Driving along Micheltorena Street in Santa Barbara, you are probably unaware of the cultural foundation of the street beneath your tires. Micheltorena is a Basque word, often misunderstood to be Spanish.
Misunderstanding is all too commonly associated with anything Basque, a fact Viola Miglio is working to change at UCSB.
Miglio is the chair of the newly formed Basque studies program at UCSB. The program is one of only four centers for Basque studies outside of Spain in the world, the other three being in Idaho, Reno, and Bakersfield. Offering courses in Basque language, history, and cultural studies, the program is the only one of its kind in the entire UC system. Miglio hopes to use it to foment an appreciation of cultural diversity, and to give students a glimpse into a fascinating world they might not have ever known existed.
The Basque region occupies a crescent-shaped area in the western Pyrenees, straddling northern Spain and France. Miglio makes sure to emphasize that it is its own nation. “There is a distinct difference between nation and state,” says Miglio. “A state is a political entity. A nation is only bound by its culture and its people.” And Basque people have a highly distinct cultural identity. The Basque language is a rarity—an isolate language not belonging to any Indo-European origin. It is spoken is a breathy whisper, the syllables rolling off the upper lip in a wonderful lisp. The Basque people also have a unique cuisine and history.
Students learn all about this rich heritage in the program. Lecturer Unai Nafarrate has been encouraged by the strong response from his students. “They are genuinely excited about their studies,” he says. ‘Some of them are even learning that their names have Basque origins, discovering things about themselves as they learn.” Nafarrate teaches classes in Basque language and history, some of which are open to students from all majors. He believes that Basque is not a “dead” language or subject, stating “I think what makes Basque culture so relevant is that it is both ancient and modern.”
The program doesn’t shy away from the politically charged aspects of Basque identity. Some members of the Basque nation believe in their independence so completely that they take up arms against the Spanish government. In fact, the most recent ceasefire was signed less than three weeks ago. “Often we get students from other majors or disciplines taking courses because they are interested in the political issues that our situation presents.” Nafarrate maintains that while the violence plays a part in current climate, it is only one part of a complex system. “Spain is not just Spain; it does not have a single identity but an amalgam of many identities including Catalonian and Basque. We want to show students an objective picture of what is going on.”
Both Miglio and Nafarrate encourage more students and community members to participate in the program. On February 23, a conference celebrating the International Day of the Mother Tongue will be held at UCSB. There will be regional lecturers devoted to “language diversity in the Spanish state and attitudes towards the mother language.” There is also an exhibit on Basque whaling, currently on display at UCSB’s Davidson Library. Ultimately, the program hopes to provide students with the opportunity to study abroad in Basque country and even bring some Basque students to UCSB, creating a diverse cultural exchange. “Diversity is a modern thing,” laughs Miglio, “that’s what’s so exciting about it.