Tag: Basque immigrants

Flashback Monday: Ellis Island’s 125th anniversary

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the opening of Ellis Island, which closed 63 years ago on Sunday. Over 12 million immigrants passed through its doors for inspection before entering the United States, and Basques were no exception. From February to May 2010, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum held an exhibition on the Basques, entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Basques.” Here’s an excerpt from the website, with photos from the exhibit:

“Hidden in Plain Sight” was an interactive exhibit that presented opportunities for all ages to discover the unique origins, language, and history of the Basque people; the factors that pulled them away from their homes; the legendary tales of colorful immigrants; Basque contributions in the United States and the world; and the unprecedented cultural connection with their homeland.

Basques have rarely been recognized for their historic contributions or cultural distinctiveness. Similarly, as they passed through Ellis Island, their nationality, names, and heritage were often disregarded by otherwise well-meaning officials. In many cases they were simply listed as Spanish or French.

Today, even though Basque politicians, scientists, sports figures, business executives, artists, and movie stars may be prominent throughout the US and in many nations around the world, they are still often overlooked as being Basque, perpetuating them being “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

This exhibition was organized by the only museum in the United States devoted to preserving Basque culture and history, The Basque Museum & Cultural Center, in conjunction with and supported by the Basque Autonomous Government.

“Hidden in Plain Sight” opened on February 6 with a special ceremony in the Great Hall at Ellis Island with performances by the Biotzetik Basque Choir, the Oinkari Basque Dancers, and soloist Amaia Arberas. The ribbon cutting was performed by Patricia Lachiondo, President of the Basque Museum & Cultural Center and Guillermo Echenique, General Secretary of Foreign Action of the Basque Government. Performances by the Biotzetik Basque Choir followed. The Oinkari Basque Dancers also performed at Liberty Island later in the afternoon.

Looking at Ellis Island from an international perspective, the New York Times recently profiled it in its Daily Briefing, with links to articles:

Back Story

Ellis Island, the gateway to the U.S. for more than 12 million immigrants, is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its opening this year. Sunday marks the day it closed in 1954.

Many Americans are descended from immigrants who passed through Ellis Island in a wave of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Upon arrival by ship, steerage passengers were transported to the island for inspections. (First- and second-class passengers skipped that step.)

Those found to have serious contagious illnesses or deemed unemployable could face deportation.

Nearly 70 percent of arrivals didn’t speak a word of English, but language was never an issue, said Doug Treem, a National Park Service Ranger.

Interpreters translated scores of languages — they were required to speak at least four each, other than English. Many were immigrants or children of immigrants.

“I doubt if anyone working as a translator at the U.N. right now could have gotten a job at Ellis Island,” said Mr. Treem.

One translator, the child of European immigrants and a veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, worked in Italian, German, Yiddish and Croatian, while attending law school at night. That was Fiorello LaGuardia, who went on to be a three-term mayor of New York City.

I’m guessing language was an issue for Basques, for I wonder if any inspectors spoke Euskara! What we do know is what awaited these migrants once they were in New York City.  As Douglass and Bilbao note in Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World:

Elderly Basques residing the American West today still retain vivid memories, spanning more than half a century in some cases, of getting off the boat in New York City filled with trepidation, only to hear the welcome words, “Euskaldunak emen badira?” (“Are there Basques here”). pg. 374.

These words often came from Valentín Aguirre’s agents at the Casa Vizcaina, a hotel and travel agency of sorts for Basques in New York. Aguirre sent employees to meet every ship that arrived from Europe. Once the Basque immigrants met up with these agents, they were taken to the hotel where they were welcomed with familiar food in their native Euskara environment. Some may have even played a few games of pelota at the hotel’s fronton. Aguirre would help them reunite with family or find employment in the West. He would purchase their tickets and give them instructions for their second journey across the States, at many times pinning their names and tickets onto their lapels so that they would safely arrive at their destinations.

Although there are many stories of Ellis Island, the horrible conditions and foreign-ness of the place, it was the port of entry for many of our relatives here in the West. With its 125th anniversary, we remember the long journeys our ancestors took to find their new place in the United States. “Euskaldunak emen badira?” Yes, we are here and will remain.


Flashback Friday: Safe and Sound

On November 6, 1941, Jose Antonio Jose Antonio Agirre Lekube (1904-1960), lehendakari or president of the Basque Country, arrived in Philadelphia and met his friends Manuel Maria Intxausti and Manuel de la Sota. On May 8, 1940, Agirre had departed from Paris (France) to Brussels (Belgium) along with his wife and children to visit relatives living there. Immediately after their arrival, the Agirre family was caught unaware when, on May 10, Adolf Hitler’s forces invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Thereafter, they struggled to escape from Europe to America. Eventually in August Agirre exiled safe and sound to Brazil. On November 4, after receiving a residence permit from the US Government, he arrived in Miami, before passing through Argentina. After his short visit in Philadelphia on November 6, Agirre went to New York and settled there, where he found a large Basque immigrant community. In the city of New York, then, he headed the reorganization of the Basque government-in-exile.

A short film documentary of 1942 about Jose Antonio Agirre and the Basque government-in-exile delegation in the city of New York:

Source: Basque Film Library.

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Portrait of Jose Antonio Agirre. Source: Jon Bilbao Basque Library, UNR

basque government nyc

Members of the Basque government-in-exile in New York. From left, Antonio de Irala, Telesforo Monzon, Santiago Aznar, Manuel de la Sota, Ramon Aldasoro, Jose Antonio Agirre, and Gonzalo Nardiz.

The remarkable story of Agirre’s escape from Europe is told in his own words in Escape via Berlin: Eluding Franco in Hitler’s Europe.

On related topics, see Expelled from the Motherland: The Government of President Jose Antonio Agirre in Exile, 1937-1960, by Xabier Irujo; A Basque Patriot in New York: Jose Luis de la Lombana y Foncea and the Euskadi Delegation in the United States, by Iñaki Anasagasti and Josu Erkoreka; and War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott.

Every Friday we look into our Basque archives for interesting historic events that happened on the same day.

An interview with Edurne Arostegui: Visiting Scholar from the University of the Basque Country.

  • What brings you to the Center for Basque Studies?

I was very lucky to have received the Begoña Aretxaga Travel Stipend this year, and the best part was that I got the email on my birthday, making it by far the best present. I’m currently a doctoral student at the UPV/EHU and the opportunity to have access to the library here was something I couldn’t miss out on. It certainly hasn’t disappointed me.

I initially came with the idea of putting myself through a sort of academic boot camp: non-stop reading, note-taking and writing. The CBS is the ideal place to study because of the diversity of materials housed in its really accessible facilities. What I didn’t realize till I arrived is the atmosphere CBS faculty, students, and staff have created along with the ongoing interaction with other visiting scholars. Besides working hard and getting good work done, I’ve had an engaging and worthwhile experience.

  • Can you tell us what the goal of the project is?

My dissertation deals with the construction of Basque-American identity in the American West through the analysis of the stereotypes and imagery presented in works of western fiction and non-fiction, specifically, cowboy dime novels, and the stories of migrants. Although I am a historian through formation, I believe that the use of literary sources contextualized with events in migration history, both from the Basque and American perspective, help shed new light in the understanding of Basque-American identity. The aim is to understand how American society perceived and stereotyped Basque immigrants, and how in turn, second and third generation Basques turned these same stereotypes on their heads in order to create markers of a new hybrid identity.

The Basque migration experience and integration, or lack of, into the host society shaped their identity, not only within their community but also in its outward representation. Once Basque-American identity was assumed, what relationship did these migrants maintain with their homeland and how has it changed up to present? Migration obviously changes identity, while identity marks representation and recognition from both a political and socio-cultural standpoint. Therefore, the study of this process of identity creation helps us understand the actors and forces that change history.

  • Would you say that this research, is quite unique?

Well, I think as academics, we all think our research is unique, or else we wouldn’t be doing it! However, much attention has been given to literary sources, I guess it’s a sexy topic. I’m interested in how American society perceived Basques and how they became a part of the history of the West. Instead of solely focusing on the migrant experience, I aim to understand identity through the lens of the spectator, trying to look past the rose-tinted glasses of pastoral romanticization. Surely, once I get further along in my research it will become more unique and distinctive, or so I hope.

  • What have you accomplished since you arrived?

I’ve read, a lot! I came with a list of sources that I wanted to check out before coming, but it’s always interesting to see what you come across by chance and what other people are doing. My stay has given me the chance to become immersed in all things Basque. I’ve met great people and have probably spoken and listened to more Basque here than in the Basque Country!

  • Are you enjoying the U.S.?

I’m from California so of course I enjoy coming home to the States. That being said, Reno is a completely new experience for me and I like what I see. It’s amazing to be surrounded by the landscape of the places that appear in my research. I never realized how tranquil and inspiring the desert could be, especially its vast and colorful sunsets. Reno has surprised me in many ways and I can’t wait to get another opportunity to return.