The Last Resident Of Chino's Last Basque Boarding House Hangs On To Tradition
It's lunchtime, and 83-year-old Michel Bordagary sits alone at the center of the long Boarder's Table at Centro Basco in Chino. All that surrounds him in the empty dining room where he has eaten lunch and dinner for the past 55 years are old photographs on the dark wood-paneled walls.
He can't say for sure how many meals he has had here since 1966, when he boarded a train from Stockton for Chino, with only the clothes on his back and whatever belongings he could carry. Today, he's having Poulet Basque (braised chicken with tomatoes and peppers) and a glass of red house wine.
Clad in Wrangler blue jeans, an elaborate embroidered belt and a checkered shirt with pearl snaps, Bordagary says there were at least 300 dairies when he moved here, at age 28. "When I came to Chino, there was no Chino Hills. It was mountains, sheep, cattle, farms. Now, it's shopping centers and houses 'til Diamond Bar. It's changed too much," he says.
The Centro is technically an ostatuak, a Basque boarding house. For more than a century, these establishments populated the American West. At their peak, in the late 19th century, as many as 30 of them populated Orange and Los Angeles counties.
In Chino, on the western edge of San Bernardino County, the heart of the region's Basque community, the boarding houses have shut down, one by one, as the young men who traditionally lived in them moved into their own apartments and the sheepherders of the West disappeared. That leaves Centro Basco, which has been open since 1940, as Southern California's last remaining Basque boarding house and Bordagary as its last boarder.
In Euskara, the Basque language, these ostatua Amerikanuak ("hotels and boarding houses of the American Basques") sprung up in central California in the middle of the 19th century. They began as small rural outposts along wagon and cattle trailing lines, then established themselves in every mid-to-major-size Basque colony across the West, from Southern California to Nevada, Idaho, Utah and beyond.
Dr. Jeronima Echeverria, a historian and former executive vice chancellor for the Cal State system, says these communal dwellings, also known as "Basque hotels" in English, allowed renters to relax in the comfort of a familiar language, cuisine and culture as they adapted to their new homeland.
Hoteleros often extended credit to newcomers in exchange for their loyalty and eventual repayment. "The boarding house owner truly played a vital role in the boarder's success," Echeverria says.
Faced with urban development and a declining concentration of Basque residents, Echeverria says the ostatuak of the American West reached their zenith between 1890 and 1930. By the 1960s, only a trickle of Basque people were immigrating to the United States. Former boarding houses are now primarily restaurants and bars.
"They are really a thing of the past. They're still valuable in Basque communities because they are a place for people to gather, just as they always were, but they don't serve the major transitional functions they once served, transitioning people to America," Echeverria says.
Bordagary's path, like that of so many immigrants, did not follow a simple trajectory.
Born in 1938, Bordagary left his parent's home in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, when he was 20 (the Basque region occupies portions of north central Spain and southwestern France along the coastal waters of the Bay of Biscay and through the western Pyrenees Mountains). He was drafted into the French Army and spent more than two years fighting in the Algerian War. When he returned home, he struggled to find work.
"At that time, there were no jobs in the Euskadi [Basque nation], nothing," Bordagary says.
Political repression, poverty and economic conditions worsened, spurring waves of Basque migration. Most migrants headed for Latin America, Mexico or the United States. Since he was the second-oldest son, Bordagary stood to inherit nothing from his parents, so he looked to the U.S. for opportunity.
When he arrived in Stockton, California in 1961, Bordagary joined fellow Basques who were working in the sheep industry, the community's traditional entry point into the American workforce.
"My boss was waiting at the bus depot for me. He didn't know me. I didn't know him. He was a Basque guy too," Bordagary says.
After five lonely, demanding years working as a sheep herder for large ranching operations, he had saved enough money to move to Chino. There, he had friends in the dairy industry and, like many Basque men before him, he lived in an ostatuak.
Basque immigrants started coming to Chino in the early 20th century. They established large colonies in La Puente, La Habra Heights and Fullerton, among other cities. By the time Bordagary settled at Centro Basco, it was the last remaining Basque boarding house in the region.
Built in 1940 by J.B. Robidart, an insurance salesman and leader in Chino's Basque community, the cream-colored, two-story stucco building contained a restaurant, two bars, a banquet hall and a parlor room for playing mus (a Basque card game). The second story featured seven dormitory-style rooms. Adjacent to the main building was a pelota court and a single-story motel, open to overnight guests.
When Bordagary moved in, this stretch of Central Avenue was home to factories as well as acres of corn, walnuts, sweet potatoes, peaches and other crops. In 1970, Pierre and Monique Berterretche bought the facility, hoping they could continue taking in boarders and remain a touchstone for the Basque community.
"Monique fixed food for everybody. She worked hard, that lady," Bordagary says. He adds, with a laugh, she had two rules for boarders: "No women upstairs and don't be late to the dinner table. One minute late and they don't get to eat."
Bernadette Helton, who now operates the restaurant and bar with her brother, Joseph Berterretche, recalls her mother once had 20 boarders living upstairs. They were usually between the ages of 17 and 21. "One of the rooms had 10 beds with 20 boarders rotating in shifts. I remember they would walk in with a suitcase and sit at the bar while they waited for their room," Helton says.
"A lot of my mom's generation came in the 1950s, right after the war," Helton adds. "And many of them came to Centro Basco to see if they could find someone they knew. When they left the Basque country, they often left their families behind and had to create new traditions here, with each other."
Bordagary worked for the Coast Grain Company in Chino for 35 years, until it shut its doors in 2001. When he wasn't working, he'd go on trips with friends, attending Basque festivals and picnics throughout California.
"Every year, I was going to the picnic in Bakersfield and we'd eat dinner family style at Noriega's," he says, referring to the legendary Noriega Hotel that hosted communal dinners until March, 2020. "Now, Noriega's is closed forever."
Basque social life revolved around the boarding house. According to Bordagary, Centro Basco was the center of activity for pelota tournaments and, on weekends, enjoying drinks with friends at the bar. "Basque people, they don't play anymore. This morning they were playing but it was Mexican people. Only Mexican people play now. No more Basque people," Bordagary says.
Unlike many of his fellow boarders, Bordagary never married, had children or moved back to his homeland. Instead, he made the Centro his home, even babysitting Helton when she was a child.
These days, the Centro's boarding rooms, aside from the one Bordagary calls home, remain empty. They're untouched and blanketed in dust, relics of the hundreds of boarders who occupied them. Right now, the Berterretches have no plans for the rooms.
Although Centro no longer takes in boarders, it remains a cornerstone for the Basque community and the city of Chino. It operates as a restaurant and cultural institution, open to all, attracting Euskaldunak and non-Euskaldunak alike. When Helton heard about Noriega’s closing, she says it forced her to face Centro's uncertain future.
"My heart broke for Noriega’s and I thought we were next. I thought last year was going to be the end. But I have a lot of faith and got on my knees and prayed. Opportunities came up and I grasped every chance that I could to sell food. And it’s working," Helton says.
Now that Bordagary is retired, he keeps to a routine. "Every day at eight o'clock in the morning, if I don't get here first, Michel opens up the restaurant for the cooks so they can start prepping," Helton says. "Then, he makes a pot of coffee to drink with his croissant." Bordagary often pops out to run errands after lunch, before getting ready for dinner.
He says he misses the crowded communal tables, which are a no-go in the COVID-19 era. "When I first came to Centro Basco, it felt like Basque country. Now, it's less and less people,'' Bordagary says as he finishes his poulet. He sits back in his chair and surveys the empty room, "It's not like before."