For more than 100 years they have been coming to California and herding sheep, working interminable hours, rarely taking days off, enduring months of isolation in tents or primitive trailers.
It was a job few Americans wanted. But for the young men in the mountainous Basque regions of Spain and France, shepherding was a way to parlay a few years of hard work into a better life.
The Basques quickly developed an enduring reputation as the finest sheepmen in the American West. Basque shepherds had an uncanny ability to find the richest pastures, sheepmen said, rarely lost lambs to predators, and their ewes routinely had the most offspring.
But during the 1970s, because of improved economic conditions in the Basque countries, immigration to America almost ceased. Sheepmen, once assured of a steady stream of young Basque men, were faced with a shepherd shortage.
“All of a sudden things changed, and people in the sheep business couldn’t find any shepherds,” said Frank Iturriria, president of the Kern County Wool Growers Assn., who started as a shepherd when he immigrated to America 28 years ago. “Some people had to get out of the sheep business. Others switched over to cattle.”
The sheepmen eventually developed contacts in South America and began bringing in shepherds from Peru and Chile who were able to stay three years as guest workers and then return home. But for California’s Basques, a way of life was unalterably transformed.
Twenty years ago, 95% of the shepherds in Kern County--the largest sheep county in the state--were Basque, Iturriria said. Today, fewer than 10% are Basque, mostly aging men who have worked as shepherds for decades.
The sheepmen lament the end of a tradition, the changing order of their business. Most young Basque men came to the United States with a few dollars in their pockets, worked as shepherds for a few years, received their pay in ewes and slowly amassed their own herds.
In Kern County today, every large sheep ranch except one is owned by a Basque, and most of the owners began as sheepherders. But as they retire, young Basque men are not taking their places, and they fear that the tradition of the Basque sheepman will end.
“I’m 44 and I’m the youngest sheepman in Kern County,” said Frank Iturriria’s brother, Antero, who also started as a shepherd. “The second generation of Basques in America don’t want to go into the business. They want to be professional people. And the young Basques are staying home. What happens when I leave the business? Who will take my place?”
At the edge of a pale-green alfalfa field speckled with hundreds of ewes and their newborn lambs wobbling about on unsteady legs, Elias Aleman mended a wire fence. It is the end of the winter lambing season in Kern County, and Aleman has to protect his sheep from speeding cars, a danger his flock never faced in the small Spanish town in the Pyrenees s where he was raised.
“In my home village, there were no cars. . . . There weren’t even many bicycles,” he said in Basque, smiling shyly, as his employer, Frank Iturriria, interpreted.
Because his hometown was so small--about 300 people--and isolated, Aleman said, there was little opportunity. But a Bakersfield sheepman visiting relatives in the Pyrenees offered him a job. So, at the age of 22, like most young men in his village, he moved to America.
For 21 years Aleman has lived the lonely, nomadic life of a California shepherd. After the winter lambing, Aleman spends April and May in the Mojave Desert, watching his flock during spring grazing. He spends his summers on the mile-high meadows of the Owens Valley on the slopes of the Sierra. In the fall, he returns to the Kern County foothills.
At one time, Aleman and the other shepherds lived in tents and followed their flocks’ peregrinations by foot over the century-old California Sheep Trail. It was one of the longest annual animal drives in the nation--400 miles over the Tehachapis to Mojave, up past Lone Pine and Bishop to the high mountain summer meadows of the Sierra and then back to Kern County. Now, the sheep are trucked to the seasonal grazing spots, and Aleman follows, pulling a battered trailer.
But it is still a hard life, a life that young Basque men no longer are willing to endure, Aleman said.
“When I was young, this was our only opportunity,” he explained.
Aleman stooped over and picked a strip of foxtail grass. All was silent except for the ringing bell from a running ewe and the bleating of newborn lambs. “Today, in my home village, they all have cars now and can commute to factories. They no longer have to live this life.”
When the young men stopped coming to America, Basque neighborhoods in many California towns faced extinction. But Bakersfield’s Basques have endured, and they have held onto a few remnants of their community. Basques are still scattered throughout the sheep-growing regions of the San Joaquin Valley, but the Bakersfield area has the largest community, with about 6,000 people of Basque descent.
Like most Basque neighborhoods, Bakersfield’s was founded near a railroad station. For generations, shepherds speaking no English arrived on the train, clutching scraps of paper bearing their destination, and walked to Basque boarding houses nearby and waited for sheepmen to give them work.
The blocks around the Bakersfield Southern Pacific Railway station were once filled with Basque boarding houses and hotels, Basque restaurants, social halls and bakeries. Today, the Basque neighborhood is barely discernible. All that is left are a few aging restaurants, hotels and a bakery in an industrial section of town hard by the railroad tracks.
Handball and Card Games
But on Sunday the neighborhood is revived. After church, Basques line up outside the Pyrenees Bakery for the thick-crust, sourdough “shepherds loaf” for their Sunday meal. Others gather at the Basque Club for a game of pelota (Basque handball) or a card game called mus. By late afternoon, the bar at the Noriega Hotel is filled with sheepmen and the descendants of sheepmen drinking Picon punch, a heady blend of brandy, grenadine, soda and Amer Picon aperitif.
The Noriega Hotel, a rooming house built in 1893, is the traditional center of Bakersfield’s Basque community. A generation ago, it was filled with young men just off the train looking for work or shepherds spending their brief vacation in town. The rooming house provided three meals a day and free storage space while the shepherds were on the range.
Many young Basque girls obtained their first jobs in America at the Noriega, and the hotel was the site of many marriages between chambermaids and visiting shepherds.
The hotel still has eight boarders, including three retired Basque shepherds who now work as gardeners, said the current owner, Janize Elizalde. And the hotel still serves a traditional Basque meal at 7 p.m. sharp as boarders and visitors sit side by side at long wooden tables. The dim dining room and the ancient bar with a
linoleum floor and creaky overhead fans provide a Spartan decor.
Basque meals are famous for their plentitude, and no one ever walked away from Noriega’s hungry. A recent meal included vegetable soup, Basque beans, pickled tongue, salad and Pyrenees bread for starters. The entrees were prime rib and lamb stew, served with heaping platters of French fries, spaghetti, cottage cheese and green beans. Dessert included large chunks of bleu cheese, followed by ice cream.
Noriega’s and the seven other traditional Basque restaurants in the area attract tour groups and gourmands from throughout California. One of the Basques’ greatest accomplishments is that they have managed to transform Bakersfield--not considered one of California’s cosmopolitan centers--into a city known for its cuisine.
The tradition of the Basque sheepman in America began during the Gold Rush. But these first sheepmen were not from the Basque homeland; they were South American cattle ranchers of Basque descent who had decided to try their hand at gold mining.
A few discovered that because of the great demand for fresh meat in the mining camps and the plentiful rangeland, they could make more money raising sheep than panning for gold. These Basques attracted other Basques, relatives and friends from the home villages in Spain and France, and soon there was a steady flow of shepherds to the sheep-growing regions of California, Nevada and Idaho.
Basques are proud of their heritage and boast of having the oldest surviving culture in Europe. Although their homeland straddles the mountains between Spain and France, they do not consider themselves to be part of either country. They inhabited the Pyrenees long before Spain and France became nations.
But opportunity was limited in the remote mountain villages, and by the turn of the century, Basques were pouring into the United States. They quickly adapted to the hard life of sheepherding and proved themselves “natural sheepmen,” said Martin Etchamendy, a Kern County sheep ranch owner.
“Basques have an ability around sheep we haven’t found with any other people,” said Etchamendy, who worked as a shepherd when he immigrated to America 27 years ago. “For centuries, people have been raising sheep in the Pyrenees. Although not all Basques were shepherds in the old country, most had some sheep on their family farms. Ever since we were 4 or 5 years old we have been caring for the sheep, herding them, helping make cheese from their milk. . . .
“We adapted to the loneliness of sheepherding better than a lot of people because most of us are from very small villages with few neighbors. We grew up with the isolation.”
Etchamendy drove his pickup to a grazing field north of Bakersfield where his “No. 1 shepherd,” Juan Maya, watched the flock. Maya, who looked like a figure from Biblical times, stood motionless for minutes, hunched over a wooden Basque shepherd’s crook called a makila , silhouetted against the dying rays of the late afternoon sun.
“He’s been around sheep ever since he was born,” Etchamendy said, flicking his head toward Maya, 61, who continued to stand motionless in the distance. “He is a man who really knows the character of sheep. Nobody has an eye like him.”
Maya knows how to quickly tie together the rear legs of twins so that the mother gets the smell of both and realizes she must nurse two instead of one. He knows how to match a twin whose mother does not have enough milk for two with an ewe who has lost a lamb after birth. He is an expert at skinning the dead lamb and placing the pelt over the back of the twin so that the ewe is fooled into thinking the lamb is her own.
These are arcane skills that Basque shepherds take pride in but few Americans care to learn. Although Americans have mythologized every aspect of cattle ranching, few have paid any attention to the travails of the sheepman, said Larry Garro, director of the Western Range Assn., which locates foreign shepherds for local ranchers.
That is why, for more than a century, the United States has imported its sheepmen.
“Everybody in America wants to be a cowboy,” Garro said. “But nobody wants to be a shepherd.”