LOCATION: Northwest Spain and southwest France
POPULATION: 3 million(2.5 million in Spain)
LANGUAGE: Euskera (Basque language); Spanish; French
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism
The Basques are a single people who live in two countries—northwest Spain and southwest France. The Basques may be the oldest ethnic group in Europe. They are thought to have inhabited the southwestern corner of the continent since before Indo-European peoples came to the area approximately 5,000 years ago. Surviving invasions by the Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, French, and Spanish, they resisted domination by outsiders until the Middle Ages (AD 476–1450). At that time, much of their territory was seized by Spaniards, Gascons, and Catalans. In 1516, the Basques on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees Mountains agreed to Castilian rule but won the right to keep a degree of self-government. By 1876, all Basque lands were divided between France and Spain.
During the regime of General Francisco Franco (1939–75) the Basque language and culture in the Spanish provinces were ruthlessly suppressed (prohibited). By the 1950s, resistance groups had formed, most notably the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA)—Basque Homeland and Liberty. The ETA committed terrorist acts throughout the 1970s and 1980s, even after Spanish rule over the Basques was liberalized following Franco's death in 1975.
Three of the four Spanish Basque provinces—Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, and Navarra—were unified in 1980 as the Basque Autonomous Community. Its inhabitants were granted limited autonomy, recognition of their language and culture, and control over their schools and police force. However, the ETA—although representative of only a small minority—has continued to fight for full Basque independence. There has been little or no comparable activity among the French Basques, who have not been subjected to the same type of repression as those in Spain. However, separatist sympathizers on the French side have provided the ETA with material assistance and safe havens.
Basque country consists of four regions on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees (Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, Navarra, and Alava) and three on the French side (Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule). Basques call these territories collectively, Euskal-Herria (Land of the Basques) or Euskadi . It has been nearly a thousand years since these regions were unified politically. The area is geographically varied, containing the ridges and foothills of the Pyrenees and a short coastal plain along the Bay of Biscay (an inlet along the Atlantic Ocean), as well as steep, narrow valleys and mountain streams.
With some 3 million inhabitants (2.5 million in Spain and half 0.5 million in France), the land of the Basques is a densely populated area. Blood types and other genetic information suggest that they are an ancient people who inhabited the region long before the arrival of other European groups. According to a Basque saying, "Before God was God and boulders were boulders, the Basques were already Basques."
The Basque language, also known as Euskera, is Europe's oldest living language. It is unrelated to Spanish, French, or any other Romance language and belongs to no other known language family. It was the universal language of rural Basques until the end of the nineteenth century. At that time it had no written literary tradition. During Franco's regime in the mid-twentieth century, all Spanish regionalism (devotion to the uniqueness of one's own region) was suppressed. This caused the number of Basque speakers in Spain to decline sharply (as opposed to France, where the figures are higher). In recent years, Basques in both Spain and France have promoted—with some success—the use of their traditional language. Every province and town in Spain's Basque country has two official names—a Spanish one and a Basque one. Both appear on all road signs.
The Basque language is extremely difficult and complex. (Regional folklore has it that the Devil tried to learn Basque for seven years and gave up.) In addition, there are a number of different dialects. Basque is also rather exotic when contrasted with other Western tongues. For example, intensity may be expressed by repeating a word twice ("very hot" is bero-bero ). This language feature is unknown among European languages but common among Polynesian ones. The language also lacks generic terms for "tree" and "animal": there are names for specific trees (oak, maple, etc.), but not for trees in general.
|see you later||gero arte|
|hello, how are you?||kaixo, zer moduz?|
A common Basque proverb is "Happiness is the only thing we can give without having" ( Izan gabe eman dezakegun gauza bakarra da zoriona).
Through centuries of storytelling, the Basques have evolved a rich and colorful mythology. In ancient times their land was supposed to have been peopled by a race of giants called jentillak. These giants lived side by side with human inhabitants until the coming of Christ. At that time they disappeared, leaving behind only one of their number named Olentzero . Today, Olentzero is a sort of folk icon or mascot who appears in the form of dolls and straw figures in processions, homes, and sometimes even churches. The laminak were female sprites, similar to leprechauns, who could wield either a helpful or harmful influence.
Basque folklore also encompasses various rituals and dances. The Katcha-Ranka is a dance performed in fishing villages. A person representing St. Peter is carried in a coffin through the village and to the water-front. Dancers then symbolically beat him as a threat to ensure a good catch when they go out fishing.
Almost all Basques are Roman Catholic. Traditionally, an unusually high percentage chose to become priests or nuns. However, this number has fallen since the Second Vatican Council (1962), as has church attendance in general. Two of the Church's most renowned theologians, St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuit order) were of Basque origin. Basque Catholicism, like that in many other areas of Spain, is characterized by a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary.
As elsewhere in Spain, most Basque holidays are those found in the Christian calendar. Special religious observances include St. Joseph the Workman's Day in May, and St. John of Compostela Day in August. In addition, villages celebrate their own festivals with performances by folk musicians, dancers, and bertsolariak, traditional singer/storytellers who can improvise and sing rhymes on any topic.
The famous running of the bulls in celebration of San Fermín takes place every year in the Basque town of Pamplona. Every day for a week, six bulls are let loose in the streets to run to the bullfighting stadium. Crowds of white-clad young men dare fate by running ahead of the bulls and swatting them with rolled-up newspapers.
Besides baptism, First Communion, and marriage, military service could be considered a rite of passage for Basques as it is for most Spaniards. The first three of these events are the occasion, in most cases, for big and expensive social gatherings in which the family shows its generosity and economic status. Quintos, the young men from the same town or village going into the military in the same year, form a closely knit group that collects money from their neighbors to organize parties and serenade girls. In the mid-1990s, the period of required military service had been greatly reduced, and the government planned to replace required military service with a voluntary Army.
A special relationship developed in rural communities where families often lived on individual farms in relative isolation. This was especially true with the nearest neighbor, called the lehen auzo, or "first neighbor." The role played by first neighbors sometimes even goes beyond that of blood relatives. The best man and chief bridesmaid at weddings are chosen from the household of the lehen auzo. In addition, its members are informed of a serious illness or impending death before the family's closest relatives are told. In an emergency, the lehen auzo temporarily takes over the running of the neighbor's farm. When there is a death in the family, custom traditionally requires that the lehen auzo be informed before the village bell tolls. The wider neighborhood, or auzoa, is also an important source of social support.
People in the rural regions of Basque country live in large, stone farm houses called baserriak (the plural of baserria ). They are often as high as three stories. Animals are kept on the ground floor, the family lives on the second floor, and hay and other crops are stored on the third. Baserriak may either be built at a distance from one another or located in clusters of about ten or twelve. In cities and towns, the Basques, like other Spanish urban dwellers, generally live in apartment buildings.
In rural areas, Basque households generally include either the maternal or paternal grandparents, as well as unmarried aunts or uncles. It is not uncommon for cousins, even first cousins, to marry. The most important concern for rural dwellers is the continuation of the family farm, or basseria. In every family, one son or daughter is designated from childhood as heir to the farm. When he or she gets married, ownership of the farm is transferred to the new couple as part of the wedding arrangements. All adults in the household participate in child-rearing. The whole family helps with the farm work, including children and grandparents, who assist with easier tasks.
In urban areas, the nuclear family (parents and children) is the norm, sometimes joined by an elderly grandparent or unmarried aunt. Families who can afford it may have a live-in nanny or servant.
Basques wear modern Western-style clothing for both casual and formal occasions. The single most distinctive item of traditional Basque clothing—still worn throughout the country—is the flat, wide, black beret worn by Basque men. It is customary to dress in white and red during the Festival of San Fermín, which is the occasion for the traditional running of the bulls in Pamplona.
The Basques are known for their excellent cuisine, much of which involves seafood. The Basque version of bouillabaisse, or fish stew, is called ttoro and includes mussels, crayfish, congers (eels), the head of a codfish, and three other kinds of fish. Other specialties include fresh tuna with tomatoes, garlic, and spices; txangurro (spider crab); and kokotchas, made with hake ( merluza— a type of fish), garlic, and parsley. Gazpacho, a cold soup made with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and olive oil, is common fare in all of Spain. Red peppers are a dietary staple and find their way into seafood sauces, chicken recipes, and omelettes. They are even strung across the walls of Basque houses as a decoration. Gateau Basque (Basque cake) is made from eggs, flour, sugar, and rum. A favorite national beverage is txakoli (also called txakolina ), a fruity, white wine produced in coastal areas, often in small family cellars.
School for the Basques, as for other Spanish children, is free and required between the ages of six and fourteen. Many students then begin the three-year bachillerato (baccalaureate) course of study. They may then opt for either one year of college preparatory study or vocational training. About one-third of Spain's children are educated at private schools, many of them run by the Catholic Church.
Traditional Basque plays known as pastorales, which possibly related to medieval mystery plays, are still performed at festivals. In the fine arts, well-known Basques include writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, composer Maurice Ravel, and sculptor Eduardo Chillida.
About 20 percent of the Basque population is engaged in agriculture. The traditional farm holding, or basseria, is a family enterprise in which each household raises its own crops (corn, wheat, and vegetables) and livestock (chickens, pigs, cows, and sheep). However, certain resources, including pasture lands and fuel wood, are held in common by each village. Basque herders still follow the seasonal patterns of their ancestors. They move herds of sheep, cows, and goats up to mountain pasture lands from June to October while their wives take charge of the family farm. Fishing, a significant Basque industry, is undergoing modernization. However, one can still see women on the docks of fishing villages repairing nets with needles and thread.
The Basque country has long been known as a center of Spanish industry, especially the city of Bilbao. The region's history as the nation's iron and steel capital has led to the development of automobile and machine tool manufacturing. Shipbuilding is another profitable industry.
The Basque national game is pelote, a game like handball or squash played at very high speeds. The game has been played for centuries in an outdoor court called a frontón, which often shares a wall with the village church. Today, it is also played in indoor courts as well. The fastest form of pelote, called cesta punta, is played on an outdoor court with a second wall called a jai-alai (a term that has come to designate the game itself in countries throughout the world as its popularity has grown).
Another competitive sport popular among the Basques is rowing. Every fishing village has a thirteen-member team, and thousands attend the annual rowing championship at San Sebastián.
One of the most prized attributes among the Basques has historically been physical strength. This is displayed in the traditional Basque sports of stone-lifting (harrijasotzaileak) and log-chopping (aizkolariak).
Like other people throughout Spain, the Basques spend many leisure hours socializing with friends at tapas bars, which serve light food and drinks. They also enjoy each other's company at the more than 1,500 gourmet societies, or txokos, in their region. These are private dining clubs that were formerly male-only but now welcome women (although men still tend to do the cooking). Television is a popular form of relaxation. Spain has a private television station (TV Vasca) that broadcasts in the Basque language. El mus is a popular Basque card game.
The traditional Basque decorative arts consist primarily of woodcarving and engraving on stone. Both are practiced mainly on door lintels (upper frames) and tombstones. The Basques have a well-developed tradition of oral storytelling, which was one of their main forms of entertainment before urbanization (and television). Basques would often invite their neighbors over for an evening of tale-spinning. Basque folk music is sung and played on traditional instruments including the txistu, a three-holed flute, and the bagpipe-like dultzaina . Dozens of folk dances have been preserved, and many villages have folk-dance groups that perform regularly. Two especially spirited dances are the Bolant Dantza (flying dance) and La Espata Dantza (sword dance).
The iron, steel, chemical, and paper industries of the Basque region have created a serious pollution problem in its cities. Motor vehicle emissions have made the situation even worse. There is considerable river pollution as well. Bilbao's metals industries must deal with outmoded facilities and increased competition from the European Community (EC). In 1994, the city's unemployment rate climbed to 27 percent. Clashes between ETA separatists and Spanish forces have left more than 600 dead in the past three decades.
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Facaros, Dana, and Michael Pauls. Northern Spain. London, England: Cadogan Books, 1996.
Westwood, Webster. Basque Legends. New York: AMS Press, 1977.
Tourist Office of Spain. [Online] Available http://www.okspain.org/ , 1998.