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The Basque Contribution

I am 100% Puerto Rican. My mother was born in Adjuntas and my father was born in Peñuelas. Their parents were born in Puerto Rico as were their grandparents and great grandparents. I am a Boricua to the core. That being said, when Puerto Ricans have their DNA analyzed, they are often in for a surprise when they see how many different parts there are to their ethnicity.

My DNA report indicates that I am 12% Basque. Even though that is a significant percentage, I never paid it any attention until I recently got to know someone who is Basque. As I began working with her on her family tree, my interest about the Basques was piqued. Who were they? Where is Basque Country? What are some characteristics of their culture? How did I end up being 12% Basque? How did this people group contribute to Puerto Rico?

Basque region of France and Spain
Figure. 1. Map showing the general area of the Basque region in southern France and northern Spain.

The Basques are a Southwestern European ethnic group with their own unique language, a distinctive culture, and shared genetic ancestry to the ancient Vascones and Aquitanians. Basque Country is a region that is located around the western end of the Pyrenees mountain range on the coast of the Bay of Biscay (Figure 1). Four Basque provinces are in north-central Spain and another three are in southwestern France. One province is Navarra, whose capital is Pamplona, famous for the “Running of the Bulls” – the feast of San Fermín. In fact, the Basque Country is known for its celebrations and festivals which take place all year round. Basque Country dance is a way of saluting or thanking someone and is prevalent in social and religious events alike.

The Basque people are said to be one of the oldest people groups in Europe. The Basque language, Euskera, has no direct link to any other known language. It is totally independent from any other living language and may be the oldest in Europe. The vowels in Basque can sound similar to those in Spanish, but the pronunciation of consonants more closely resembles that of Slavic consonants.
Cuisine is at the heart of Basque culture and includes such dishes as marmitako (a fish stew made with tuna, potatoes, onions, peppers, and tomatoes), lamb stew, meats and fish grilled over hot coals, pintxos (small snacks that can contain ingredients like tortilla, ham, anchovies, croquettes), and pastel vasco (Basque cake).

The Basques were renowned shipbuilders, whalers and explorers. History tells us that the first Basques came to North America in 1517, and some historians believe that they made the journey before Christopher Columbus in 1492. Most definitely there were Basques among the men that traveled with Columbus on the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. One such Basque was nicknamed Chachu and was one of several Basque settlers left in the first Spanish colony in the Americas, Fort Navidad. Basques on the Santa María include Juan de Lequeitio, Martín de Urtubia, Lope Aresti, Pérez Vizcaíno, Domingo de Anchiá, Diego de Arana, Juan de Urniga and Pedro de Bilbao. Not wanting to bore you with all the names, I will just say that there were eight more Basques on the Pinta and the Niña. Basques continued to travel with Columbus on his second, third and fourth voyages.

Figure 2. La Familia Irizarry by Dennis de Jesus Rodriguez

How did I end up being 12% Basque? My maternal grandfather was Juan López Irizarry. The surname Irizarry had its origins in the area of San Germán, and that is the town in which Juan’s parents were born. In his book (Figure 2), La Familia Irizarry, Dennis De Jesús Rodríguez writes that the Irizarry family came from “El Señorío de Vizcaya” (Biscay, in the heart of the Basque Country of Spain). My 12% Basque probably comes mostly from the Irizarry. However, there is Maldonado on both sides of my family, a line which I have written about before (See list of articles in the archive). This line has been traced back to Felipe Maldonado Orozco, whose mother Juana de los Reyes Díaz Orozco (Figure 3) was born in the Basque province of Navarra, as were her parents. If you are a descendent of Isidro, Angélica, or Delia Rivera, you also have Basque from their mother Otilia Pacheco’s lineage. Otilia’s mother was Manuela Chavarría, and that surname is a common variation of the surname Echevarría (or Extebarria in Basque).

Figure 3. Juana de los Reyes Diaz Orozco (

As for the Basque contribution to Puerto Rico, it is extensive. There were at least seven Puerto Rican governors with Basque names during the 1800s. Since Puerto Rico was under Spanish rule up until 1898, those governors were loyal to the Spanish crown and may have identified as Spaniards and not Basques. Also, the first bishop of Puerto Rico was a Basque named Juan Alejo de Arizmendi, a statue of whom can be seen in the town of Guaynabo. The current governor of Puerto Rico is Pedro Perluisi Urrutia. His second surname is decidedly Basque. The governor before him, Wanda Vázquez, also has Basque roots. The surname Vázquez comes from the word vasco, meaning one who came from the Basque country. Beatriz Isabel Areizaga, wife of former Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló, is also listed as a Puerto Rican of Basque descent. Among other notable Puerto Ricans with Basque ancestry there is Lydia Echevarría (convicted of plotting the murder of her husband, Puerto Rican television show producer, Luis Vigoreaux), Ricky Martin (singer), and Pedro Albizu Campos, a Puerto Rican attorney and politician, and the leading figure in the Puerto Rican Independence movement. His cousin, Juan Morel Campos, was a famous composer from Ponce. The list of notable Puerto Ricans of Basque descent goes on and on.

The more I read about the Basque culture, the more intrigued I am and the more I want to learn about it. There are Basque festivals held annually in different parts of the country. I may just have to attend one!