Robert Ehlert: Ysursa reminisces about Jaialdi in Boise

I don’t know about you, but I have thoroughly enjoyed my transformation from nomadic Idahoan to Boise Basque wannabe this week during Jaialdi, which officially wraps up today on the schedule, but which will live on as always in Idaho and the Treasure Valley.

My good friend and Idaho Statesman Editorial Board colleague Ben Ysursa helped me better understand the lure of his Basque heritage by sharing with me what Jaialdi and his culture mean to him.

His heritage is so rooted in family, tradition, competition, fun and hospitality, he is not at all surprised when people like me and thousands of others around the state adopt a measure of Basqueness whenever Jaialdi comes around, or when we visit the Basque Block.

“When I think of Jaialdi it just means good times to me, taking a timeout, and I think that is what attracts people,” said Ysursa, a former Idaho secretary of state who learned the ropes of government and politics from one of Idaho’s Basque icons, the late Pete Cenarrusa. Between Cenarrusa and Ysursa, a Basque occupied the Secretary of State’s Office for more than 40 years and established a sterling reputation for integrity and fairness.

And enjoying life by moving forward without ever losing their connection with the old ways.

The roughly 8,000 Basques in Idaho are a living link to the way a people can immigrate, acclimate and contribute to something new by providing a good example of hard work and respect for their ancestors — yet never forgetting to take time to have a good time.

“The Basque are Catholic. Every year we (Basque) had our summer picnics on the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the patron saint of the Basque,” said Ysursa, recalling how hot it usually got on the picnic weekend closest to the July 31 observance. “All my life we’ve had the Basque picnic and that is how it all started. It was not this worldwide event then. But folks got together and said, ‘Let’s have a Super Basque picnic,’ every five years.”

Jaialdi was born in 1987 and held again three years later in conjunction with the Idaho centennial.

“The first time they tried it, it was very unique — they opened up the state prison grounds. I think we set some records for kegs of beer and things like that. It was very successful. . . It was hot, dusty, crowded. It was really something,” said Ysursa.

The Jaialdi committee took a look at the success, and the festival soon was on an every-fifth-year schedule, and it gained popularity worldwide. “It has become far and above what we ever thought it would be,” Ysursa said

Besides all of the cultural events, it became a place to get some business done. That happened on several levels this week during talks between visiting Basque leadership and Gov. Butch Otter, and later with Boise State University officials.

“It didn’t start out with us being visited by the lehendakari (Basque president), but that came later and soon we were a blip on the international Basque scene,” said Ysursa.

But through it all, Jaialdi has always been an event “to let people blow some steam off and have some fun ... a vacation away from the drudgery of everyday life. Forget the world problems.”

There is plenty of Jaialdi nostalgia for Ysursa, especially this time around. This marks the first Jaialdi without Pete Cenarrusa and Ysursa’s father, Ramon — both having passed away recently. “It hits you. You know those guys are gone and you're not going to see their likes again,” Ysursa said.

“My father’s job was to make all the arrangements to get the statue (of St. Ignatius) inside St. John’s Cathedral for the traditional 7 p.m. Saturday Mass during Jaialdi.” (This year the mass venue was changed to the larger St. Mark’s.)

As things wind down for Jaialdi 2015, I asked Ysursa to describe the components for a “perfect Basque moment” as he recalls them.

“Oh, there you are with a banquet-style meal, any sauce my grandmother would make, red beans and too much bread dessert, arroz con leche (rice and milk). Sitting around with friends and family regaling one another with stories. The late Jimmy Jausoro playing the accordion for the dancers.

“You might worry like heck about crowd control, but there were never any incidents,” he said.

Jaialdi, he said, is “fun, music, food while surrounded by friends and family — that is a perfect Basque outing. You don’t have to be born Basque to enjoy these activities.”

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Reach him at 377-6437 or follow @IDS_HelloIdaho