and their fame for providing a unique ethnic atmosphere.

Division of Labor. In both Old World and Basque-American society there is considerable egalitarianism Between the sexes. Although domestic tasks remain largely the purview of women, they are not regarded as demeaning for men. Conversely, whether running a ranching operation, a Basque hotel, or a town business, women work alongside their menfolk performing virtually any task.

Land Tenure. In Old World Basque society, farm or business ownership is a point of personal pride and social prestige, an attitude discernible among Basque-Americans. Practically none entered the United States with the intention of remaining salaried sheepherders. Rather, the occupation was seen as a stepping-stone providing savings either to return to Europe and purchase land or to acquire a ranch or town business in the United States. Those Basques who remain salaried employees manifest an extremely high level of home ownership.

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