Bakersfield Basques Put on a Party

The Kern County Basque Club hosted its successful annual festival this past weekend, adding to the celebration by bringing in handball players and musicians from the Basque Country.

Handball champion Fernando Goñi wows the crowd
Handball champion Fernando Goñi wows the crowd

Four handball players, professionals Fernando Goñi and Pedro Eulate, and amateurs Julien Etcheverry and Bixintxo Bilbao, played Saturday and Sunday.
Joe Recondo, a former vice president of the Basque club and a former handball player, has developed ties with a handball club in Spain, and through that connection, they find players who can come for the Memorial Day weekend event.

“The older people, they like to see a good game,” said Recondo. One year the club was not able to bring any players. “We got 400 people less” that year at the festival, he remembered.

The five members of the Luhartz band from Durango were happy to accept the invitation from Bakersfield. Since 2002, the band has come to the United States every year except one, said accordionist Rafael Iriondo. They have played in all the big Basque communities such as Boise, Reno and San Francisco, in addition to Bakersfield. Next Friday, they will play at the Basque Cultural Center in South San Francisco and at the Basque picnic in Petaluma Sunday. In the Basque Country, the band plays its lively dance music and traditional Basque songs almost every weekend for local festivals.

People danced to the lively music of Luhartz, from the Basque Country
People danced to the lively music of Luhartz, from the Basque Country

Bakersfield’s activities started Friday evening with a Basque cultural symposium at Cal State Bakersfield. George Ansolabehere and Steve Bass presented their research on a Bakersfield Basque genealogy project they are developing.

Mus players were early birds on Saturday, arriving to play the traditional card game at 8 a.m. for the club’s annual mus tournament. The players were still at it at 5 p.m., when the final four played off.

In the end, Jose Luis Irrutia and Jacinto Villanueva from the Ventura and Los Angeles areas, took the mus championship.

The final four in the Bakersfield mus finals
The final four in the Bakersfield mus finals

Monsignor Craig Harrison started Sunday’s festivities with a mass under the trees. The Basque club planted the trees several years ago and the shade from the mature trees offers picnic-goers a welcome respite from the Valley heat. After mass, hundreds of picnickers enjoyed the club’s lamb barbecue lunch on tables in the cool grassy picnic area.

As Bakersfield’s young Basque dancers kicked their feet and twirled their skirts, much of the crowd squeezed onto the shaded part of the handball court or the shade of the bleachers, or peeked out from the doors of the newly air-conditioned clubhouse, seeking relief from afternoon temperatures of 95 degrees.

The handball players took to the court around 6 p.m., after the day’s heat had worn off a bit. For Sunday’s game, the bleachers were packed with spectators.

In the evening, a spirited crowd filled the handball court to dance as Luhartz played its lively music, which went on until past midnight. People joined in on traditional dances the group played, like fandango and Carnaval de Lantz, while an athletic group of young men kicked up their legs in Banakoa.

The local restaurants added to the week-end’s activities, as they served dozens of visitors from out-of-town. Saturday night, Luhartz played at Benji’s Restaurant. Monday much of the crowd rejoined at the Woolgrower’s Restaurant for a hearty Basque breakfast of eggs, sausage and blood sausage.

Nancy Zubiri

,Bakersfield has many young dancers
Bakersfield has many young dancers

Bakersfield youth dance the fandango.
Bakersfield youth dance the fandango.