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Our History

The Basque People and Early Immigration

The Basque people are Europe's mystery race. Their language is Europe's only non Indo-European language spoken and has no known linkages or similarities to any other languages. They have baffled anthropologists and historians who have attempted to discover the origins of the Basque people. Among many theories, some historians claim that the Basques have always resided in the area of Southern France and Northern Spain and that the people and their language actually evolved from the earliest inhabitants there. Written Records prove that the Basques were established in their current region prior to the Roman excursions and have survived many attempts to be conquered since then. The reason for the Basque immigration was due to the economic conditions and culture of the Basque Country which did not allow for large population growth and the right of the eldest child to inherit the family farm. The children of large families were forced into one of three choices; marry into another house, join a religious order or emigrate. Many chose the latter with America's being a preferred destination, including as far back as the earliest explorations of Columbus and Magellan. They were involved in the the early settlements of most of the latin American countries and Mexico.

Basques began immigrating to southern California during the Gold Rush years. The first settlers to this area had initially tried to make their fortunes in Argentina but the rumors of instant riches lured these men to try their luck in the gold mines of Northern California. After early disappointments, they were attracted to the South where an abundance of open land allowed them to exploit their innate agricultural abilities in the new country. They initially settled in Los Angeles area, where there was still open land and conditions were ideal for raising sheep. the central district where Basque hotels and businesses were located for many years was also around Aliso and Alameda Streets. Basques from the outlying areas looked forward to a visit downtown to catch up on the latest news from the old country. These were the sites of numerous weddings, baptisms and other family celebrations. Sheepherders used the hotels as their communication center receiving their mail and other information there. Among the early men who ventured to Southern California and established some of these early families were Domingo Amestoy, Gaston Oxarart, Miguel Leonis, Domingo Bastanchury, Simon Gless, and Jean Baptiste Batz. In the early years they established their ranches around what we now refer to as the downtown Los Angeles area. As this the norm for the Basque culture, these early Basques began to contact their relatives, friends, and neighbors to follow them to this new mecca.

As the down-town area began to develop, it did not take long for the Basques to find good open land for their sheep in the coastal and inland valleys of Southern California. As the these sheep ranchers proliferated along with other agricultural endeavors, certain towns began to be associated with large Basque populations. Among these were Artesia, Chino, Fullerton, La Puente, San Juan Capistrano/El toro. Prior to 1946 there were no formal organizations to bring the Basques together to celebrate their culture, but rather individual families would find reasons to put together a "besta" and invite all their friends and family. In Chino and La Puente, "canchas" were built where people would come to watch the handball games and root on their favorite players. By the 1940's Basque hotels were built near the early canchas and these became the centers of Basque cultural activity.

Establishment of the Club

Father Charles Espelette, the first secretary of the club noted in his minutes (which are all handwritten and contained in a small black ledger book), that the club was organized on August 11, 1946 at the Mount Carmel Church, Mission Grounds in montebello. "Its aim was to promote the social and cultural side of the various Basque families living in Southern California... so that at specified times they could gather together... enjoy a home-coming atmosphere, take confidence in themselves... and on special occasions represent, as a group the ancient Basque Race."

On this August day a fundraiser organized by Matias Etchart and F. Pete Barcelona, among others, was held at the Mission Grounds to assist the poor of Fr. Espelette's Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Espelette claimed that there was a representative group of 500 who consented to their wishes of forming a Basque Club. Apparently, they must have realized that this was an ideal way to ensure the continuance of the culture and language among the young. The actual organization of the Southern California Basque Club in 1946 was primarily due to Father Espelette. He was a Benedictine monk who was assigned as priest to the Mt. Carmel parish but acted a missionary to the Basque people as well as the parishioners of his parish church in Montebello. It was with both groups in mind that he began organizing what was originally known as the Southern California Eskualdun Club. His purpose was twofold: to ensure that the Basque culture remained strong and that any benefits gained could assist the poor parishioners of Montebello.

It was with these goals in mind that Espelette began searching for leaders in the Basque community who would be able to assist him with establishing a club. He sought out eight individuals, and on September 18, 1946, at the monastery of Montebello the first meeting of the charter members was held. A second meeting took place at Laurent Arretche's house in Chino where the bylaws were adopted and the club was firmly under way. It was decided that these nine men would serve in their capacities for a period of one year and any new members would need to be voted in by majority of voters.

The Charter Members

John LifurLos AngelesPresident
Matias EtchartChinoVice President
Fr. Charles EspeletteMontebelloSecretary / Treasurer
J. Baptiste ChilibolostChinoKitchen
Pete ChilibolostChinoKitchen
F. Pete BarcelonaChinoDance Leader
Laurent ArretcheChinoBand Leader
Jean IriartLa PuentePropaganda
Mike PedroarenaLos AngelesDoor / Tickets

1946 - 1953 Brea

Since fundraising was a primary function of the club, it was decided that they should have an annual picnic. the first picnic took place on June 15, 1947 at the Shell Oil Barbecue Pits in Brea and was held at this site until 1953. It was through Sam Landa who operated a store and bar in Brea that the club was able to secure this site. It was an idyllic location in the hills above Brea that was developed and generally utilized by the owners of Shell Oil for family picnics. The first picnic brought 730 people through the gates which must have surely impressed the nine charter members.

Entry to the picnic was $.75 and the meal cost $1.35. The first picnics would hardly be discernible from those held today. The meal at the picnics consisted of barbecue lamb, chilindron, potato salad and green salad. The meat was marinated in the traditional style and barbecued to perfection. The potato salad was different and rather difficult task for the women of the club due to the large containers necessary. They would gather and prepare it the day prior to the picnic and some years later would even clean out the bathtub in order to mix the ingredients. Sandwiches made of barbecued leg of lamb were served on picnic night.

The original dance group was also organized by Father Espelette who recruited some of the young Basques from El Toro, Chino and La Puente. The dancers were taught and led by Laurent Arretche and Pete Barcelona until Pete passed away in 1962. Fr. Espelette provided the costumes but offered uniformity among the dancers. Dance practices were initially held at the monastery in Montebello then later changed to the Chilibolost home in Chino. During the first picnics, Madeleine Lifur Schneiders would also perform some Spanish dances for the crowds.

Music for the dance group was provided by Laurent Arretche on his accordion. The evening entertainment was handled by an orchestra which included Egidio "Jildo" Puppi, an Italian immigrant farmer who learned to play the Basque "jota" in addition to the popular waltzes and polkas of the period. Another member of the orchestra, Noeline Errecalde Mocho, played the accordion at the earliest picnics and continued to provide musical accompaniment for the dance group through the 1980's. Joe Asparren from Los Angeles sung the National Anthem at the earliest picnics.

In 1949, Mary rose Healy, a member of the Uricarriet family was crowned the first Queen of the picnic. Starting with Mary Rose, each year a young girl between the ages of 10 and 15 was chosen to be crowned Queen. The new queen was crowned by the previous year's queen during the entertainment program after having marched in together in front of all the dancers. Each girl had to make a speech in Basque explaining who their families were and what it meant to them to be Basque. This was an annual event until 1980 when Linda Indaburu was crowned the last Southern California Basque Club Queen.

Advertising for the picnic was primarily done by word of mouth as it is done today although in these early years, the club additionally placed ads in the Courrier Francais and the Union Nouvelle. These were weekly French newspapers published in Los Angeles.

Father Espelette noted that Dolores Ordoquy and Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz were in attendance at the 1950 picnic. Both were from early Los Angeles Basque families. Ms Ordoquy was a singer who, according to the notes, sang for the last time at this picnic. Sheriff Biscailuz, whose father was a prominent lawyer in Los Angeles at the turn of the century, was the sheriff of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department for many years.

It cannot be underestimated how much work it was for the nine charter members to organize a picnic for 730+ people, therefore, in 1947 the charter members nominated and elected six new members. Ben Amestoy, Ramon Arrossagaray, Joe Changala, John Etcheberria, Sam Landa and Agustin Mujica were asked to join the club. This expanded the membership to fifteen and the following year they decided to expand further. In 1948, Ben Bidart, michel Mutuberria, Ben Olhasso and Domingo Segura were elected as members. Again in 1953 it was agreed to increase the membership and the the new members accepting where Louis Etcheberria, Fred LanFranco, Domingo Mendionde and Joe Ustariz.

The process of nominations and elections of new members has been the tradition since these early days and remains the method of selection. The primary criteria for membership, other than an affiliation with the Basque culture, is the willingness to work and participate at the picnics. Over the course of the 50 years (as of 1996) the club has had approximately 115 actual members with some currently serving, some serving until their death, and others having participated as long as they desired and then for various personal reasons moved on. The time given and work provided by each member throughout the years has been greatly appreciated.

During the first years the meetings of the members took place at the homes of Laurent and Simona Arretche in Chino, Pete and Marcelina Barcelona in Chino or the Chilibolost ranch in Carbon Canyon. These were strictly business meetings with no formal meals involved. Later the meetings also took place at the homes of Ben and Lucie Bidart, Michel and Marie Mutuberria and Domingo and Marie Segura, all in Chino and became a family gathering and social event.

In addition to the picnics and meetings, the club also sponsored special occasions to promote the Basque culture. In 1951a reception was held for Father Adrian Gachiteguy, a Basque priest from Les Aldudes. He came to research the Basques who had immigrated to the United States. this was eventually published as "Les Basques dans L'Quest Americain." the reception was held at the Centro Basco in Chino and included handball games between Bakersfield and Chino.

In 1953 the last picnic took place at Shell Oil Park as the facility closed its gates. The members were faced with choosing a new location.

1954 - 1985 La Puente

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1986 - Current Chino

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