My heart flutters as I swerve along the one-lane road leading to Arroniz, the medieval village where my father was born. I’ve spent almost every summer of my life here, in this town, population 500, where half the people share my last name. But this is the first time I’ve come with an ulterior motive: I want to get my family, divided for generations on the issue of Basque nationalism, to talk about what it means for them to be Basque.
I round the final hairpin turn and smile at the first site of Arroniz, its rows of stone houses hugging the slopes of a steep mountain. I drive along the only paved road, flanked by the few bars that comprise the town’s cultural center. I turn and climb the hill toward Carasol, my family’s ancestral home. When I step out of the car, the sweet familiar scent of sage greets me. A swarm of sparrows circles above. I call our street the “widows’ row,” because the only people left are a half-dozen whiskered ladies, always dressed in black. They’ve known my family forever. They call me “La Americana.” As soon as they see me, they squeeze me and kiss me and fill me in on the town gossip.
Carasol is vacant most of the year, but today my cousins, my Uncle Pedro and Aunt Yosune and I will fill the place with the scents and sounds of a chuletada – lamb chops roasted over dried grape vines. I’ve always known that this branch of the family believed in an independent Basque state. But this is the first time all of us have sat down to talk politics. We are all shocked when our uncle Pedro declares his support of the terrorist group ETA. For the first time, my cousin Samuel expresses his sadness over his inability to learn Basque, thanks to repression by the former dictator, Francisco Franco.
Also for the first time, my cousin Juan Mari talks about having to overcome negative stereotypes about the Basque people.
As we talk, it dawns on met that we are speaking Spanish, but this place somehow doesn’t feel like Spain. Yet I can’t quite figure out what defines these people, this setting, even me, as Basque. Here is part of our conversation:
Pedro: I personally consider myself Basque. I’m not Spanish.
Juan Mari: I, of course, also consider myself Basque.
Samuel: I also consider myself Basque. And I have nothing against Spaniards or anyone, or Americans.
Yosune: I also consider myself, like he just said. And I have nothing against Spaniards or anyone, but I consider myself Basque, Basque, Basque.
Samuel: (sings a Basque song) It means I’m Basque and I’m proud.
Yosune: When people hear this, they’re going to think these guys are…
Juan Mari: They’re going to say, ‘Vicky, are you sure you feel safe over there, because it sounds like they’re all terrorists.’ (laughs)
Victoria: (laughs) I feel very, very safe. My most daunting interview is with my aunt Mari Carmen and her husband Jose Mari. Mari Carmen is my father’s youngest sister, and when she married the pro-Franco heir to a canned asparagus empire, she alienated her brothers, most of them landless laborers. And although over the years, my uncles have put aside their differences long enough to celebrate weddings, communions and chuletadas together, there’s always been an underlying resentment.
I sit down for a meal with Mari Carmen, Jose Mari and Uncle Pedro. About a minute into our discussion Uncle Pedro gets up and quietly excuses himself. It strikes me that for my uncles’ generation, people in opposing ideological camps can share a meal together, but they can’t talk politics without one or both of them walking away. But Pedro’s absence enables Jose Mari to speak more freely. I can only imagine how Pedro would have reacted upon hearing his brother-in-law call Basques “hicks,” or call the influx of Basque-speaking people into Pamplona an “invasion,” or compare the Basque independence movement to Hitler.
Years ago, Jose Mari and I hiked to the top of Monjardín, a Roman-era fortress. We looked out over the miles of vineyards, olive orchards and wheat fields, and he said, “You’ll never see a more beautiful place than Navarra.” Now, sitting at the table listening to him, I realize his condemnation of the separatist movement comes from the fear that they’ll take his beloved Navarra away.
Like his father Pedro, my cousin Txema (pronounced Chema) always embraced the idea of Basque independence. So I’m surprised when he says the fight for statehood is unrealistic and unwise. He’s now the minister of culture for a left-leaning political party, Batzarre, and Txema explains the party’s approach to ending violence in the region.
When I meet up with my cousin Armando in Madrid, Armando says he’s “sickened and saddened” by “the fear and the blackmail” that make discussion of the issues so difficult. “That’s the problem: not only has this fight been radicalized between the ETA and the governing powers, but it’s also been radicalized between everyday people.”
But we both take comfort in the direction our family is going. We cousins embrace dialogue, compromise, tolerance. My aunt Yosune’s sons have even joined with my aunt Mari Carmen’s sons to open a hotel – Hotel Mauleón. That’s something our parents’ generation would never have dreamed of doing.
On my way to the airport, I get that choked-up feeling I get every time I leave my family. I feel I’m being yanked apart from people who share more than just my pale skin, my black hair, my last name, my blood. What does it mean to be Basque? What’s the best way forward? I think about how the fight over these questions has ripped so many families apart. While our parents still bear the scars of this struggle, for my generation, the scars seem to be fading. And while this discovery might not have given me the answers I was looking for, it has given me hope.
– Victoria Mauleón