BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — It’s high noon on a weekday in east Bakersfield, and as usual, Woolgrowers is packed.
Customers aren’t here just for the cuisine, although that’s obviously a huge part of it. If you’ve ever been a regular at one of the city’s handful of Basque restaurants, you know it’s the camaraderie, the familiarity, the tradition. Things, when you really think about it, define the Basques of Kern County in general. How else to explain how, in a metro area of more than 800 thousand, self-identified Basques make up only a little over one thousand. But Basques’ history is to a great extent Bakersfield’s history. They’ve been here since at least 1893, the year the Noriega Hotel opened its doors on Sumner Street.
But it’s been a tough year for local Basques. Just this year they’ve lost at least 10 members of their community — 80-something-year-old elders who, in most cases, immigrated from the Old Country — the Pyrenees region of Spain and France — and brought their unique language with them.
Frankie Iturriria lost his father Pace and his uncle Miguel, both 86, just this year.
“Just solid individuals, Couldn’t ask for a better father, uncle. They taught us everything we know. They paved the way for us,” he said.
Steve Bass, whose wife Judy is half Basque, literally wrote the book on the subject, The Basques of Kern County.
“The funerals are so moving because the Basques are a very lyrical race,” he said. “At almost all the funerals they have a Basque choir — there’s three or four women who are beautiful singers — they have a Basque choir at the Basque Club — and the whole church sings the same song. And it’s absolutely — well, I’m getting choked up right now. Absolutely amazing. They are all aware of it and they are all conscious of it. It’s just getting to be that time for a lot of them. It’s getting to be the time for us.”
Josette Daramy McCrary was raised in a Basque family and she mourns the loss of her late father’s generation. She committed herself to raising her now-grown children in that tradition.
“We danced, my brother and I, and my brother did Klika as well,” she said. “I continue to teach Basque dancing to the youth now because there’s very few of us that know the Basque dances.”
Iturriria agreed about the importance of tradition.
“The customs are taught to the immigrants’ kids, and now it’s their grandkids, and the generations are continuing on,” he said. “And we hope to continue it for a long time to come.”
Both were raised speaking Basque and both value its preservation.
So does Sonia Castanon of Salt Lake City, who teaches it. Her message to local Basques? “Treasure your Basque heritage,” she said — in Basque, of course.