Found in Translation

The Basques reclaim their cultural identity, one word at a time.

By the time I pull up to the farmhouse in the Spanish region of Navarre, the other students have already arrived. Waiting for lunch, we nervously pretend that we understand what’s going on. A blond woman whose name I can’t pronounce points to a bottle as she pours each student a glass and says, with exaggerated clarity, “Ardoa” (“wine”).

It’s the first word I learn at this barne­tegi, or Basque-language immersion school, and its ordinariness comes as a relief. Until now, as an American living in Spain, the only Basque words I’d managed to glean have to do with violence and power: ertzaintza (“police”), kale borroka (“street violence”), etarra (“terrorist” or “freedom fighter,” depending on your point of view). The media use the words every time an arrest, a demonstration, or an assassination—there was one in September—takes place. Indeed, most of what anyone in or outside Spain hears about Basques has to do with ETA, the radical group that has killed more than 800 people in the past 40 years in its quest for an independent Basque homeland.

“In the rest of Spain, they only talk about us as a problem—the Basque problem,” says Amaia Marin, who is attending an intermediate course at the barnetegi. She is Basque but doesn’t know Euskera, the Basque language, because it was not taught in schools when she was growing up. She doesn’t see herself as particularly political and thinks of independence as little more than “a pretty dream.” But she was driven to learn Euskera, she says, because “being Basque is the thing I’m most proud of in my life.”

Thousands of years old, Euskera has no links to any other known tongue, living or dead. That alone makes it the clearest sign of Basque identity. Franco sought to suppress the language during his dictatorship. In Spain today, when Basques enjoy greater autonomy than at any time since the 19th century, and when Spanish conservatives see that autonomy as a threat to national unity, the language remains a political issue. In some parts of Basque country, a town meeting held in Spanish is reason for protest, even vandalism; meanwhile, new laws that require 2,000 large businesses to offer their services in both Euskera and Spanish have triggered strong opposition outside Basque country. But for people like Amaia, Euskera is a way out of the Basque problem, a way to be Basque regardless of politics.

The number of Euskera speakers has risen in recent years, from 657,000 in 2001 to 775,000 (out of a total Basque population of about 3 million) in 2006. This growth can be attributed largely to schools—parents can choose how much Euskera training their children get, and the majority favor some education in their ancestral tongue. Yet 100,000 of those speakers have learned the language as adults. In my group, Celia and Maite are here because their employer—Microsoft—is expanding into Basque country, while Italian-born Nicoletta, Chilean Paula, and Spanish Dani are married to Basques and have signed up because their children are learning Euskera in school.

In class, we struggle through intro­ductions and learn to count to 10. (Actually, we learn to count to 100, but I’m so flustered by the compound words that I falter at the double digits.) We learn directions and body parts, including zakila (“penis”) and alua (“vagina”)—the Basques are nothing if not frank. In between lessons, we go for coffee in Bakaiku, a pretty mountain village west of Pamplona, where the stone houses are adorned with fat geraniums. It’s an idyllic place if you ignore the pro-independence graffiti and posters that spring up every night—one of which gives me my first thrill of comprehension: Euskal Herria Aurrera, “Forward With the Basque Country.”

No one teaches politics at the barne­tegi, but subtle messages slip in among the vocabulary words heavy with x’s and z’s. A geography lesson shows the Basque provinces without any boundary delineating the three in France from the four in Spain. And we get an explanation of the ancient fueros, laws that granted the Basques certain rights and privileges in exchange for loyalty to the kingdom of Castile.

But the rise in Euskera has not necessarily fed secessionist impulses. “The fact that you learn the language doesn’t mean that you’ll vote for a nationalist party,” says Xabier Monasterio, the director of pedagogy at the Gabriel Aresti school, which runs this barnetegi. Support for the conservative Basque Nationalist Party has stayed relatively constant over the past 10 years. So has the percentage of Basques who want independence from Spain (35 percent) over the past two decades.

“I love teaching Euskera, because it is the language of our people,” Monasterio says. “It’s who we are. It’s not better or worse than any other language—it’s just ours.” I think about his words during the last class, which we spend singing Basque songs. There are hymns to innocent love and odes to sailors, but the most moving song consists of just the words gueria da—“it’s ours”—repeated over and over. To the tune of “Hava Nagila.”