By Nancy Zubiri
They left the Basque Country years ago to stake out their fortunes playing jai-alai around the world. For some of them, their last stop was Las Vegas.
Today, the jai-alai matches at the MGM Hotel are long gone, but the former pilotaris are still carrying on their distinct culture with the Lagun Onak Las Vegas Basque Club.
The group held its 31st annual picnic Sunday at the picturesque Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, amid the red-rock canyons in the southern Nevada desert. Dozens of people enjoyed a barbecue that featured chorizo sandwiches, seafood paella and lamb chops.
The crowds were treated to traditional Basque dancing by members of the Chino-based Gauden Bat dancers who traveled to Las Vegas for the picnic.
J.B. and Christine Aguerre also made the trip to Las Vegas from Chino for the festival. The two were celebrating their 47th wedding anniversary. They went to see a Cirque du Soleil show on Saturday night, then drove out to the park for Sunday’s festival.
“We come twice a year,” said J.B. Aguerre. “To see a show and play blackjack a little bit.”
The Basque community in the Las Vegas area is small compared to others in places such as Boise or Bakersfield. As a result, the club’s picnic is more intimate.
There was enough paella for everyone — in fact, people had second servings.
Club member Jose Rementeria made Picon Punches for the crowd.
Rementeria once played jai alai at frontons in such far-flung places as Jakarta, Indonesia; Tijuana, Mexico; Manila, Philippines and Macao. Eventually, he landed in Las Vegas and battled it out with other athletes on the court at the MGM. Yarza, another former pelotari, made the rounds, too. He played in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain; Milan Italy; Manila and Tijuana. He finally settled in Las Vegas.
“They would contract you for a year,” said Rementeria, explaining that fronton officials used the 12 months to evaluate the new players. If the officials liked you, “they would contract you for longer,” he said, adding that’s why he bounced in so many cities to play the game. “Then I got married here, and my kids are here.”
The fronton at the MGM lasted from 1973 to 1983. Financial concerns and a strike by the players prompted the hotel to shutter the court in 1983.
Rementeria and Yarza are among some 15 pilotaris who never left Las Vegas. Many of them started landscaping businesses, while others, like Rementeria, became dealers at the casinos.
The year after the fronton closed, they started the Lagun Onak Basque club.
Today, their children and grandchildren participate in the club’s activities and help keep the distinct Basque culture alive.
Yarza has no regrets over settling in this desert city with its bright lights and casinos. “You can go to the mountains and to the lake,” he said. “In the winter, it’s not too cold. LA is not far away. If you like to fish, you can to go Utah and fish trout.”