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Xabier Irujo, University of Nevada, Reno: “The situation of the Basque Language was dire before 36 due to cultural genocide”


Xabier Irujo spoke at the Sabino Arana Foundation on “Basque and Exile” (photo Jose Mari Martínez-DNG)
Xabier Irujo spoke at the Sabino Arana Foundation on “Basque and Exile” (photo Jose Mari Martínez-DNG)


Professor Irujo is a historian, codirector of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. He did a talk at the Sabino Arana Foundation this week entitled, “Euskera in Exile.”  Interview with Idoia Alonso published yesterday in the daily Noticias de Gipuzkoa

Idoia Alondo / Donostia, Gipuzkoa.  What was the situation of the Basque language before the Civil War?

-It was transient, and certainly not healthy.  Euskera lived normally until the French Revolution.   With the action of the French and Spanish States at the end of the 19th Century, above all until the end of the Second Carlist War, a repressive model is driven primarily regionally as they supposed inequalities, nations really.  National languages like Euskera, Breton, and Catalan were progressively disappearing.  From 1880-1936, the situation was calamitous, and so that is why Eusko Pizkundea (Basque Renaissance) was launched in 1876.  But in 1936, the situation became worse because it meant death, jail and exile for those who spoke or wrote in Basque.

It was close to dying?

-We don’t have sociolinguistic surveys from then, but in 1800 practically 100% of the population was Basque speaking with many of those being bilingual.  At the end of the century, the situation was the inverse, with probably 60-65% being bilingual and 35% who didn’t speak Euskera.  At the beginning of the 20th Century, 35% was multiplied by two.  With the Civil War it was prohibited in Hegoalde, but you have to remember that repressive policies begin in Iparralde with the French Revolution and they haven’t resolved it yet today.  In Iparralde, today, Euskera is still prohibited in public schools.

In fact, the French Government has yet to sign the Minority Language Charter as was promised in Holland.

-No they haven’t and additionally, even if they were to do so, it wouldn’t serve to implement an immersion system in Basque in the public education system because the states can ratify whatever articles they want in the Charter.

Miguel Unamuno wrote: “…the Basque language is extinguishing without having human force that could prevent its extinction because of its inability to become a language of culture.” What role has exile played so that this prophecy was not fulfilled?

-It did what it could.  The reactivation policies created by the Basque Government in 1936 are trying to be followed: create Ikastolas in exile, promote the publication of books in Euskera, use Euskera at university, socialize in Euskera contradicting the theory that it is only useful for speaking to animals….One of the reasons of the creation of the Day of Euskera in 1949 was to celebrate this day in the Diaspora and raise monies to create Ikastolas in Iparralde.  In Hegoalde, the first Ikastolas were created at the end of the 50s, but there was already one in Caracas and before that in Montevideo.  In reality, the Basque Government policies weren’t new, since they were developed at the end of the 19th century as a reaction to the policy of cultural genocide.

Cultural Genocide?

-Cultural genocide is the elimination of a people’s culture through prohibition of the language or its other uses, everything that makes them different from another people.  In our case, the fact that identifies us with the language.

One hundred years after The Basque Question by Unamuno, do you think that that there is the idea that one language comes before another?

-Yes, of course.  Cultural language and languages with no culture.  For example, Spanish President Suarez said that it didn’t make sense to implement a Basque University because teaching physics in Basque was absolutely irrational since Euskera wasn’t useful in the sciences, for contemporary use, modern, or to be used outside the house.

When you speak of exile, are you talking about intellectuals or ordinary people who took refuge in other countries?

-I’m talking about the Diasporic network.  Not about one person, not the Basque Government, the network that was generated.  For example, Barandiaran leaves exile in Iparralde, and doesn’t have a position in the Basque Government, but he gets in touch with other exiles, like him, who have responsibilities in the government and they create a network that begins to see that there are things that can be done from the outside to reactivate Euskera here.

What actiivities were supported?

-For example, they publish the magazine Gernika, later they find subscribers in the Basque clubs in the Diaspora where there are 50 exiles that buy them.  They also form Euskalzaleak groups in all of the clubs in America.  You have to realize that these groups commit to buying all books published in Euskera, to read them and to gather once a month to talk about them, that facilitates the books’ sales and diffusion.  Therefore, it isn’t the work of one, and not even of one institutions but that of a network that today is still working in all areas: literary, academic, cultural sports….That is what made these activities so effective.

You have mentioned the Diasporic network and some of their names but where were the centers?

-In the Basque clubs in all of the capitals in the Americas.  In the US, it was more important in New York, In Buenos Aires the Ekin publishers was also established in 1942 and the Institute of American Basque Studies.  There were four or five Basque clubs, and probably the majority of the exiled intellectuals headed for Buenos Aires.  In Montevideo, the first Basque Studies department in an American University was created in 1943.  In Santiago, Chile there isn’t as large of a bibliography, but they did publish many magazines in the Basque clubs and articles in the local press. Later, Caracas would become a very important club, like in New York, and of course Paris, that because the site of the Basque Government in exile.

Was this network broken over time?

-It continues, in another way.  What happened is that the generation of writers that emerges in the 1960s - Urretabizkaia, Atxaga, Sarrionandia, etc. - has no continuity with the previous generation.  There is a cut between Orixe and Atxaga.  That doesn’t mean that Atxaga doesn’t know Orixe, but Orixe doesn’t know Atxaga, and there is no natural development because one goes into exile, and is forced to live abroad, which cuts the transmission a bit.  The generation of writers in the 60s are already looking elsewhere, they look more to the European 1968 than to the Basque 1936 or to Eusko Pizkundea.

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