Argitxu Camus: history of Basque migration through letters

Euskara. Kultura. Mundura.


Argitxu Camus Etxekopar, PhD in Basque Studies and History, was last year’s Jon Bilbao Visiting Research Fellow (Reno, Nevada), where her study focused on ‘History of private correspondence and migration: the Basque case’. The Jon Bilbao Chair was created in 2014 by the Etxepare Basque Institute and the University of Nevada (UNR) to foster international collaboration and research on the Basque diaspora and culture.

Camus bases her research on migration and the Basque diaspora on written letters, focusing specifically on Basque emigration between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She has already found more than 200 letters connected to the Basque diaspora. Besides ongoing research, she has been exploring fresh methods to gather and share her findings in the United States.

We spoke to her to Learn more about her work with the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.

What did your research at the Center involve?

Letters are a primary source of research material. Letters were written and mailed at a specific time, and received by specific people, all for the purpose of communicating with family and friends. However, in the hands of the researcher, these documents take on a different significance, serving as illustrative pieces for interpreting history. Moreover, this type of source can give voice to "ordinary" people, precisely those whose voice does not often appear in conventional sources.

The letters exchanged between the inhabitants of the Basque Country and those who left in the 19th and 20th centuries are the main focus of study in this research project. They contribute to understanding the migratory phenomenon and allow us to take a fresh look.

In collaboration with different institutions in the Basque Country and the Basque diaspora in the United States, the aim is to offer a collaborative programme based on three priorities: to locate, collect and ensure the safekeeping of private correspondence associated with the Basque migratory phenomenon; to investigate what these primary sources teach us; and to disseminate this knowledge.

What sparked the interest in exploring the diaspora through these letters?

When I was doing my master’s degree in history at the University of Pau, I studied the history of the Euskal Etxea in Paris. Soon after that, I wrote my thesis at the University of Reno, Nevada, on the subject of ‘A Historical Comparative Study of Basque Institutions in the United States’.

While I was working on my thesis, a member Ikerzaleak, an association that works intensively on compiling and disseminating the historical memory of Zuberoa, contacted me with the news that a family had given him their private correspondence. It was a corpus of some 40 letters all in Basque sent from California and Nevada at the beginning of the 20th century to the "Mochoua" house in Barkoxe.

At the same time, I discovered several other letters. There were a number of interesting corpora waiting to be researched, many in poor condition and at risk of ending up in the dustbin.

After completing the other research topics I had been working on, in 2020 I finally decided to focus on these letters. I started by researching the Barkoxe corpus, then began to list other existing corpora, and search for new ones.

The letters located and collected in the last three years within the framework of this project, as well as those collected previously by other researchers, are letters addressed by emigrants to families and friends in the Basque Country.

How did the Fellowship contribute to your research?

My month-long stay in the United States allowed me to take the project further. I could make the project known to Basques in the United States, locating and collecting the new corpus in people´s homes and in archives. I also had the opportunity to introduce the project to Basques in the United States.

During my stay I met with Basque communities in Boise (Idaho), Chino, Bakersfield and San Francisco (California), and in Gardnerville and Reno (Nevada), giving talks about the Project and meeting with different people and institutions that could be involved in the research. I closely consulted two archives: the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise and the Jon Bilbao Basque Library at the University of Nevada, Reno, where I was able to find letters collected over the years. Both during and after my stay, several families also shared their letters with me, and since then I have continued to learn about new corpuses of letters.

The Basque community in the United States warmly embraced the project.

What are your challenges for future research?

Numerous letters are tucked away in homes on both sides of the Atlantic, posing a significant risk of disappearance over time. Therefore, I think it’s very important to persist in spreading awareness about the project, inviting people to share their "little treasures" or at least trying to get them to give the originals or copies to institutions that will keep them safe for further research. North American Basques have the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise and the Jon Bilbao Basque Library in Reno nearby. The municipalities of the Northern Basque Country in France have the Archives of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques and Bilketa (portal of Basque collections). Since 2018, the Basque Diaspora Archive has been activated in the Basque Country within the Historical Archive of Euskadi in Bilbao... And recently I have begun to liaise with different institutions and researchers in South America and different families.

Another major challenge is to make the letters themselves available to the public so we can learn from them, contributing to the memory of the Basque diaspora. A special portal could be created for all ideas, researchers, students and the curious. There’s still so much to be done in this field.

As a final challenge, of course, research on the collected corpora has to be ongoing. Each corpus can be researched separately as well as all the corpora. The study of these letters could complement, clarify and contrast our knowledge of Basque migration.

It´s really important to gather a lot more because of all the reasons I mentioned earlier.

Sign up for our Newsletter.