Beatriz Sotillos and Jontxu García, Bilbao, Bizkaia. In a society that is used to categorizing and labeling John Raymond Garamendi broke the mold with a resounding, “I’m Basque” when they wanted to adscribe him to the group of congressman of Hispanic origin. He was already a politician with a long career and broad resume that excelled his Basque origins that he has always claimed.
What does being awarded the Sabino Arana award mean to you?
-I am honored to receive this recognition. I am grateful to the Sabino Arana Foundation that included me in recognizing men and women of Basque origins that live and work abroad and it is an honor to be one of its awardees.
Does the award strengthen your link to the Basque Country?
-Since my grandparents immigrated to America in 1906, my family has always maintained connections and participated in the Basque Country. Our extended family traveled frequently to America and four generations of my family have visited the Basque Country. We have always had time to hold meetings with authorities from the Basque Country when they come to Washington and in fact I have a Makila in my office that always reminds me of my heritage.
Has your Basque origin marked your professional or political life in some way?
-The first time that I was in my grandfather’s office he told me that my job was to make things better for my community. I have always tried to apply the Basque values of love for family, independent spirit, hard work and tenacity throughout my entire political career, and the Basque community in the US has been a big help on this journey.
You were awarded for “keeping the Basque identity alive in the US and the world.” In your opinion what can a US politician do for the Basque Country?
-The Basque Country has a lot of industry and it is one of the economic bases in Europe. In addition the existence of strong ties with the US can be beneficial for both the Basque Country as well as the US. Due to this, it is important to count on politicians in the US that know and recognize the important of the Basque Country who can help foster mutual cooperation and economic development.
You have played an important role as a contact in Washington for Basque authorities for some time. Do you think that institutional and political relations that are maintained are enough?
-One of the most important things that we can do as elected officials of Basque origin is organize ourselves, and work at all levels of government to help strengthen existing relationships and construct new platforms for business in the Basque Country and the US.
We often hear about the necessity of created a “Basque Lobby” that would defend the interests of Euskadi in the US and other countries. Do you agree with this idea? Wouldn’t it be enough for relevant people to defend their Basque identity, as you did and disseminate the culture of Euskadi?
-Many foreign governments support cultural organizations in the US that are dedicated to strengthening relations between their country and the US. These organizations also serve to strengthen economic and cultural ties, and the Basque Country shouldn’t be an exception.
Have permanent ties been created between the US and the Basque Country?
-Currently there are permanent ties. The Basque Government maintains regular contact with elected officials in the US. In the same way, cultural events will also help improve these relations. In this way I have to confess that I am very excited that the Smithsonian Museum will feature the Basque culture at this summer’s Folklife Festival.
Do you trust that the agreement recently reached between the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and the Cultural Heritage and Bizkaia will help to disseminate and improve the image of the Basque Country?
-Without a doubt, because it is a very prestigious festival that attracts visitors from all over the country. It will be a great opportunity for the people of the US and the world in general to learn about the Basque Country and its people.
Will you be personally involved in the Smithsonian’s festival?
-I am already working with the Smithsonian Center, with Basque organizations in America and the Basque Government to promote the event. I am very enthusiastic about it and can assure you that my entire family will be there.
Has the image of the Basque Country changed in the US since the end of ETA terrorism?
-Unfortunately, ETA’s activity distracted the international community from the great contributions that the Basque Country and its people have made. That is why today it is a great relief to know that ETA has formally renounced violence. There is no doubt that it is easier to be an ambassador form the Basque Country in times of peace and diplomacy.
Do you maintain fluid communication with the Basque collectivity in the US?
-I am always ready to meet with Basque group and with representatives of the Basque Government when they visit Washington. My family frequently attends Basque events in California as well as others in the west. We will also hold the 39th edition of our Basque BBQ this spring at our ranch in California.