Pete T. Cenarrusa: A Post-Modern BasqueEscuchar artículo - Artikulua entzun

Gloria Totoricagüena

Pete T. Cenarrusa is a multifaceted man: an athlete, rancher, businessman, teacher, military veteran, pilot, husband, father, Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, Catholic, political activist for Basque causes, philanthropist, Idaho Secretary of State, Basque-American, and friend of the Basques. His Basque upbringing in Idaho provided him with many opportunities to realize personal, academic, business, and political goals, and he credits his Basque parents with teaching him the important values in life.

José Cenarrusabeitia immigrated to the United States in 1907 from Munitibar, Bizkaia, and traveled to Boise, Idaho, as had many Bizkainos before him. While staying at one of the Basque boardinghouses, he gained employment on a sheep ranch in south central Idaho. He was only seventeen years old. With his brother, Pete, he worked as a sheepherder and later as sheep foreman for Tom Stanford in Carey, Idaho. During the off-season, they lived at Soloaga’s boardinghouse in Shoshone, Idaho and during one of these stays, José “Joe” met Ramona Gardoqui, who emigrated in 1914 from Gernika, Bizkaia. The two married in 1914 and went on to produce a family of five children, including young Pete, who was born in Carey, in Blaine County, Idaho, on December 16, 1917.

Cenarrusa, Pete 1995 Boise, Idaho: Pete T. Cenarrusa is the longest serving elected official in the the entire history of the State of Idaho. He gave 52 years of public service in state government. Photo courtesy of Pete T. Cenarrusa.

Pete’s father, Joe, and his uncle, Pete Cenarrusabeitia, partnered to establish a sheep business in Carey, Idaho. In addition to caring for five children, Pete's mother, Ramona, raised chickens and grew a vegetable garden to help supply the foodstuffs of the sheep camp. During these days, Cenarrusa remembers that Basques were considered an unknown people with a very strange language. Most existing populations in Idaho in the early part of the 20th century knew very little about the Basque Country, its people, or their culture or traditions. Basque emigrants and their families were a very close-knit group in Blaine County and gathered often for social events and country picnics.

Cenarrusa’s first education resulted from listening to his father’s Basque sheepherders talk about herding and the sheep business itself. He “learned a lot about life, and about honesty and responsibility, and about hard work and perseverance.” He attended his primary and secondary education courses in Bellevue. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Idaho, in Moscow, Idaho, where he studied animal husbandry and agricultural education. Cenarrusa was also a member of the university’s boxing team during his years on campus and he was a Pacific Northwest lightweight class semifinalist. He graduated with a degree in agricultural science in 1940.

Cenarrusa’s first job was teaching agricultural sciences and coaching various sports teams at the secondary school in Cambridge, Idaho and he loved the interaction with the youth. After one year, he was offered a similar job teaching and coaching in his home town of Carey, earning $115 per month, and that was a raise compared to what he was earning in Cambridge. In 1940, Pete took the exams for the Army Air Corps and was encouraged to go to Lindbergh Field to enlist in the United States military. He decided to continue teaching and established the new agriculture classes and even a football program in Carey. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941, Cenarrusa chose to enlist in the U.S. forces rather than be drafted and he joined the Navy with intentions to become a Naval Aviator in the United States Marine Corps. During World War II, Cenarrusa instructed other aviation cadets and was also trained as a close-air support fighter pilot in preparation for the expected invasion of Japan. His naval air training was conducted in Corpus Christi, Texas, and he was next stationed with a marine dive-bomber squadron at Cherry Point, North Carolina, where he earned the rank of Major. As he was preparing to go to the Pacific fleet for the invasion of Japan, President Truman ordered the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which caused the war to end.

Upon returning to Idaho after his military service, Pete’s previous classroom experience proved to be invaluable. He was hired for a job teaching farming methods to other returning military veterans for the Veterans Administration, and for Idaho Vocational Education. For three years, Cenarrusa traveled Blaine County, visiting every family and farm and giving instruction about the latest farming methods, equipment, pesticides, hybrid plants, and animal husbandry. He also bought a war surplus PT-26 airplane, and he gave flying lessons. Pete was instrumental in having a small airport built in Carey, which was actually dedicated by President Harry S. Truman when he was traveling through the western states. One of Cenarrusa’s flight students was Freda Coates, whose family was also in the sheep business, and Freda eventually married Pete Cenarrusa in October 1947.

Pete T. Cenarrusa gives the dedication speech at the re-opening of the Anchustegui Fronton in Mountain Home, Idaho in August 2001. Photo copyright Zaldi Ero.

In 1949, representatives of the Republican political party approached the popular Cenarrusa to run for elected office. Every family in the county knew him personally because he had visited all of their ranches and farms, and when he agreed to the campaign, he was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1950. “I was a Basque Catholic running in a Mormon district, and I beat a Mormon Bishop for the seat! It was totally unexpected that I would be elected, but I sure was,” said Cenarrusa. This was the beginning of fifty-two years of elected public service in the State government of Idaho.

Because the Idaho Legislature, which meets in Boise, does not function as a full-time assembly, Cenarrusa continued teaching in the 1950s and also worked in the operation of his family’s farming and sheep business in Carey. The Cenarrusas pioneered the system of transporting bands of sheep to California for better winter range feed and better lambing conditions. They also collaborated with the United States Sheep Experiment Station at Dubois to test melatonin, a hormone taken to increase ovulation in ewes in order to produce early-season twin lambs. Pete’s connections to the University of Idaho and its agricultural research projects benefited his family business with his extended knowledge of scientific methods to improve ranching and farming methods for effectiveness and efficiency. Many second generation Basques did not continue in the sheep business, and Pete and Freda Coates Cenarrusa were unique in their decision to stay in sheep ranching.

Cenarrusa was selected as the Chair of the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee specifically because of his recognized expertise. He was re-elected from his district to the House of Representatives for nine consecutive terms, totaling seventeen years of service. During this time, he was also elected as the Speaker of the House beginning in 1963, for three two-year terms. In 1967, the Secretary of State of Idaho, Edson Deal, died while in office, and the Governor appointed Cenarrusa to finish the term. Cenarrusa then ran for the office himself at the next general election, and won. This position made him one of the most important and influential politicians in the entire state and gave him national recognition as an elected official, and as a Republican. He was selected to represent Idaho at the Republican Party National Conventions, and in 1980 was chosen as the Chairman of the Idaho delegation to the national convention.

As Secretary of State, Cenarrusa had a seat on the State Board of Land Commissioners, which rules on many agriculture-related issues. “The agriculture sector is the most important in the state of Idaho,” he said. “Water rights, public land use, endangered species, agricultural research and animal husbandry are all a part of the job.” The Secretary of State is also in charge of all the State and National elections held in Idaho. “We certified all of the ballot counting and all elections results for Primary and General, State and National elections. People in Idaho get to vote for so many different positions each election year,” he said. “We also file all of the bills and finalized laws passed by the legislature for the State archives, registered all of the elections candidates and interest groups and anyone making campaign donations. We registered all corporations. The office also administers executive orders of the Governor.” Cenarrusa’s most important responsibility was as chief elections officer of the state, a position that can be quite controversial as seen in the 2000 Presidential election ballot counting in Florida, and decisions made there by Florida’s Secretary of State. However, election management has not been a political problem in Idaho during Cenarrusa’s tenure in office, largely due to his fairness, and to the work of Chief Deputy Ben Ysursa, who, after Cenarrusa’s retirement, was elected as Secretary of State in 2002.

Pete Cenarrusa enjoys the dedication of the Anchustegui Fronton with friends in Mountain Home, Idaho in August 2001. Photo copyright Zaldi Ero.

Pete T. Cenarrusa is one of the most popular politicians in all of Idaho’s history. It is worth taking a look at the elections results for his office campaigning.

General Election results of Idaho voters voting for Pete T. Cenarrusa:

1998: 69%
1994: 67%
1990: 100% unopposed by any candidate
1986: 100% unopposed by any candidate
1982: 100% unopposed by any candidate
1978: 100% unopposed by any candidate
1974: 64%
1970: 60%

Cenarrusa is extremely popular with the thousands of Basques in Idaho, and many who are Democrats have admitted that they cross party lines in order to vote for him. Over the decades, he has assisted hundreds of Basque immigrants with citizenship and passport questions. Pete and Freda have maintained a constant interest in current events in the Basque Country, traveling to all the provinces on various occasions, and their son Joe, also spent 2 months studying in the Basque Country in 1970. Joe Cenarrusa lived in Ustaritz during the aftermath of the 1968 Melitón Manzanas assassination. He met many Basques now living in exile in Iparralde who had been tortured by the Spanish Guardia Civil in their round-ups of suspected ETA sympathizers, and the impressions he brought back to his parents had a significant impact on their work for Basque nationalist political and cultural causes.

During the Burgos Trials of the sixteen individuals charged with a relationship to the Manzanas murder, worldwide press attention focused on the lack of procedural justice in the Spanish tribunal proceedings, and also detailed the descriptions of torture methods used on detainees and those imprisoned. In Idaho, Pete Cenarrusa decided to use his political influence to take a stand against the Franco dictatorship and its police state. Idaho Governor Don Samuelson sent an official letter of protest to Franco, asking that due process be observed. Cenarrusa organized a meeting of Boise area Basques, two hundred of which attended to sign a letter of protest to Franco. He contacted U.S. Senator Frank Church from Idaho, who was well-placed on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to ask for the United States Congress to protest. He wrote a letter to the then U.S. Secretary of State asking why the United States was supporting and funding such a dictator as Franco. Eventually with intervention from the Vatican and protests from diplomats around the world, death sentences were commuted to thirty years in prison.

In 1971, Pete and Freda Cenarrusa visited the Basque Country and also met with Basque Government-in-exile officials in Donibane Lohitzun. They also met with several active members of ETA to learn about their desires to save Euskadi, and to hear about the oppression of the Franco regime. When he returned to the United States, Pete collaborated in several informal networks of information-sharing with Basques in the United States, Mexico, and parts of South America, and of course with those in the Basque provinces. In Boise, he was a member of the Anaiak Danok organization, which raised money for Basque political refugees in Iparralde and those Basques remaining in Hegoalde. In 1972, he prepared a memorial for the Idaho legislature’s consideration urging the government of Spain to recognize and follow the United Nations universal declaration of human rights. It passed the Idaho Legislature unanimously. It was then sent to the national Congress in Washington D.C. asking the “Government of Spain to extend human rights principles to all Basques and Spaniards and allow amnesty for those imprisoned or exiled for reasons of their political and social activities.” Idaho Senator Frank Church read the petition into the official United States Congressional Record on April 6, 1972.

Basques in South America, Australia, and Europe supported the Basque cause and the Idaho Memorial of 1972. In the early 1970s, original ETA leaders such “Txillardegui” and other Basque nationalists visited Boise. Cenarrusa traveled to Washington D.C., New York, Mexico and Venezuela and Colombia to gain support for the Basques. In the late 1970s and early 1980s when the tactics of ETA had changed and included different forms of violence, he no longer supported this group, their methods, or their goals. He said, “Now their goals have changed, they no longer are promoting democratic methods. We support self-determination for the Basque populations to decide for themselves what kind of political structure they want to have and what methods of participation they will use. We never have supported any kind of violence, and are opposed to all violence whether from ETA or from the Spanish state. I simply believe that people have a right to choose their own political destiny within a democratic framework and that’s what I want for the Basque Country.”

From left, Emilia Doyaga, Carmelo Urza, and Pete Cenarrusa participate on the Advisory Board of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. 2002. Photo copyright Zaldi Ero.

The Cenarrusas have worked for the last thirty years to promote an end to violence in the Basque Country, and have advocated a political solution to what they see as a political conflict. Pete and Freda have assisted Basque politicians, industrialists, business people, academics, journalists, dance troupes and musicians, and art exhibitions traveling to Idaho. They have made significant financial donations to the Ikastolas in the Basque Country, to the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, and (with Roy L. and Miren Azaola Eiguren) to the University of Idaho to establish a scholarship for a student to research and work at the Basque Museum. In 1983, Cenarrusa was inducted into the Society of Basque Studies in America Basque Hall of Fame in recognition of his efforts on behalf of the Basque Country and Basque culture.

In January 2001, Cenarrusa was honored as a “Basque of the World” by the Fundación Sabino Arana in the Basque Country. During this visit, he and Freda met with political leaders of the Basque society to discuss a move to promote mediation efforts to end violence in the region. That autumn, several meetings were held in Boise with interested Basques who would participate in the mobilization of the Idaho Legislature to promote another Memorial, in the same manner as had been done thirty years prior. Idaho legislator Representative Dave Bieter, a Basque Democrat from Boise, was simultaneously thinking of the same effort. In the 2002 Idaho Legislature, Representative Bieter and Cenarrusa planned the strategy to pass the Memorial asking for a complete cessation of violence, a condemnation of ETA, the initiation of an immediate peace process, and support for the right of Basques to self-determination (see Euskonews & Media No. 197 for an article on the 2002 Idaho Memorial). In every committee and floor vote, the Memorial was passed unanimously, and it received worldwide media attention, flooding the Secretary of State’s office with letters of support from around the world. On the day of the last vote on the Idaho Senate floor, Senators were receiving between 500-600 emails messages each, and Senator Robbie Barrutia said, “The flood of messages has almost completely shut down the entire Internet server for the Idaho Capitol Building!”.

Since the successful passage of the Idaho Memorial, Pete and Freda Cenarrusa have been working with the United States State Department, and the Idaho Congressional delegation to educate them in regards to Basque Country issues. With eighty-five years of life experience, Pete Cenarrusa has much to say. Though he retired from his Secretary of State position with the inauguration of Ben Ysursa in 2003, Pete now can devote his time to consulting with sheep ranchers, and especially to working for Basque political and cultural causes. Cenarrusa considers himself both Basque and American, and sees no hierarchy, and no conflict between the two. He is another example of a transnationalist Basque with various layers of identity, and because of his and Freda’s decades of commitment to Basque culture, language, and politics, they are highly respected and loved in the United States Basque communities.

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