The
Irish-Mexican
Thing


Julie Reynolds
photos by janjaap


 


I BELIEVE there is an Irish-Mexican thing, an affinity, an attraction, a spiritual connection between the cultures, and it goes deeper than Carlos Murphy restaurant chains or potato-skin nachos, or even the allegation that Irish and Mexicans both like to drink.

"Maybe it's because they both had to swim a long way to get here?" my pal Reynaldo wonders, sipping a pint of Murphy's Stout at the Poet and Patriot Irish Pub in Santa Cruz. I'm here looking for some reliable sources I can quote on this slippery subject. I think it's going to be a long night.

"An Irish-Mexican thing? Well, I've got one going," says Brian Laverty, squeezing his girlfriend
who is from Puebla, Mexico. He gulps a Negra Modelo.

"No way," our friend Tomás tells me as I suspiciously eye his red sideburns. "There's no foundation for your so-called 'theory'." No wonder he's grouchy: he's the only one not drinking. "Oh yeah?," I say, "Then why is there an Irish Mexican Association?" Tomás looks exasperated. "Yeah, well there's an Earth-Alien Society, too," he remarks snidely.

"Whoever says that doesn't know what they're talkin' about," bellows Chris Matthews, playwright and owner of the Poet and Patriot. "The fact that there are so many mixed blood Irish and Mexicans obviously proves they're wrong. We have a mutual, inward, uh, being that spiritually connects us." Matthews is a full-fledged classic, with an actual twinkle in his eye, a loud mouth and the habit of ending his sentences with "darlin'."

Matthews is good, but at this point I realize my research has to get serious, so I go to the pros: San Francisco's Irish Mexican Association. "It goes back to ancient times," begins Patrick Goggins, co-coordinator of IMA, and president of the Irish Literary and Historical Society. "In both cultures, music and poetry flourished. The fundamentals of the arts," Pat declares with great drama, "have coursed through our histories." In contrast, Chris Matthews is fairly blunt about our similarities: "There's a craziness, of course."

Okay, for those who still doubt that this connection is more than just idle chisme, I must now point to history.


Pointing to History

For years, playwright Luis Valdez has said that "the Irish are the Mexicans of Europe." He's referring to the 800-year history of political intervention, colonization and exploitation of the Irish by the British (other than that, they've been nice). "We were Europe's Indians," echoes Chris Matthews. "The first people called savage were the Irish." Chris's faraway look says he's wrapped up in history, reliving centuries-old injustices. "[England's] Oliver Cromwell murdered 10,000 women and children in two days," says Chris. So strong is Matthews' disdain for Ireland's oppressors that he flies off whenever a Latino friend makes the mistake of calling him anglo. "That means 'English.' Don't call me anglo!"

While working with Chicano muralists years ago in Watsonville, Matthews learned about the San Patricios, a group of Irish soldiers who fought for Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Being the poetic Irishman, Chris ended up writing a play about them. A Flag to Fly tells the story of the final hours of the San Patricio battalion. The piece has won a drama award or two, and has been performed around the US and Ireland.

A Flag to Fly eventually became a screenplay co-written by Matthews and Vincent Gutiérrez, and was purchased by Moctezuma Esparza's production company (of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez). But not without a few reservations. "Now let me get this straight," Esparza's partner, Bob Katz, asked Matthews, "Your heroes are traitors to America? Do I basically got that right?"

This month, filmmaker Mark Day will release a long awaited and heavily researched documentary, The San Patricios (see sidebar). "If you understand the San Patricios," says Pat Goggins, "you understand Ireland, Britain, the US and Mexico. You understand the economics between Britain and Ireland, and you understand the US Manifest Destiny policy towards Mexico."

The San Patricio Story

In the mid-1800s, Irish immigrants fled famine at home only to find themselves as soldiers, fulfilling US "Manifest Destiny" by invading Mexico. In 1846, John O'Reilly and 48 other Irishmen deserted the US army and joined the Mexican side. They called themselves the San Patricio Brigade, and by 1847 there were over two hundred of them.

The San Patricios' bravery-or stubbornness, whatever you want to call it-was renowned. In the battle of Churubusco to defend Mexico City, when Mexican troops began to raise the white flag, the San Patricios tore it down. Casualties were great, and many San Patricios were captured. All the captured deserters were found guilty, and between September 11 and 13, 1847, forty-six of them were hanged.

In 1959, a plaque was erected in honor of the San Patricios in San Angel, Mexico City, and every September 12 their memory is honored. There's also an annual ceremony in Clifden, County Galway, Ireland.

In San Francisco, the San Patricos showed up alive and kicking at last year's St. Patrick's and Cinco de Mayo parades, thanks to the Irish Mexican Association. IMA was founded by Patrick Goggins and Patricia García (who was born on St. Patrick's Day), to "celebrate historic bonds of friendship and solidarity." The group, which Pat Goggins says comprises around "30 of each" Irish and Mexicans, had marching units in last year's parades. Together with a group affectionately known as Marco González's Mexican Army, the marchers portrayed the San Patricio Battalion and their Mexican friends. They even won second place in the Open Marching and Classic Cars categories, having rolled in driving a model T.

This year, it's unknown if the San Patricios will march in the parade on Sunday, March 17th. "Being Irish," says Sean Prendeville, of San Francisco's Irish Film Society, "the organizers are about three weeks late getting the parade information out." On March 16th, around 500 or 600 soldiers from Marco's Mexican Army will be marching towards Sacramento (for a film shoot), and they may just be too battle-weary to be San Patricios again on the 17th. If this is beginning to sound a little surreal, well, that's what the Irish-Mexican thing is all about.

Goggins and others from IMA are also studying the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. "Parts of the treaty were meant to ensure respect for the culture and customs of Mexicans in the US," Pat explains. The group wants to shake the dust off the old treaty, take it to legislators and request that the spirit of the treaty regarding immigration and Spanish language issues be abided.


The Whole Future of Humanity

Now, I don't know if it's the subject itself, or maybe it's just the Guinness, but as our dialogue continues, my sources are beginning to sound a little more lyrical. Passion flows from their mouths, and they'll not let mere facts get in the way of a good story.

"In the year 400 and something," as Chris Matthews tells it, "St. Brendan, an Irish saint-and I'm not for St. Patrick, by the way, I believe more in a Druid situation- but there's a strong belief by both Mexicans and Irish that St. Brendan sailed to America. Some believe he went to México and that he was the red-haired white fellow. They all hit it off and everything, you know, Quetzalcoatl and all that stuff. He was good people, and he said he'd be back." Chris suddenly looks a little embarrassed. "I'm sure he meant to come back," he apologizes. "So when here comes Cortez, they thought he was Brendan!"

On the other hand, "it took a Chicano to bring the snakes back into Ireland," according to poet Francisco X. Alarcón. When his books Body In Flames and De Amor Oscuro were translated into Gaelic by Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock, Alarcón went on a 1992 reading tour of Ireland. Francisco likes to burn sage and chant in Nahuatl when he reads poetry, and he gets the whole audience jumping around and chanting. For his Irish tour, he took along some wooden snakes to throw out to the audience.

"So at one reading, I took the snakes and passed them around, and I was burning copal and chanting in Nahuatl. Everybody was doing poetry, all in Spanish, Nahuatl and Irish." Then a Catholic priest took one of the snakes and raised it in the air, waving it around. He was chanting in Gaelic. Francisco asked his interpreter what the priest was saying. "He was chanting for the goddess of Ireland to come back! Then a policeman came in, concerned because he saw lights on the roof. But everyone convinced him they were just faeries, and he ended up joining the circle with us.

"You see, we're both connected to an earth-worshipping tradition. When you are a conquered people for many centuries, like Mexicans, you have a spiritual way of resisting. Mexicans really believe in miracles, daily miracles, just as the Irish still believe in faeries. For us and the Irish, the past is present, it's alive."

"It goes back to the druids, the earth and nature," agrees Pat Goggins. "We both believe in spirit, life, family and cultural gatherings."

"Well, the truth is, the whole future of humanity rests on the Irish-Mexican connection." I say this in jest, but I also mean it. After all, the deep and intuitive understanding between many Irish and Mexican people is a beautiful example of what we really want the world to be like. As Sue Welsh, of LA's Mexican Irish Connection (MIC), proclaimed at a gathering in Saltillo, Mexico, "Let the word go forthin prose and song that the Mexican people and the Irish people intend to build a bridge of peace and hope across the miles."

Sure, we can dream a little, can't we? After all, it's what we're both good at, dreaming daily miracles. Our cultures, the Irish and the Mexican, are full of poetry and dreams and standing up to tyrants.

"So there, Tomás," I say. "Admit it. This Irish Mexican thing is bigger than all of us. ¡Feliz día de San Padraig! And, bartender, a round of Bushmill's with a Tecate back for my friends here"

 
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