Idaho Basques share their culture with the nation

The Biotzetik Basque Choir of Boise was one of three Idaho Basque groups to perform at the Smithsonian Folklore Festival in Washington this weekend. Basque Innovation and Culture is one of the themes of this year’s festival.
The Biotzetik Basque Choir of Boise was one of three Idaho Basque groups to perform at the Smithsonian Folklore Festival in Washington this weekend. Basque Innovation and Culture is one of the themes of this year’s festival. Lewiston Tribune

Mari Carmen Totorica grew up in Basque Country, but she had to move to Idaho to learn Basque songs.

Totorica was born in Gernika, in northern Spain near the border with France.

The town was the site of a notorious aerial bombing in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Afterward, under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, the Basque culture and language were suppressed.

“When I was a child, Basque songs were not allowed,” said Totorica, who still has a thick, rich accent more than 50 years after she married and emigrated to Boise.

“When I first arrived, I couldn’t speak any English,” she said. “That was very hard — I like to talk. I tried to learn from a dictionary, but my husband told me, ‘No, no, you’re not saying the words right.’ It took a long time before I could say anything.”

After becoming more involved in Boise’s Basque community, she learned to sing and spent 22 years teaching children, passing on Basque songs and language to the next generation.

The resilience of the Basque culture is on display during this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which takes place on the National Mall here. It began Wednesday and runs through next weekend.

The Basque are well-known for having a good time.

Janice Manvil, second-generation Basque American who grew up in Weiser

Three Idaho Basque groups are taking part in the festival. They include about 75 people altogether, or nearly a quarter of the total participants. Other groups are coming from California, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada, as well as from the Basque Country in Spain and France.

“One of the goals of the festival is to go beyond performances and let people learn about the life stories of the participants — why these songs and dances and other cultural skills are important to them and how they transfer them from generation to generation,” said festival spokesman James Mayer.

About 450,000 people will visit the festival in person, Mayer said, with millions more taking part online, through the festival website.


Totorica was one of about 30 members of the Biotzetik Basque Choir of Boise who made the trip to Washington. The all-volunteer choir had several performances scheduled over the Fourth of July weekend, including an hourlong concert at the Kennedy Center.

“We had to pull out all the stops for that,” said choir director Patty Gabica. “I wasn’t sure we had 60 minutes of music. Most of our songs are only a minute to a minute and a half long.”

Some Basque songs pull at the heart strings, and some are pure fun, though. During Biotzetik’s first performance, for example, they sang a song about 14 fat women riding seven donkeys who were eating candy while playing trumpets.

“Pick any week on the calendar and there’s a festival somewhere in Basque Country,” said Janice Manvil, a former director of the choir and a second-generation Basque American who learned Basque songs and dances while growing up in Weiser.

Her mother was raised in California, about an hour away from the nearest Basque center, and didn’t have much opportunity to learn about her heritage while young.

“I think she regretted that,” Manvil said. “Exposing her kids to Basque culture was very important to her, so every weekend she’d drive us from Weiser to Boise to take part in the dances and activities at the Basque Center.”


Basque Country today includes three provinces in southern France and four in northern Spain, centered around the Pyrenees Mountains. Three of the Spanish provinces form an “autonomous community” and have a Basque government, although it’s still part of Spain.

Manvil’s grandparents came from the French side of Basque Country. They emigrated to California, growing oranges and trailing sheep in the Los Angeles Basin.

Most Idaho Basque, however, are from the Spanish side. Like Totorica, many emigrated in the 1950s and ‘60s, although an initial wave of Basque immigrants arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“The first Basque names appear in the Boise City Directory in 1891, although there was a Basque woman, married to a gentleman from outside the Basque region, who was here a bit earlier,” said Patty Miller, director of the Boise Basque Museum and Cultural Center. “By the 1907 City Directory you find more Basques appearing. This trend continues until about 1930, when the number of immigrants begins to slow. Then, in the 1950s, ‘60s and into the early ‘70s, there’s a second wave of immigrants who come on contracts to work as sheepherders.”

Totorica’s husband was one of the sheepherders. He also came from Gernika; She married him when he returned for a visit. They settled in Boise in 1953.

Totorica was 5 years old when Nazi warplanes bombed Gernica. They were supporting Franco’s Nationalist forces. The attack helped him defeat the Spanish Republican government and initiated his dictatorship, while destroying much of the town.

“Fortunately, nobody died in my family, but we lost everything,” she recalled. “The years after that were very hard. I had to watch my younger brother and sister. I remember asking my mother, ‘When do I get to play?’ ”

The bombing was a prelude to Nazi terror bombings of other civilian populations during World War II. It was the subject of Pablo Picasso’s large mural, “Guernica,” which has been called the most powerful anti-war painting in history. Franco later denied that the bombing ever occurred.

“I saw it with my own eyes,” Totorica said. “I learned more about it after the war, because there (in Gernika) nobody wanted to talk about it. They were afraid.”


Totorica shared her recollection of the bombing and life in Gernika during a storytelling session at the festival. She showed off some of her Basque culinary skills as well, during a cooking demonstration.

Another member of the choir, Jean Louis Cihigoyenetche, talked about emigrating to Chino, Calif., and working in the dairy business for 30 years.

“It wasn’t that easy,” he said with a smile. “The cows, when they don’t like you, they kick you. They were kicking left and right. It was like being in a boxing ring with Muhammad Ali.”

But now, life is good, he said. “Best of all, I get to live in the U.S., which is a good place to live.”

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured a number of other demonstrations of Basque arts and crafts, including iron and stone work, boat-building, cheese-making and a language workshop.

The other Idaho groups that participated in the festival were Amuma Says No, a Boise musical group, and the Oinkari Basque Dancers, also of Boise, which was making its third appearance in the festival after participating in 1968 and ‘73. or (208) 791-9168.