Luciana Aboitiz Garatea is a 105-year-old woman whose story is emblematic of a generation of Americans whose paths converged at Ellis Island before influencing the cultural landscape of the Rocky Mountain West.

A Basque woman born in Lekeitio, Bizkaia, on March 3, 1905, Aboitiz Garatea lived in the Basque country until the age of 15. Like thousands of Basques who left the traditions and familiarity of their homeland, Aboitiz Garatea moved to the unfurling American West, where ranching, farming and mining were prying open a once-imposing frontier.

Aboitiz Garatea arrived in Idaho at 8 p.m. on September 6, 1920, and soon after began cleaning floors and ironing clothes at her aunt’s Star Boarding House. The story of her immigration to Idaho is memorialized as a central part of an exhibit called “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Basques.”

On display at Ellis Island from February through April 2010, the exhibit was returned to the Basque Museum & Cultural Center in Boise this summer for the once-every-five-years international Basque festival, Jaialdi, which concludes this week. The exhibit will become the museum’s featured display this September when it replaces an existing display on Basque whaling.

Between 1892 and 1924, an estimated 25 million immigrants passed through the Port of New York at Ellis Island, according to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. Many were the ancestors of today’s vibrant United States-based Basque community. Many were West-bound Basques.

“We hope that visitors will leave with the knowledge that the Basques are the oldest people on the Iberian Peninsula, that their language is unique in the world and that the Basque Country has maintained its history, but is also a very modern, progressive society,” said Diana Echeverria, a member of the board of directors of the Basque Museum, in an interview for eitb.com.

In her “Hidden in Plain Sight” exhibit video, Abotiz Garatea recalled with bright eyes and tack-sharp memory that she traveled first to Bilboa near the Bay of Biscay, then on to a port, where she waited for three days to complete paperwork before boarding a small ship, with good food, called The Gothland.

Abotiz Garatea spent less than a week traveling safe seas aboard The Gothland and arrived at Ellis Island, where she was surprised by the scale of the American immigration machine. “None of us had ever seen anything like it,” she said in the video. That was the first of 11 days during which they slept on stacked bunk beds in dorms “like chicken coops” and ate rationed food.

“Everybody was mixed together and scared, but they were just like we were. It was mandatory to enter through there (Ellis Island). We never left each others’ side, not ever.”

She said they were fed well and did not encounter other Basques. “We never even saw another Basque person. There were people from every nation,” she said. After 11 days of sleeping in “chicken coops” Aboitiz Garatea was processed and left New York via train for Boise.

“It took four more days,” she said. There was a small sink where they splashed water in their faces “like cats do” to bathe. And, for four days, they didn’t change clothes

“We slept. We slept … Four days. I spent four days like that. It had been one full month since I left to reach Boise. One month. Yea, and me … who had never left home before. It was tough.”

Upon arriving at her aunt’s house in Boise, Aboitiz Garatea remembers a Basque dinner followed the next morning by eggs and chorizos. “I was happy,” she laughed. “Incredibly happy.”

A little more than two years later, according to a printed display, Aboitiz Garatea married Esteban Garatea, and the couple gave birth to four children. Esteban Garatea worked in a sawmill until his untimely death, and Aboitiz Garatea raised her four children in Emmett, Idaho.

It wasn’t until 25 years later that Aboitiz Garatea achieved one of her proudest accomplishments, when she passed her tests for United States citizenship. She later bought the Plaza Hotel in Burns, Oregon, but more recently sold the hotel and returned to Boise.

“Oh, yes, for me it’s been the best,” she said of her immigration from the Basque Country to Idaho. “My aunt and I were the only ones to come from our family. My aunt made it to 100 and two months. Me, I’m 105. From the same family. And we were the only ones to come here from our family. America, America has been so good to me.”

Asked why she thinks she’s lived to a healthy 105, she was quick to answer: “I have a happy heart,” she said. “I am not sad.”

(c) Greg Stahl
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While at Ellis Island the National Park Service estimates that “Hidden in Plain Sight” brought the story of Basque culture in the United States to more than 300,000 people. For  information on viewing the exhibit in Boise visit the Basque Museum & Cultural Center.