Peek inside Boise, Idaho's vibrant Basque community

(CNN) — Some U.S. cities have become practically synonymous with the ethnic and religious groups who have settled there, such as the proud Irish Americans of Boston’s “Southie” neighborhood (see also: every Wahlberg brothers project) and the Cuban Americans of Miami who fled their native island and brought food, music and culture along with them.

Fewer Americans know that one of the world’s largest and most involved Basque communities is in within their national borders — specifically, in Boise, Idaho.

Though there are larger populations of Basque-Americans in the United States, Boise’s is the most concentrated. There’s even a “Basque block” in downtown Boise with a museum, cultural center, restaurants and a market that holds a weekly community paella bake. (Even though paella originates from southern Spain, many groups — including the Basques — have put their own spin on the iconic dish.)

But while many tourists to the area find themselves on the Basque block, they often have more questions than answers about this underrepresented community.

Travelers who have been to Spain may have been to the Basque country, which is in the sometimes politically contentious northern part of the country near the French border. Tourist destinations there include Bilbao, home to the Guggenheim; San Sebastian, a foodie capital; and Pamplona, the quaint town that turns into a giant party every July for the Running of the Bulls.

Children work on their Basque dancing in a class in Boise.

CNN/Diana Diroy

However, Basques have their own distinct culture that isn’t the same as in other parts of Spain.

It’s not unusual for a guest to walk into the museum in Boise and attempt to speak Spanish to an employee, only to be met with a confused look. Spanish — Castilian or Castellano, the language that most people call Spanish — comes with some controversies, as some ethnic groups within Spain dislike the assumption that Castilian is “standard.”

“Basques were there before the Spanish and French, and their language is older and not related. They’re not the same, their languages are not the same, and genetically they’re not the same as Spanish or French,” explains Annie Gavica, executive director of Boise’s Basque Museum. She adds: “They’re mysterious. No one knows their origins because they didn’t document things, they passed [history] on through story and song.”

The Idaho Basque community estimates their membership at between 10,000 to 15,000 people. Although some are descended from Basques who came to the area in the 1800s to work as sheepherders, most are more recent arrivals. Some fled Spain during the reign of military dictator Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1974, when Basque language and culture was oppressed.

Others were born to Basque families in Idaho, worked or studied abroad in Spain, then returned home with their spouses.

On a typical day, it’s not unusual to walk into the bar at the cultural center and find 20somethings chatting to each other in Basque over glasses of kalimotxo, the red-wine-and-Coke drink commonly associated with the Running of the Bulls.
Next door at Bar Gernika, named for the Basque town (you might recognize its name from Picasso’s landmark painting “Guernica”), Basque and non-Basque families alike are enjoying traditional tapas dishes like croquetas and tortilla. Parents drink red wine while they wait for their young children to finish up accordion lessons.

But this community is inclusive, not exclusive. Many of the most committed community volunteers are ones who didn’t grow up in the Basque community and reconnected with their roots later on, or who married someone Basque and decided to learn the language and raise their children with Basque traditions.

“Do your parents want you to marry a Basque boy or girl when you grow up?” I asked a little girl who was careening out of her dance class.

She wrinkled her nose. “There’s only one Basque boy in my class and I don’t like him,” she said. “I already told my parents. It’s OK.”

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