Basque Pride in Nevada
By Dianna Troyer
A love for the homeland and its traditions carries on for Basques of northern Nevada
Devoted to her Basque heritage, Traci Wines cherishes and relies on her grandmother’s handwritten recipes in sickness and in health.
“She made garlic soup for anyone who was sick,” Traci says. “It’s good even when you’re not sick.”
Traci, 53, grew up working in her family’s popular Basque restaurant in Elko before marrying her husband, Joe, and moving to his ranch in Ruby Valley. She teaches at the one-room Ruby Valley Elementary School.
“My favorite Basque foods are rice pudding and paella—a rice dish with vegetables and shrimp, or clams, or chorizo and spices,” Traci says. “But I’ve never been a fan of our traditional foods of beef tongue or the black squid ink soup.”
Traci grew up hearing stories of Basque Country and learned traditional dances from her relatives.
“I’m fortunate that both my maternal and paternal great- grandparents came from Basque County and were a big part of my life when I was a child,” Traci says.
Basque Country is about the size of New Hampshire, lying along the coast of Northern Spain and southern France and straddling the Pyrenees Mountains. It encompasses seven provinces: four in Spain and three in France. It is renowned for its fresh seafood and vegetables, stunning white beaches and picturesque mountains.
Basques are credited with creating Nevada’s informal state beverage, Picon (pronounced PEE-con) Punch—a cocktail of Amer Picon (an herbal orange peel liqueur) blended with grenadine, club soda, and brandy. Traci says her grandfather, Johnnie Aguirre, had a reputation for making the best Picon Punch when he was a bartender at Nevada Dinner House in Elko.
“People would come in just to have him make that drink,” Traci says. “He always added a twist of lemon.”
After immigrating to Nevada, Traci’s relatives were instrumental in running businesses and establishing local Basque cultural institutions. Her great-grandfather, Calisto Laucirica, came to Nevada to herd sheep in the Lamoille area and later owned Nevada Dinner House, where the Elko Euzkaldunak Club formed in 1959. “Euzkaldunak” means Basque speaker. Traci’s grandfather, Johnnie, was elected the club’s first president.
Soon, club members invited Basque sheepherders and ranchers to Elko for a day to celebrate their vibrant heritage. In 1964, the celebration became a two-day event named the National Basque Festival. It is celebrated on the Fourth of July weekend to thank the United States for providing freedom and economic opportunities.
The festival has grown in popularity. Destination magazine rated the festival among its “Top 100 Events in North America.” The festival invites all “to become Basque for a weekend” as celebrants dance, sing, and compete in contests of strength. In their homeland, Basques were renowned for clearing mountainous forests to establish towns, so contests focus on lifting round, 200-pound stones and chopping trees.
This year’s festival was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but organizers held an outdoor dinner and dance at The Star, a boarding house and restaurant established in 1910 that catered to Basque sheepherders who longed for their country’s cuisine served family-style.
The Star has roots in Tracy’s family: Calisto managed The Star from 1936 to 1941. Calisto moved on, buying Nevada Dinner House with relatives in 1951.
Traci’s grandparents, Johnnie and Mary Aguirre, became owners of the dinner house in 1962, and the enterprise stayed in the family until 1985.
“I grew up at the restaurant,” Traci says. “Even when Calisto got older, he would sit in the kitchen and help where he could. He liked to keep the olive oil bottles full and put the garlic in them. He liked to cook meals for my dad and uncles.”
She says she wished her grandparents had taught her to speak Basque. Basque is one of the few non-Indo-European languages in Europe.
“My grandmother told me she was too busy working to teach me the language except for her favorite cusswords and counting to 10,” Traci says with a laugh. “I loved being at the restaurant and remember running through the double doors of the kitchen when I was a child. When I was old enough, I became a waitress.”
She recalls her grandparents upheld an informal Basque code of loyalty and provided jobs to immigrants.
“Make friends with a Basque,” Traci says, “and you’re friends for life.