Mr. Dionisio Amundarain’s life (Itsasondo, 1930) revolves around two axes, Basque activism and Christian faith, engaging in prolific and substantial work, often combining both, for example as the team director in the elaboration of Elizen Arteko Biblia, literally ‘Inter-Church Bible’. A Benedictine monk, Amundarain holds a Bachelor’s decree in Philosophy, and pursued Theology studies. He is presently assistant academic of Euskaltzaindia, the Basque Language Academy, translator, writer and co-founder of Lazkao Maizpide Euskaltegia, a renowned Basque language school for adults. In 2001, the regional General Council of Gipuzkoa recognized him with the award Anton Abbadia for the work of a lifetime in Basque cultural activism. Amundarain argued from very early on that language stands as the single most important feature of a People, dedicating long years of his life to the process of bolstering Basque language. That is no doubt a fantastic way forward in nation building.
We conduct in Lazkao––a small town inland––an interview with Amundarain, a compelling reference when it comes to Basque activism, who keeps intact his intellectual brightness.
How was your childhood in the area of Goierri during the harshest post-war Francoist period? What are your memories related to that period?
Memories of the Civil War come to mind, my oldest memories. I grew up in the farmstead, with three brothers conscripted for the warfront, so I took up shepherding early on, helping my father. We used to go to the massif Aralar with the sheep herds.
I can also remember that Basque was proscribed. In public school, Basque speaking was forbidden of course, so we received punishment when we were caught speaking in Basque. Those caught speaking Basque were handed over a stick. He in turn had to pass it over to any other who spoke Basque, and the one who happened to be in its possession at the end of the week went through punishment.
I distinctly remember a time when we were about to depart to Donostia—the city—; I still have stuck on mind my cousin’s advice: “Do not speak in Basque!”. He had gone through a bad experience in the city with his father, so he told me that in fright. It seems that his father was punished for speaking in Basque.
Until I was 10, that is, until I joined the monastery, I could not speak Spanish. In 1940, I was accepted at the monastery of Lazkao, where I received education. Just like me, in my childhood’s Goierri everyone was Basque monolingual, especially in a village like Lazkao.
When I was fifteen, I read a book by Francisco Javier Landaburu that opened my eyes. I later read Orixe’s mass book, the first I read in Basque, paving the ground for my Basque language literacy.
It should be noted that no political movement existed in the post-Civil War scene of Goierri. People were gripped by fear, until in the mid-1950s things started to shift a bit in the domains of politics and culture.
You are a priest, and Church showed a two-fold attitude during the toughest period of Franco’s regime. On the one side, it stood for a cornerstone and main institution supporting Franco; on the other, Basque Church became a hideout, refuge and breeding grounds for Basque language. The Sanctuary of Arantzazu, the Benedictines of Lazkao, the legal cover to the earliest Basque-language schools, or the Basque School of Goierri, bear witness to that. What was your experience during Franco’s dark years as a priest and Benedictine monk?
When it comes to Church, it should be divided into hierarchy and grassroots Christians. During Franco’s dictatorship, the Church hierarchy did not denounce the regime, but even before it, during the period of the Republic, that hierarchy took an aggressive stance against the Republic.
It is worth remembering that during Civil War Franco put 14 Basque priests to death by firing squad, with many others, like Joxe Migel Barandiaran, taking to exile. Additionally, the bishop of Gasteiz (Vitoria) Mateo Muxika was punished, like the Catalan bishop Vidal I Barraquer, for not signing the 1937 manifesto of allegiance to Franco; Muxika and Vidal I Barraquer were the only bishops in the whole state refusing to back the document.
Therefore, Franco reorganized Basque Church, also in the domain of administration, i.e. he broke up the Diocese of Vitoria and scattered the centres of Basque Church to Burgos, Calahorra and Jaca.
As a Benedictine, I also suffered the abuses of the Francoist police. In 1968, Civil Guard operatives stormed our monastery for the first time to search our library in their quest for “banned” books and magazines. These operations repeated several times during the following years. Of course, we had very well concealed the dangerous books.
In general, it can be stated that during 1950s and 60s some priests in the Basque Church vocally denounced the regime’s abuses, although the position of others remained much more subdued.
In 1959, 339 priests of the Basque Country released a famous letter protesting the Francoist regime’s aggressive suppression of Basque language and identity. That letter stirred uproar. While the Basque Church hierarchy sided with Franco, is it safe to state that anti-Francoist and Basque nationalist sentiment was widespread among Basque priests during that time? Or even without being Basque nationalist, did they act courageously in support of human rights?
I would say that at the time most of the Basque priests, especially in Gipuzkoa and Biscay, were pro-Basque. I would not dare say they were Basque nationalists, but they were pro-Basque at least. It should be noted that many of them were full-blown Basque speakers, born in farmsteads, like me; that does not happen today. However, that does not imply they were all prepared for activism. 339 priests did sign that letter, yes, but the number of priests in the Basque Country during that period was much higher.
1952 sets a milestone in your life, since you got in touch with the teacher Elbira Zipitria. She conducted your first literacy lessons. How was Elbira? What traits of that strong woman would you highlight?
Strong, yes, Elbira was strong. Before war, she was a teacher in one of those early ikastolas, the Basque medium schools, as well as an ardent PNV member. She later took to exile. First, she took refuge in the continental Basque Country, studying and adopting there the French pedagogic system. A few years later, she made her way back to Donostia, without even considering whether she could be arrested or not; she was a strong woman. There she organized a clandestine ikastola, and started to teach literacy for adults as well.
I met her in 1952. She came to Lazkao, delivering us a superb master course on the Basque verb. That course was attended by the likes of Isidro Baztarrika, who wrote a book on it, or Antonio Azkue and Jon Balerdi, who filled the ranks of the first Basque language teachers in Goierri.
Besides strong and courageous, Elbira was a feminist. I once conducted a service, with her coming over at the end and telling me, “Is mass only for men?”, since during the service I had said, “Brothers, let us pray…”. After that, I always said, “Brothers and sisters, let us pray…”.
Her last years from the 1970s on in the 20th century were conflictive for her. Firstly, the great growth of the ikastolas had brought along some new methodologies, with Zipitria not accepting these methods. Additionally, she made an ardent stand against standard Basque. She once got angry with me on these grounds, going as far as to tell me “I regret having taught you Basque”.
Few people know that you travelled to Israel in the 1980s, intending to learn more on the restoration process of Hebrew and its education model. What did you learn there? Has been Israel’s language model overstated or has it really succeeded in restoring their language? What are we lacking in the Basque Country as compared to the resources they used?
We travelled to Israel in 1982 on behalf of HABE, the Agency for Basque Literacy and Reacquisition of Adults, with a view to studying their methodology, but we did not learn anything in that respect, since at that point, our methodology here was as good as theirs.
It drew my attention their dogged determination to keep their traditions. For example, they followed blindly the precepts of the Old Testament.
Although we learn little with regard to methodology, in Israel, I realized how important it is for the restoration of a language to have a state, and they did have one, unlike us. That largely explains the success of the restoration process undergone by Hebrew.
Like us, you also believe that Basque is the key element of nationhood, that language imbues us with a people’s identity. Latest sociolinguistic surveys reveal that Basque language use in the street is declining, especially in Basque speaking places, the arnas-guneak, or “breathing areas”. Our politicians hold that we need to preserve our natural or artistic heritage, so if that heritage were lost, a scandal would erupt, including resignations. By contrast, our language heritage is being lost, but we are not expecting any reaction from politicians, let alone resignations. On the other hand, according to official rhetoric, Basque has more speakers than ever…
I expect little from politicians. Actually, when it comes to Basque, there is a gulf between their words and their deeds.
The Basque nationalist parties, all of them, are reluctant to commit in support of Basque. They sympathize, yes, but that is not enough. Furthermore, some of them prioritize independence, not bolstering Basque, since they see the former as a condition for the latter, i.e. they “postpone” Basque.
Txillardegi once told me what a PNV member told him during Franco’s rule: “I know you, Jose Luis, you are very radical… But at the end of the day, you, like us, would be happy to take on a Basque Country without Basque if you could”, with Txillardegi retorting, “so what for do we need a Basque Country without Basque?”.
As the emeritus bishop Jose Maria Setien went, the unity of Spain or the independence of the Basque Country are not dogmas. However, in practice everyone steers towards their way of seeing things. Can Church remain neutral when a state subdues a people?
There is no neutrality. Silence also speaks for us, we can take a certain position by not speaking.
Church has issued a plethora of documents and encyclicals in defence of collective rights, but when it comes to making a stand for these rights, it always shies away. It may stand up for these rights when it refers to the African peoples, but not for the European peoples; its silence on the national rights of Basques and Catalans is all too eloquent.
By contrast, the priests of the Basque Country have often adopted a different stance on our national rights. The letter released by 358 priests of the Basque Country in 2002 comes to mind; they criticized the official position held by the Basque Church hierarchy on the Basque issue.
I will let you know my view on this matter. I agree with a statement by Catalan philosopher Xavier Rubert de Ventós, sustaining that “the profile of a present-day state has nothing to do with the will of its people. Present-day borders result from fate and violence, as well as the seed planted by kings and the treaties signed among nobles. Defining without violence these borders in a referendum would stand in my view for a fantastic democratic progress”.
The present-day Basque Church lies far away from its positions in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Its heads during the period, like Setien, or Juan Maria Uriarte, appeared to show some kind of awareness towards the Basque Country, as opposed to the present-day ones, like Jose Ignazio Munilla, or Mario Izeta. One just needs to see that the bishop of Donostia Jose Maria Setien was depicted as vicious and evil by the zealous defenders of the Spanish unity… Do you think there has been a political scheme to give Basque Church a Spanish character? Was Basque Church too dangerous for Spanish nationalism and did they intend to neutralize it by means of Munilla and Izeta?
That is obvious, anyone can see that. Their designation was a move by Rouco Varelaren in order to neutralize Basque Church. He chose the best man for the task, Munilla, i.e. the worst for us. He was the worst for the Church, and the worse for the Basque Country. I know Munilla long ago, and I know that Rouco Varela liked him, as they shared the same zealous Spanish-minded views.
I wrote an article when Munilla was designated bishop of Donostia, titled “May they hate me, as long as they fear me”. That statement best summarizes this bishop.
You bore witness to the mass immigration of the 1960s and 70s in the 20th century. Spanish immigrants flocked in to Goierri and the whole peninsular Basque Country. That, of course, severely affected the development of Basque language and culture, triggering an impact that still remains. Now another wave of immigrants is flowing in from Africa and South America. Do you think Basque institutions have taken efficient measures both to shelter these immigrants and to prevent Basque language and culture from dwindling? What should be done in order to integrate the newcomers into our language and culture?
I think that Basque Government does not do anything in this respect, neither for their education. In my opinion, they should receive civic education in order to integrate them into Basque culture and language, along the lines of the policies pursued in some other countries. If everything comes down to voluntarism, very few of them will undertake that training by themselves.
In the 1960s of the 20th century, no education was provided for the newcomers, since that possibility did not exist, so its consequences are apparent still today. By contrast, we do have a government in the Basque Autonomous Community today, and things can be done differently. It is fine to emphasize the economic needs of those arriving, and providing the necessary channels for assistance, but in exchange for it, they should take a requirement for education in our native language and culture.
The organization ETA gave up its violent struggle in 2011, and we were very happy about that. Thereafter, the political groups and organizations surrounding ETA have gone through a political mutation, adopting at the top of their agenda subjects that lie far from nation making and national liberation. Did you notice these changes? Specifically, have Basque language and culture, as well as the calls to bolster the Basque nation, been sidelined from the core of political discourse lately?
In my opinion, Basque has not vanished from political discourse, but when it comes to actions, as I pointed out before, the Basque nationalist parties are not doing much. Let us get down to the next practical example: the financial allocation for HABE in the budget of the Basque Autonomous Community has gone down this year, while large number of immigrants with no knowledge of Basque are flowing in; therefore, less money to learn Basque.
We are running the same path at a symbolic level, like the obsession to name in English many of our public agencies. I have had some disputes for that, but as it is apparent, to no avail.
Are you familiar with the group that interviews you now? What do you think about our project? Do you think it is necessary to deploy a discourse, developed from a Basque nationalist perspective, in favour of Basque language, culture and Basque collective identity in the Basque society?
Yes, I am familiar with you, and I do think that a group like yours is a must nowadays. Your work should be further diffused, and reach out to more people.
Ms. Karmele Altzueta, one-time principal of the Santo Tomas Lizeoa secondary school, wrote a beautiful statement, as follows: “The main task of the ikastolas is to have our pupils acquire the identity of our People. If schoolchildren completed their studies with no yearning for its People, our goal would not be met. We are intent on creating Basque men and women”. Definitely, we need to strengthen Basque language, culture and identity.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY NAZIOGINTZA