Local Basque heritage showcase...

Wednesday, August 12, 2015
The Basque culture took center stage during a performance by the Oinkari Dantza Taldea at Saturday's picnic. The Boise-based dance group performed a number of traditional dances from the Basque homeland.

Hundreds of people made the annual trek to Mountain Home to relive the culture and language of the Basque people during a yearly celebration held in a small park on the city's west side.

The 55th Annual Basque Picnic on Saturday is often the one day out of the year where these people can get together and enjoy a special friendship forged by tradition.

The picnic came just one week after Basques from around the world gathered in Boise for the Jaialdi, which in the Basque language means "Big Festival." Held once every five years since its debut in 1987, the event included traditional sports, choirs, musicians and folk dancing as well as religious services for the largely Catholic Basque community.

This year's Jaialdi brought together twice the number of participants than the celebration in 2010, said Asier Vallejo, director for the Basque community abroad. Following the celebration in Boise, Vallejo paid a visit to Mountain Home to be a part of the festival here.

Vallejo was part of a delegation attending the Jaialdi that included Lehendakari Iņigo Urkullu, president of the Basque homeland. It was Urkullu's first trip to Idaho, "and he had a great time," Vallejo said.

While Sunday's picnic in Mountain Home was significantly smaller that the international observance in Boise, Vallejo appreciated having the opportunity to meet one on one with so many people that evening. He hopes visits like this will lead to forging stronger ties between Basques living in southern Idaho and those that continue to live in the Basque homeland between France and Spain.

"There's still a lot of room for improvement," he said regarding these heritage ties.

For people like Diana Bennett, Saturday's picnic in Mountain Home was a time to remember fond memories of similar events over the years. She remembered the times when her grandchildren, Jace and Mattie Bennett, competed in the children's games more than five years ago.

"They used to win all the ribbons and medals," especially when it came to the tug-of-war, Bennett said.

Others like Tom Berriocha-Wheeler said that the picnic has changed a lot since its early days when it was held in Carl Miller Park. Back then, it was a family oriented occasion where people would bring a little something to the picnic for everyone to share and enjoy.

Today, a majority of those arrangements are handled by the Euskal Lagunak organization -- the local Basque club in Mountain Home. The group handles everything from preparing and serving the food to arranging the day's games and musical entertainment.

While some things have changed considerably, Berriocha-Wheeler was glad to see some traditions, like the egg toss, are still a part of the yearly picnic.

Each year, dozens of volunteers from the local Basque club come together to plan and run the festival. These representatives include Basques from Elmore, Owyhee and Ada counties.

Originally held in Carl Miller Park, local Basques plan the yearly celebrations around the birthday of St. San Ignacio, the patron saint of Basques.

It's a two-day process to set up the tents and all the equipment needed to cook the food served each year, said Richard Urquidi, a representative with the local Basque association. Volunteers begin setting everything up on the Friday before the picnic and finish up early the following morning.

The Basque picnic is a way for family traditions to carry on from one generation to the next, said Urquidi, who remembers when he attended the event in Carl Miller Park when he was a child.

"It takes a lot of family support for make it happen," Urquidi said.

Referring to the youngsters gathered near the children's game area, he said these young participants will go on to become the volunteers that help organize the same contests or setting up the tents and tables each year.

This year's festival featured a traditional ethnic feast, which included lamb, rice and red beans. During the afternoon, people had the option of ordering meal items a la carte versus buying the entire plate.

In the past, people wanted to order the dinner but some would decide against it because they didn't want the lamb or something else on the menu.

During the evening, people also sampled cuisine like chorizo -- a deep-fried sausage. Each year, people eat about 500 pounds of this traditional Basque treat.

As a way to pass along the Basque culture to their children, organizers hosted a series of games for these youngsters. The youngest ones dashed back and forth during a series of races while others bounced to the finish line in the sack race while boys and girls vied for dominance in a tug-of-war.

During the games, Waylon Monasterio discovered the hard way that the eggs used in the yearly egg toss were not hard boiled as some of the older children had led him to believe. The yolk oozed between his fingers as he held onto the shattered remains of the egg shell.

Meanwhile, older contestants put their pride on the line during the Txinga, or Basque weight carrying, competition. Geared for teens and adults, the strongman event required people like Joe Garrett to haul sets of weights over a preset course with scores based on how far people could tote this weight before dropping them.

Garrett started off this year's strongman competition by toting 150 pounds of combined weight over 350 feet before the first one slipped from his fingers.

The love of the Basque culture took center stage Saturday evening during a performance by the Oinkari Dantza Taldea. The Boise-based dance group helped people relive many of the Basque traditions from their native homeland.

People like Jaclyn Lasuen have been a part of the dance team for the past nine years. A Mountain Home native, she started dancing with the Basque group when she was 14 years old.

Lasuen started dancing with a smaller Basque group in the Mountain Home area before earning an invitation to join the Oinkari team. It was a "natural progression for those who love to dance," she said.

Normally, the team practices once a week in Boise, but their schedule increased to three times a week as they prepared for the Jaialdi, Lasuen added.

"It's just something I loved immediately. It's a perfect match up," she said.

The Basque dancers started this year's performance with the Ezpata Dantza, or sword dance, which brought together the group's male performers. The entire team then stepped out to showcase a social dance known as the Oinkari Jota.

Other dances that evening included the Lapurdiko Makil, or stick dance, which originated in the French province of the Basque homeland. The dance involves moves where the dancers strike together short wooden staffs. Local Basques believe these moves reflect times when people beat sticks together to ward off evil spirits.

However, the Ikurriņa, or flag dance, remained the one with most significance for local Basques. The audience applauded and cheered as a member of the dance team waved the Basque flag above other members of the dance troupe as they bowed in reverence to their native homeland.

According to members of the dance troupe, the Ikurriņa remains an important symbol of the Basque people. For years, this dance was banned in their native country as Spanish dictator Francisco Franco tried to suppress their culture, the group emphasized.