We could say that without the “pilota”, this meeting would not exist, ex professional Jai-Alai player and New England Basque Club integrant Aitor Aldazabal concluded.
By Iñigo Medina Gracia
Aitor Aldazabal, Juan Mari Aramendi, Riki Sotil, Raul Blanco, Edu Arrieta, Patxi Gandiaga and many others gathered in New London CT the 23th of June as organizers during the celebration of the New England’s annual Basque Festival. They were nostalgic but heartfelt when considering this statement. As the ones who have loved loyally the ancient Basque sport of the “Fronton” in its “Zesta” modality and have to leave it sooner or later, life could be expressed as a set of steps where each one takes you to a different, eventually, completely unexpected one.
Those steps are the ones they experienced after playing at the main frontons of Jai-Alai (or Hi-Li) in Miami, Dania Beach, Hartford, Orlando, Milford, Newport and others. The events occurred during the late 80’s and first 90’s, as the players were on strike, the parallel development of other sports-show competence and the decay of the betting business forced them to reinvent their selves. After getting introduced to some of the organizers or assistant ex-pilotaris and knowing a bit more about their American experience, I noticed that somehow what happened was a recent chapter of Basque emigration history that has not been considered as it deserved to. As multilevel sociological phenomenon, maybe the Jai-Alai 80’s strike and the previous genealogical events which triggered it did not acquire the needed echo within the Basque migration movements. And for sure, it has been and still is, a very interesting individual and collective story.
One of the many products of this route synthetized with the creation of the Rhode Island Basque Club in 2003, when some Roberto Guerenabarrena and other Basque-Americans ex “pilotaris” decided to run a Basque Club. This Euskal Etxea later gathered other Basque Diaspora members from states of Connecticut and Massachusetts, finally establishing the New England Basque Club. New England’s Basque Club has been an active chapter of the NABO federation from 2011, celebrating amusing Basque Festivals each year and running different cultural activities always enforcing Basque culture in the East Coast. This time, the place chosen was New London a “well connected enclave between big cities like Boston and New York. This has encouraged other Basques to visit us and join the celebration” organizer Juan Mari Aramendi assessed. In this sense, not only North East coaster Basques came to the meeting. Formers from other Euskal Etxeak or Basques communities like Montreal and Quebec, Florida, California and Nevada could be found onto the about seven hundred assistants.
The meeting was hosted thanks to the collaboration of the New London’s City Council who set the license for the celebration, the main sponsor Thames River Greenery who offered a sale selection of Basque products in this store and obviously the voluntary support carried out by all the members of different Euskal Etxeak. First step of the agenda took place on Friday afternoon at Thames River Greenery, where the visitors had the chance to taste some typical Basque products as cheese or white, rose (Txakoli) and red wine (Rioja). After this, the “Trikipoteo” (a popular run of bars in the Basque Country which always goes with an itinerant live performance of “Trikitixa” or Basque accordion and tambourine or “Pandero”) moved to the Hot Rod Wings bar in Bank Street. New England Basque Club invited the assistants to a tasty dinner based on the specialty of the house: many different types of sauced chicken wings.
Next morning, last steps of the setting up were figuring out at 11.30 when a parade conformed by visitors, dancers and musicians began from the City Hall to the Parade Plaza. The institutional reception lead by the Mayor Michael Passero, and accompained by Juan Mari Aramendi the New England Basque Club president and Iker Goiria from the Regional Council of Gipuzkoa, took place in front of the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse. After the welcome “Aurresku”, Passero gladly received all the visitors and underlined the value and importance of the coexistence between communities that the city of New London has hosted from its foundation. He also remarked the naval-harbor connections and strong whaling tradition similarities between both Basque and New England’s histories.
Bars were opened at the Parade Plaza offering different “pintxos” elaborated by Mikel de Luis from the Amona restaurant (NY) and Fernando Zarauzfrom the Txikito restaurant (NY). Also the paellas started to get cooked thanks to the good work of Bonifacio, Danny and Jean Pierrefrom Miami with the cooperation of different voluntaries from the New England Basque Club.
As the day went by, different music and dance performances started within the celebration premises. Musicians brought from Gipuzkoa made more enjoyable if possible the festive atmosphere breathed in the Parade Plaza. The dancing groups this time were “Gauden Bat” from Chino CA, “Zazpiak Bat” from San Francisco CA and “Ardi Beltza” from Lamoille NV. They offered a magnificent and inclusive demonstration (the visitors were allowed to join the dancers and learn Basque “dantzak”) which came with detailed explications about the origin and meaning of each dance. Meanwhile, the “Paella” was ready to get served just before the turn for the “Herri Kirolak” or Rural Sports came. Woodchopper or “Aizkolari” performances were developed by Juan Mari Aramendi, Riki Sotil and Patxi Gandiaga, being Riki the first courageous contender to chop six trunks in a row and becoming winner of the challenge.
Time for the little ones to try some “txinga-eramate” (a Basque rural modality which consists in carrying a heavy dumbbell in each hand within a track. The person who succeeds in making more comebacks with no limit time and without leaving the dumbbells touch the floor, wins) started afterwards. We had the chance to see great young runners before they changed the dumbbells for the rope “Tug of War-Rope pulling”or “Sokatira” competition, where the struggle got funnier when the adults joined it (my muscles were aching next morning!).
Music continued grooving until dusk when the time to close an enriching Basque culture day in New London arrived. The outcome of the festival was an undoubtedly success, considering the beauty of how the sown seeds of old Jai-Alai Basque-American stories could blossom nowadays in such marvelous gathering and cultural expression.