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Idaho's Jaialdi festival celebrates Basque culture, history

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) With more than 300 pounds of chorizo sitting in her freezer and 5,000 portions of Basque-style paella prepared in advance, Tara McElhose-Eiguren says she's finally running out of space in her kitchen in anticipation of helping feed those attending the traditional Jaialdi festival in southwestern Idaho.

"We've been cooking since last week," said the co-owner of the Basque Market, which sits next to the small brick building that sheltered some of the first Basque sheepherders in Idaho during the early 1900s. "But you only have so much space. We've been joking that we started stressing too soon."

An estimated 35,000 to 50,000 people are expected to attend the five-day party as a showcase of the culture beginning Tuesday in Boise. Many of those celebrating will hit Boise's so-called "Basque Block," full of bars and restaurants where Basque descendants congregate for weddings and the annual San Inazio Basque Festival.

Jaialdi, which in the Basque language means "Big Festival," originally started in 1987, and it has been held every five years starting in 1990 ever since. The event will include traditional sports, choirs, musicians and folk dancing, as well as religious services for the largely Catholic Basque community.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 7,900 Basques have self-identified as living in Idaho, making it one of the top concentrations in the world behind the Basque homeland on the Spanish-French border, Argentina and California.

And over the years, Boise Basques have forged closer ties in Spain. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter considered the first Basque descendent to be elected leader of a U.S. city has been honored in Spain for his work in promoting Basque rights. The Basque government helped fund a Basque studies minor at Boise State University. This year, Jaialdi supporters helped plan a Basque Soccer Friendly, bringing soccer teams Athletic Bilbao of Spain and Club Tijuana to play in Boise's first international soccer match.

Those familiar with Basque history know of the radical separatist group ETA, whose members have killed about 850 people and injured hundreds since the late 1960s while aiming lethal attacks at the Spanish government for an independent homeland.

However, the Jaialdi festival is a time to transcend politics and recognize that Basque culture is much more than three letters, said John Bieter, a professor in the Basque studies program at Boise State University.

The festival is a time for Basques to celebrate and promote their ethnic identity, Bieter said. It's an effort that has become more important now that fewer than 1 million people speak the traditional Basque language, classifying it as a threatened tongue that could one day be forgotten.

"It ends up being about the relationships," he said. "We'll have Basques from the 'old country,' and Basques from all over the West, and then you'll have Americans who stumble across the festival who discover Basque culture for the first time."
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