Novel Focuses on Witches in the Basque Country

Historical novel by associate professor who studies Basque culture is 10 years in the making

Begoña Echeverria holds a copy of her book.

Begoña Echeverria, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — Begoña Echeverria grew up in the Basque immigrant community of Chino, Calif. She earned her Ph.D. by studying efforts to revitalize the Basque language in Donostia (San Sebastian) in the Autonomous Basque Community of Spain. She became a professor at the University of California, Riverside’s Graduate School of Education with research focused on Basque identity, language and culture. She is even part of a musical group that sings and writes Basque songs.

So, it was only natural that when she decided to write a novel it would touch on all those elements. That novel, The Hammer of Witches, was recently published by the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The novel is set in 1610 during the Spanish Inquisition in the Baztan Valley, where Echeverria’s parents grew up and extended family still lives. Based on the actual burning of Basque “witches” attended by 30,000 people, it tells the story of Maria, a girl determined to honor her mother’s memory by learning to read and improving her lot in life; the priest Salvador Zabaleta, who has sworn to protect Maria but whose own identity is beset by struggles; and the mysterious and sophisticated Sabine Elizalde.

Drawing on poetry, songs (some of which Echeverria wrote herself) and folklore in addition to Inquisition documents, The Hammer of Witches delves into the dark places of the human spirit and shows that even in the face of evil, justice can prevail.

The idea for the book came to Echeverria 10 years ago when she was sorting through historical documents as part of her academic career. By 2010, she had completed a final draft of the novel and it was published this fall.

Echeverria is planning a book reading at 7 p.m. Feb. 5 at downtown Riverside Public Library, 3581 Mission Inn Ave. The event is sponsored by the Inlandia Institute and will be held in conjunctions with Riverside’s monthly ArtsWalk.

Echeverria has other readings in the works in cities including Boise, Idaho; Denver, Colo.; Reno, Nev.; New York City, Washington, D.C.; and Sydney, Australia.

“I have been immersed in Basque culture my entire life,” Echeverria said. “This novel takes everything I have experienced, read, seen and heard and brings it together.”

Echeverria’s parents were born in the Basque Country. Her father came to Irvine Ranch in 1954 to work as a shepherd. Six years later, he returned to the Basque Country to marry Echeverria’s mother and they returned to southern California in 1961.

They settled in Chino, a center of agriculture and dairy farms, where Echeverria grew up speaking Basque as her first language. Her immediate family has remained in Chino, where they are active in the Basque community. Other family members have migrated to the Bakersfield, Calif. area, where there is also an active Basque community.

Echeverria, who acquired her love of singing from her parents, formed the musical trio NOKA about 15 years ago with Andréa Bidart and Cathy Petrissans, also of Basque descent. The group takes its name from a pronoun that literally means to speak informally or familiarly with a female addressee. It was used historically when addressing a girl or woman with whom one felt trust. While its use declined in the 19th century, speakers in small villages continue to use it, including many of those who immigrated to Chino.

The group has produced two CDs and recorded vocals for a collection by Kepa Junkera, a 2000 Latin Grammy nominee. They have two CDs in the works with Basque Country musicians Mikel Markez and Laurent Ascarain, with whom they will be touring in the Basque Country next summer. NOKA usually performs several times a year and has a concert set for 7:30 p.m. on June 6, with Markez, at UC Riverside’s Culver Center of the Arts in downtown Riverside.

The Hammer of Witches is available at UC Riverside’s Bookstore, on Amazon, the Center for Basque Studies. NOKA’s music is available on

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