President Brian Sandoval hosts Assistant Professor of Basque Studies Mariann Vaczi in this 10th episode of Sagebrushers. They discuss Vaczi’s journey from Hungary to play college basketball in Pennsylvania, her passion for Basque culture and her research endeavors as a sports anthropologist. They also explore her work studying the Basque pelota game and releasing her newest book on human tower building in Catalonia, Spain. Sagebrushers is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major podcast platforms, with a new episode every month.
Sagebrushers – Ep. 10 – Dr. Mariann Vaczi
Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and Assistant Professor of Basque Studies Mariann Vaczi discuss Vaczi's journey from Hungary to play college basketball in Pennsylvania, her passion for Basque culture and her research endeavors as a sports anthropologist.
President Brian Sandoval: Welcome to Sagebrushers, the podcast of the University of Nevada, Reno. I'm Brian Sandoval. I'm a proud graduate and president of the University of Nevada, Reno, and I'm your host of Sagebrushers. Each month at Sagebrushers, which by the way was our University's first nickname, we take a closer look at the people, history and future of our University. We explain why the University, ever since its founding in Elko in 1874, has been about so much more than ourselves and why we remain Nevada's best experiment in understanding who we are and what we’re capable of achieving.
Today's podcast is being recorded at the Reynolds School of Journalism on our University’s campus. In this episode of Sagebrushers, we welcome Dr. Mariann Vaczi, an assistant professor at the Center of Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. Dr. Vaczi is originally from Hungary. She came to the United States for her undergraduate degree on an athletic scholarship and then went on to earn two master's degrees in Budapest.
In 2013, she earned her Ph.D. in Basque Studies and anthropology from the University of Nevada, Reno. Dr. Vaczi's research explores the intersections of sports with culture, politics and society. She has written a book on soccer madness in the Basque country and is currently working on her second book about the traditional sport of human tower building in Catalonia. I had the pleasure of meeting up with Dr. Vaczi when I was in Europe this summer and learning more about her research, so I'm so happy to have her here on the podcast. So welcome to Sagebrushers, Dr. Vaczi.
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Thank you for having me.
President Brian Sandoval: I’m really excited about this episode. So, to start, I'm curious about your journey to Reno. You grew up in Eastern Europe, did your undergraduate in Pennsylvania and got two master's degrees in Budapest, so why did you choose to come to the University of Nevada, Reno?
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Yes. So, the story, as you say, started back in Hungary, Eastern Europe. I grew up behind the “Iron Curtain,” actually, in a small town that was formerly called Stalin-City. It was a rather a sheltered environment, so the only way was really an athletic scholarship to come and study in the U.S. And at that small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, I got a little grant to do a study abroad program and I went to the Basque country – that's how it started.
So, kind of an accident and I did fieldwork there for a month as part of my training, and after that, I continued to work on Basque culture for my masters’, and when you think of doing a Ph.D., what's the best fit – UNR and it’s Center for Basque Studies. I knew of this program, and I applied to do my Ph.D. there and so, that's how it started.
President Brian Sandoval: No, that's amazing. And I do want to go back a little bit and tease out about growing up in Eastern Europe behind the “Iron Curtain.” So, what was that like?
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: It was a very simple existence. We didn't have many things. We didn't have many options. People were not starving, so there were basic infrastructure, housing actually were quite cheap because it was an artificial environment. But, the options were very limited – people couldn't travel, for example, for the longest time. Up until 1989, you couldn't just leave the country. Then, I always have these favorite anecdotes about precarity, for example, not having certain food items or tropical food. The famous “once-a-year” banana and orange at Christmas, which you would guard and save as a child because that that was so precious. We just never had those items.
President Brian Sandoval: And you were a basketball player?
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Right, and I was a basketball player. Actually, before coming to the United States, I played a year in Germany and that's where I met some American players who had been college players in the U.S. and they told me, ‘well, why don't you just try applying for an athletic scholarship’ and I did and I played basketball and ran cross country for four years. I think I was very lucky that college particularly wanted to open to international students. So, that's how I ended up there.
President Brian Sandoval: So, if not for that, likely you would not have made it to the US.
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Not at all, no. The tuition was simply impossible for people from Eastern Europe, at that time – even now, I should say.
President Brian Sandoval: All right. A great story. So, you've been in Reno for nearly a decade, currently teaching at our Center for Basque Studies. How has that experience been and what are you teaching?
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: I teach Basque culture on the one hand and I also developed a new course called ‘sport and society from a global perspective.’ I love being back. After I graduated in 2013, I was in Europe for a few years, and being back, Reno has changed so much. I always liked its gritty side as well, but obviously Midtown changing tremendously and I just I always liked the sun, the climate, the desert environment, this aesthetic and it's just great people. So, I'm really happy to be back and I feel it's unique to have been both a student – a graduate student – and now, faculty here. It's good to have both those experiences.
President Brian Sandoval: And are you teaching classes this semester?
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Yes. I'm teaching Basque culture online.
President Brian Sandoval: And what are you telling the students right now? What are what are they learning?
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Right now, their last module was about language, the Basque language and language maintenance in the Basque country. As you might know, it's an endangered language, particularly because of the Franco dictatorship, its practitioners number decreased. It's a very interesting example how they try to resuscitate the language and keep it alive. It also gives them a sense of distinction because the Basque language is a language isolate. It's an outlier. It's not really related to anything else, any other languages in the Indo-European language family. So, the speculation is that the Basques had been the first people of Europe because of that.
President Brian Sandoval: Wow. We could spend a whole episode talking about that, but I had the privilege and pleasure of attending one of your Zoom classes and you were talking about Jai alai.
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Yes. Jai alai is the U.S. variant, I suppose, of the Basque pelota game, which is a traditional sport in the Basque country. It goes back actually to the early 16th century, supposedly one of the first early written memories from a particular cathedral square in Bilbao is a note, which forbids the playing of the pelota game against the church building’s wall. So, it is really an old traditional game, which is kind of thriving in its own terms in the Basque country and of course, it also had that great trajectory of Jai alai, although now the last fronton is closed.
I do think and actually, this is one of my objectives in the center is to recruit a student – a Ph.D. student – who would write a dissertation on the Jai alai. I think it's a fascinating story, its internationalization, its globalization even before the kind of ‘biggies,’ like soccer started to take off.
President Brian Sandoval: You know, I know we talked about it in that class, but there was once Jai alai in Reno at the MGM when it was first built, which you know, in the late seventies and so that was pretty famous.
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Right. Did you go?
President Brian Sandoval: I did not ever get a chance to go, but they used to report the results of the matches – I don't know if they call the matches – in the Reno paper and so, I would follow that and learn about the different players.
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Right, and it's interesting how it also got somehow aligned with the casino and gambling environment because it's originally, it's a game that allows for gambling. It has a very important tradition from the Basque country of smaller-scale gambling.
President Brian Sandoval: That was fun. So, two of my favorite things in the world are sports and history and you are a sports anthropologist. Talk a little bit more about your research.
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: What sport anthropology does is trying to explain human behavior with regard to sport. For example, at a very basic level, why do we have such a passion for sport? Why do we project our identities on eleven players chasing a ball and then be miserable or absolutely happy about it? Why do we exhibit these tribal behaviors that we do?
In the Basque country, for example, my first research was about Basque soccer or football as they prefer to call it. In the Spanish context and I looked at a particular team, Athletic Bilbao whose philosophy is to sign only Basque players, local players and that's a very unique thing because it's in the Spanish league, which is one of the best sport leagues in the world. So, it's very competitive, and yet, they play only with locals, which goes against the logic of globalization of sport. And so, my question for my dissertation was, what does that mean? What does Basque identity mean? How does it get redefined through time, through a hundred years of sporting history? Then, of course, you also, since you do ethnography and you're out on the field, you run into interesting things, interesting behaviors and intriguing ones.
For example, I found out that people like to spread the ashes of dead fans in the stadium, and I looked a little bit more into that. Why would someone do that? Why would a sports stadium, which is supposedly this frivolous place of happiness and serious things, why would it suddenly become proper for a dying person to ask their ashes to be spread there? Of course, it taps into our thinking about death, which is a very old, anthropological topic and how we think about that and how we think about the relationship – our relationship with the death and between the community.
President Brian Sandoval: That's a dedicated fan, though, right?
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: And he was not alone. This is a discouraged, but frequently occurring practice – in the United States too.
President Brian Sandoval: And they and they allow that to happen?
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Well, there are different ways clubs are trying to fight it. For example, a lot of clubs have created little memorial spaces in their stadiums, where you can just place the ashes in small boxes and it's nicely arranged with the history of the club. So, there is the memorial place response to it or there is kind of looking the other way response to it, just let's not make it too public because sometimes players notice.
President Brian Sandoval: Oh, because they sneak out on the field, like on the grass.
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Yes.
President Brian Sandoval: Wow. So, let's shift gears and talk about your book that you're working on, ‘The Sport of Human Tower Building.’ Can you share with our listeners what this sport is and a little bit more about the research?
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Right, so after my football research in the Basque country, I wanted to take a look at the same in Catalonia, in Barcelona and how Football Club Barcelona was playing a role in the current independence movement. But I quickly got seduced by this traditional sport, which I discovered by accident once again in the streets of Catalonia. And so, I started to go back and go back and join the team and stayed for another two years and that developed into a book.
This is a traditional sport that goes back to 200 years and in it, hundreds or even more than a 1,000 men, women and children come together; they create this compact base. They climb on top of each other in a very structured and organized way, and they build these spectacular human formations, which go 30, 40 feet high and sometimes they collapse. The curiosity is that they are booming, which is very unique for an old, traditional sport that is not in the modern global current.
It has become the symbol of the current national revival or independence movement in Catalonia, so I'm looking at how through the body, through embodiment, through practice, sport becomes a reflection or a symbol of political desires.
President Brian Sandoval: I took time to go on YouTube and you put in their human tower building and just for the listeners, you have to do this and watch this, because at the very end, at the very top, it's a little four or five-year-old little child with a helmet on, who climbs like a spider all the way to the top, and they all balance. It is something that is incredible to watch, and I've made a promise to myself that someday I'll go watch it myself.
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: You should. You have to.
President Brian Sandoval: So, we're coming up on time, but before we end, is there anything else that you'd love to share with our listeners?
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Well, maybe just what governed much of my career and research, which is serendipity, a kind of openness to chance encounters. I always found that a lot of things just emerged, a lot of opportunities just emerged, and without planning, I just followed them, and they turned out well. So, I think there's a lot of, nowadays, particularly in this country, people really plan their careers, and it's very structured. From this school, I go to that training and that direction, but sometimes unexpected things come up and opportunities and chance encounters, and it's worth considering them.
President Brian Sandoval: I think that's great advice because you just never know, and we have a saying in our household: it's, ‘wander, don't wonder.’
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Right, exactly.
President Brian Sandoval: So, thank you. This was a wonderful conversation and we're so grateful for what you do on our campus and such an asset to the Basque Studies department. So, thank you, Mariann.
Dr. Mariann Vaczi: Thank you.
President Brian Sandoval: Unfortunately, that is all the time we have for this episode of Sagebrushers and again, thank you for joining us today, Dr. Vaczi. Next month, we will bring you another episode of Sagebrushers and continue to tell the stories that make our University special and unique. Until then, I'm University President Brian Sandoval. Go Pack.