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Biography

Around half past five in the morning of July 25, 1937, a blast of bullets was fired by an execution squad, cutting short the life of Esteban Urkiaga Basaraz, Service Corps Commander of Eusko Gudarostea (the Basque Army). Executed at the same time, by the same lethal shots, in the same flesh and body, was the journalist for the daily paper Euzkadi; who during times of war continued his political work by other means, such as working for the magazine Gudari. That same deadly blast of bullets that killed the Service Corps Commander and the journalist, at the same time and in the same person, executed the great hope of Basque Literature, the young poet Lauaxeta. Upon celebrating the one-hundred year anniversary of Lauaxeta?s birth, we remember his work and his legend.

Esteban Urkiaga Basaraz, better known as Lauaxeta, was born in Lauzkiz, Bizcaya on August 3, 1905, in the house known as Erriko Tavern. He was baptized Catholic on the eighth day of the same month. During that time, Laukariz had a population of five hundred residents. It is supposed that something occurred in Laukariz to cause Lauaxeta?s father to move his family to Mungia. The date of this move isn’t concrete, but Jon Kortazar, author of the first doctorate thesis regarding the poet (published under the title “Lauaxeta?s Theory and Poetic Method”), as well as author of the only Lauaxeta biography published in Spanish (“Lauaxeta, A Political Biography”), notes that it might have been in 1909. Kortazar further writes that Lauaxeta?s pseudonym, At the Four Winds, comes from the peculiar location of the house into which the family moved. The Mungia house’s location left it open to the four winds. Although this wasn’t the original name of the house, Lauaxeta proposed it as a pseudonym when he began to publish. For those who wish to follow the author’s footsteps in this house, located on modern-day Lauaxeta Street, a hotel named At the Four Winds in honor of Lauaxeta?s pseudonym, stands in its place. Lauaxeta spent his childhood there, and at eleven years-old, in the course of 1916-1917 when Europe was shattered by what was then the biggest war in its history, Esteban Urkiaga Basaraz enrolled in the Jesuit School of Durango. It’s said that he thought about joining the order. In fact, in 1921 he began his seminary studies at Loyola, where a classmate of his was one of the giants of twentieth-century Basque culture, Jokin Zaitegi. The very same Zaitegi says that it was a lecture on a book by a well-known member of the Capuchin order that spurred on his mind. In his words, this work transformed Basque speakers into cultivators of their language. Although Zaitegi didn’t say it outright, the book that produced this change must be “Ami Vasco” by Father Evangelist of Iberia. From then on, political consciousness didn’t take long to awaken. At Loyola a group was formed, to which, apart from already noted Lauaxeta and Zaitegi, belonged fellow important men of the era, such as Anima Ibinagabeitia and P. Mújica. In that environment, the young novice came into contact with classic literature, from Cicerón and Sophocles, up to Shakespeare. He encountered classics written in Spanish, English, French, German, Portuguese, and Catalan. He also began to write and publish for the magazine Jesusen Biotzaren Deya, signing his family name Basaraz. When he was twenty-one years old, Esteban Urkiaga transferred to Oña in order to complete his studies. Two years later he abandoned the seminary without giving clear motives as to what led him to make this decision. What is known, is that in Oña he met one of the most important figures in his life, Father Moreno. Father Moreno reappeared throughout his lifetime during the most dramatic circumstances.
Ten years passed between the moment his resignation was accepted in July of 1928 (the year “Romancero Gitano” by Federico García Lorca was published) and his death in June of 1937. These are ten years of vertigo in the history of the human race. The first three years Esteban Urkiaga dedicated to his training in literature and politics. He published poetic translations in the paper Euzkadi (already using the pseudonym Lauaxeta) which can perfectly demonstrate his attitude of literature and the Basque language. New winds blew in Basque cultural life, and soon these winds carried forth the name of Esteban Urkiaga to the far corners of Basque Literature’s geography.
The dramatic event that brought forth his fame took place in Renteria, Oreneta in 1930. That year Basque society organized the first Olerti Eguna, or Poetry Day. The driving force behind its initiation, repeated yearly until the war erupted, was Aitzol.
Behind the pseudonym Aitzol, today a name extremely common among Basque youth, was José Ariztimuño. It was Ariztimuño, a Catholic priest and strong supporter of Basque cultural life, with whom Lauaxeta passionately debated and shared his final destiny. Aitzol would become one of the sixteen priests and loyal Basque Catholics shot or made to disappear by the rebels. They were executed on October 17, 1939 after being seized in the Bou Galerna while returning to what was left of the loyal to Basque Country.
Getting back to the inaugural Olerti Eguna, the contest’s first prize went to Lauaxeta?s poem “Maitale Kutuna” (“Beloved Darling”). Finishing in second and third places respectively, were renowned poet Nicolás Ormaetxea (“Orixe”) and Javier Agirre (“Lizardi”); in other words, the two other fundamental names in the rebirth of Basque Literature.
That prize launched Lauaxeta?s name and rapidly fulfilled the promise of his pseudonym, opening to the Four Winds and causing the winds of the world to enter in Basque Literature and the language. In December of 1931, Lauaxeta published his first book, “Bide Barrijak” (“New Directions”) in the historic editorial and at the same time printed “Verdes” ("Greens") of Bilbao. The book, which provoked an earthquake in Basque Literature of that era, was accompanied by a prologue written by Aitzol. The second book of poems by Lauaxeta, “Arrats Beram” (“Slow Drums”), published in 1935, was the other book that caused an upheaval in the panoramic creation of Basque. No one remained indifferent regarding Lauaxeta?s proposals, or regarding his use of literary language and esthetic expression, nor with the content of his proposals. The same Orixe went from the most praising admiration to the most negative criticism in regards to the young poet’s work. Lauaxeta, however, had overly abundant resources to defend himself. He had at his disposal the paper Euzkadi, though not only for this use, and his Azalpenak page.
In fact, in 1931 Esteban Urkiaga received a proposal to be in charge of the Basque daily page of Euzkadi (the same page Nicolás Ormaetxea “Orixe” had been in charge of before retiring from its daily duties to dedicate himself to writing), being recommended by Aitzol, who expected that it would become the national Basque poem Euskaldunak.

The time between his nomination to the post in 1931 and the mobilization of 1936 (the period in which he resided in Bilbao), Esteban Urkiaga fulfilled an important labor in favor of the Basque language. From the pages of “Euzkadi”, though more importantly through the section entitled “Azalpenak”, he actively participated in cultural debate in the fullest sense, without putting aside his own literary work. Most probably, no other period was better for the lyric; except perhaps the poetic vocation that brings to each poet the need to go beyond the pressure of daily events and bury one’s self in one’s work. In Lauaxeta?s case, the elaboration of a literary work that centered on symbolism wasn’t incompatible with his direct participation in social and political life. Thus, it’s known that a meeting with the initial PNV took place on March 29, 1931 in Mungia, on the eve of municipal elections.
At that time, Mungia has a population of five thousand residents; exactly five thousand according to the 1930 Census. In the elections of April 12, 1931,in which the Bourbon Alfonso XIII was ordered into exile and that brought about the proclamation of the Republic, the PNV obtained eight councillorships, and the monarchists five; the rest being shared among other political parties such as Basque National Action, Republicans, Socialists and Anarchists, as well as minorities and token parties.
As already mentioned, Esteban Urkiaga, by then already known as Lauaxeta, had jumped into the political arena on the eve of the transcendental municipal elections and would not abandon this calling until his death. His militant labor, including revolutionary tactics, focused on working in the camps of youth, women and agricultural unions. All this, without forgetting that he was a member of Euzkel Idazleen Batzarra (the Association of Writers in Basque), established on October 1, 1933 in Elogibar. Further, he formed a part of the AVASC (the Basque Association of Christian Social Action), participated in the creation and development of Euzko Ikasle Batza (the Association of Basque Students) and formed a part of the group Mendigoizaleak.

A convinced supporter of Arana, according to Lauaxeta?s world concept, like that of the “master’s”, the Catholic faith must guide everything. The solution to the problems of this world would come marked by the Church’s social doctrine, from then on concentrated in Leon XIII?s encyclical, “Rerum Novarum”. From there depart his two positions on that which some named the social question, others a class struggle, that resolves the known formula of collaboration between the workers and the bosses. Some called this formula equalitarianism while others simply named it interclassism.
With these principles as a guide, Esteban Urkiaga did the following: helped create Euzko Gaztedia (Basque Youth), realized union agitation campaigns amongst farm workers who affiliated themselves as the Solidarity of Basque Workers, participated in courses, conferences, debates and meetings, and battled daily from his page at Euzkadi.
Between his activities “in favor of the Motherland” (his own words), he fit in time to collaborate with Euzko Emakume Batza (the Basque Women’s Collective), founded in 1922 by Eli Gallestegi. This organization succeeded in bringing more that three thousand women into its bosom. The work of these women took greater importance from on out of October 1 of that extraordinary year of 1931. On that day, women acquired the right to vote in the territories of the Second Republic, as well as conditions equal to those of men. The Basque nationalism of that era was very conscious of the important role of women, not only as a voting pool, but also as the primary, decisive transmitter of values. As an ideology, Basque Nationalism strived to promote values such as language, religion and customs. Nevertheless, within Lauaxeta?s political ideas there is a deviation (or if one prefers – a correction) from the path marked by Sabino Arana. The July 2, 1932 edition of “Euzkadi” reviews a conference given by Lauaxeta entitled “The Internationalism of Nationalism” in the following words: He (Lauaxeta) asks the nationalists for their position with respect to the foreigners that live here. He affirms that one can be a nationalist and a lover of our nation, having foreign parents and being of a different race, born here and who works amongst us. This position contrasts with one taken by Lauaxeta one year earlier. In his usual section of Euzkadi he made an attack against immigrants, treating them as dirty, good-for-nothing scoundrels who seek to convert themselves into the owners and masters of the country. It’s not worth deluding one’s self in this theme nor any other. Esteban Urkiaga, Lauaxeta, was a product of his time. His ideas, often expressed in the heat of the moment, occasionally seem improvised or not fully hatched, and at times contradictory. The previously mentioned example regarding immigration is a perfect example. However, at the root of it, this improvisation, these contradictions, stem from a mentality open to change. Had the war not had taken place, and had Esteban Urkiaga Basaraz not been shot to death on July 18, 1936 by an execution squad by orders of the rebels, there is no telling what Lauaxeta could have accomplished.

If someone wished to write a screenplay dramatizing the experience of the war that begun that fateful day, and all that was cut short by it, to start with one can begin with two men. Each of these men with a pseudonym, one civil and the other religious, both shot – Lauaxeta and Aitzol, the disciple and the master, both pacifists. Two names that seem only to have existed for the part of Basque society up-to-date on Basque Literature, or those who consider themselves nationalists, and very few others.
On July 18, 1936, Aitzol published in Euzkadi an article about new, Basque poetry, ending in these words:
*…a legion of Bascologists boldly works to forge a volume of Basque Literature, waiting for the village to finally dedicate itself to follow the select group of those forging a national, artistic school of thought*. But the village could not follow those already forging the national, artistic school of thought. It had to answer the call to arms. The first of August, in the midseason heat of that deadly Summer, Lauaxeta announced through his page that he would step down from it.
*These days Lauaxeta is busy working with other duties, now that current events require everyone’s collaboration. Thank you and goodbye*. This is the note. From here little more is known than that he answered the call to arms. However, it is know that: he was named Service Corps Commander of the troop battalions; that his barracks were headquartered in the Escalopios School of Bilbao; that he had his own chauffer; and that he saved more than one life in danger. Jon Kortazar concludes, “Some priests moved from Santander to Bilbao due to the fact that they ran risk in the capital city of Cantabria”. But little else is known.
Following the battalion assault of the UGT on Larrínaga Prison and on the Augustinos, one of first attacks by Lauaxeta?s troops that brought forth tragedy, he was able to reunite some of his soldiers in the office of his headquarters. Among the prisoners shot, just two were only wounded and could be rescued (although the official lists state that they were left for dead). One of the wounded was a man with the family name of Vélez. When Lauaxeta became prisoner, he thought about swapping identities with the same Vélez. The swap, according to Kortazar, was to have been sufficiently secure, but for unknown reasons it failed.
But going back, it’s now important to note that during the war Lauaxeta was named director of the magazine “Gudari”, whose readership, as already mentioned, were the members of Euzko Gudarostea, the Basque Army. The magazine was decisively in favor of independence (as one can see for themselves in a facsimile edition) and was censored. The same magazine published “guztiz ederredko landa” after the detention of its director.

The detention of the Service Corps Commander and the director of the magazine Gudari, Esteban Urkiaga, occurred on April 29, 1931 in Gernika, by order of Ajuriaguerra, who had turned up in town accompanied by a correspondent for La Petite Gironde. It was his knowledge of French that was the reason why he was elected to accompany the journalist. All this gives some clue about the author’s activities during the war. It was said that he belonged to the propaganda service.
Following his detention on that April day, Commander Esteban Urkiaga, also being the poet Lauaxeta, was taken to the Convent of the Carmelites in Gasteiz, partly converted into a prison. Coincidentally, at the same prison was Father Moreno (if one thinks about it, in this case reality is richer than fiction). The little that is known about what took place between April 29th and June 25th is almost all known thanks to his testimony. However, before recounting it, a few more points should be made clear.
It’s known that Esteban Urkiaga was judicially tried, and probably the only one prosecuted, although to this date no one has produced the records of the trial). According to Jon Kortazar, Lauaxeta based his defense upon his acts of saving the lives of right-wingers. The same author affirms that “the fiscal argument for the prosecution demonstrated his importance in the Basque National Party”.
Condemned to die, the death sentence was carried out against the wall of Gasteiz?s old seminary. By his side until the very last moment was the priest that he met in Oña, Father Moreno, who left written testimony of the poet’s last moments. On June 24, 1937 he wrote in his diary that that night he had gone “to the prison. To help Esteban Urkiaga”. The next day he wrote a shuddering note.
“Esteban Urkiaga?s execution leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Serene and Christian, entirely immersed in the gently sweetness of our sacred faith. He had felt it and been consoled by the New Testament, the daily chewing over of the long, resonating hours in the prison, grey hours, without reason…eternal. Jesus is life! Jesus, the only one! He who was resurrected. Later, at half past five, the customary scene: speaking with my crucifix tenderly infatuated with the moment…Get out the encephalic masses! I take off my medals; gather up the Christ and the rosary with those who have died. . . ”.

Father Moreno’s words reflect that until the very last moment, Lauaxeta maintained the attitude expressed in the poem written little before he was executed, “Azken Oyua” (“The Last Shout”):
Goiz eder honetan erail bear nabe / txindor baten txintak gozaten naukela? / El nanten leyera begiok intz-gabe!

It’s one of the most beautiful poems written in Basque that have ever been put to music. The artist who did so was Antxon Valverde, who in a beautiful disc gave such a dramatic force that thankfully a whole new generation has recuperated the Biscayan’s poetry. Criticized are being difficult in the past, his poetry is now reaching beyond its earlier limits.
Today the best homage that one can give to the poet is to read his poetry. With fault in the translation, Valverde?s album can be a good, viable approximation. Likewise, works in Spanish regarding the poet are noted.
All is to better know an executed poet who in appearances was not lucky enough to be fully considered Spanish. On the contrary, there could lay another García Lorca, the poet who Lauaxeta came to know in Bilbao and of whom he translated various poems. But it is not that important. What is important is that one continues to investigate the life and work of the commander, executed that June 25th, the mobilized poet Esteban Urkiaga Lauaxeta; and to know, for instance, the report of his trial or to recuperate part of his library, lost in a war in which no one was innocent. As they say, without a doubt, the guilty were let loose. As it was recently declared in the novel “Agur Euzkadi!” (“Goodbye, Basque Country!”) by Juan Luis Zabala (likewise a poet and a journalist), wherein Lauaxeta comes back from the grave fifty years after his execution, the death of Esteban Urkiaga Basaraz symbolizes the cut, the dramatic stunting of a cultural rebirth whose fruits have deprived us of all of past Basque generations.