Al Erquiaga, born in Boise of Basque heritage, is one of the founders of Boise's successful Basque festival Jaialdi as well as one of the first Oinkari dancers.
Boise, capital city of the state of Idaho, does not have the largest Basque population outside the Basque Country. However, this remote city is home to the most active Basque community of the Diaspora.
Downtown Boise features a vibrant section known as the "Basque block" that includes the Basque Center Euzkaldunak, the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, the Gernika bar, the Leku Ona restaurant and hotel and the fronton. We should also not forget the Oinkari Basque dancers, Boiseko Gazteak, the Basque choir, Boiseko Ikastola or the band 'Amuma Says No'.
As Boisean researcher Gloria Totorikagüena describes in her book Boise Basques, the Basque community is full of "dreamers and doers", men and women who at some point decided to build a small Basque Country in this little-known place. Al Erquiaga, born in Boise, is one of those dreamers and doers who helped to lay the foundations of today's successful Basque community.
Born in Boise, Al's father came to the United States from the Bizkaian village of Ispaster in 1920. Like many other Basques, he had a relative who had already migrated to the United States - an older brother was here - and he knew he had no future in the Basque Country as his eldest brother was going to inherit the family farmhouse.
"It was hard work, but he never complained about it. He came in 1920 the first time and married my mother in 1934. I was born in 1935. And he herded sheep until after I was born, even after they were married for a year", Al says in an exclusive interview for eitb.com in Boise. "It was hard work and he realized it was no work for a family, of course, so then he went into farming", Al adds.
Raised on a farm, Al was brought up among Basque farmers and stories of the Basque Country. "We had a lot of Basque friends, other farmers, and when they were over to visit, it would be late in the evening, I would sit and listen to them talk. I liked to hear them tell their stories, about here or back home, I really enjoyed the stories", Al remembers.
In 1960, Al, and another seven Boise Basques, toured Europe for three weeks and then stayed in the Basque Country for almost two months. There, they met the Oinkari dancers from Donostia-San Sebastian. "We became very good friends with them. We went to their rehearsals, they taught us dances and (we) went touring with them in France," Al says.
"The best thing you can do is to go back to America and start a dance group called Oinkaris", the Basque dancers told Al and his seven friends. "On the way home we talked on the airplane about doing it, we got back home and said, let's do it," Al says.
And that is how the Oinkari Basque dancers from Boise were born. Nearly half a century later, they are part of Basque-American heritage and more than 800 people have performed not only in Boise or Idaho but also in many places all over the United States and the Basque Country.
Holiday Basque Festival
Nobody thought that the Oinkaris would grow to become the cultural phenomenon they are now. Neither did they when they started NABO, a federation of North American Basque Organizations that sustain Basque culture.
In the early 1970s, Al was member of the board of an organization called the Basque Studies Center, which organized a Holyday Basque festival thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Al, who was among the organizers of the festival, realized he was having a hard time contacting other Basque clubs in the United States.
"The problem that we run into was that we wanted everybody in the United States to know about it but we did not know anyone's names or contacts. The hardest part is we couldn't get hold of anybody, there was no communication. We need an organization, some ways to communicate," Al recounts.
"We met in Reno. We contacted three clubs of Reno, San Francisco, Bakersfield, seven or eight clubs. We got together, and that is how NABO was started," Al adds.
Jaialdi, the international Basque festival held in Boise every five years, was also born out of the dreams of Al Erquiaga. Having met Jokin Intxausti from the Basque Government at a NABO meeting in 1985, they came up with the possibility of producing an international festival to promote Basque culture. Two years later it was a reality.
More than 500 volunteers worked on the first Jaialdi. Significant numbers of members from the Basque Diaspora attended and the festival was a great success. Since then, the Jaialdi is held every five years and thousands of Basques and non-Basques meet in Boise in this celebration of Basque culture, probably a source of inspiration for many other dreamers and doers just like Al Erquiaga.