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Michael Fagans / The Californian

The Basques of Kern County book by authors Stephen Bass, left, and George Ansolabehere.

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Mike Fagans

The Basques of Kern County book by authors Stephen Bass and George Ansolabehere.

The Basque culture is so tightly interwoven into the fabric of Kern County's story that it's nearly inconceivable to think there was a time when these hardy immigrants from the Pyrenees Mountains felt like outsiders here.

But they did.

Leaving family and all they knew behind, they traveled penniless thousands of miles to the Americas to start anew, knowing neither the language nor the customs. Most were guided by a fierce internal drive that told them they'd have to work harder than anyone else to earn any sense of belonging.

Yet the hardest adjustment, by far, was the loneliness.

"They would be out in the desert tending their sheep for six months at a time," said Stephen Bass, co-author with George Ansolabehere of an extensive new chronicle of the Basques in Kern County.

"They called it 'going to the mountain.' That was the expression for going crazy."

But most of the immigrants got on with the business of getting on: learning the language, sending for loved ones from the homeland and saving up to pursue their own version of the American dream -- buying their own flocks of sheep, starting businesses and becoming prominent and well-respected members or the community.

"I admire the Basques unbelievably," said Bass, a retired teacher. "I can't tell you how much."

That's where Bass is wrong. The author's respect for the people and culture is clear on every one of the 275 pages of his book, "The Basques of Kern County."

But admiration is one thing, and legitimacy another. Though Bass considers himself an honorary Basque, owing to his 49-year marriage to Judy Errea Bass, he needed an actual Basque to give the project credibility.

Enter Ansolabehere, who, as a member of perhaps the largest Basque clan in Bakersfield, is as authentic as they come.

"George has done an extensive (Ansolabehere) family tree," Bass said, "so that was one-fourth of the book he had straight that I didn't. He's a fantastic guy and a tremendous help."

First-person histories

Using as a starting point Ansolabehere's family tree ("it would take up an entire wall") and earlier books on the subject written by Mary Grace Paquette and Mark Kurlansky, the partners began the ambitious project more than three years ago. One of the things they hoped to do was properly identify as Basque historical figures who contributed to the nation's success. Often, the history books called them Spaniards.

"There were five Basque governors of California and several of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas," said Ansolabehere, 82.

The book offers a brief but illuminating recounting of the origins of the Basques, their early history and first forays into the New World. But the soul of the book is found in the photographs and personal histories of the settlers who came to Kern County, told in the form interviews, poems and first-person essays, like the following abridged remembrance written by Jean Arambel:

I came from Les Aldudes, France to Bakersfield in 1954. I was eighteen years old. I spent seven years sheepherding for Michel and Filbert Etcheverry. They are my cousins.

The worst thing about sheepherding was the loneliness and cold in the desert. These were the hardest things I remember. Most of the time I spent in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by myself with my two dogs and a donkey. The camp tender came once a week with supplies but only stayed one or two hours. I looked forward to these visits because it gave me a chance to speak to another human being and to speak to someone in the Basque language. It was very lonesome but I had no choice.

Once I was ready to move to the city even though it scared me to think of the big city and talking to people in English. Your fear tricks you so that you begin to like loneliness.

The book is sprinkled with names that have become common in Bakersfield over the decades: Etcheverry, Noriega, Iturriria, Mendiburu, Bidart. But no name appears more than Ansolabehere.

Family first

George Ansolabehere, a retired civil engineer, was born at 219 Sumner St., in Bakersfield to a French mother, Marie Parage, and French Basque immigrant Gratian "Bertxinanto" Ansolabehere, who came to the United States in 1910 to herd sheep for an uncle. Eventually he was able to purchase a flock of his own.

"Basque was my first language," Ansolabehere said. "But my father died when I was 8 years old and we didn't speak Basque much after that. So I lost it."

Ansolabehere remembers that his mother was so dependent on her husband that she couldn't even write a check.

"My mother had two angels here: Frank Noriega, a judge, and Alejandro Bernal. He oversaw the selling of the sheep."

The Basque community has always been protective of its members and tightknit, said Ansolabehere, who recalls that members of the Bidart and Etcheverry families were forced to quit school to work when their fathers died.

"All became multimillionaires," Ansolabehere said. "Very industrious."

Bass said when he married into the Errea family he was accepted in part because he learned the value of hard work from his own father.

"That's how I made my bones with my Basque father-in-law -- working alongside him with the sheep."

But the Basque share traits beyond a willingness to work that have helped the succeeding generations maintain a cultural identity even as society becomes more fragmented, Bass said. Family comes first, he said, and immigrants and their families maintain a sense of pride in the Basque country but also in their status as Americans.

"They all learned English right away, by reading the newspaper and listening to the radio," Bass said.

"There's a tremendous sense of communal pride and helping others when they need it in the Basque community. They didn't let someone wither on the vine." AN EXCERPT FROM "THE BASQUES OF KERN COUNTY"

In the following verses, author Martin Etchamendy expresses his feelings about his occupation. The poem was dedicated to and delivered at the California Wool Growers Association's 150th Convention in 2010.

The Shepherd of the Far West

Today I am going to sing about herding sheep

To give you some details about my way of life,

And to share in my happiness

Because sheep herding is a delightful occupation.

In the vast far west of North America

Plentiful flocks of sheep roam the mountains, night and day.

Many with some Basque descendants around them,

Moving about in freedom with hearts full of joy.

When daylight appears in the eastern horizon

The whole of nature awakens at the same time.

It is then that the shepherder salutes the mountain

And starts wholeheartedly the chores of a new day.

He goes from mountain to mountain, king of the wilderness.

Keeping a close friendship with the environment.

The singing of the birds enlighten his heart,

Absorbing all as an example for a healthy life.

I go grazing the flock with great pleasure,

Looking for the best land for them to graze

Trying to avoid the areas with any possible danger

Sharing a complete unity and freedom with the sheep.

When night descends at the sheep camp, we all come together.

Around the big fire, the sheep and me.

The dog, moving affectionally, comes to my side.

Looking up to heaven we thank the Good Lord. Basque to the bone: Book captures spirt of people