Few New Orleanians would identify themselves as of Basque heritage, but according to one of them, that's only because they're unaware of their families' origins a few centuries ago.
Goitia-Nicolas, 46, who was born in Canada and has lived in New Orleans since 1984, founded a nonprofit group, the Louisiana Basque-American Society and Cultural Organization, or LABASCO, in 2003 to promote awareness of the state's Basque heritage. He has ambitious plans for the group, though so far its list of accomplishments is confined mainly to numerous speeches Goitia-Nicolas has given around Louisiana and the Gulf Coast to raise awareness of Basque history and local families' connection to the region.
The group will hold a dinner meeting today from 5 to 8 p.m. at Galvez Restaurant in the French Quarter. Goitia-Nicolas will speak on Basque history in Louisiana and announce a fund to raise a monument to Jean Lafitte and other local Basque worthies.
Lafitte -- or Laffite, as he spelled it -- is remembered by most as a successful pirate or privateer and smuggler who operated out of Barataria Bay and New Orleans and helped Gen. Andrew Jackson defend the city from British invasion in 1814-15. Goitia-Nicolas, however, refers to him as a "man of mark," as in "letter of marque and reprisal," an official government licence authorizing a private vessel to attack and capture enemy vessels.
Why July 23, and why Galvez Restaurant for the dinner? Because, Goitia-Nicolas said this week, this is the birthday of Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish military leader who served as governor of Louisiana from 1777 to 1785. Himself of Basque descent, Galvez "brought both Cajuns and Islenos to Louisiana," and both groups contained large numbers of people with Basque heritage, according to Goitia-Nicolas.
The easiest way to recognize a family's Basque origins, Goitia-Nicolas said, is by a name that means nothing in French or Spanish but shows origins in the Basque tongue, which is unrelated to any other language. "Garcia," he said, is automatically considered a Spanish name, but it really means "wheatfield" in Basque. "Lafitte," he said, is Basque for "blackberry."
Because his family spoke Basque, Goitia-Nicolas said, he quickly recognized names such as "Soraparu" and "Zatarain" on street signs and grocery shelves when he arrived in New Orleans, and he realized the city had a strong Basque connection he had not suspected. He began studying records of immigration to New Orleans in the 1700s and 1800s. Even before the city was founded in 1718, he said, most of the early Spanish and French explorers and colonizers in Louisiana were Basques.
Goitia-Nicolas' said LABASCO's other goals include publishing a book about Basques' role in Louisiana history, establishing a Basque cultural center and creating an endowment to promote awareness of the state's Basque heritage. He said the center and endowment could appropriately be based at either Loyola or Tulane universities -- both, he said, named for people from Basque families.
Goitia-Nicolas said he had about 30 reservations for tonight's dinner but was hoping for many more.
The price is $50. Reservations can be made at 504.595.3400. The restaurant is at 914 N. Peters St.
Goitia-Nicolas can be reached at email@example.com.