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07.- Florida and the Jai-Alai

Place names with a Basque ring to them are also found in Florida. Examples are "Key Biscayne", "Biscayne Bay", "Biscayne National Park", "Biscayne Jai-Alai", and "Villa Vizcaya" (We should remember that little more than a century ago it was common to use the adjective "Biscayne" to refer to any Basque, regardless of whether he was from Biscay or Bizkaia). Today "Florida" and "Jai-Alai" are two names often seen together.


Although the international exhibition held in Saint Louis at the beginning of last century is considered the first official contact between jai-alai and the American public, later it became very popular in Florida, but was also played in Hartford, Bridgeport, and Milford, Connecticut, and Newport, Rhode Island. When it was at its height, Florida had courts in Miami, Dania, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Daytona, Fort Pierce, Ocala, Tampa, Quincy, and Melbourne. The court in Miami is the largest in the world.


In the 1980's Miami and Tampa were sites of the three Basque clubs found in Florida. Two in Miami, namely the Toki Ona Basque Cultural Center and the Txoko Alai Society, merged in 1997, thus producing the current Euskal Etxea. The members of the Euskal Txoko of Tampa are young pelotaris who used to play daily on the local court until the time of its closure, as well as ex-pelotaris who have settled there with their families at the end of their professional careers.
Some Basque-Americans now living in Florida formerly lived in Cuba, which they abandoned with the arrival of Fidel Castro. One of them is Juan Saizarbitoria, of Mutriku, owner of the reknown restaurant "Centro Vasco" in Havana. Like a good number of his compatriots, Saizarbitoria established himself in Miami, where in the 1960's he reopened the Centro Vasco. It was located in a Cuban area of Miami and closed its doors a few years ago.

Miami has had other Basque restaurants, among them the Bizkaia, owned by Tomas Arrizabalaga. In recent times, due to the length of the strike (1988-1991) called by the International Jai Alai Professional Association (IJAPA), a significant number of pelotaris returned to Euskal Herria, thus reducing the Basque community in Florida and Connecticut.

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