Traditional dancing at a Basque festivalWIKIPEDIA

There is little doubt that Catalonia’s referendum last weekend has reignited unrest in the question of provincial independence. It is perhaps not so well appreciated, however, that this extends beyond the borders of its own autonomy, and into the heart of a further region of Spain: the Basque country. Indeed, such issues are arguably twins of modern history – if non-identical ones – with the recent furore having its deepest roots in a backlash to Franco’s authoritarian regime, which proved determined to crush intra-state differences.

Born to a Basque mother, the issue of nationalism has long since been one in which I am deeply invested. The Basques are genetically distinct from the other peoples in Europe, and our language, Euskara, is one of the only non-Indo-European vernaculars still in use on the continent. While I am extremely proud of our long-standing and unique heritage, herein lies a problem for my own identity: since Franco prohibited the usage and teaching of the Basque language right around the time that my mother became a student, she does not speak Basque. Ergo, nor do I. The quandary of whether I can truly ‘be’ Basque without the language is one that still troubles me. I identify with my region – note the temptation to write country – in a way that extends far beyond an almost religious support of Athletic Bilbao, or a devotion to our cuisine as, in my view, the best in the world.

“I identify with my region – note the temptation to write country – in a way that extends far beyond an almost religious support of Athletic Bilbao”

Our cultural identity preserves itself with a stubborn and admirable passion that reaches beyond politics into all aspects of daily life: societal norms, religion, music, sport and our familial ethos to name but a few elements. For example, Basques have an exceedingly close attachment to their own home (or etxe(a)), with many families returning traditional self-sufficient farms (baserris), unlike elsewhere in Spain. Indeed, often our surnames are even related to a geographical orientation or local feature that give clues as to where our families are from. Equally, we notably maintain the traditions of our own music; two of our most famous instruments are the txistu and the xirula (variations of a pipe and a flute respectively), and our folk music remains a staple of our culture. We are even genetically distinct from other Europeans: studies suggest that Basques descend from a unique group of Neolithic farmers who mixed with local hunters before becoming genetically isolated from the rest of the continent for millennia. All in all, it is not unfair to say that we are distinctive in Europe, even in the world. Still, my own ‘Basqueness’ can be difficult to justify when I know only the rudimentary anatomy of the language, especially since it is exceedingly tough to pick up now, as part of the Basque diaspora rather than an inhabitant of my hometown, Bilbao.

It is a further challenge, too, to attempt to reconcile my Basque identity with the independence dispute, for I know our separatist history has been much bloodier than Catalonia’s. The terrorist cell ETA, which has long fought (literally) for Basque independence, is known to be responsible for the deaths of at least 800 people in its decades-long campaign. Violence and torture inescapably abounded, and even in 2017 Basque citizens still have to be careful in outlining a secessionist position, or conversely, in standing firm in any sentiment of affinity with Madrid. The latter case is often kept more quiet; in the Basque country, those in favour of independence are usually more vocal than those who feel more comfortable as both Basque and Spanish, or solely as Spaniards.

These issues are to me, however, overshadowed by an indescribable, unavoidable resonance with being ‘Basque’: a feeling of joy and solidarity – tempered by humility in the knowledge of the more unsavoury aspects of our history – that transcends words. Indeed, it can only be felt. When I am in the Basque country, I am home. Equally, wherever I go I take the Basque country with me in ways far more permanent than a virtually unpronounceable surname. My mother’s maiden name is Goitiandia, and I do rather cruelly enjoy hearing Britons trying to pronounce it (‘goitia’ approximates to ‘the upper part’ and ‘andia’ to ‘large’, so my own family perhaps lived somewhere high and large, historically). Of course, this includes Cambridge. When people ask me where I am from, they often receive an unexpected spiel about how technically it is somewhere over the Atlantic, given my myriad of backgrounds (British-Swiss father raised in Peru; Basque mother; I was born in Chile. Complicated, I know). However, my Basque roots invariably tug the strongest. After all, whatever peculiar mix of anthropological influences did create the modern iteration of our Basque culture, it has been through centuries of evolution of which its people – myself included – are proud products. Indeed, our culture is inherently prepared to maintain its individuality, whatever the world throws at us – even, perhaps, a 200km/h rubber ball, in our favourite traditional game of pelota. In this context, I just hope that we will not be forever renowned primarily for the independence issue. The Basques have much more to offer – accompany me to Bilbao, if you don’t believe it

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