Have you ever wondered where the name for our state, Arizona, came from? Well, the answer is interestingly from somewhere very close to us and, at the same time, originating from as far away as across an ocean.
There are several theories that have circulated in regard to the etymology of the word Arizona, but perhaps the strongest theory has emerged from research completed by Don Garate, Tumacácori National Historical Park’s former chief of interpretation. Don, who unfortunately passed away from brain cancer several years ago, was instrumental in uncovering the Basque heritage of our binational Arizona-Sonora region for the public.
When most Americans think of Basques, they are quick to identify them as the immigrant sheep herders of the American West in places like Idaho and California. However, where we live in the American Southwest and Northern Mexico, that heritage is centuries deeper.
In Spanish colonial times, this region was once known as Nueva Navarra and nearby Chihuahua as Nueva Vizcaya, both references to the Spanish provinces where one encounters the Basque minority of the Iberian Peninsula to this very day.
This Basque minority formed a majority of “Spaniards” in what was then the northern limits of New Spain, making up many of the colonial pathfinders and frontiersmen who would lay down roots becoming military men, miners and ranchers as well as the progenitors of families on both sides of the international line who still live in the area. Settling these arid lands, colonial Basques, as a minority of the Iberian peninsula, resembled the Scots and Irish, minorities of another rival colonial mother country, Great Britain, who were pushed to the Appalachian frontier of 13 colonies on the eastern seaboard.
On a ranch of criollo Basque settler Bernardo de Urrea in the 1730s, an incredible silver vein with tons of silver (planchas y bolas de plata) was discovered at a place known as the Real (royal mining camp) de Arizona. This place is now located only a couple dozen kilometers southwest of Nogales, in modern Sonora, Mexico.
According to Garate, Arizona translated from the Basque language is the “good oak,” referring to the Emory oaks sprinkled across the landscape of the Upper Sonoran Desert or Sky Islands of the higher elevations surrounding Nogales. In fact, the oak is a very prominent symbol to the Basque people and political freedom since the medieval era.
This legendary 18th-century silver strike was so famous for its silver hoard that it was even known to early 20th-century Anglo promoters of our future 48th state, who applied the name to the former territory, alluding to the mineral riches as a way to attract settlers upon statehood in 1912.
Acknowledging this little-known heritage, Tubac-based nonprofit Border Community Alliance is offering a unique opportunity to learn how all of this came to be with an upcoming trip to the Basque country and northern Spain from May 26 to June 6, 2020. This trip will include a visit to Hernani in the Basque country, the ancestral community of one of the most famous historical personalities of our region, Juan Bautista de Anza, namesake of the National Historic Trail that passes through our home, the Tubac Presidio commander as well as expedition leader who founded the city of San Francisco, Calif.
If you have long wanted to visit Spain and have been putting it off, I encourage you to join us on this cultural excursion as a trip companion, especially as it appears the European Union will be instituting a visa-like program for visitors from the United States in 2021.
(La Pierre is program director for the Border Community Alliance, a nonprofit whose mission is dedicated to bridging the border and fostering community through education, collaboration and cultural exchange.)