A Little Bilbao Before Gernica

I write from San Sebastian, Iberia. I use the term Iberia because San Sebastian is in the Basque region that sits on territory claimed by France and Spain but which a good many of those of Basque heritage claim to be autonomous from either.  We, my ex-father-in-law, Bill and his friends Judy and Gary, have been touring Iberia for over a week now.  We gathered first in Granada where we shared a carmen—a traditional style of house in the hills above the city in the district where the Alhambra sits.  A carmen is a house with a patio that is shaded by overhanging grape and other vines and a pool of water of some kind, all to provide a cool place to sit when the summer heat comes, temperatures in the summer rising above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  From our patio, our carmen, across a deep canyon at the bottom of which and up the hillsides sit many houses like ours, of white plaster, we can see the walls and towers of the old Muslim fortress.

I reported previously on Granada where we left from a few days ago headed north to Madrid on our way to the Basque region.  We stopped in a place an hour away from Spain’s central city and drove in to town that evening to have dinner with a professor of sociology and his wife, a well-known artist who showed us her studio, her work, and several pieces by other artist who she knew, interesting paintings, lithographs, photos, and sculpture, all crafted by men and women of Basque decent, our hosts being Basque too, owners of a second house in that part of the world.  We talked art but mostly sociology, mostly the sociology and the history of Basques in Iberia, the Basques and the piece of territory they had claimed their own for many centuries and were still trying to wrest free from Spanish political domination.


My father-in-law, my ex-father-in-law at this point in time—I may have mentioned this in the last post—who is not a Basque except by title granted many years ago by the Basque government for his years of work studying Basque culture and Basque diaspora—and this man have covered much of the same ground over the past four decades so the conversation was about much about the region, the war, its aftermath and independence movement afoot around the world, in Iberia, in Scotland, the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq and everywhere else.  Armando, our host, is currently working with a group tracking the status of religion in Europe the findings clearly showing that is one the decline, this particularly upsetting to the Spanish hierarchy in which the Catholic church plays a major role.


We talked too about the Basque independence movement, ETA, from the perspective of people who support the cause, this on the day after ETA announced that it was disbanding.  Both Bill, my father-in-law and Armando, who invited us in and cooked us a fine Basque meal, knew intimately many of the Basque commandos and the civilians, politicians, and clergy who either supported independence or sided with Spain on the question, ETA, for Bill and Armando not a terrorist organization as they have often been branded, but a liberation group with a most legitimate cause.  So we talked about liberation movement in general and recent liberation actions around the world in the kind of way I appreciate, with a sound understanding of why a particular group of people would want to sever ties to political entities that play a dominant role in their lives, in these cases in ways that do not necessarily serve well the interests of those dominated.  Control, exploitation, subordination and disenfranchisement were concepts that with regularity found their way into the conversation.

Hot at the table was the plight of the Palestinians because the Israelis had in recent days killed more than 50 people in Gaza who were participating in demonstrations at the Israeli border, demonstrations sparked by the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem, highly contested ground, the move transparently Trump administration provocation to show the world where it stood and with whom—against the Palestinians.  So, before us, was an immediate example of what we were speaking, an example in the context of the scholarship of two men who had studied long and hard the reality of peoples who saw themselves to be oppressed, weak against the very strong, driven to means that they understood to be the only available to them in light of terrible imbalances of power and dominance by controlling entities they felt were little concerned with their rights as human beings.

The next day we drove to the Basque County, by green hillsides that turned into mountains, some with outcroppings of granite, the mountainsides scarred by quarries from which giant slabs of marble had been taken.  We wound through the canyons and crossed broad valleys and treated ourselves to vistas punctuated by field of wildflowers and grasses and parked finally in Bilbao, the unofficial capital of the Basque nation.  It is a large, modern, beautiful place, the crowning feature now being the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gary, an almost whimsical movement of walls, round at times, pointedly angular at others, a creation that is so obviously of man, of artful design, but with contours that provide it with something akin to a natural sensibility.


We did not visit the museum on our first day because Bill has arranged for us a luncheon in Gernica (that is how the city sign reads!) with his “Basque sisters,” two women, one in her 80s, the other in her late 70s who lived in a house where he stayed on his first visit to the region in the 1960s.  With them was the husband of the younger sister and their daughter, Teri who, to my delight, worked for a company that is a part of the Mondragon group, a conglomeration of industrial corporations that operate under the Mondragon plan that requires businesses situated there to exist in good part for the good of the community and the citizens of the Mondragon community.  The idea of Mondragon has always been to use capitalism for humanitarian purposes and, according to Teri, such has been accomplished, the workers understood to be the reason the companies exist with a banking system that supports the development and growth of such businesses.

I learned of Mondragon more than twenty-five years ago at a conference for educators working to build what was called the STS curriculum, STS standing for science, technology, and society, an integrated curriculum that would draw from the science disciplines and the social sciences disciplines to build an understanding of science grounded in an understanding of the consequences of science for societies and the contribution of the social sciences disciplines to insuring that science exist to serve society, understand the effects of its discoveries on human beings.  A man who had been to Mondragon described the theory and its application in the creation of the community and I, who was feeling terribly uncomfortable with the way of capitalism and its exploitation of people and its use of science and technology to exploit rather than serve the vast majority of people through its exploitation by giant companies who used it to illuminate decent paying jobs, replace skilled workers with machines while, at the same time refusing to insure that the technology would not be used in ways that harmed the planet.  Ever since that session, I had kept up on the Mondragon experiment and badly wanted to go to the town.  So talking to Tere was a wonderful thing and I think I will be seeing her again when I pass through Gernica on my way to visit the coast of the Basque Country next week.

I will tell of the visit to Gernica next chapter.

By lafered

Retired professor of education concerned with thoughtfulness

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