Tag: Sparks

Elephants in the Casino: John Ascuaga’s Nugget

For those of you in the Reno area, you should check out the Special Collections exhibit “Elephants in the Casino: John Ascuaga’s Nugget” on the third floor of the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, open until July 28. As they put it:

Explore the history and legacy of John Ascuaga’s Nugget through the decades. View the Nugget’s transformation beginning with Dick Graves’ modest 1955 Sparks coffee shop, to the expanded casino-resort built and run by Ascuaga and his family for more than 50 years. The exhibit highlight materials from the newly available John Ascuaga’s Nugget Records.


John Ascuaga was born in Idaho to Jose, from Orozko, and Maria. His father had immigrated in 1914, followed by his wife. John and his twin sister Rose followed the older siblings Carmen and Frank. John entered the army and then received his Bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Idaho and then an additional degree in hotel and restaurant management from Washington State University.

John Ascuaga

After graduating from college, he moved to Sparks. It was at the Nugget’s Steak House that John met Rose Ardans, his future wife. They purchased and ran the Nugget Hotel and Casino from 1960 onward, along with their children. John had initially worked for Dick Graves in Idaho and followed him to Nevada. When Graves hoped to retire, John, at 34 years old, purchased the Nugget for $3,775,000, paying off the debt in seven years.  The Ascuagas truly made their way from the bottom up.


Michonne Ascuaga

Michonne R. Ascuaga, prominent member of Northern Nevada gaming family

Another prominent Ascuaga is Michonne, John’s daughter. She originally started working at age 13 as a front-desk clerk and continued to work her way up the family business, in the cage and credit arena as well as in marketing and sales for the casino, before becoming CEO in 1997–and only the second woman to run a major resort in Nevada–until its sale to Global Gaming & Hospitality in 2013. Together with her brother, Chief Operating Officer Stephen Ascuaga, she subsequently also served in an advisory role after the Nugget’s sale.

She is a graduate of Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, and earned an MBA degree from Stanford University. She has served on several boards, including the Santa Clara University Board of Regents, the Sierra Arts Foundation, the Nevada Women’s Fund, and the Forum for a Common Agenda, as well as the  Washoe K-12 Education Foundation.  She has also been chair of our Advisory Board since 2009.

In her own words, “When you live in a place and realize you’re going to live in a place for the rest of your life, you want to see things prosper and improve . . . When I see where I can help, I get involved” (quoted in “Women we love” by Carli Cutchin, Deidre Pike, and Adrienne Rice, for the Reno News & Review).

For more on John Ascuaga, see: Voices from Basque America and “Hard Work and Family Key to John Ascuaga’s Nugget” by Colleen Schreiber.


Basque Country: High in the Mountains . . . East of Sparks, Nevada???

At the edge of the Pyrenees Estates, where the Basque Country meets Sparks, Nevada.

On a recent sunny weekend, taking advantage of this spring type weather we’ve been having, I continued on my on-again off-again hobby of climbing all of the small and large peaks that make up Reno’s surrounding skyline. On this day I chose Spanish Springs Peak, to the east, part of the Pah Rah Mountains that extend south from Pyramid Lake to I-80 and the Truckee River along the outskirts of Sparks. This was nearly one of my first real forays into this mountain range and the first surprise came when I looked up the mountain’s  summitpost.org entry and saw that, to begin the hike, you parked near a sign for the “Pyrenees Estates.” I didn’t really think anything of it when I read this on the website and continued on with my day.

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Google maps showing this re-creation of Basque places on a stony, sagebrush-covered hillside.

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At the intersection of Euskera and Lesaka.

I did park at the sign that marked as “Pyrenees” Estates the otherwise rocky and sagebrush strewn field with no sign of habitation anywhere other than a powerline cross the slope. I climbed up through the sagebrush and juniper land and attained Spanish Spring Peak without thinking too much of my parking place. It was on the way down, going down by the road instead of cross country, that I realized that I was trespassing on someone’s conception of a Basque Country to be installed someday across the wild mountain hillside. I first noticed on Google Maps on my phone that I was walking on Euskera Drive. This piqued my curiosity and I started looking at more of the road names that I passed: the first one, headed off across the hillside toward the north, was Lesaka. Then Pitarra, which I don’t recognize (although one of my colleagues suggests it as “young cider” which is the best variant I’ve seen far), but more and more of them started popping up: Pyrenees, Ispaster, Navarra, Lesaka. There had been a dream of the Basque Country created once across this hillside, now mostly either in very slow transit or abandoned. I couldn’t help but wonder about the names, and about whose vision it had been to create a replica or an either fondly remembered or created Basque homeland to be populated here one this mountain side. And here I was, above Spanish Springs, traipsing again on Basque Country, a sort of replica of the mountainous Basques above their flat land counterparts. (Yes, I know this is a simplification, but metaphorically during a Sunday-afternoon walk it was interesting to consider.)

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A great big open hillside, meant to be remade into a Beloved Basque Country.

There is a Basque expression, “izena duen guztia omen da” that translates as “they say everything that has a name exists.” As I walked home along the lengthening shadows of the afternoon, I considered the names chosen for things. The way the “New World” was remade in so many ways with “New Places”: New York, New Hampshire, New … Building a mirror of former lives here in the great big New World, and how someone had thought to create our little corner of the world (not that uncommon, to be fair, we have plenty of Basque remnant names that are much better attended than this odd one on a nondescript mountainside). By the way, after writing this, a colleague pointed out an interesting point, made originally by Miguel de Barandiarán and included in his Selected Writings:

According to a popular saying, the real is comprised of not only everything perceived by the senses and concluded and affirmed by rea­son, but also everything that has a name. People say, “Izena duen guztia omen da,” which means that if there is a name, there must be a thing. There is this difference, however: what you perceive yourself is certain, it is something personally known and, therefore, it can be expressed categorically, as in these phrases: au ala da, “this is so,” and au esan dute, “this is what they say”; what is known through someone else’s tes­timony, or through references, is not affirmed categorically and without reservation, and the sentences expressing it are prefaced by omen or ei (depending on the region), which refers them to their sources, as in the following examples: au ala omen de, “they say that this is so,” and au esan omen dute, “we are told that they say this,” and so on . . . It is important to keep in mind this difference in category of meaning so we can better appreciate the value of the affirmations of Basque narratives, mythical or not. Myths, of course, belong to the second category today, even in the appreciation of the most innocent. (p. 64)

I thought about the people who had made this and I was a little curious to know more about it (and if any readers do, please share, a very brief Internet search turned up nothing!), but even more so, I was happy to be able to create this world in my imagination, the way a developer once had made it his or her decision to re-create the Basque Country here in this place, these little dirt tracks grandiosely made the Old World.

It is a good reminder of the human aspect behind “civilized” places, and the ways that so many large and small decisions go into things we rarely ever think about. Of course, for a lot more detailed information on Basque in the United States, check out our 2-volume work of the same title, or read Bill Douglass’s Amerikanuak.