Valentín Aguirre was one of the thirteen Basque men who, in 1913, founded the Centro Vasco Americano, originally located at 48 Cherry Street, in the city’s oldest Spanish enclave by the Manhattan piers of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Born in the Spanish Basque province of Vizcaya in 1871, he worked on ships as a young boy, and by 1895, had settled in New York. He and his wife Benita Orbe –also a Basque immigrant—ran a boarding house on Cherry Street in the early 1900s, but eventually moved the business to 82 Bank Street. At that address, Aguirre and Orbe for decades ran a restaurant called “Jai Alai,” the Santa Lucía Hotel, as well as a travel and employment agency.
A pillar of the Basque/Spanish community until his death in 1953, Aguirre developed a vast nationwide network of contacts, and used it to help hundreds of fellow Basque immigrants find work out west (California, Idaho, Nevada, Montana), often as shepherds. His name and address appear with regularity on the Ellis Island documents, as immigrants would know to list him and his boarding house as their destination in the States.
Aguirre was also a close friend and unofficial manager of the Basque boxer Paulino Uzcudun, who was quite a sensation in the 1930s, duking it out with, among others, Joe Louis.
The 1969 Greenwich Village Cookbook, by Vivian Kramer (400 recipes from 75 of the Village’s leading restaurants) features a recipe for one of the specialties served at Valentín Aguirre’s Jai Alai: Sopa de Ajo con Huevos – Garlic Soup with Eggs.