Startled by the roar of jets touching down at Ontario Airport, a nervous herd of 1,500 sheep scuttle across the abandoned vineyards near the San Bernardino Freeway.
Sheepherder Tony Rodriguez, a first-generation Basque who came to the Chino Valley in 1965, curses the low-flying planes, then laments the disappearance of affordable range for his sheep.
“When we first come here, we talk about acres of land for grazing our sheep; now we talk in square feet,” said Rodriguez.
Fellow Basque Jean Batiste (J. B.) Aguerre, who immigrated to Chino more than 40 years ago from the village of St. Esteben in the French Pyrenees, raises 6,000 to 8,000 calves on his farm near Chino’s Central Avenue.
“It’s getting a little harder to hold on to the old ways,” said Aguerre. But as president of the Chino Basque Club, he and his compatriots have been trying.
On Sunday, the club presents its 23rd annual picnic at the Junior Fairgrounds in Chino. Although many of the more than 2,000 visitors expected are Basque, including Basques from France and Spain, the festivities are open to the non-Basque public as well.
Sunday’s events begin with a 10:30 a.m. Basque mass at the fairground’s Brinderson Hall. There will be a steak barbecue from noon to 2 p.m., Basque klika (marching band) and dancing at 3:30 and a lamb barbecue dinner from 6 to 8.
Monique Berterretche, owner of Chino’s Centro Basco restaurant, provided room and board for 22 Basque immigrants when she bought the hotel two decades ago. Now only five boarders remain.
“There’s very little Basque immigration nowadays,” said Berterretche. “Economic conditions have improved in our homeland, so there’s little need to come over here and make a living.”
But Chino’s few hundred Basque families do not face extinction. As descendants of Western Europe’s oldest surviving culture, they are a resourceful and resilient people.
“Those of us living here sometimes have a tendency to romanticize where we grew up--the small villages, the snowcapped mountains, the red-tile roofs and white-washed walls of the typical Basque farmhouse--but believe me, you’re not giving anything up compared to what you get over here,” said Danielle Arretche, owner of the Le Chalet Basque restaurant in La Puente.
Another Basque compatriot who wouldn’t change the course of history is Georges Petrissann, a Chino dairyman who emigrated from St. Esteben in the late ‘40s.
“When my brother wrote to say he was making $200 a month herding sheep in Wyoming, I didn’t feel very smart knowing I was only making $90 a year as a sheepherder in France,” Petrissann said. “And that was 14-hour days in the hills.”
Despite the hardships in the Basque provinces of France and Spain, life in this country was not a picnic for new Basque immigrants.
After six months in Wyoming, where Petrissann recalls bone-chilling mornings cutting the wool of sheep frozen to the ground, he herded sheep at what is now Camp Pendleton before moving into Centro Basco in Chino.
Aguerre came over as a milker and a shepherd more than 40 years ago. “For five years, I never take a day off,” he boasts.
When Rodriguez left his native Galicia, Spain, in 1965 to work in his first American sheep camp, he made $225 a month. In his first seven years, he said, he never made more than $300 a month.
Danielle Arretche, who is from the French Basque town of San Jean Luis, arrived in California in 1959 and entered the restaurant business in 1962.
“You come over here, and you work,” she said in a buoyant French accent. “You work, work, work. Then you save--that’s it. In the beginning, you save every penny.”
Today, many Basques in the Chino Valley are prosperous farmers, dairymen and restaurateurs. But beneath their successful American veneers rages a love for the traditions and customs of their Pyrenees homeland--a passion that manifests itself in food, drink, dance and song.
Every Sunday at noon, many Basques from the Chino Valley meet at the Centro Basco to begin an afternoon of celebration that often extends into evening.
The Basques and the restaurant’s few boarders sit side by side at long wooden tables in a sparsely decorated room, sipping rose or burgundy wine in anticipation of the meal.
Visitors can eat in red vinyl booths on the “American side” and select from the menu, but Monique doesn’t recommend it. “No, it’s better that you sit down right here,” she said. “Don’t order from the menu; you eat what we put on the table.”
That is an order not easily followed. What comes to the table is a rich repast of sourdough sheepherder’s bread, blue cheese, vegetable soup, salad, home-style French fries, lamb stew, rabbit and steak, piled high like a stack of hot cakes.
Throughout the meal, diners break into song, table by table. “If you sing and you’re happy,” said Petrissann, “your stomach is happy, too.”
After the meal, the Basques break off in partners to play mus , (pronounced moose), a card game that combines the bluffing of poker and the strategy of chess. The game condones a certain amount of cheating between partners. A wink, for instance, can signal a winning hand of 31 points or sticking out the tongue may be a tip off to a pair of aces.
“Of course, if you get caught sending false signs, you forfeit the game,” explained John Ysursa, 28, a second-generation Basque and doctoral student in American history at UCLA.
Down Central Avenue is the Basque Clubhouse. Saturday evenings it is often filled with young Basques learning the dances and folk traditions of their parents.
On special occasions, the men dress in all white accented by red sashes and berets. The women typically wear red skirts and black aprons with white puff-sleeved blouses. Colorful scarfs on the head and shoulders complete their traditional costumes.
Juan Yturralde, 17, a senior at Ontario High School, has been coming to the Basque dances since he was 8.
“I run track and play basketball at school, but coming here is still my favorite activity,” Juan said. “Here, people accept you for what you are. They know what’s in your heart.”
The Chino Basque Club presents its 23rd annual picnic Sunday at the Junior Fairgrounds at Central and Edison in Chino. Exit Central off the Pomona Freeway (60) and head South to Edison. General admission to the fairgrounds is $2. Lunch or dinner is $10. On Monday, Basque meals, dancing, and games will be featured at Centro Basco, 13432 S. Central, Chino.
For more information about activities on either day, call (714) 628-9014 or (714) 628-6500.