For the past few years we have witnessed an increase of documentary productions on Basques of the American West through truly nostalgic stories of some remarkable lives. For example, Tim and Ken Kahn and Scott Carroll directed “The Last Link” (2004), while Javi Zubizarreta and Jacob Griswold produced “Artzainak: Sheperds and Sheep” (2010) and Nacho Reig and Gorka Bilbao filmed “Amerikanuak” (2010). “The Last Link” addresses the transformation of a Basque sheepherding community in the State of Wyoming through the story of Pete Camino who planned to travel to his home village of Arnegi in the Basque province of Behe Nafarroa. “Artzainak” looks into the hard life of former Basque sheepherders in the State of Idaho, while “Amerikanuak” focuses on another prominent Basque immigrant area, Elko, in the State of Nevada.
“Amerikanuak” falls in love with Nevada’s winter landscape of big and blue skies and with its main character, Juan Juaristi “Parrillas,” an 83 year old boarder at the centennial Basque boardinghouse, the Star Hotel of Elko. Juan becomes the link between the different colorful stories that the film narrates through its ninety minutes of majestic photography. Juan was born in Guizaburuaga in the Basque province of Bizkaia in 1926 and immigrated into the United States at the age of 29. He first settled in Pocatello, Idaho and then moved to Elko, Nevada and worked as a sheepherder for many years. I hear from Scott “Patxi” Igoa, current owner of the Star Hotel, that Juan got sick in May and has been moved to a nursing home. Juan still manages to go to the Star Hotel every Saturday to play mus, a Basque card game, and have lunch with his old friends. I would say that Juan was the last Basque sheepherder that lived in a traditional Basque boardinghouse in America. Most of them, nowadays, have closed down or refurbished as public restaurants and do not offer rooms.
This media has become a new cultural interface between two worlds—the world of the emigrants and their descendants, the Basque-America, and the world of their ancestors in the European homeland. For many in the Basque Country this is the first encounter with Basques abroad. The three documentaries are interlinked brief journeys through various Basque communities in America that reflect their rise and fall within the context of a migrant culture portrayed as endangered. The short documentaries explore Basque heritage in America, which is clearly and painfully fading away with the vanishing of the immigrant generation. Their homes in the Old Country are figments of their childhood and youth memories, while their present lifestyle and sheepherding culture in America cannot keep from disappearing. The image of Juan looking through the window of his room at the Star Hotel is a powerful metaphor of the life of many migrants that left the Basque Country to live the American dream in the hills of the American West and encounter many hardships, loneliness and despair…
If you have watched any of the documentaries, particularly if this is the first time that you have learned about Basques in America, please share your thoughts with us.