Los San Patricios: Irish in Mexico

I once heard from someone that “Mexicans and Irish are brothers and sisters separated by an ocean”.  At first I didn’t really understand the comparison but if you come to understand the history and culture of both countries, it’s actually quite a striking statement.

In 1640, moved by the plight of African slaves and mistreatment of the indigenous peoples, William Lampert, a recent arrival to New Spain from Ireland, was the first person to proclaim independence for Mexico. Almost immediately he would be jailed by the Inquisition only to escape several times but would finally be executed in 1659. For his part, he has become immortalized with a statue in his honor in the immediate entrance to the Angel of Independence in Mexico City. His hands are bound behind his back as he stares defiantly forward, a last glimmer of hope before his execution. Lampert’s struggle served as the real life inspiration for the masked-hero and vigilante, El Zorro.

Historically the Irish, like Mexicans today were looked down upon by people in the United States. As Catholic immigrants with strange accents, fleeing destitution, starvation and poverty many Irish arrived to the U.S. only to face the same discrimination as they did under British rule. Stereotypes abounded and many Irish were turned away from all but the most labor intensive and low-paying jobs. When it came to war though, military leaders had no reservations about using Irishmen as cannon fodder.

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Tribute to the San Patricios in Mexico City

In defiance to discrimination and perhaps feeling a fondness towards the Mexican people who faced an invasion from a larger, Protestant neighbor (a relationship not unlike Ireland and England) hundreds of Irish defected and joined the Mexican Army. The new unit came to be known as El Batallon de San Patricio (Saint Patrick’s Battalion) comprised of mainly Irish but also included German, Polish, Canadian, French, Italians, Scottish, Spanish and Swiss immigrants that defected primarily due to mistreatment due to their Catholicism but many African-Americans fleeing U.S. slavery also joined the ranks. Under the command of Major John Riley, the San Patricios fought bravely and skillfully during the U.S. Invasion of Mexico from 1846-1848 especially as effective artillerymen. On their green banner was the angel and harp of Ireland with gold writing that said “Erin Go Bragh” (Ireland Forever).

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Mexico prior to the U.S. Invasion

Ultimately Mexico was forced to surrender following the capture of Mexico City and under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, more than half of the country’s territory would be handed over to the U.S. The states of Texas, Arizona, Nuevo Mexico, Alta California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah, once the northern parts of Mexico, became the United States overnight. Despite resisting honorably and giving the United States some of their toughest fights during the war, 50 San Patricios were executed by hanging (an exceptionally gruesome death only reserved for spies). Yet of the 9,000  deserters during the war, only the Irish were punished for it, likely in part fueled by racial and religious hatred.

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A showing of Irish-Mexican friendship

After the war, the surviving San Patricios received land grants that had been promised to them by the Mexican government. The overwhelming majority of those who served remained in Mexico, where over the next century many more Irish arrived to work in the mines of the country or serve as loyal military leaders. It is estimated that 300,000 to 600,000 people of Irish descent live in Mexico with their contributions to the country being everywhere from exceptional murals to investment in mining and industry. While in the U.S., Saint Patrick’s Day is an excuse for people to drink without regard to the history, much like Cinco de Mayo, in Mexico a parade marking the friendship between the two nations is held yearly. In it hundreds of bagpipes, river dancers and even Irish diplomats arrive to celebrate together; of course one of Irish and Mexican people’s greatest loves, dancing and music are always included.

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