About Spain, Navarra, and the Basque Country (a brief perspective on Culture)

Basque and Navarran Culture.
Jump to: [ Spain, the Basque Country and ETA ]

I'd like to start here by talking about the superficial impressions that Jisook and I have been able to form just from the experience of living in Navarra for one year.  These are impressions that come from having met Navarrans and Basques, from living in Pamplona, from traveling the region and from watching and reading the news.  I have also had the singular opportunity of reading essays written by university students about their feelings with regard to the political problems of this region.

The Basque people, from our experience, are a very kind and welcoming community.  They appear to have a positive attitude toward foreign visitors.  Very common here are the expressions "tú, tranquilo" and "no pasa nada" (roughly "don't you worry" and "no problem").  They do tend to be rather quiet and "closed", but this is likely due to the tenseness of the the polarized environment of the region, which I will explain in the next section.

Basques, particularly of the Basque Country, love to sing.  And they are GOOD.  It's true that Spaniards in general like to sing, but Basques even more so.  The best example of this penchant is a kind of a capella and impromptu vocal performance in which a group of singers take turns singing about a particular theme (I think!  They always sing in Basque!).  The lyrics and melody are invented simultaneously and spontaneously!  It is a skill that they must cultivate from childhood, and the best performers seem to be the older ones.  These "competitions" are televised almost like sporting events.  They even have commentary from news anchors.  It is a very curious custom.  We really wish we could understand it.

The Basque language, or Euskera, is notoriously difficult to learn as a second language.  It has always been a subject of enormous interest to linguists, because it appears to be an isolate language, meaning that there are no other languages in the world related to it.  Most modern languages belong to language families, because, as civilizations spread out in prehistory and before widespread literacy, languages diverged and evolved into new ones.  Thus, we have the Germanic family (German, Dutch, Swedish, English, etc.), and the Romance family (Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, etc.), for example.  But the Basque language cannot be linked conclusively to any other language.  It is spoken natively by only about 2 million people, but it is very much alive and thriving; children learn it at home and in school, and in the Basque Country, a large percentage of jobs require fluency in Euskera.  In Navarra the population is divided among those who know Euskera and those who do not.  Some families send their children to special public schools called ikastolas, schools in which Basque is spoken exclusively, while other children either take a mixed curriculum of Spanish and Basque, or only Spanish.  There does not appear to be a great deal of tension over this division, perhaps because the high schools are unified in a Spanish curriculum.  We have friends from both backgrounds.

As you may be aware, we have a trace of Basque culture in the United States: the wall sport jai alai.  It seems to have lost some popularity in the U.S., but here, it is hugely popular.  But jai alai is not the only wall sport played in this region.  The long, open-sided court in which jai alai is played, called the frontón, is the venue of a number of other sports with essentially the same rules, including handball (perhaps the most popular of the frontón sports), and a game played with a racquet-bat (for lack of a better term); it is a thick, wooden paddle with a narrow head and air holes.  There are singles and doubles versions of all of these.  Every town in the Basque Country and Navarra of 2 or more inhabitants has a frontón.  By the way, the Basque words jai alai mean 'happy party'.

There are many other points of interest in Basque culture including folk music (beyond the sing-sport described above), food (considered the best in Spain) and rural life (as quaint and pristine as you can imagine).  These are best experienced to be appreciated, so come and visit!  This is the most beautiful place in all of Spain.

Spain, the Basque Country and ETA.
Jump to: [ Basque and Navarran Culture ]

Disclaimer: I am not an historian strictly speaking, but these notes on Spanish history are my best attempt at synthesizing what I understand to be the reality of Spain's past.  Corrections are welcomed.

From the perspective of the 20th or 21st century, or even from the latter half of the second millennium, it is natural to think of Spain as a very unified, monolithic nation and culture, especially if your not Spanish, but the fact is that Spain is made up of several historically distinct nations of people who even have distinct languages.  It was not until the 16th century that the last of these separate kingdoms, Navarra, was joined to the crown of Castile, of the integrated Spain.  Before then, over the course of the latter Middles Ages, while the Christian kings of the northern half of the peninsula fought to expel the powerful presence of the Moors, Christian Iberia was divided into numerous kingdoms and lorded by several kings that leveraged for control of more territory.  In the end it was Castile, in the central quadrant, which became the most powerful kingdom, and with the marriage of Isabel de Castilla to Fernando de Aragón, most of what is modern Spain became whole.

The kingdom of Navarra, however, was not to submit to the crown of Spain until the early sixteenth century (1512: invasion by King Fernando), that is, after the discovery of the New World.  At that time, Navarra was greater in extension than what is politically defined today as the Autonomous Community of Navarra.  At that time it included the three provinces now called the Basque Country, to the Northwest of modern Navarra: Alava, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa.  This people and their culture had always been subjects in the Middle Ages; the Basque crown, if one existed, was the crown of Navarra, and the Basque population mixed and changed fluidly with the non-Basque inhabitants of the region, such that today, there are Basque surnames all over the Spanish-speaking world: Echevarría, for example.

There was no social or political discontentment in the Basque country until the 20th century; the change would be thanks to fascism, in the form of the Generalísimo Francisco Franco, the demagogue who would lead the Nationalists to victory in the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930's.  Franco's reign of absolute authoritarianism, characterized by ultraconservative Catholicism and Spanish nationalism, would persecute the minority cultures and languages in Spain to near oblivion during the near 40 years that he would reign.

All lovers of freedom in Spain suffered under Franco, but many Basques felt particularly threatened, hence the formation of ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna, Basque Country and Freedom) in the 1960's. Their activity became violent in the early 1970's, and since then some 800 Spaniards have died in ETA's terrorist attacks.  Most recently the group has focused its bombings on political leaders, police and military.  Attacks tend to happen in Madrid, the Basque Country and Navarra, probably in that order of frequency, but in the latter two there are minor acts of politcally-motivated violence and vandalism (probably not by ETA themselves) nearly every week.  A sizable minority of Basques today do want independence from Spain, either because of left-over spite or because they have been raised with that philosophy, the constructed sense that the Spanish are the invaders in their homeland.  However, a much smaller minority of Basques are willing to accept violence as a means to independence; the rest reject ETA and have formed peaceful political parties.  Currently, the ruling party in Euskadi is the Basque Nationalist Party, but its future is uncertain.  Each time ETA commits a murder, there is backlash in public opinion.  The latest nationalist trend has been toward trying to include all of Navarra in the separatist vision of an independent Euskadi, something which most Navarrans find unconscionable.

Basque nationalists ask why the Spanish government won't grant more autonomy, and the Spanish government beats the Constitution like a Bible, incensing the violent separatists.  Most Spanish and Basques alike ask why any population would want to fragment themselves politically in a Europe that is becoming ever more united.  Unfortunately, a time of peace appears distant, as ETA shows no signs of respecting the will of the great majority of Basques.

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