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University of Nevada, Reno

Robert Laxalt Oral History

Laxalt portrait

From Oroitzapendaki: Voices from Basque America Project
Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno

Chronicler: Robert Laxalt
Interviewer: Mateo Osa

Robert Laxalt was a very well known figure to Basques in Nevada. As the brother of Paul Laxalt, the famous politician, he was also a very prolific writer in his own right. Robert brought Basque identity to the forefront of those living in the Western States through his vivid stories of Basque life in the U.S.

Robert was born on a livestock ranch during the Great Depression. His mother had moved to America in an attempt to bring a family member back to Europe who had been injured in World War I and met his father in Reno. When they were married, his father was very well-to-do, with a very successful livestock business. After the Great Depression, Robert's mother bought the French Hotel in Carson City and raised all of Robert's sisters and brothers there.

In this interview, Robert explains what it was like growing up in the French Hotel, as well as his identity growing up there and how his mother's teachings affected his decisions in life.

Audio segments Audio

Interview summary

(from the Oroitzapendaki site)

0:00 About Robert's parents in Europe. His parents had a hotel in Bordeaux, France called Hotel Amerika where they took care of sheepherders on their way to the U.S. His mother came to America to bring back a man who had been in a poison gas attack. He died in Reno and his mother stayed in the U.S. also. She married Robert's father, who was very rich in cattle at the time. His father was mostly working on borrowed money, so that when the Great Depression came his parents went broke. His father went out on the road doing whatever he could to make a living. His mother heard that there was a Basque hotel in Carson City for sale called the French Hotel. A description of the hotel and dining room. In the back they raised chickens and vegetables for food. Most of the clientele were politicians, and when they built hwy 50 up to S. Lake Tahoe the workers often stayed there. His mother really liked the work, and his father was good with livestock. The business went pretty well and even during Prohibition the hotels served wine.

9:55 Description of the dining room, his mother woke up at 4am and worked until late in the day. There were six kids in the family, 4 boys and 2 girls. All the kids were born in different places, Paul was the only one born in a hospital. About the menu in the hotel, his mother was a great cook. There was always a dessert with dinner. According to Robert, the clientele were more American than Basque. The politicians took a liking to Paul at the time, said he'd be governor some day. Eventually his father bought some ewes again and started buying private land so he would be able to run his sheep. He never wanted to be big again, because it was too risky. In the hotel there were also many miners, prospectors and buckaroos. In town, the Basques would wear their best suits every day. His father almost went crazy staying in the hotel, wanted to be outside in the mountains running sheep and cattle.

19:24 Robert ran into some of the Basques who had been at the hotel in the old days in Basque country. He and his brother Paul spoke Basque before they spoke English, living on the ranch. His mother took care of the taxes and business aspects of the hotel didn't trust his father to take care of the hotel. She was a highly respected woman in town, because she took care of all aspects of the hotel by herself with a little help from an Indian woman and her kids. His mother and father learned English very quickly, mostly because their clientele were American. About one of the herders they had staying with them who was insane. Eventually he left and went to the Santa Fe Hotel in Reno and killed some people with a gun he had bought. His mother didn't provide as many services for the herders as his father did, banking etc. Listing off the Basque hotels in Reno. Only recalled one time or so that there was a Basque event put on in Carson City. Often they would have guests that they had known for a while, but rarely ever had any special events. When the kids got in trouble, there were strict rules that none of them would tattle on each other. About how his mother would shop for property. His mother dominated family life, father never was a disciplinarian but still had that "deadly Basque look". Later on, the family moved to a home in SW Carson, a real nice home.

Side 2

0:00 Mother leased the hotel to Robert's uncle Pete. Eventually another family leased the hotel again but then the hotel burned and a bank was built in the same location. What it was like growing up in Carson, mostly the kids just helped with dishes and wood chopping. The girls were expected to be more proper, had different roles. The boys boxed for guests in the hotel, Robert prides himself in being able to beat his brother. He enjoyed the life, even when they moved into the nice new house, it took Robert 10 years until he considered the new house home. About the governor that legalized gambling and divorce in Nevada, was good friends with his father. However, the guys didn't play Mus or any other cards very often. His sisters didn't enjoy the experience as much as the boys did, there was some discrimination due to being Basque mostly only when they spoke Basque in public. Robert began feeling welcome in Carson when he got into school and participated in athletics. About one of the professors at the University of Nevada a long time ago. Robert's mother made him acutely aware that education was very important early in life. Robert was the only one who appreciated sheep life.

10:09 Robert had to make the decision whether to take sheep life or education when he came back from Basque country. His father spoke 7 variations of Basque, Castilian, Italian, French, Spanish. At the same time, his mother and father were very from different backgrounds. They met in Reno, and at the time they met his father was very handsome and rich. They teased her about being a gold digger because of his father's money and influence. Robert never really felt too much like an immigrant, except the fact that he lived in a Basque home. He never knew what a Basque was until he studied it for himself, except that the language was quite old and different than Spanish and French. His mother encouraged the use of English more than anything, and he was also lucky to have a very good high school English teacher. His father taught him to tell stories, and often told his stories in western range English (spoken on ranches in old west). He had asked his father about what the range life was about, had tapes of his father's stories.

18:48 About some of the problems between sheepmen and cattlemen. When he and Paul were with their father once he almost shot a cattleman. He was a gentle man but had a temper. His family often went to Gardnerville for funerals, but went to Reno more often for the rodeo, weddings, etc. About the hotels in Reno, where stockmen made their deals in town. They knew most of the other families in the area, would travel around all the time. His father had only one American sheepherder, but he lost sheep. The significance of the Basque hotels were that they were a home away from home for the sheepherders, where they could speak Basque, play cards and have good food. About the herders, what they did and how they felt about their lifestyle. Who were the best sheepherders according to someone, Scots and Irishmen but the Basques would always stay with the sheep and never leave them.