While the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering that takes place in Elko, Nevada, is a well-known event amongst Basque-Americans, hardly no one in the Basque Country knew about it until this year.
Maialen Lujanbio was one of the participants in the 2018 Gathering. Lujanbio is a very popular homeland female bertsolari – an art form that combines poetry singing with improvisation, and tradition. Lujanbio was the National Bertsolari´s Champion in 2009 and again in 2017. Due to her popularity, we heard about her Elko experience in the homeland news. It did not make it to the front page of our press, but it did make it to the Basque Country.
One of the headlines in Basque, Euskera, said “Bertsolaritza wears the cowboy hat in Nevada”. Thus, more people in the homeland know about the successful and invigorating NCPG – number 34 this year – and have also learnt about the strong commitment and engagement of Basques in the American West.
It is interesting to highlight how the official program of the NCPG included Basques within the headline “participants” and how, once you opened the tab, Basques and Basque-Americans were differed, as if they were two distant groups. The way it was expressed does assuredly involve some food for thought, especially for those in the homeland.
Bascos in the U.S. have been able to merge and live with their hyphenated identities, combining and merging both their American and Basque identity. They are instances of a dual identity that has earned the pride of Basqueness without dismissing or degrading their American identity, or vice versa. For Basques in the Basque Country, who are struggling to maintain Euskera, a minorized language, under the dominant states of France and Spain and whose history is still very complex and multifaceted, the option of a hybrid or hyphenated is not contemplated. The harmonious multiple identity of Basque-Americans is, henceforth, utterly striking when homeland Basques first visit the Basque-American West. Surely, many in the Basque Country were dazzled with the images of Basques dressed in cowboy outfits, which constitutes a visual articulation of their hyphenated identity.
The Elko community has been one of the major Basque enclaves in the American West since the early 1900s. Although the influx of Basque immigration into the U.S. stopped in the 1970s, their presence is still very latent across the West. They have decreased in number, but not in energy and vitality. A foremost example of their vibrancy is the titanic arduousness of the Elko Basque community in its attempt to preserve and (re)generate its ethnic identity. Festivities and events, such as the annual National Basque Festival or the Basque participation in the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering through their music, dances, food, drinks, books and life experiences, convey important means to both, collectively and individually, manage one´s ethnicity.
Far from the homeland, Basques in Elko (re)create their own Basque Country and practice their Basqueness. As the NCPG hints, Basques and Basque-Americans are not the same; in fact, they are very diverse and distant in many areas. That is, certainly, the way it is expected. Life experiences in the two geographical spheres are not alike, which, no doubt, marks the way we create our own collective and individual biographies. For example, Basques in the homeland have the chance to speak their mother-tongue more frequently and in more spaces, while for many in Elko, or the American West in general, these options are highly limited, or even reduced to none. Nonetheless, Elko keeps being an example of endurance and perseverance in their (re)creation of Basqueness.
When Basques visit Elko, stopping by at Anita Anacabe´s store is a must. Her fluency in Basque provokes the surprise of the homeland people. Her care and attention for those from the Old Country is also an ingredient that makes her welcoming special. She can spot a Basque as soon as one walks through the door of her store. Another compulsory visit is to the mythic Star Hotel, currently run by Scott Igoa (also spelt as Ygoa). Again, Igoa´s outstanding command of Euskera and his invigorating engagement to his heritage is thrilling. Vince Juaristi´s books, “Back to Bizkaia: A Basque-American Memoir” (2011) or “Basques Firsts: People Who Changed the World” (2016), or Gretchen Skivington´s new book, “Echevarria” (2017) – launched in this year´s NCPG – are other clear manifestation of the compelling vividness of the Basque community in Elko.
Writing, dancing, eating, singing and listening to music contribute to the imagery and fantasy of a collective and individual ancestry and are the means that enable engaging in a sense of ethnic belonging. In fact, festivities and the events held enhance sensorial and affective engagement, which favour an intense and strong feeling of belonging, positive self-evaluation and self-esteem. The 34th NCPG gave Basques and Basque-Americans the chance to celebrate their ethnic identity and produce new meanings to their sense of Basqueness and belonging.
Through the combination of memory and fantasy, and great doses of enthusiasm, the Elko Basques, once again, gave us a lesson on the cultivation of Basqueness through inclusive social gatherings. Without their effort, a large part of our history and consciousness would unarguably disappear.