The Basque Culture and its Contributions to the Philippines

September 29, 2010

by Benjamin Espiritu III, 4-AB Philo (Pre-Div)

We eat chorizo de bilbao, know the family names Ayala, Elizalde, Larrazabal and Aboitiz, go food-tripping in Binondo, visit the towns of Urdaneta and Claveria, revere Saint Francis Xavier and Saint Ignatius de Loyola, but what we do not know is that what we presume to be Spanish or Kastila are specifically from the Basque Country. These and a lot of other things were discussed as part of the Culture Talks organized by the Modern Languages Department of the Ateneo de Manila University. The talk, entitled The Basque Culture and its Contributions to the Philippines was given by Ms. Victoria Marie Valdez, a part-time lecturer of the department, last Friday, September 17, 2010.

Señorita Valdez opened the discussion with the history of the Basque Country, known as Pais Vasco in Spanish and as Euskal Herria by the Basques. The Basques call themselves in euskadi, their native language, as euskals. Geographically, it is located in the north of Spain, bordering with France. Notable cities are Vitoria-Gasteiz,  the capital city of Alava; Pamplona (strictly a city in Navarra, which is historically part of Euskal Herria), famous for the feast of San Fermin or sanfermines; Bilbao, a major trade seaport, also famous for the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum with its striking architecture; San Sebastian, known for the Film Festival, Jazz Festival and the Tamborrada Festival; and Guernica, in whose honor the famous Picasso painting was done, and also home to the Tree of Guernica, considered to be the soul of the Basque people.

The Basques believe to trace their roots from the Cro-Magnons and consider themselves the first Europeans. Euskara, the Basque language, is, in linguistic terms, a “language isolate,” a natural language that has no traceable relationship or roots from other languages. Señorita Valdez stressed that their language defines and protects their identity as a people. It is because of this high esteem for the language and for their culture that they have a great endeavor of becoming a region distinct from Spain.

The Basque Country is the wealthiest region of Spain, attributing its wealth to the major trading port of Bilbao. Due to its being a coastal region, the Basque Country gave birth to many sailors, traders and ship builders. The abundant produce from the land and the sea is the This also is a cause for the rich culinary heritage that they have: a rich cuisine both from the land and the sea. Part of their food culture is the Txoko, a gastronomical society or food club exclusive to men that meets regularly to prepare food. Such clubs are so exclusive that they open to the public only during the Tamborrada festival.

The Basques played an important role in the conquests of Spain because of their sailors and ship builders. In fact, the first expedition to have arrived in the Philippines, the Magellan expedition, had a crew that was composed mostly of Basque sailors.

Among the famous Basques relevant to the country that Señorita Valdez mentioned were Juan Sebastian El Cano, Magellan’s second-in-command; Simon Anda y Salazar, who exposed the injustices of the friars and the defended the country against the British; Jose Basco y Vargas, known as the father of agriculture in the Philippines; Guido de Lavezares, who fought against the Chinese Limahong; Narciso Claveria, from whom we owe our Spanish apellidos; and Fray Andres de Urdaneta, the bearer of Catholicism to the Philippines.


For us in the Ateneo, we also trace our lines from Basques. Ignacio de Loyola and Francisco Xavier, fathers of the Society of Jesus, were Basques themselves. So were Fernando Norzagaray and Juan de Lara, responsible for the establishment of the Ateneo Municipal de Manila, from where the Ateneo de Manila University traces its ancestry.

According to Dr. Alejandro Roces, “the Philippines may have been a Spanish territory but we are a Basque nation.” We have the Basques to thank for our deep-seated religiosity and our rich Catholic tradition. Ms. Valdez also believes that the rise of nationalist sentiments among the Filipinos in the late 19th century and the arrival of the Basque Jesuits were not coincidental. She is also of the opinion that the Basques were instrumental in the conservation of our vernacular languages despite more than 300 years of Spanish occupation.

To wrap-up, the talk acquainted the audience to the rich Basque culture and opened their eyes to a deeper understanding of Filipino culture itself.