As one of the largest Basque communities in the United States prepares for the traditional Jaialdi festival in southwestern Idaho, a not-so traditional Basque president is expected to be among the visitors.
Patxi Lopez was elected last year, ending nearly 30 years of rule by the Basque Nationalist Party, which governed – to varying degrees – on a platform of independence from Spain.
Lopez is scheduled to visit Idaho during Jaialdi, which begins July 27. Some 15,000 Basques live in the state, making up one of the largest concentrations in the world behind the Basque homeland on the Spanish-French border and Argentina.
The visit is likely to be closely monitored for any sign of political protest, to which festival organizers respond: Don’t hold your breath.
“He has nothing to do with Jaialdi, he’s coming as a visitor. This is not about him,” said Dave Eiguren, who is from an old Basque family in Boise and has helped organize the festival since it started in 1987.
The Basque president is customarily invited to Jaialdi, held every five years as a showcase of the culture. It is an opportunity to transcend politics and a past marked by separatist violence in Spain. Some 825 people have been killed by the radical ETA since the late 1960s in a battle for an independent homeland.
Lopez became the Basque region’s first non-nationalist president last year. He said at the time that he wanted to unite Basque society, which he described as divided between those who want independence from Spain and those who prefer continuing to be part of it. The Socialist leader also vowed to fight the ETA.
The Basque president’s visit during Jaialdi will have ramifications, but primarily in the Basque Country, said John Bieter, assistant director of the Basque Studies Center at Boise State University.
“It will be watched very closely over there,” Bieter said, referring to the homeland.
Jaialdi, or “Big Festival,” organizers expect between 35,000 to 50,000 people to attend. It has become something of a magnet for family reunions and a boon to local tourism, drawing Basque Americans from across the West.
“They have so many groups that come to compete and dance,” said Laurie McConnell, a spokeswoman for the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Would they be coming here otherwise? Maybe. Maybe not.”
The event includes traditional sports and cultural events including folk dancing, historical presentations and religious services for the largely Catholic Basque community.
A radio station requested permission to broadcast a mass at St. John’s Cathedral, leaving Eiguren, the longtime Jaialdi organizer, puzzled but also no less certain of the festival’s popularity.
“I’m not sure on radio, how you’d live broadcast that,” Eiguren said, “but we’ve got everybody’s attention.”
A week before the event, the city block of bars and restaurants where Basque descendants congregate for weddings and the annual San Inazio Basque Festival on the last weekend of July was already bustling with preparations.
At the Basque Market, which is owned by Eiguren’s son, Tony, and sits across the street from small brick house that sheltered some of the first Basque sheepherders to immigrate to Idaho in the early 1900s, workers rolled bite-sized pieces of dough and filled tray after tray of croquettes.
Kathryn Schaeffer dipped the pieces of dough into an egg-based mixture before covering them with bread crumbs. Her 14-year-old daughter, Christina, filled Ziploc bags and counted.
During a typical San Inazio Basque festival, the market will prepare between 10,000 and 15,000 croquettes. For Jaialdi, that number shot up to 38,000, said Tony Eiguren, mixing a large batch of croquette filling.
“We always joke around that this is the Basque festival on steroids,” he said.