Tag: san francisco

May 15, 1849: Basque pioneers Juan Miguel Aguirre and Maria Martina Labayen arrive in US

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The Hotel Vasco (or “Aguirre Hotel”) in San Francisco, built by Juan Miguel Aguirre and Maria Martina Labayen in 1866.

On May 15, 1849 two of the most influential early Basque immigrants to the US arrived in San Francisco: Juan Miguel Aguirre (b. Etxalar, Navarre, in 1813) and Maria Martina Labayen (b. Areso, Navarre, 1816). Juan Miguel had fought on the losing Carlist side in the First Carlist War (1833-39). In 1845 he emigrated to Montevideo, Uruguay, where he established a successful hide and tallow business.

On hearing of the discovery of gold in California, they headed there in 1849, but instead of Juan Miguel seeking his fortune in the mines like most other forty-niners, the couple stayed in San Francisco. He made a living there by supplying much needed water to the ever-expanding city, transporting this valuable commodity by burro from a spring at the Presidio and peddling it, door-to-door for a dollar a bucket, to businesses and residents in old downtown San Francisco. As the business expanded, he employed fellow Basques to help him meet the growing demand. Today the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, in charge of the city’s water supply system, acknowledges Aguirre as one of the first entrepreneurs to recognize the importance of supplying fresh water to residents in the city.

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“San Francisco.” Engraving from The United States Illustrated by Charles A. Dana (New York, 1855). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The couple then used the profits of this business to invest in real estate, buying a lot at the intersection of what is now Grant Avenue and Ashburton Place, on which they built a fronton. Then, in 1866, they built one of the city’s first Basque hotels at 1312 Powell St., just off Broadway, a modest two-storey wooden building. And they also helped establish Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church on Broadway, which served as a point of reference for many Basques.  By the 1870s, the Aguirre, as it was known popularly, had also become a kind of employment agency for newly arrived Basques in San Francisco, as the following contemporary description of the establishment (quoted in Jeri Echeverria’s wonderful Home Away from Home, p. 69) demonstrates: “There was a Basque hotel in the center of town, where California rancheros in need of help were sure to find quiet gentle men from the Pyrenees.”

Interestingly, the Basque forty-niners formed a specific group within this growing Basque community in the Bay Area, regarded and revered as the veterans or pioneers of their compatriots. And a dinner in their honor was held in 1893, at which both Juan Miguel and Maria Martina were present, and at which several bottles of champagne were consumed according to the local Basque-language newspaper California’ko Eskual-Herria.

Juan Miguel died in 1897, but Maria Martina and their three children continued to run the hotel. By the turn of the century, the Aguirre had become the premier meeting point (and “marriage mill”!) for Basques living in San Francisco, Alameda, Sonoma, and San Jose counties. It was even a vacation destination for other Basques visiting from further afield in the West. This all came to an end, though, when it burned down in the San Francisco fires of 1906.

Juan Miguel Aguirre and Maria Martina Labayen can rightly be credited as key figures in establishing the Basque community in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

Further Reading

Douglass, William A., and Jon Bilbao, Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World.

Echeverria, Jeronima. Home Away from Home: A History of Basque Boardinghouses.

Oiarzabal, Pedro J. Gardeners of Identity: Basques in the San Francisco Bay Area.

San Sebastián, Koldo, with the assistance of Argitxu Camus-Etxekopar, Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, Jone Laka, and José Luis Madarieta and more. Basques in the United States, vol. 2.

Zubiri, Nancy. A Travel Guide to Basque America: Families, Feasts, and Festivals.

From the Backlist: Hollywood and I and Mad City

In a literary world that tends to define Basque literature very much by place–most Basque authors come from the Basque Country, live and work there, and typically center their stories on events in that particular corner of the world–Javi Cillero stands out as a completely distinct voice. His own personal experience of detachment, displacement even, from the Basque Country, and especially that of living for many years in the United States, infuses his work to such an extent that it might almost be more accurate to describe him as an American author; or at least as a keen and informed observer of popular American culture, an outsider whose external gaze tells us a great deal about life on the inside.

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In Hollywood and I and Mad City, two works first first published in Basque and collected here in one volume, we are treated to a sharp, quirky, and eclectic blend of short stories that ooze with Americana and emblematic sites of memory in the American West: from Alcatraz and Chinatown to Virginia City, Pyramid Lake, and the Nevada desert. This is a world of dive bars and Mack trucks, casino lights, bank robbers, private detectives, and mobsters; but also of Basque and Native Americans, sheepherders and cowboys, and even college professors and students.

Check out the following excerpt from the book:

The Silver Legacy hotel-casino tower stood tall and proud in the middle of downtown Reno. There was a giant dome on the back of the building, something like a space station. Inside there was a fake starry sky, and under the sky there was a large mine wheel. Hundreds of lasers started twinkling in that sky, accompanied by music by Tchaikovsky.

Near the huge mine wheel there was a wide open area. There were souvenir shops, restaurants open twenty-four hours a day, and slot machines on either side of something like an avenue. And, unexpectedly, the Silver Legacy bar next to a row of slot machines.

As usual, it was full of people. Waiters were going here and there carrying pints of reds, porters, and lagers. The musicians were taking a break, and the people in the bar’s voices easily drowned out the television’s weak sound.

A Czech girl and the Spanish teacher were sitting in one corner. They were silent, each of them looking at their own glasses of beer. The Czech girl poured a little more for the Spanish teacher. He thanked her with a hand gesture.

Here we are, like two Hitchcock characters. Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in that old movie Notorious. “Officer Devlin? I’ve got a job for you.” OK, I know, I know: too many movie references for a single night. What can I do about it? Hollywood made me, to paraphrase Graham Greene. Hollywood’s influence is so big in our education that when two friends get together now they could easily be acting out a scene from a movie. We don’t mean to. It’s our only reference. In fact, it’s wiped out family, school, and church references. Young people only pay attention to the images and roles they adopt from screens. And people who aren’t so young, too. It’s impossible to count all the men who wander around like poor wretches from Woody Allen movies without knowing what they’re doing.

The Spanish teacher had gold-framed glasses. They slipped down his nose as he spoke. He had to put them back in their place with his index finger time and again. The Czech girl took that gesture to be an invitation to say something.

“Thanks for helping me present my project. I didn’t think the university press was going to be so interested in heterodox Basque women.”

“We work with all types of subjects. In fact, we’re about to bring out a book by a Japanese writer about Ozu’s movies. It would be good for you to publish the book in Reno. When it comes down to it, the States is the only place where work like that is done. The editor’s told me the book looks very good; it’s very appropriate. And here I am, ready to lend a hand. You know, Officer Devlin’s hand . . . Hey, why don’t you stay a few more days? You’ll be able to make good use of your stay if you come to the Basque Library.”

A big man who’d come to listen to a country group came up to them to take a chair. He picked it up by its wooden back with confidence, master in his own land. The Spanish teacher looked at him with contempt when he turned away.

“And I’ll show you around. Lake Tahoe, for instance. It’s where they shot The Godfather. You know, Al Pacino: ‘My father taught me a lot of things in this room. He taught me to keep my friends close and my enemies even closer.’ I’ve got my Toyota here in the casino lot.”

“Do you have classes tomorrow?”

“I only teach Spanish classes once a week. Hefty nineteenth-century novels, Galdós and Clarín. I spend most of my time in the casinos. I’m putting together a book about Old West mythology. I don’t think America’s final frontier is the Pacific; it’s the Nevada casinos. It’s here that men and slot machines come face to face. Like in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral . . .”

Anyone interested in contemporary urban Western storytelling, with particular reference to Reno, Northern Nevada, and California, will enjoy this book. This is classic Americana with a Basque twist!

Shop for the book here.