We munch pintxos as the bells toll from the site where in 1397 the province of Gipuzkoa was founded—clang, clang, clang they ring, echoing out across the Bay of Biscay and up into the vineyard-clothed hills. The plaza is alive with a blur of playing children and a chorus of laughter from people chatting. And in the centre stands a statue to a man, who, as a boy, ran in this same plaza, and the plaque reads: “First Around the World”. In this swirl of activity in the ancient town, I join three friends, who are also explorers, and find themselves in the depths of history and the lands of hearts.
Jump back with me a few years to Madrid. I’m in my Spanish cooking class, knowing I’m about to move north, so I enthusiastically invite my classmates to visit us in the Basque Country. An older gentleman on my right cringes and replies, “I have never been and will never go there.” Thankfully another classmate, while chopping garlic, leans in to say,
“Now you listen to me, Jonathan…,” with that Iberian warmth she grants dignity with her words: “I love the Basque Country. They are good people, you will see.”
And I have seen. They are standing now in front of me now as the plaza buzzes. They break stereotypical fortresses just by being who they are. First, there is Uxue the Eloquent (otherwise known as Alberdi), who relates people’s stories through her much loved books and improvised Basque poetry songs echoing to countless crowds, reminding women and men we all have a story to share. With her words she dignifies and validates people’s emotions and experience.
Then there’s Eñaut, a nation’s chorister (of the acclaimed Ken Zazpi band), Uxue’s partner and best friend, the Basque Country’s “Bono”. He has given voice to the heartbeat of a nation in his songs that all Basques know by heart. One of my favourites is “Gernikan”. It brings tears to both the grey haired men and the punk hair-styled girls, setting dammed emotions free. Eñaut lets flow a river of past and present history, refreshing the land with song.
And with them that day, visiting from across the ocean, was Carl Medearis, not a Basque, but opportunely present and intentionally aware of the Basque Country. With much strategic and cultural insight Carl’s peacemaking efforts have taken him into the US Congress, given him the chairperson seat of the Arab League of Nations, and, most importantly, befriended him to people across the political-cultural-religious canyons. Carl immediately saw the depths of complexity in the Basque-Spanish relational history and humbly listened to people, learned from them, and then spoke with wisdom into the situation here.
Why have Uxue and Eñaut had so much influence and voice in Basque society? They are talented and passionate, yes, but it’s more than just that. Why was Carl so well received abroad and in the Basque Country?
These three people exemplify humility and approachability and they impart dignity.
When we go beyond the stereotypes, realizing the great strength of respect and the power of humility, we offer dignity. And that is revolutionizing…and risky. Some will say embracing those that stereotype us or our culture is always a mistake, yet what I am seeing is that listening to people’s stories, acknowledging their heart song, and empowering them with esteem will change the course of history, and everyone will win, together.
Recently we joined hands with Uxue and a few Basque friends—well, actually it was 150,000 of them!—to create a 123 Km human chain to display that the Basque people want the right to decide about their land and their future. Gure Esku Dago was birthed by two men from opposite political parties, but with a deep friendship and a common vision. That day, toddlers to elderly representing every region of the Basque Country stretched across the hilly terrain in humility and approachability, requesting dignity. A simple gesture—just holding hands—brought together people from diverse political parties, as well as outsiders like myself, and invited those in power to respect what the Basque believe is their democratic right to decide about their future.
The world can learn from the Basques. Their very word for themselves—Euskalduna—literally translates to “one with the Basque language”. It is an inclusive identity, not based upon race or even birthplace, but on culture, language and a sense of shared community; an identity that embraces a diverse society and a spectrum of people. And learning from our three friends, we see the importance, of understanding and standing alongside, literally hand in hand, with one another, not only recognizing and respecting but drawing out the dignity of each one.