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Keeping the culture alive: Basque Club seeks members, set to host national convention in 2026 (en Buffalo Bulletin)


A meeting of the Big Horn Basque Club looks, sounds and smells like a boisterous dinner with a big, extended family.

Enlace: Buffalo Bulletin

Ethan Weston. Local Basques filed into the American Legion hall on Jan. 7 for the club’s annual meeting, toting side dishes and desserts to be paired with the main course, a locally raised lamb cooked on site. With a little more than 40 attendees, an onlooker might not think this group is having participation issues.

But in conversations with members and a review of this year’s agenda and last year’s meeting minutes, it’s clear the Basque club is concerned for its future, especially as it’s committed to hosting the North American Basque Organizations’ convention in 2026, a three-day event that has, in the past, brought as many as 7,000 people to Buffalo.

Club member Mick Camino’s late sister, Mary, founded the club in 1986 after she spent time in California, where there were a lot of active Basque clubs, he recalled. In her view, the local appreciation and celebration of the culture had waned, and she hoped to revive it.

Now, Camino feels the same downward trend in participation is repeating itself almost 40 years later.

“We’re struggling with participation and interest,” he said. “As more and more of the full Basque pass away, there’s less and less people stepping up to do the work.”

A lot of clubs suffer the same fate as active members age and tire of the work it takes to be in leadership. But for the Basque club, a loss of identity is at stake.

Jean Esponda is considered the first Basque person to emigrate to Johnson County from the Basque country between the European Pyrenees Mountains and the Bay of Biscay in 1902, according to the Alliance for Historic Wyoming, a historic preservation nonprofit organization. 

Esponda went to work as a sheepherder, and soon more Basque people followed, and many of their ancestors remain in the area. 

Now, a small but passionate group hopes to keep the culture vibrant in a place so central to the story of Basque migration to the United States.

Richard Frankovic, a former board member, is not Basque himself, but his grandfather and great-grandfather built sheep wagons for Basque sheepherders, and he was raised around the culture, he said. 

He plays a Basque card game called Mus, which combines aspects of poker with chess strategy. Frankovic and Camino play together and traveled to Nevada last year to compete in the NABO Mus finals.

“I met all these people there, and everyone I talked to, when they found out I was from Buffalo, told me their grandfather, their uncle or their cousin came through Buffalo or had a connection with Buffalo,” Frankovic said. “It’s just a major part of the history of this community.”

Two years from now, the Big Horn Basque Club hopes to host NABO for the sixth time. Most recently, Buffalo hosted the event in 2017. 

That summer, attendees – visitors and locals alike – raised $62,000 for the Bread of Life Food Pantry during an auction, and enjoyed music, dancing, a sheep wagon parade and, by Frankovic’s count, more than 800 pounds of Lukainka sausage, 400 pounds of lamb burgers and a lot of drinks.

Behind the scenes, there are considerations about hotel rooms and campgrounds, organizing vendors and more.

“It truly takes an entire village to pull this off,” Frankovic said.

For members, however, the work is worth it to enjoy and share in Basque language, music, history and food. 

Alberta Escoz joined the Big Horn Basque Club at its founding in the late 1980s, with her husband. While she loves to make Basque food, including Kauserak, a Basque donut that she made for the annual meeting on Jan. 7, she said she’s also fascinated by the language that differs from other Indo European languages.

“All of it is very interesting to me, and I’m trying to foster it as much as I can,” Escoz said. 

Her adult children are involved in the club and the culture – one used to teach Basque dance and the other plays Mus and is on the club’s board. 

“We want to try to get more young people interested in the culture and see that it does continue with the younger people,” Escoz said. “We’ve kind of raised all our kids with that understanding.”

Despite a mostly aging membership, there are some newer and younger members of the club who share its goals of keeping the culture alive and well in Johnson County.

Cheyenne Greub joined the club and the board last year, as a tribute to Basque family members generations before her who settled in the area and made possible her life as she knows it.

Then there’s Layne Rodriguez, 23, and 25-year-old Tommy Fieldgrove, whose grandfathers each emigrated from Basque country. Both say they’ve been involved since they could walk. 

As adults, they enjoy playing Mus and the party atmosphere that Basques are notorious for. Fieldgrove serves on the club’s board, bucking the trend of young people who shy away from leadership.

Rodriguez and Fieldgrove echoed the concerns of their older counterparts – they hope more young Basques will get involved in the club.

“I’m trying to keep some of the things my grandparents have done going,” Fieldgrove said. “And I just had a boy, so I want to keep it going for him so he can see what our history and our culture has been about.”

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