Chronicle of the Basque sheepherders trip back to California: “This is something that we will never forget”
Fifty years ago they went to the US to work as herders, and after many years of hard work, they returned to their homes leaving colleagues and friends behind. This year, nearly 50 of them were able to make their dream come true and return to California, accompanied by family members. The experience was very emotional and unforgettable, according to a member of the Euskal Artzainak Ameriketan Association Laura Igantzi, “They would say, ‘you don’t know what this means to us,’ crying, not just the herders but many Basques we met as well,” she remembers.
Lesaka, Navarre. Eighty four members of the Euskal Artzainak Ameriketan Association just got back to the Basque Country after a two-week trip to California. This experience was a dream for many members that with the passing of the years, seemed less likely to happen. That is why when the association offered them the possibility to go together, in an organized trip, the response was overwhelming.
There were more than 40 herders on the trip, accompanied either by spouses or children. For all of them, it was a very emotional experience. Tears and emotional reunions were constant throughout the trip. “Not only us, but also the Basques there, came to us crying many times. ‘They hadn’t forgotten about us, we were told by many, between tears, and me, emotional, I was left speechless, without being able to ask anything else.” Igantzi explained.
[Five Etxegarai brothers reunited for the first time in Chino, California. With them is presenter Julian Iantzi, son of an American herder that shared the trip with the group in order to make a documentary of the experience (photo Euskal Arzainak Ameriketan.)]
Laura Igantzi, whose father was a herder, was one of the trip organizers, along with Angie Otxandorena, originally from Chino but who now resides in Doneztebe. “Thanks to Angie’s California contacts we were welcomed with open arms in the Basque clubs and at many ranches,” Igantzi said. The trip began on August 31 and over the two weeks they visited Chino, Bakersfield, Fresno and San Francisco among other places.
In Fresno, they were treated to a BBQ at Antonio Campos’s ranch. Tony, originally from Erro has collaborated with the Association rating a scholarship at the University of Nevada, Reno for students to study the history of these herders.
“In Chino our arrival was impressive because we arrived in the middle of the Basque picnic mass and everyone turned around, found the person that they wanted to talk to, and at the end of mass they came right to us, many already crying,” Laura remembers. The US Basque community was very well informed about the trip and had been waiting for these old friends for some time, some of which they hadn’t seen for decades.
[Members of Euskal Artzainak Ameriketan with blue neckerchiefs, having a good time at the Chino Basque club picnic (photo Euskal Artzainak Ameriketan]
The reunions were the most emotional part of the trip. “The oldest herder, Jose Aguas, is 80 years old. In Fresno, the man who was his boss, 30 years ago, appeared accompanied by his children, who came from another place expressly to greet him,” Laura said. “And I asked Jose, ‘What kind of impression did you leave here,” he made it very clear that he had left a big one.”
[This group of herders from Erro reunited with their former boss, Melchor Gragirena from Bakersfield, and his former partner, Vidaurreta (photo Euskal Artzainak Ameriketan)]
Despite their advanced age, many of the herders on the trip didn’t suffer any setbacks, even more, they got better “like champions,” according to organizers. “One said to me, ‘Laura, I’m rejuvenated.’ And the daughter of another one told me that during the trip her father was so well that he didn’t have to take his medication,” Igantzi said.
Accustomed to hard work in the California mountains and pastures, the herders have more than one lesson for the younger members in the group. “We were going from one place to another in the bus and every morning, even though we told them that the doors didn’t open until 9am, they were already there by 8 wanting to begin another day,” Laura laughs, “What we experienced there can’t be bought with money. “And many are still asking if we couldn’t have extended the trip for another week!”