Every once in a while the Basque community in town becomes more visible.
In addition to the well-known Basque restaurants and the annual Besta in May, these descendants of shepherds celebrate Udaleku, Basque summer camps for youngsters ages 10 to 15. And this year is Udaleku-year in Bakersfield.
The 12-day program, which started Sunday and will last until June 28, is full of cultural activities and is held at the Kern County Basque Club, 2301 S. Union Ave. The teens participating in this event are members of North American Basque Organizations.
Celebrate the roots
Louis Iturriria is the president of the Basque Club. To him, Udaleku represents "pride in our culture."
Born and raised in Bakersfield, Iturriria's roots are in Baztan, the core of the Basque Country, and he, along with the other 800 or so members of the club, are committed to keeping their culture alive.
To do so they prepared a cultural menu that makes mouths water: The kids will learn traditional dances and songs, they will learn how to play Basque card games, musical instruments and sports, and they will have classes in the Basque language, one of the oldest in Europe. They're also learning Basque cuisine, thanks to the demonstrations by cooks from Wool Growers and Benji's French Basque restaurants.
"I'm very happy and excited," Iturriria said. And it's with good reason; about 100 kids are participating in this year's Udaleku, with more than 60 adults working to make it happen. More than 20 families are hosting about 50 boys and girls from San Francisco, Chino, Reno, Nev., Idaho, Utah and other localities were Basque communities are present.
The instructors are also making this encounter special, for many of them came from Euskal Herria, the old country, expressly for the summer camps. Together with them more than 50 adults are volunteering in the kitchen, serving meals, aiding instructors and giving rides to the kids.
One of them is 17-year-old Isaac Gamboa of Bakersfield, who switched from being one of the kids to being part of the volunteer crew.
"Now that I have seen all the fun stuff the campers get to do, I am excited to get to look behind the scenes to see how it all gets done," said Gamboa, who has been to six Udalekus.
He added: "What I remember the most was definitely the interactions between the campers. ... Every year that group of kids would leave that camp with a really strong connection to each other, several of which are still strong today."
Already a great success
As Iturriria said, organizers expected about 80 kids. But in the end they outdid predictions; not only are there 100 teens in the summer camps, but many more filled up the waiting list, including some from the Basque Country.
"The participation (in the Udalekus) has been increasing over the last few years, but I think this one is going to be one of the largest ever," he said.
In fact, Udalekus in America have been celebrated since 1975 and since that very first edition, organized in Boise, Idaho, Bakersfield has hosted the camp four times -- in 1989, 1997, 2005 and 2013.
The event that would not be possible without the generous donations of individuals, companies and associations from all over California.
"People are awesome; their support made us feel really proud," Iturriria said.
-- Ander Egiluz Beramendi is a journalist from Getxo, the Basque Country. He has worked for several media groups. In fall 2012 he was asked to come to Bakersfield to teach Basque history and culture at Cal State Bakersfield and Basque language at the Kern County Basque Club. He continues to work as a contributing journalist for the Basque Country.