Monday, May 12, 2008

Basque Identity In Salt Lake City

This note comes to us thanks to the Salt Lake Tribune:

Living Traditions Festival: Keeping the art alive

Event veterans say exposure to new audiences is vital for preserving their crafts and cuisine

By Tom Wharton
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 05/11/2008 11:45:04 PM MDT

Mary Gaztambide and Melva Emrazian have been involved from the beginning with Salt Lake City's 23-year-old Living Traditions festival, which is Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Washington Square at the City-County Building.

Gaztambide organizes the Basque dance troupe and food booth; Emrazian showcases Armenian lacemaking.

They braved a snowstorm the first year, when the event was at what was then This Is the Place State Park. They've endured rainstorms and a run on sausages. They've seen the free festival that celebrates the Salt Lake Valley's ethnic diversity grow to attract more than 45,000 people.

"It is an ethnic fair and we are an ethnic group," said Gaztambide, whose 'Ko Triskalariak dance troupe and food booth have become fixtures at Living Traditions. "We thought if other ethnic groups are there, we should also be there and make our presence known. It was basically exposure."

Emrazian began displaying the Armenian needle-and-thread lacemaking skills she learned in her original home of Syria in the hope of finding students willing to carry on the tradition.

"This came to us from our ancestors," she said. "It is very enjoyable. When I was a young girl, my father had a rug business. He would work on the rug during the daytime. In the evening, by the old lamp, we would teach each other [to make lace]."

Living Traditions veterans, including Casey Jarman, who directs the highly popular cultural event for the Salt Lake City Arts Council, shared memorable stories, starting with the weather. Jarman remembered the first event in 1986, when it snowed for the two days before the opening. Workers braved the cold and waded through mud to get things set up.

"It is good for your moral fiber and character," he said. "People thought we were crazy, but we stuck with it. It was more positive and gave a sense of the strength of the community."

Food can be a challenge.

Gaztambide recalled not knowing what to expect or how much food to order for the Basque fundraising food booth that first year. The group lined up Basque chorizos from Idaho but didn't order a lot. Television news showed the governor eating one of the chorizos, and there was such a run on the sausage that it was gone by the first night. The group scrambled and made a deep-fried, battered steak sandwich served on a bun with red peppers.

What these veterans love is the chance to share their culture with the community, raise funds and recruit new members to clubs.

"Our traditions and food are popular throughout the world," said Gaztambide, adding they are "traditions that we are trying to maintain and pass on to our kids. So are the folk dances, the card games, the ball playing, the songs and the music. We are trying hard in the North American Basque Organization, of which I am president, to maintain the language. The language is important. It's thousands of years old."

Emrazian remembers a woman who came to her booth and studied the lace so closely that she gave the festivalgoer a piece about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. The woman said it would look good on her table and the lacemaker wondered how such a small piece could be used on a table. So she asked. It turned out the woman, who was from California, made dollhouses. She sent Emrazian a photo of how the little piece of lace looked in its new home.

I want to congratulate Mary Gaztambide who I had the chance to meet in San Francisco a few years ago.

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