I’ve written on Los San Patricios before in this space, but the topic continues to be relevant, so this blog elaborates on my previous writing.
St. Patrick’s Day is nigh on us, and soon we’ll annoyingly be inundated with beer and mattress ads and green-this, green-that promotions. To the Irish, however, St. Patrick’s Day is serious, for it celebrates Ireland’s patron saint and national apostle, St. Patrick, who lived during the fifth century and is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. The Irish have observed March 17, the anniversary of his death, as a religious holiday for over 1,000 years. Since circa 1600, the festivities have incorporated secular features, with a parade being the chief activity.
St. Patrick’s Day is also an important day in Mexico, and in many Mexican American communities, but for a different, but just as meaningful, reason, viz.:
Every year, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated throughout Mexico, often with pipe bands (bagpipers and drummers) in kilts, waistcoats, hose and all the accoutrements. [You can see and hear one here.] Those celebrations commemorate “Los San Patricios,” the battalion of Irishmen who fought on the Mexican side in the Mexican-American War. [More on Los San Patricios below.]
Many communities in the U.S. who are home to sizable Mexican American communities also celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. My hometown, Tucson, AZ, is one of these. Circa 34 years ago, Irish American and Mexican American civic leaders in South Tucson, a municipality contained within the city of Tucson and whose population is approximately 80 per cent Mexican American, started the tradition of an annual St. Patrick’s Parade and Festival. The parade and its attendant festivities later transferred to the city of Tucson – circa 40 per cent Mexican American – where it is now a cultural staple.
The Battle of Buena Vista pitted the Saint Patrick’s Battalion against U.S. forces.
We marched ‘neath the green flag of Saint Patrick … We fought on as Ireland’s sons … We were the red-headed fighters for freedom … Amidst these brown-skinned women and men … (“St. Patrick’s Battalion,” song by The Wakes Band)
The St. Patrick’s Battalion (el Batallón de los San Patricios) was a Mexican army unit, led by John Riley, made up of about 200 Irish Catholics. They took the side of Mexico because they saw and heard of many atrocities being visited upon the Mexicans by the Americans during the Mexican-American War. Also, because Mexico, like Ireland, was a poor, predominantly Catholic nation, the Irish soldiers felt a great kinship with the Mexicans.
Los San Patricios made a banner for themselves: a bright green standard with an Irish harp and a shamrock.
Los San Patricios made a banner for themselves: a bright green standard with an Irish harp and a shamrock, under which was “Erin go Bragh”(“Ireland Forever”) and the Mexican coat of arms with the words “Libertad por la Republica Mexicana.” The reverse side of the banner had an image of St. Patrick and the words “San Patricio.” Many died fighting under the Los San Patricios banner and the Mexican flag. The members of Los San Patricios – those who survived as well as those who died in battle – were seen and treated as heroes in Mexico. (Christopher Minster, “The Saint Patrick’s Battalion [Los San Patricios],” ThoughtCo.com, May 30, 2019)
The Scottish folk-rock Wakes Band recorded a song about John Riley and the San Patricios … you can hear it here (Scroll down to the “No Irish need apply” icon).
Mexicans and Irish: Navigating the same waters…
That Mexican American communities in the U.S. celebrate St. Patrick’s Day is not surprising in light of the very similar histories of people of Irish descent and of Mexican descent. Examples of some of these commonalities:
* Both communities derive from people who were colonized and treated as a conquered people. The British were perceived as an occupying force in Ireland as were the white Americans who took over what is today’s Southwest, which before 1848 was Mexico.
* The immigrant ancestors of both communities were escaping severe financial hardship and political turmoil.
From 1846 to 1851, more than a million people fled Ireland for the United States.
The Industrial Revolution caused farmers and other laborers in the British Isles to lose their livelihoods; many of these chose to emigrate to America. The Irish Potato Famine (aka The Great Hunger) of 1845-49 also factored into many Irish men and women deciding to flee Ireland. From 1846 to 1851, more than a million people fled Ireland for the United States due to repeated crop failures, and more would join them in succeeding decades. (“The Irish and Ellis Island,” Irish Celtic Jewels, March 30, 2010)
Beginning around the 1890s, new industries in the U.S. Southwest, especially mining and agriculture, attracted Mexican migrant laborers. The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) then increased the flow of immigrants as war refugees and political exiles fled to the U. S. Rural Mexicans also sought stability and employment in the U. S. The number of migrants grew from around 20,000 migrants per year during the 1910s to about 50,000 – 100,000 per year during the 1920s. (Jason Steinhauer, The History of Mexican Immigration to the U.S. in the Early 20th Century, LIBRARY Library of Congress, March 11, 2015) That migration stream continues to this day.
* There is an historical civil-rights dimension to the Mexican American-Irish American nexus. Both groups were stereotyped as, among other things, lazy, dishonest, and criminal-oriented. In Protestant America, both groups were derided as Catholic idol worshipers whose loyalty was to a foreign Pope. When it came to jobs, the “No Irish Need Apply” signs that were common in the East were the counterpart of the “No dogs or Mexicans allowed” signs ubiquitous in the Southwest.
Both groups used the same basic vehicles to gain acceptance and assert their rights. They joined the military and became politically active. They joined unions and formed social clubs and mutual-aid societies. They protested and confronted the political establishment.
The “No Irish Need Apply” signs that were common in the East were the counterpart of the “No dogs or Mexicans allowed” signs in the Southwest.
* A major battle for both groups focused on fighting attempts to eradicate their respective languages – Gaelic and Spanish. Attacks on languages are really attacks on the speakers of the language, not the language itself. And attempts to eradicate a language really seek to eradicate a culture, for language is the chief transmitter of culture (religious beliefs, world view, traditions, history, customs, etc.) of a people. As renowned linguist and University of Arizona professor Noam Chomsky notes:
“A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is.”
Tucson Irish American activist Scott Egan recently issued an excellent treatise regarding efforts to eradicate Gaelic, a language that has been spoken in Ireland for over 2,000 years. At various times in Ireland’s history, Gaelic was outlawed and people were arrested and imprisoned for speaking and teaching Gaelic. Egan details the many ways that the Irish resisted this linguistic assault, sometimes even while imprisoned. Egan notes that today, throughout Northern Ireland, thousands of Irish children attend Irish-language schools. (Scott Egan, “The Struggle and Survival of the Irish Language,” March 3, 2020) [Email me – address below – if you want a copy of Egan’s treatise.]
This page from the Book of Kells highlights the longevity of the Gaelic language in spite of efforts to destroy it.
Princeton University professor Rosina Lozano recently noted that in the early 20th century, Spanish was for all intents and purposes an official language of politics and government throughout the Southwestern U.S. But by 1921, the teaching of languages other than English in public primary schools was outlawed in many states (California even outlawed it in private schools). (Lozano, Rosina, “Spanish has never been a foreign language in the United States,” Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2018) [As an aside: I was of the generation that was beaten for speaking Spanish on school grounds.] As recently as 2005 we beat back yet another Arizona legislative attempt to outlaw Spanish.
The most powerful weapon the Irish and the Mexican Americans wielded in the language wars was their outright refusal to stop speaking their respective languages. A living language cannot be erased just as a culture that is practiced cannot be destroyed.
Don’t lose your Irish heart…
The nexus between these two groups is not merely historical. It continues today. After Mexicans, one of the largest groups of undocumented workers in the U.S. is comprised of Irish folk. In places like New York and Boston, community organizations help and advocate for undocumented Irish. The country’s quintessential Irish city, Boston, is a Sanctuary city. There are Irish Dreamers as there are Mexican Dreamers.
In 2017 in New York Irish activists held a rally, “Irish Stand for Justice & Equality,” in solidarity with embattled immigrants in the U.S. A featured speaker at the rally was Aodhan O’Riordan, a member of Ireland’s Parliament, who proclaimed that,
“Our story is one of struggle, of immigration, of seeking decency, refuge, of overcoming discrimination and sectarianism. What Mexicans today are going through … is exactly what we have gone through in the past. The struggles of immigrants to the United States today are the struggles of all Irish men and women. Their fight is ours! To any Irishman that stands with Trump, all I can say to you is that you have completely lost your Irish heart!” (Bruce Bostick, “Irish Americans in New York organize to support immigrants’ rights,” People’s World, March 16, 2017)
Then there’s the genetic nexus…
Celebrated science fiction author Ernie Hogan is one of many Americans proud of their Mexican and Irish heritage.
Members of Los San Patricios who survived the war remained in Mexico and married and built families. The children of these families themselves had children, who then married and had children, continuing and expanding the Irish-Mexican lines over several generations. Over time, many of their descendants immigrated to the U.S. Indeed, throughout the barrios of many U. S. communities, including Tucson, there are Mexican American/Chicano families of Irish heritage. As Irish-Mexican American Ernesto Hogan notes:
“So we end up with a world with Irish-looking folks who speak Spanish, and Mexican-looking folks with Irish names. Sometimes they’re in the same family. And it’s not as rare as a lot of people think.” (Ernesto Hogan, “An Aztec Leprechaun,” Latinopia, March 13, 2016.)
So, after the pandemic is over and things are back to normal, instead of gushing over green beer and pinching people for not wearing green, if there is a St. Patrick’s parade in your vicinity, go check it out, and while you do so, send out a good thought to Los San Patricios. c/s
Copyright 2021 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: Salomonrb@msn.com Photo of Ernie Hogan copyrighted by Ernie Hogan. All other images are in the public domain.