The bertsolaritza or Basque improvised poetry is one of the most intimate practices of the Basque language, where poets improvise and sing a song around a concept provided by the audience, following a set of rules about rhyme, meter and melody. For this reason, bertsolaris are some of the greatest masters of the Basque language. Until recently, however, the bertsolaritza was a strictly male domain. The village frontons, squares, and the National Improvised Poetry Competition featured men only, until a few brave female pioneers emerged to reclaim the voices of women in traditional culture.

In traditional Basque society, the fronton or village square was the public stage for the inculcation of values, the performance of identities, the practice of social control, and the negotiation of power. The main protagonists of the fronton were men: men playing pelota, men singing bertsos.

“How do you remember your great jump into the town square?” one of those female pioneers, Maialen Lujanbio was asked in an interview in 2009 for the journal Oral Tradition, after she became the first ever female txapeldun or champion of improvised poetry. “I started to be known by everyone,” she answered. “Because they put us… where we didn’t`t belong.” Women’s great jump into the town square, into the public sphere of frontons, sport halls and stadiums, is a powerful metaphor for access in a society where such arenas had been reserved for men.

Maialen Lujanbio sings the winning bertso at the 2017 National Championship:

The CBS Seminar Series featured the bertsolari and PhD student Miren Artetxe Sarasola, who talked about the most important landmarks of this journey in her lecture titled “Women bertsolari: From the first attempts to the current achievements.” Miren defined those landmarks in terms of Pathfinders, i.e. the first women poets who affected a breakthrough in a male realm; Networks, or the organizations created by and for female performers; Theorization, or the academic study of this new cultural development within the broader currents of Basque feminism; and Spaces of Empowerment, where female bertsolaris may find encouragement and inspiration for singing bertsos. The main achievements of the past ten years, Miren argues, is that a different consciousness is emerging around bertsolaritza: new themes and contents emerge through women’s participation, creating a more inclusive cultural sphere that also features women’s worlds and experiences.

Following the lecture, three bertsolaris, Miren Artetxe Sarasola, Maialen Lujanbio and Jesus Goñi sang bertsos at the Center for Basque Studies before a crowd of faculty, students, friends and family. The performances were followed by a potluck snack at the CBS, and a poteo in Louis Basque Corner in downtown Reno.