GRAND JUNCTION — Take the crack, crack, crack of hard leather balls smacking into concrete, mingled with cheers yelled out in Euskara, a language unrelated to any other. Add the scent of roasting lamb and sloshes of red jug wine here and there. And you have the revival of a bit of Grand Junction’s most colorful heritage.
Plaza Urrutia — Colorado’s only Basque handball court, known as a fronton — came alive this past weekend for the first Basque handball exhibition in Colorado in nearly half a century. Pro-level players came from San Francisco and Los Angeles to sweat out this tough, bare-handed game on an iconic and symbolic court, 39 tons of beat-up concrete that juts incongruously from a spic-and-span, modern city park known more for soccer and baseball games.
The fact that the fronton called Plaza Urrutia still stands in a corner of this park was reason for a celebration that brought about 100 Basques — “Euskaldunas” in their language — from across Colorado and Utah to watch the game they call pilota and to revel in a shared heritage that has that game at its heart.
There was a whole lot of backslapping and handshaking and “kaixos, kaixos” (hellos) as Basques who have emigrated to this country over several generations, revealed their hometowns in an autonomous community called Euskal Herria. It is a misshaped oval of about 3,900 square miles and 3 million people in the western end of the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain.
In a sign of how fiercely Basques cling to their country, hometowns came before family names as Basques introduced themselves to each other, chattering in a language heavy with piled-up vowels, rolled Rs, and more than the usual Xs, Ys and Zs. The mysterious Basque language predates the Romance languages and has baffled linguistic historians for ages. It has no ties to any other living language.
Basque immigrants created community around the court
Basques began coming to western Colorado nearly a century ago to herd sheep. They worked in isolated camps much of the year and stayed in two Basque boarding houses in downtown Grand Junction the remainder of the time. Those long-ago boarding houses were swallowed up in an area of town that is now the Two Rivers Convention Center.
The Basques were valued for their strength and their hard work ethic, but they also were met with discrimination and poor pay.
“We couldn’t speak English at all so they kind of took advantage of us,” said Florencio Fundazuri, who came to the Western Slope 50 years ago. “But most of the time people appreciated us. We were hard workers and we never turned down any kind of work.”
Many of them were brought to the United States by other Basques who had come before them.
Domingo Azcarraga arrived in 1965 and remembers earning $180 a month herding sheep. His friend, Tomas Celayeta, came in 1962. He said working for another Basque did not make things easier.
“The worst bosses is a Basque,” he joked in his still-broken English.
Celayeta eventually left the sheep camps to work on an oil and gas pipeline project. He became the project’s foreman.
Many of the Basques went on to become prosperous business people in Western Colorado. Many bought their own ranches. The late Emmett Elizondo became one of the wealthiest ranchers in Colorado, owning more than 30,000 head of sheep and the Fruita State Bank. The late Jean Urruty — the namesake of Plaza Urrutia — ended up owning a large sheep ranch and becoming a wealthy and influential part of his new community when oil was discovered on his land.
He started the Western Slope Basque Association and, in the 1970s, built an authentic fronton on what was then a piece of farmland next to his house. He built the court after the Basques found they had no place to play their national sport, which is akin to a religion in their home country. In the Basque country, many frontons are built on the sides of churches. It is traditional for pilota players to pray then play on Sundays.
The Grand Junction-area Basques had been trying to keep up their sport at what was then Mesa State College. But they were kicked out because their rock-hard pilota balls were damaging walls designed for the softer rubber of handball and racquetball games.
The completion of Urruty’s fronton was celebrated in 1978. A Basque priest from San Francisco came to bless the three walls that were then topped by a wooden crucifix. Like most Basque celebrations, the blessing event included several roasted lambs and many gallons of bad red wine. Professional pilota players came from the Basque country to play on the court. Plaza Urrutia — the name painted on the fronton in ornate letters — became the gathering place for the local Basques — not just to play pilota, but also to get married, to celebrate birthdays and to mark funerals.
“We would play in the 100-degree heat. We would play and play and then we would drink whiskey and play some more,” Celayeta said, holding up bent fingers that had been broken decades ago in pilota games. After the play and the whiskey, they would drink a harsh red wine called “paisano” to help them sober up.
Azcarraga clutched a cup with fingers the size of rolls of half-dollar coins — proof of how much pilota he played as a young man. The fronton behind him also holds special meaning for him because he met his wife, Carol, there after she watched him in action on the court.
Azcarraga said it wasn’t so much his skill at pilota that attracted Carol. It was his black and gold Toronado car.
Businesses, historians recruited to defend the fronton
When Urruty died in 1983, the fronton fell into disuse.
Urruty’s widow sold the land with Plaza Urrutia on it to the city with a verbal agreement that the fronton would remain in the corner of what was to be a showcase park for the City of Grand Junction.
The city eventually deemed the fronton an eyesore after storing manure and dirt in it for several years. Computer aided drawings designed it into oblivion because it was taking up what could be 138 parking spaces.
The city offered to replace the fronton with two nice new regulation handball courts in another part of the park and to put a plaque, or something, on the Urruty’s corner to commemorate the Basque culture.
The city hadn’t reckoned with the fierce nature of Basques. There was an outcry that turned council meetings into Basque-language brouhahas. Some community VIPs, who were not Basque but who played handball, joined in. Maggie Doyhenard, the wife of Basque sheep rancher Jean-Pierre Doyhenard, led the charge by convincing historians and businesses to join the fight.
She battled the computerized designs by sketching out on butcher paper how the city could build a driveway that would skirt the fronton.
The Grand Junction City Council listened. It overruled its own Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and saved Plaza Urrutia. The only thing missing would be the crucifix on top. The city couldn’t allow a religious symbol to be part of the park.
A stubborn commitment to culture
The celebration for that victory in 1999 was the last time, before this past weekend, that the Basque community had held a large gathering at the incongruous fronton that is now surrounded by soccer fields, parking lots, a modern picnic shelter, and, most recently, by a ribbon of walking trail heading toward the busy Mesa Mall commercial area.
It took a two-year effort by a Denver woman — the president of Euskal Etxea, the Colorado Basque Club — Mayi Berterretche Petracek, to bring so many Basques from across Colorado and from California to celebrate culture, sport, stubbornness and a very unusual edifice.
“My parents told me that I should assimilate but not lose my culture,” explained Petracek, a retired aerospace worker and the daughter of a Basque couple who immigrated to the United States with one suitcase, $100 and no English.
Petracek said she and her husband were driving back from a wedding in Palm Springs when they happened on Plaza Urrutia during a gas stop.
“I said, ‘Oh my god, this is a Basque handball court. I’ve got to organize something here.’”
A pandemic slowed down that idea, but two years later, about 100 Basques, including many members of Colorado Euskal Etxea, heeded her call.
They ate lamb roasted on a large rolling cooker built by Azcarraga. The recipe for the red-wine-sprinkled meat came from Azcarraga, who said he had zero cooking skills when he emigrated to the United States.
“I never cooked even an egg in the old country,” he said. “We mens didn’t do much cooking there.”
Now, he is the legendary master of Basque lamb roasting in western Colorado.
Historic fronton sees contemporary reawakening
After the lamb lunch had disappeared, and after three scratchy national anthems were played over a cellphone held to a microphone (the U.S., the French Basque and the Spanish Basque), Petracek read off the names of many of the older-generation Basques who have died in recent years. There were dozens of names. And there were teary eyes for what has been lost, and for what has been saved.
“We are here today celebrating what they saved,” Mona Dyer, the daughter of Maggie and Jean-Pierre Doyhenard, said as she wiped tears. “I am so proud to see that fronton standing there.”
Then it was time for the next generation to take to the sunbaked Plaza Urrutia court.
Tony Huerte, a world-ranked pilota player from San Francisco who is an IT manager at a gaming company, said when he learned there was a fronton in Grand Junction that hadn’t hosted a professional game in a long time, he decided to round up some other players and make the long drive to Grand Junction.
“We wanted to come here and promote this because we heard there hadn’t been a real Basque game here in decades,” he said.
His partner was Oier Pastor Alonso, a scientist from San Francisco who left his native Basque country three years ago.
They were up against Mexican-born Marcos Medina, a gardener, and Francisco Mancilla, a clothing company owner, both from Los Angeles. They all came on the court in the customary white pilota pants and with their hands taped up with “tacos” — layers of adhesive to soften the force of the balls that are hard as baseballs.
The Basque team lost 22-19.
But no one really lost. The older Basques watched approvingly and cheered from under shade trees. So did 2-year-old Garazi Azpeitia, who had come from Denver with her Basque parents to celebrate the day.
Their fronton was still standing. Their transplanted culture was still alive.
CORRECTION: This story was updated Sept. 29, 2022, at 8:32 a.m. to correct the spelling of player Tony Huerte’s last name.