Apodaca: Ancestry accounts for a lot

Every now and then, it's valuable to look back at our roots to understand how where we came from has shaped who we are today.

As Americans, we are raised on the belief that it is our God-given right to forge our own destiny. This birthright was handed down to us from past generations who crossed seas and blazed trails to give their children better lives than the ones they'd left behind.

My wonderful life in Newport Beach didn't come about merely because of choices I made. It's also a result of the hopes and dreams of my forebears, the peasants and laborers and crafts people on whose shoulders I stand.

For some of us who exemplify the proverbial melting pot, though, finding an emotional link to the past can be tricky. My sons, for instance, are a typical American stew of ancestral ingredients. They are made of English, Irish, German, Swedish and Hungarian stock, with a pinch of Native American thrown in.

They are also part Basque, and it is this piece of their heritage — my heritage — that I recently set out to explore.

For the past few weeks I've been traveling with my family in Spain, and we spent some time in the northern corner of the county straddling the French border that is home to the Basque people.

I visited the village that my ancestors hailed from, and which gave me my name: Apodaca, or Apodaka, as the Basques spell it.

I'll indulge in a little bragging. The Basques are an ancient race, fiercely proud, hardy and independent. They endured through one conquering army after another; the Romans, Visigoths, Vikings and Moors were unable to dislodge their customs or their strange language filled with Xs and Ks, Euskera, which is unrelated to any other language on Earth.

Even the geography, dominated by rugged green mountains and lush hillsides, stands in defiant contrast to the rest of Spain.

The Basques were skilled farmers, shepherds, fishermen and shipbuilders and they were avid explorers and settlers of the New World. They crewed Columbus' expeditions. A Basque sailor and navigator, Juan Sebastian Elcano, completed the first round-the-world voyage after Magellan was killed.

Other Basque contributions include the sport known as pelota, or jai alai; the Jesuits, founded by the Basque St. Ignatius de Loyola, and those jaunty-looking berets.

Unfortunately, the Basques are perhaps best known to the outside world for the decades-long armed struggle by the separatist group ETA. The conflict began under the regime of Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who brutally suppressed the Basque people. His cruel treatment of the Basques was immortalized in Pablo Picasso's famous antiwar mural, "Gernika," which depicts the anguish caused by the 1939 bombing of the Basque city by the Franco-friendly Nazis.

For the last several years, though, ETA's violent campaign against the Spanish government has subsided, and the Basque region has become increasingly reconciled to its semiautonomous status within Spain.

The largest Basque cities, Bilbao and San Sebastian, are international hot spots, and have had an influx of immigrants and tourists. Basques have embraced a globalized marketplace, and the local economy remains strong, even as Spain grapples with a near Greek-like collapse. In one telling sign that the Basques have become less insular, on one lovely day in San Sebastian we watched a surfing competition as Katy Perry's "California Gurls" blared from loudspeakers.

Nonetheless, the Basques remain stubbornly wedded to their culture: Heaven forbid you refer to a Basque as Spanish.

On the day I visited Apodaka, our guide, Iñaki, took us to lunch at a seafood restaurant crammed with locals. He introduced us to the owner in Spanish so we could follow along. But the man would only reply in the Basque language.

It wasn't unfriendliness. A few minutes later, the restaurateur beckoned us to follow him into the kitchen, where he proudly showed off the whole, fresh-off-the-boat turbots on the grill. It reminded me vaguely of my father, who could appear alternately taciturn and jovial, and who loved to cook big, hearty meals.

In retrospect, Apodaka, I suppose, was nothing special. Like tiny farming villages around the world, it consisted of a few streets sprinkled with homes and public buildings, a musty old church and a fountain. As I walked around, I tried to picture my ancestors toiling in the fields nearby.

The church was locked, but an elderly couple that lived in the house next door was happy to help. They emerged with a big metal key that looked as old as the church itself, and they accompanied us as we explored inside. No one named Apodaca still lived in the town, but the residents said that they occasionally receive visits from people like me, on pilgrimages to their ancestral land.

The woman, who said she'd lived in the same house all her life, showered us with hugs and kisses, and swore she remembered my uncle who had visited 15 years earlier. We took plenty of pictures, and as we said our farewells, my new friend presented me with a gift of a decorated fan, and asked me to write.

Back home in Newport, I've spent the past few days mulling over my journey and wondering what my ancestors, who I envision as simple, hardworking folk, would think of my life of freedom and comfort.

This much I've figured out: The next time someone accuses me of being stubborn, which happens more often than it should, I'll simply reply: That's just the Basque in me.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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