Constructing a Transnational Euskal Etxea: the Basque International Cultural CenterEscuchar artículo - Artikulua entzun

Gloria TotoricagüenaGloria TotoricagŁena, Center for Basque Studies University of Nevada, Reno

Dr. Emilia Sarriugarte Doyaga and Anna M. Renteria Aguirre traveled from New York City to Santa Monica, California on August 22, 2002 in order to meet with world-renowned architects Frank O. Gehry and his associate Randy Jefferson. The topic of this initial meeting focused on the location, design, and construction details of a future multi-million dollar Basque International Cultural Center in the South Street Seaport area of lower Manhattan. This meeting was emblematic of the circumstances of this distinct Basque community in the world’s most influential capital of culture. Doyaga and Aguirre are representative of first and second generation Basques born in New York who typically were raised prudently and often through financial hardship, to uphold their Basque identities and to become leaders in their fields and professions. They cherish their Basque identity, traditions, and culture, and want to promote them to the world. Gehry is a non-Basque world-class architect inspired by the Basques and their culture, traditions, and society. When the New York Guggenheim Museum exhibited Gehry’s works in 2001, the presentation attracted more visitors than any other showing in the entire history of the museum. Frank Gehry’s interest in the Basques and the Basques’ interest in Frank Gehry results from his creation of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, and his spectacular artistry has served as a significant factor in the remarkable renovation of the Bizkaian capital city of Bilbao. He agreed to listen to Doyaga and Aguirre because, “I like a challenge and a dream,” he told them.

Emilia Doyaga  
Emilia Doyaga.

For years, Doyaga has been advocating a collaborative idea to establish an international center to promote Basque culture, networks, information and exchange, commerce, literature and the arts, and music, etc. “We’ve got to get our story out to the world. We have to promote all the amazing things that are part of our Basque existence. Why Manhattan? Because Manhattan is the cultural and financial center of the world and forty million visitors from around the planet are in Manhattan every year and there’s no better place to get a message out to the world than to have an impressive presence right here in New York City,” she explained. This access to millions of tourists as well as people from the business, academic, and art worlds could facilitate promotion of all of the positive that Euskal Herria offers.

“We need to have our own place to showcase our Basque inventiveness and genius, and to facilitate opening up to the entire world these Basque artists’ talents. Numerous Basque artists have displayed in New York City at its finest galleries and museums. Our Basque International Cultural Center will have an exhibition and concert hall to make sure we are promoting our own story,” exclaimed Luis “Koitz” Foncillas Etxeberria, a BICC Board Member, producer for MTV and correspondent for Radio Euskadi in New York. The Center is planned to include trade offices for Basque businesses, a world-class restaurant, a bar with pintxos or snacks, a small library with research archives, information regarding Basque genealogy, a multi-functional exhibition hall for art display and musical recitals and performances, a classroom, a gift shop, tourist offices to promote travel to the seven Basque provinces, and especially a location to serve as a place where Basques and non-Basques alike may educate themselves and celebrate Basque culture and identity. Doyaga and Aguirre proved to be an extremely effective couple, and Gehry subsequently enthusiastically agreed to participate in the project as an Honorary Board Member, and possibly, as Chief Architect.

Searching for millions of dollars

  Anna Mari Aguirre
Anna Mari Aguirre.

The birth of the Basque International Cultural Center originated with President Emilia Doyaga, and José Ramon Cengotitabengoa and Anna M. Aguirre. The South Street Seaport area was selected for the hopeful future home of the international Basque center because of its promise for future expansion and also because of its location in the financial and cultural center of New York, where millions of visitors pass every year. Younger members have forgotten, but this is also a “return” to the old neighborhood. The original Basque neighborhood of Water and Cherry Streets (now the Alfred Smith housing projects), Catherine, Madison, and St. James Place, is within a mile of the property at the South Street Seaport. Should the BICC come to fruition in this area, the Basques of New York would be building their new dream almost exactly in the same place on the waterfront where thousands of Basques passed a century ago.

Fundraising for the Cultural Center project has taken serious commitment, and as BICC Board Member and civil engineer Martin Fradua explained, “We need MILLIONS, not thousands. It is a lot of money I know, but we are asking people to make a pledge to the future of promoting Basque culture. We have to do it.” Fradua says that he preserves his Basque identity because he was born into it. Martin Fradua Jr. was born at home at 48 Cherry Street on the fourth floor, right above the first Centro Vasco, or Basque Center building.

The Basque International Cultural Center plan for raising money begins with individual donors and foundations giving support, with recognition publicly displayed on an artistic representation of the Tree of Gernika and the Historic Town Hall of Gernika, Bizkaia painted on the inside walls of the Center. People may choose to have themselves, a family member or friend, or a deceased loved one recognized and put their name on the wall, or on a plaque. Depending on the amount of the donation, rooms, halls, and sections of the Center can be named or sponsored, and all contributions are tax deductible. “Supporters” have given $500 or more, “Patrons” are $1000 or more, “Special Patrons” have donated $5000 or more, “Benefactors” have given $10,000 or more, “Special Benefactors” contributed $25,000 or more, and “Founders” will commit $50,000 or more to the project. Donors endowing larger amounts will have rooms, halls or sections named. By November 2003, more than fifty individuals or families had donated funds for the Basque International Cultural Center. The BICC Board is also visiting numerous foundations asking for financial support. Zachary Berhau, former President of the Euzko-Etxea of New York believes that perhaps selling bonds may be another successful avenue for raising funds, “You know, our grandparents sold bonds to build the old Centro Vasco-Americano at 48 Cherry Street, and people back then probably thought they were crazy. That was ninety years ago and they made it. Perhaps, we will too. Whatever we do, we need good business managers to help us make sound financial decisions.”

Basque International Cultural Center  
Basque International Cultural Center

In the 1990s, the City of New York had plans for various renovation projects in Manhattan. The BICC wanted to buy property, or a building, whichever is the best opportunity, in the area of the South Street Seaport, Pier 17, and the historic Fulton Fish Market, which still functions as such. In 1998, the New York City Economic Development Corporation advertised their willingness to accept proposals for available properties in a competition to acquire real estate. The BICC board created a rushed, though incomplete proposal and submitted it “in order to get their comments and to learn as much as we could about the entire process.” In 1999, Gloria Aberasturi and the proposal committee suggested to the City of New York their idea to construct a cultural center. They presented their proposal with a goal to bring a spotlight to minority groups that are not well known, and because New York was the historical entry port for migration to the United States, they argued it was the perfect theme for land use approval. However, they were told the proposal did meet the suggested necessary requirements. The Development Corporation decided to establish the area as a retail center, however, that soon failed.

The attack on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 devastated the economy of New York City, and one of those casualties has been real estate in lower Manhattan. The city plans to entice new businesses and ventures to locate in this area, and the South Street Seaport is also in this general vicinity, but according to Gloria Aberasturi of the BICC Board, “Things are still in flux.” The BICC may actually save millions of dollars in real estate expenses because of the decline in the value of the property they wish to purchase. Interest rates are low and it may be a good time to buy property for which the city is trying to give incentives. Once again, the BICC is currently attempting to convince them to develop it as cultural center with restaurants, shops, museums, and libraries etc. Architect and board member Enrique Arana thinks it is a good time to purchase because “New York will come back- as it always has.”

At the first BICC Board meeting, participants decided that the name of the association would be “Basque International Cultural Center” and according to Emilia Doyaga, the mission would be “to spread our culture on a global scale to Basques and non-Basques. We would offer services and activities that include Basque cuisine, history, art, language, sports, music and dance and more.” The members of the Board initially contributed the seed money to get started, and they are now an incorporated not-for-profit organization. “The 9/11 episode set us back somewhat because we had planned a fund raising reception at the South Street Seaport and the fallout from the bombing of the nearby Twin Towers closed off entry to the reception hall. So today we are concentrating on funding and location. We know that it will take time and that it will be a tough road to get the necessary funding, but we are encouraged by the response we have received,” claimed Doyaga. What happens if this attempt to establish a Basque international center for culture fails? Doyaga’s answer: “Someone else will pick it up later. It simply has to be done.”

  Mark Kurlansky
Mark Kurlansky.

The initial public reception for the kick-off of the Basque International Cultural Center was held at the Seamen’s Church Institute, located at the South Street Seaport Museum in Manhattan, on April 28, 2002. The impressive list of participants and talent included Iñaki Astondoa singing and playing his guitar “Gernikako Arbola”; Oskar Espina-Ruiz on clarinet and John Ehlis on txistu, mandolin and guitar playing a selection from Sorozabal’s composition “Eresi”; and author Mark Kurlansky’s impassioned speech requesting that attendees recognize the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Gernika during the Spanish Civil War, and urging support for the BICC to promote Basque identity and culture to the world. Singer Rebecca Copely performed a section of Guridi’s “Amaya”; Idaho’s Secretary of State, Pete T. Cenarrusa, and Idaho State Representative David Garmendia Bieter recorded a videotaped message appealing for support of the Idaho Memorial of 2002 to support peace in the Basque Country; Jorge Aguirre presented a slide show and information about the BICC plans, their mission, activities and funding etc.; Emilia Doyaga described a program to promote Basque art and explained an exhibition of works by Nisa Goiburu; and Domenique Villalba danced a welcoming “Aurresku”. Attendees enjoyed gourmet Basque cuisine from five-star chef Iñaki Lete, and txakolin, an alcoholic apple cider, brought from the Basque provinces of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa.

Honorary BICC Board Members, in addition to Frank Gehry, include Ainhoa Arteta, of Tolosa, Gipuzkoa. The soprano has performed in lead roles at famous opera houses around the world, is a leading artist at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, and has performed at the White House where she was a favorite of President and Mrs. Clinton. Mark Kurlansky, a New Yorker, worked as a correspondent in Europe where he covered Spain during the last years of the Franco dictatorship and the transition years. He authored The Basque History of the World, which became a Canadian and United States Best Seller and was translated into several languages. He also authored several other publications where he gives special attention to Basques and their culture in the publications Cod, Salt, and also in Choice Cuts. Kurlansky serves as a kind of unofficial celebrity spokesperson for the Basques and has written:

“I regard the work I have done on the Basques to be among my best accomplishments. To make people aware of something little known and completely misunderstood, to be able to set the record straight on a maligned people, is as good a reason for writing as I can think of.... Today New York City is the cultural center of the world. Every culture has a presence in New York. And so, since the Basques have survived with their culture intact and flourishing, they need to have a presence in New York City that says, ‘We are still here,’ and more importantly, ‘This is who we are- a people with a language, a literature, music, painters, and sculptors.’ An age-old argument has been: Who speaks for the Basques? Let their writers and musicians and artists speak” (BICC newsletter Vol. 1, Issue 2 fall 2002).

  Marilu Navas and Anna Aguirre
BICC Inauguration, Marilu Navas and Anna Aguirre.

The 2003 working Board of Directors included Gloria Aberasturi, Financial Vice President and Comptroller of a New York organization; Anna M. Aguirre, Vice President of Deutsche Bank of New York; Jorge Aguirre, President of a shipping company; Pierre Amestoy, restaurateur; Enrique Arana, consultant to a New York architectural firm; Dr. Emilia Doyaga, professor and administrator at New York Universities; Luis “Koitz” Foncillas Etxeberria, journalist and producer at MTV; Martin Fradua Jr., principal at a consulting firm of engineers; Marilu Navas, Assistant Principal at a Long Island school; and Ray Yturraspe, Vice President of Navigation Management Systems.

Several board members have traveled to Euskal Herria, the Basque Country, for personal business and pleasure and made a point to promote the ideas of the BICC to homeland politicians, businesses and non-governmental organizations. Though many Basques living in the seven provinces of the homeland do not understand the concept of a transnational multi-layered Basque identity, and perhaps even think of Basques in the diaspora as “not as Basque as” those living in the homeland, the BICC takes a leap into the actuality of a globalized transnational reality that is New York City. Anna M. Aguirre, who is also a lecturer at New York University, stated her view of the situation as such: “We can’t wait around for the world to go to Euskal Herria to discover Basque culture and who we are, so we’ll bring Euskal Herria to the world- and we’ll start with New York City.”

Earlier versions presented in:

TotoricagŁena, Gloria. The Basques of New York: A Cosmopolitan Experience. Serie Urazandi. Vitoria-Gasteiz: Eusko Jaurlaritza. 2003.

Identity, Culture, and Politics in the Basque Diaspora. Reno: University of Nevada Press. 2003.

KOSMOPOLITA
 Aurreko Aleetan
Bilatu Euskonewsen
2004/06/18-25