AMEZAGA EGUBERRIAK 12-2008 ALZUZA PAMPLONA
HOMENAJE A PELLO IRUJO
|Antecedentes Travesia The Lives of Vicente Amezaga y Mercedes Iribarren|
The Lives of Vicente Amezaga and Mercedes Iribarren
Mirentxu Amezaga (Italicized text) Robert Clark (Block text)
The Endless Journey
I met my parents at the age
of nine after a long absence of almost seven years which covered my childhood,
during which I lived surrounded by my grandparents, uncle, aunts and
occasionally my sister. During those
years I lived in Las Arenas, Getxo (Basque Country), my mother’s town. I went to the same school as she and I had
the same teacher she once had. I
performed in several roles at the children’s theater as she did during her
teenage years. Every week I visited my
paternal grandmother who lived in the nearby town of
One day I too left
everything that was so familiar to me in this tiny part of Europe to go to meet
my parents and younger siblings who had been born in
My father lived 32 years in exile dreaming constantly of his return. His exiled life was always marked by the pain of being so far from his native land; and since physical return was prohibited to him he transferred himself spiritually to his country by means of the pen. By writing he reflected his feelings about each of the different circumstances he was living with his nostalgia, his pain, and his love for what he had left behind. By the spoken word he captured his audience with an energy and conviction possible only for a soul that felt it as much as he did. And with his exceptional talent he could express himself in an almost perfect way.
My father was a very affectionate person. He loved his children and he always found the time for us, guiding or teaching us in anything we needed. He was an optimist, a dreamer and he had a quick temper. He was a person charged with strong emotions even though he calmed down quickly. He was generous and understanding to a point. He had a very simple heart, and he loved nature and the enchantment that surrounded him in the trees, mountains and rivers. He loved beauty in everything. He had an insatiable longing for culture. He was a fervent Catholic but not to extremes. He used examples from the Bible to teach us lessons for our daily life. He loved to have my mother and all of us together for the main meal of the day, generally the lunch hour. That time was a special time for all of us because he made it that way. He used to discuss the subject of the day or the topic that bothered us at that moment. His most outstanding virtue was loyalty, to his family, his Church, his country and his friends.
A person from his home town
“In the second place he was a devout enthusiast of linguistic studies. Not knowing the Basque language in his youth, he became a scholar of that language. He became a polyglot. He mastered eight languages.
“And in the third place he was a writer of two different currents. On the one hand, he was a tireless investigator and analyst of historic events which captured his interest as he was always looking for the unknown and hidden truth. The fruit of this research were his four published books and an immense number of articles in magazines and newspapers. On the other hand, he was a poet as was seen in the lyric prose of his many works and his extensive poetic compositions.”
My mother had a completely different character. She had the gift of a serene and patient personality, the still water to the restless spirit of my father. She was his loyal companion, his help, his consolation and his strength. They had the good luck to have each other. The constant absence of their second daughter, Begoña, was for my parents one of the worst parts of their lives in exile.
In war not all the wounded are on the battlefield. There are other wounded, those who suffer emotional wounds that last more than one generation. This is the story of one of them.
My father lived most of his adult life in exile. Exile is an invisible disadvantage. Exiles have the same level of knowledge as other citizens, many times more, sharpened by their intensely aggressive development, by the need to make their way, and by adapting to the new environment that surrounds them, which makes their effort and work doubly difficult.
One of the many
disadvantages of the exile is frustration because he/she can’t communicate in a
new world that does not understand his/her experiences. The life of the exile is one of continuous
living in an adopted environment which produces a sense of loneliness and
isolation that will remain forever. My
father talks about this in his writing “
At the same time there exists a sense of unity, of belonging and friendship and love higher than in the rest of the citizenry. In “Siempre Contigo,” my father speaks of a black and bitter sea, of one long expatriation with the searing absence of his two little daughters, but he has not become desperate because he has his sweet wife with him. Perhaps this sense would not exist at that level if the exile were not so vulnerable.
Sometimes exiles develop
their highest capacity because of the higher level of competition. History has given us examples of people who
have left their countries for one reason or another and who, upon arriving in
their adopted country, distinguish themselves in an absolute way. Vladimir Zworykin, born in Russia, invented
the television in the
Another problem that the exile faces is a life of financial uncertainty. He also suffers from an identity crisis because he/she cannot officially count on the government of his/her country for support. My father says in his poem “Desterrado” “Today I have no country, no land, and no rights to my native country or home.”
In the case of my father, all these frustrations affected the rhythm of his steps and increased the value of his life through an extensive work that he has left to us. The continual sacrifice he made in his life would not have happened if he continued living in Algorta as the Judge of Getxo.
The exile who has lived in two worlds – his own and the borrowed – has experienced the double feelings of exaltation and happiness at the same time as the frustrations of each culture in which he has lived, and all that gives him a certain understanding lacked by a person who has lived in only one culture, but at what a price!
Robert Clark and Mirentxu Amezaga
As it was for most Basques, the lives of the Iribarrens and the
Amezagas were stable and relatively unchanging until the terrible decade of the
1930s. Unlike Americans, Basques know
where they have been for thousands of years.
They are truly one of the ancient and unchanged peoples of
If somehow it were possible to arrange the world so that everyone lived in ethnically homogeneous communities, each with its own political order, and without any other peoples living alongside them as minorities, the world would have been spared quite a lot of conflict and violence over the last ten millennia. (The world might also have been much less interesting and creative, as well.) But human beings have the notable tendency to want to move from where they are to someplace else, and over the course of one hundred millennia or so we have all become so mixed up and intermingled that nothing short of an act of God would be required to achieve any significant degree of homogeneity. In most instances, political boundaries do not coincide with ethnic, racial or linguistic divisions. Many leaders and many peoples have fought violently to make those lines coincide, nearly always with tragic results. Some peoples have been pursued almost to the point of extinction; the gypsies and the Maya come quickly to mind. But others have resisted assimilation and at great cost have endured and are today living in relative calm. The Basques would fall in this category even though there were moments in the last one hundred years when the outcome of that struggle was in great doubt. How they fared had much to do with the lives of the Amezagas, the Iribarrens, and their children and beyond for generations.
The Basque Country, known in the Basque language as Euskadi, is on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, primarily in two autonomous regions – The Basque Country and Navarre --, and in the Pyrenees in southwest France, for a total of seven provinces. Euskadi is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It is green and grassy, crossed by a chain of mountain streams that coil through steep, narrow valleys in their search for the sea.
Despite the decline, the
Basques survived as a nation throughout.
When they finally did agree to recognize Castilla it was on their own
terms, retaining the fueros (ancient privileges) and ancient laws, one of which was that every
king upon being crowned should come to Gernika and swear under the sacred oak
tree to uphold their laws. Since then,
Basques always played an important role in Spanish affairs, far out of
proportion to their numbers. They were
great sailors and explorers, shipbuilders and whalers, conquistadores and
pirates. They organized the first whale
fishery; in the Middle Ages Basque sailors helped the English conquer
Loyola was born at his
family’s ancestral castle in Guipuzcoa.
He was seriously wounded in 1521 at the siege of Pampeluna (now
Algorta and Las Arenas
Vicente Amezaga and Mercedes Iribarren were from the neighboring
towns of Algorta and Las Arenas. These
towns are two of the four (the others are
This aerial photograph, taken from a 1960s tourist guide, shows Las
Arenas and Algorta together. Las Arenas
is in the lower half of the photo, the mass of buildings on the right bank of
the river as it flows into the
The picture below, taken from a postcard, shows the town of
The two pictures below show the original old fishing
Las Arenas is a relatively new city whose origins date back only to the middle of the nineteenth century, and for much of its history it has been relatively small, peaceful and rather out of the mainstream of Spanish and Basque history.
the mid-nineteenth century, Las Arenas had only a small population because of
the sand bars that were piled up by the action of the waves coming from off the
Beginning in 1880, a number of large and expensive engineering
projects were undertaken that resolved the problem of the sand deposits. These projects included a pier and eventually
a major port at Las Arenas and a breakwater that extended into the bay to
reduce the effects of the waves on the bay floor. In the preceding picture, you can see in the
distance the structures that extend out into the water to form a narrow opening
through which the vessels pass on their way between
The picture also highlights the most noteworthy engineering
structure in Las Arenas, the so-called “hanging bridge” (Puente Colgante) for which the city is famous. The “bridge” is not really a bridge at all
but a massive steel scaffolding from which is suspended a shuttle that carries
cars, trucks and people back and forth between the right bank, Las Arenas, and
the left, Portugalete. Construction of
the scaffolding began in 1890 and was completed in 1899. The scaffolding is held up by pillars or
towers that are about 150 feet high and anchored by piers sunk more than 30
feet into the sandy soil. When ships
pass under the scaffold, passage of the shuttle is halted temporarily. Despite the scaffold’s height, there have
been instances when a vessel that passed under the bridge coming into
Once the mouth of the river became passable and the two sides of the
river connected, the industrial, commercial and professional life of
At the beginning of Las
Arenas’ history as a resort, the chalets (the first was built in 1904) and
small palaces there were open only for the summer season. For the rest of the year it was a ghost town,
but soon it became filled with suburban apartments. In the next twenty years more than 120
buildings were constructed. It has a
unique attraction – the
social and institutional developments were also important to the emergence of
Las Arenas as a town in its own right prior to the 1930s. Some of these, like the central market,
public schools, municipal government, health care, and sports teams were of
little importance to our story. But
several turned out to be extremely important.
In 1886, the town was granted its first Catholic parish, named Las
Mercedes, and its first large church, carrying the same name, was
constructed. The Amezagas were married
in this church in 1937 under the dramatic circumstances described below. The church was burned during the retreat of
Basque nationalists from
The parish and the church quickly became the center of religious,
social, cultural, and community life in Las Arenas. The parish created an association called
Accion Catolica (Catholic Action) to attract the youth of the town and direct
their energies toward responsible activities.
They also created a Casa Social (
Many Basque family names are derived from a place name that has
geographic, topographic or botanical significance. The name Iribarren (also spelled Iribaren,
Yribarren, and Hiribarren) is derived from the Basque words iri (or hiri) which means “town” or “village” and barren which means the “lowest or most central part of”. Thus, translated more or less literally, the Iribarren were the “people who came from
the lowest or most central part of (the bottom of) the town (valley)”. The earliest record (mid-sixteenth century)
we have of the Iribarren family name comes from the mountainous valleys of the
Pyrenees near the border between
By the seventeenth century, when the family name begins to appear in
Gorostegui (also spelled Gorostegi), comes from the Basque words goros, meaning a species of holly tree
or bush known as European Holly, and tegi,
meaning “place”. Thus long ago their
family came from “a place where European Holly grows”. This family name comes from the town of
These photos of Inocencio and Juliana are from an unknown date, probably taken in Las Arenas.
In 1895, shortly after the birth of their first child, a girl named Dolores
(called Lola), Inocencio and Juliana moved to Las Arenas, a rapidly growing
After their move to Las Arenas, five more children were born to Inocencio and Juliana: the second died in infancy; the four surviving children were a boy, named Inocencio after his father, and three girls – Juliana (or Juli), Maria (or Mari) and the youngest, Mercedes. Mercedes was born in Las Arenas on September 10, 1905. According to the note on the back, the photo on the next page was taken in Las Arenas on the occasion of Mercedes’ seventh birthday. It depicts the five Iribarren siblings, from the left: Mari, Lola, Mercedes, Juli and Inocencio. Each is holding a symbol of their hobby. Lola, an avid reader, is holding a book; Mercedes, a bouquet of flowers; Juli, a fashion magazine; Inocencio, a tennis racket. Mari’s hobby, playing the piano, apparently did not lend itself to this representation.
My mother was born in Las
Arenas, Vizcaya, a tourist resort village established in 1868. The town featured an endless variety of
gardens and beautiful beaches, and wharves where multicolored yachts waited to
be sailed into the
My mother came from a family of six children. (The second child died during infancy.) My mother was the youngest. Her mother after five long years of suffering died of cancer when my mother was only eleven years old, leaving her widowed father with five kids and two other children of whom he was the foster father and several aunts who took care of the house. My grandfather was a ship’s officer but he quit and opened a business building ships that was very successful.
My mother had just finished school and was the administrator of her sister’s business when she met my father. She had a lot of admirers. Her quiet, reserved and calm personality complemented very well the intellectual, restless dreamer who was my father. During the nine years of their courtship they knitted a strong love that would last to the end of their lives.
In the years around the turn of the twentieth century, Talleres Erandio did reasonably well and the Iribarren family enjoyed the comfortable life style of the growing middle class of Vizcaya. Mercedes Iribarren was born in the family apartment in this elegant building, and she lived there until she married and left Las Arenas. The photo on the left is from the time when the Iribarrens lived in the apartment; that on the right is contemporary.
The Iribarren family embraced the values and programs of Basque nationalism at the time, and Inocencio was told on several occasions that he could not attend Mass wearing the Basque flag on his coat lapel. Both Inocencio and Juliana spoke Euskera as their first language, but class and social pressures of the time dictated that urban families abandon Euskera for the more popular and socially acceptable Spanish, so of the children only Lola learned to speak Euskera with fluency. In 1911, their comfortable life was shattered when Juliana was diagnosed with cancer and, after a long and painful illness, died in 1916. Mercedes was only 11 years old. Inocencio tried to fulfill the role of mother but inevitably most of those responsibilities passed to the eldest child, Lola, who was then 21.
The five Iribarren children loved live theater and they all participated in local Las Arenas theatre groups associated with either the Catholic parish of Las Mercedes or with the meeting hall (called the batzoki) of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). The eldest, Lola, directed the productions; Juli sewed the costumes; Mari played the piano; Inocencio handled special effects (one of their favorites was to simulate thunder by dropping bags of potatoes down stairs); and Mercedes, the youngest, acted. She apparently became quite a popular local celebrity, especially with the youth of the town, for her acting ability and delicate good looks and manner. In the photo on the left, Mercedes appears standing on the far left as a member of a cast presenting a play in Las Arenas. (The costumes are of traditional Basque peasant girls.) On the right is a photo of her school, El Colegio de la Divina Pastora, as it appeared during the first half of the century.
In 1926, while acting in a play entitled “Cancion de Cuna” (“Cradle
Song”) for the local PNV meeting hall, Mercedes caught the eye of a young law
student from the neighboring town of