AMEZAGA EGUBERRIAK 12-2008 ALZUZA PAMPLONA
HOMENAJE A PELLO IRUJO
|Antecedentes Travesia The Lives of Vicente Amezaga y Mercedes Iribarren|
From the Middle Ages to modern times, there were small pockets of
agriculture in Europe that did not embrace feudalism, and one of these was the
Basque Country, especially in the strip of land between the
As a consequence of these factors, Basque rural society produced a
small-holding middle and upper class comparatively rare in
The family name Amezaga can be traced back to the Basque
For as long as anyone can recall, the Amezaga family was identified
with the Vizcayan town of
Pedro Amezaga, was born in Algorta on October 19, 1852, and died in Algorta in 1918. He was the son of Jose Maria Amezaga and Maria Rosa de Abaroa, both of whom were from Guecho. He had two children by his first wife who died long before Vicente Amezaga was born. As was the custom at that time, Pedro married his deceased wife’s sister, Maria Juana Aresti. Maria Juana was born in Algorta on February 7, 1862, and died in Algorta in 1945. Her father, Antonio de Aresti, and her mother, Josefa Ramona de Sustacha, were both from Guecho. Vicente (or Bingen in Basque) was Pedro’s ninth child (and seventh son) and was Maria’s seventh (and last) child. This photo of Maria and Pedro was taken in 1908.
Maria’s family name also reveals botanical origins. Aresti was the customary spelling of Vicente’s mother’s name in Vizcaya province; in Guipuzcoa, the name was spelled more frequently Aritzi or Areitzi. The name is derived from the Basque word areiz (or haritz) which means “oak tree” and the suffix ti which indicates abundance. So their family name means literally “the people from a place where oak trees grow in abundance.” The name is primarily of Vizcayan origin but it is not unknown in Guipuzcoa as well. One source reports that there were about 20 caserios in Vizcaya with this family name so it is impossible to identify the exact place of origin of Vicente’s mother’s family.
My father was born on July 4,
1901, in the small historic harbor town of
To the right is a photo of the Church of St. Nicholas de Bari, the church where Vicente was baptized.
My father’s family lived in this town for hundreds of years. My father came from a remarkable family. His father, Pedro, had been a well known figure, a gentleman with great wealth and exquisite taste. My father got his looks from his mother. He had blonde hair and blue eyes. He was strongly built and of medium height. He stood out from his brothers and sisters by his love of learning. As is pointed out below, he lost his father when he was 17, and this tragic event changed his life. He taught himself Basque and commanded the language in six months. A year later he won a Basque writing contest with an article that was published in the local newspaper. He was a top student in the school and spent his non-study time with his favorite sports, swimming, soccer, and hand ball.
The young man’s
intellectual brilliance brought him the mastery of nine languages so he could
read the best authors in their original language. He won his first award for a translation from
Latin of “
My father met his future wife Mercedes in a theater where she played the main role in “Cancion de Cuna”. She looked sweet, delicate and beautiful, with thick chestnut hair and big dark eyes. She acted so well.
Just like my mother, my father loved children. A stream of cousins, nieces and nephews spent their holidays in the big ancestral house in Algorta, which is shown to the left (my father is to the right). His childhood was filled with family, friends and town leaders who came to his house for meetings. The garden was full of fruit trees and flowers where the kids played.
In 1910, on the occasion of Vicente’s first communion, his family posed for a formal photo. Vicente’s parents, Maria and Pedro, are seated, with Vicente standing between them. His siblings are standing (from left to right): Blanca, Ramon, Jose Mari and Maria.
Prior to 1900, the family could be counted among the wealthiest and most highly regarded families of Algorta, and Pedro Amezaga one of its most highly esteemed citizens. In 1888, when he was still in his thirties, Pedro Amezaga was awarded one of Spain’s most highly regarded commendations when he was made a member of the Royal Order of Isabelle the Catholic (Real Orden de Isabel la Catolica), a prize given to people who have exhibited unblemished loyalty to Spain. There is no record of what Pedro did to deserve such an honor, but it must have been of considerable merit. The photo above shows Vicente Amezaga as a young man in front of the Amezaga ancestral home in Algorta. The house was seized by the Franco government and later sold. In later years the house was razed and replaced with a bank.
Through the first third of the twentieth century, the Amezaga family
experienced a number of tragedies that marked Vicente’s youth and young
adulthood. As we have seen, Pedro’s
first wife died early in their lives.
Their oldest son gambled away much of the family’s wealth and, in deep
shame, fled to
Despite the tragic losses his family experienced, Vicente would
appear to have had a relatively calm childhood himself. As the youngest of his mother’s children, he
seems to have received great affection from her, especially after his two sisters
died in their 20s. He would remain
especially close to his mother, and his older brother Ramon, throughout his
life. Ramon was tall and athletic and
Vicente accompanied him frequently to his soccer games. Vicente’s favorite sport was handball, a game
the Basques invented and continue to play at world championship levels. Vicente attended school locally in Algorta at
the Colegio de
The death of his father made a great impression on Vicente, who was 17 at the time. Pedro Amezaga had inculcated in his youngest son an appreciation of Basque traditions and culture, and when he died Vicente determined to read the seminal works of the Basques in Euskera. Since he had not learned the language from the cradle, Vicente closed himself in the attic of their home and began to study the language from an old grammar. In six months, he had mastered the language, and went on to become one of the language’s most noted writers, speakers and translators from this early period. (Apparently his rapid mastery of Euskera was not an accident but rather showed his gift for languages. He learned six other languages in his life, he said, so he could read the great works of literature in the original.)
In the best of all possible worlds, Vicente would have gone on to a
career as a writer or perhaps a poet, but the death of his father forced him to
make a career choice based on financial considerations. So he selected the law and began his law
study at the
As we have seen, by this time Vicente had already met the love of his life, and the rest of this story – at least to 1938 – becomes the story of Vicente and Mercedes.
To read of the noviazgo,
or courtship, of Vicente and Mercedes in the late 1920s is to return to a
traditional world that has largely disappeared today. The setting was Vicente’s home town of
In preparation for their
married life, Vicente and Mercedes purchased a small house in the nearby
coastal town of
Much later Mercedes would describe life in these times as “simple,
humble and strong in faith.” In a
simpler world, they would have lived out their lives this way, but
unfortunately their world was about to explode and in fact they would know little
peace again. In 1931, with his country
battered by the global Great Depression and undone by political, social and
economic disintegration from within, the Spanish King, Alfonso XIII, abandoned
the throne and the
The stories of the Amezagas and the Iribarrens begin for us in 1876
at the end of the Second Carlist War in
From 1812 to 1876 the battle raged across the peninsula – and in the
New World, as well – over what kind of
In the Basque Country, the forces arrayed for or against these two models stemmed from the class structure that emerged during the nineteenth century. In the countryside of Navarra and Alava lived the small farmers and peasants, Basque-speaking, traditional, and Catholic. In the region west of the Nervion River and in other pockets of nascent industrialization lived the small but rapidly growing working class, mixed Basque and Spanish, liberal to socialist in politics, centralist and modernizing. And then there was the middle and upper middle class.
In a simpler setting there would have been only a unified middle class speaking with a single voice: well educated and prosperous, politically liberal, modernizing and centralist. And a certain number of the Basque bourgeoisie took this route. By the turn of the twentieth century they had embraced a “Spanish” identity for nearly all purposes except perhaps an occasional foray into the less threatening aspects of Basque culture such as food, dance or music. But their wealth hinged to a great extent on their ties to British capital, which had flooded into Vizcaya after 1876. In short, those industrialists and bankers who were allied with British capital prospered in the period between 1876 and World War I. The bourgeoisie who tried to build a manufacturing sector without British capital (for whatever reason) generally fell behind in the economic race, and their successor generations turned to other pursuits, including law and other professions. It was from this generation that the founders of Basque nationalism were recruited.
The founder of Basque nationalism, Sabino de Arana y Goiri, exemplifies this sector. His father and grandfather had been shipbuilders and industrialists, but in the wake of the Second Carlist War their economic fortunes had turned down, and Sabino studied law as a young man. He never became a lawyer, however, turning to journalism and politics while still in his 20s. He spent time in Spanish prisons on several occasions for his inflammatory writings and ran (mostly unsuccessfully) for elected office frequently. He died still relatively young (in his mid-30s) but left behind a legacy of political ideas, slogans and strategic thinking that still informs Basque nationalists today, a century later.
Sabino cleverly wove together elements of the competing political
philosophies into a coherent Basque nationalist ideology. From the Carlists he took the idea of
restoring the fueros, from the rural
people and small towns the strong role of Catholicism and of the Basque
language, and from modernizing liberals the notion that the Basques needed a
state apparatus that was progressive and administratively competent. These elements were bundled into a package
that was to be given autonomy or, even, independence to govern the seven
At the turn of the twentieth century urban middle class Basque families discouraged the use of Euskera as the language of the lower classes, the uneducated, and the rural folk. Thus, neither Vicente Amezaga nor Mercedes Iribarren learned Euskera as children even though it was the first language of their parents. Vicente taught himself Euskera at the age of 17 after his father died; Mercedes never did learn the language well Nevertheless, Spanish policies and cultural practices to destroy Euskera, and the resistance of Basque nationalists against such efforts, have been at the center of Basque-Spanish relations for a century.
The abandonment by Alfonso XIII of the throne in 1931 launched the
Meanwhile, the lives of Vicente and Mercedes proceeded more or less naturally through this period, although they were engulfed in the political turmoil of the times. In the parliamentary and local elections in April 1931 the Basque Nationalist Party swept most of the offices in Vizcaya and especially around Algorta, and the young and charismatic Jose Antonio Aguirre became the mayor of Guecho as well as the leader of the Basque deputies in the Spanish parliament. Vicente and Jose Antonio were close friends, and Vicente and Mercedes lived these heady days of democracy in a state almost of euphoria. In 1931 Vicente was named a municipal judge in Guecho, and in 1933 he became a teacher of history and literature in a local high school. This photo is the Guecho city hall, where he had his office.
Since the new Spanish
constitution allowed for regional autonomy, the Basques launched the process to
submit their own proposal. In 1932
Basques celebrated for the first time their national day, called “Aberrieguna”
or “Day of the Fatherland”. They chose
Easter Sunday because of the significance of resurrection for the Christian
world. That same year delegates from the
The autonomy proposal was
still being debated in
The Spanish Civil War began on July 18, 1936, with the mutiny of
General Franco and his troops in Spanish Morocco. The war reached the mainland the next
the next several months, the war centered of
Despite the resistance from Basque forces, the ring around
I have decided to terminate rapidly the war in the North [i.e., Vizcaya]. Those not guilty of assassinations who surrender their arms will have their lives and property saved. But if submission is not immediate I will raze Vizcaya to the ground, beginning with the industries of war. I have the means to do so.
There then began – with the bombing of the Vizcayan town of Durango
that same day – the first use in history of aerial bombing of undefended
civilian populations to support ground combat troops (a strategy that would
culminate eight years later in Hiroshima and Nagasaki). In less than a month,
On June 12, 1937, the ring around
On June 14, at 6:00 am, Vicente called Mercedes to tell her that the
city was defenseless and all government officials were evacuating to the west
immediately. They decided to be married
at once and leave together. The pastor
of Las Mercedes Parish in Las Arenas married the couple in the sacristy and the
newly weds fled west dodging bombs and strafing airplanes the entire day. Vicente’s driver somehow produced a small
motor launch to get them across the Nervion and they continued in a convoy of
government leaders westward to
In all, about 90,000 Basques evacuated from
Of the 15,000 Basque children sent to
From the French Basque port of St. Jean de Luz the group traveled by
train to their eventual destination, St. Jean Pied de Port, in the Pyrenees, on
the Nive River, only about five miles from the Spanish-French border. The town
– whose name means “
The colony’s children were lodged in an ancient abandoned fortress in the center of the town, known as La Citadelle, shown in this postcard photo taken many years later. The French Government sought to improve the town’s defenses by constructing this fortress, work on which was begun in 1628. The citadel is perched on a hill in the center of, and overlooking, the town. At two points the town walls intercept the walls of the fortress, permitting communication between the two during a siege. The fortress had not been open since the Great War, when it was used to house German prisoners of war. It was dirty, cold and dark, hardly the place to house a colony of 500 young, frightened children. The photo below shows the entire colony in formation in the courtyard. Vicente stands in the center near the front, impeccably dressed as usual. Mercedes is standing next to the child at the front of the third column from the right, apparently helping her with her clothing.
The group was given a chilly reception because the local residents had all been told they were communists. To counter this belief, Vicente had the group walk from the train station to the Citadelle praying the rosary. Somehow, out of all this chaos, Vicente and the others were able to make the fortress livable and they began to establish a life and a routine. The children were fed and cared for medically, and the local women made clothes for them. Mass was said daily, and each day at 5:00 pm the children gathered in the courtyard to pray the rosary, as this picture illustrates.
The day after they arrived, everyone – adults and children – were put to work helping to organize the place. The interior was swept, washed and then covered with whitewash. Outside the masonry was repaired. Windows and roof leaks were repaired. Very primitive toilet facilities were improvised. The children were divided into work groups depending on their preferences and abilities. There were groups of dancers, choir, groups in charge of cleaning the grounds and bringing wood, others went shopping in the city below. And almost all went fishing or to the village to see movies until my father brought an old projector and they showed their own movies. In the mornings they were taught the traditional courses and in the afternoon they learned Basque songs and dances. My father described their arrival: “We were all weak of spirit and body almost to the point of having a nervous breakdown, bearing memories of terrible sights of the war we had seen. But in this abandoned place surrounded by greenery and listening to the sound of the flowing river, we found a source of soothing and rest.”
My mother was in charge of the chapel. She brought fresh wild flowers every day from the gardens outside and took care of all the details of the large church where there was a Mass celebrated every day. This is a photo of the chapel, which was taken in 1937.
The French Government
immediately sent help with beds and essentials plus 5 Francs per child per
In these circumstances, my
mother found that she was going to have a baby.
She was immensely happy because carrying this baby she regained a little
bit of what she had lost when she followed her husband into such perilous
conditions. They had been living six
months in La Citadelle when my father was called to Barcelona as the
representative of the Basque Minister of Education and Justice [December 1937]. He left
On March 16, 1938,
Meanwhile, Mercedes left the colony of children and went to
The Amezagas were not in a place of their choosing when their first
two children were born. They did not
want to be in
Between the two world wars,
After the 1929
For refugee émigrés,… life in
As an official of the Basque Government in exile in
 The following story is told in the family about Elias Iribarren, who fought for the Carlists in the Second War. After the war ended, Elias returned home, only to be pursued by the local liberal forces that had sentenced all the ex-Carlist fighters to exile or death. One day, they came to the family house to arrest Elias, who hid in the straw in the attic. Failing to find him, the soldiers were about to withdraw when it occurred to their commander to ask the children playing in the yard where their father might be. The naïve Inocencio pointed to the attic; the soldiers searched it; and Elias was shot on the spot. Imagine the guilt that the youth must have felt all his life.
 William Wiser, Twilight Years: