St. Patrick's Day is a good time to look back through history and pay tribute to my favorite band of Irish rogues. Our Mexican ancestors long ago lost their hearts to los San Patricios. The reference is to the approximately 200 U.S. Soldiers, most of them Irish immigrants, who marched into Mexico in 1846 as part of an invading party commanded by Gen. Zachary Taylor and wound up in a crisis of conscience. Experiencing an affinity with the Mexican people, and offended by the atrocities committed by other American Soldiers (which included rape, looting and murder), the Irishmen were torn.
They objected to the U.S.- Mexican War, which they recognized as not a war al all but an act of aggression against a sovereign people. Along with other foes of the war, including Abraham Lincoln, they realized that the land grab was fueled by a belief in "manifest destiny" and the designs that the United Slates harbored on the region that would become California and the American Southwest.
But, as soldiers, they also felt a sense of duty and, despite the fact that Irish immigrants were treated poorly in the United States, a loyalty, to their adopted country.
By most accounts, the final straw came when the Irish, who were also Catholic, witnessed fellow Soldiers desecrating churches and mistreating priests and nuns. The inner conflict was resolved. Principle won. In almost every Mexican account of the war, Los San Patricios are considered heroes who fought for the noble ideals of religion and a just cause against a Protestant invader of a peaceful nation. In U.S. history, Los San Patricios are often portrayed as deserters, traitors, and malcontents who joined the other side for land or money.
The Irish division was known as Los San Patricios, or "Those of Saint Patrick." It participated in all the major battles of the war and was cited for bravery by General López de Santa Anna, the Mexican Commander in Chief and President. At the penultimate battle of the war, these Irishmen fought until their ammunition was exhausted, and even then tore down the white flag raised by their Mexican comrades, preferring to struggle on with bayonets. Despite their brave resistance, 85 of the Irish battalion were captured and sentenced to bizarre tortures and deaths at the hands of the Americans, resulting in what is considered even today as the "largest hanging affair in North America."
The battle influenced Mexico in such a way that it has become a critical development in the official version of Mexico's history. Every year, September 12 is remembered and celebrated. Recently, after 150 years, Mexico remembered the St. Patrick's Battalion with full military honors at the Plaza San Jacinto. A military band even performed the Mexican and Irish national anthems.(6) In 1993, the Irish began their own ceremony to honor the San Patricios in Clifden, Galway.
The Irish in Mexico have an honorable reputation and a respectable legacy. To this day, an Irishman will be told countless times about the famous "Irish martyrs" who defected from the U.S. Army and gave their lives trying to save Mexico from U.S. aggression.
The St. Patrick's Battalion impacted Mexico's social movements more than any one can imagine. Six years ago, almost 150 years after the historic event that marked Irish influence in Mexico, Subcomandante Marcos, the nom de guerre used by Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, the spokesman of the repressed and marginalized people of Chiapas, invoked the spirit of Los San Patricios in one of his famous speeches against the Mexican Government:
"When Mexico was fighting, in the last century, against the empire of the bars and crooked stars, there was a group of soldiers who fought on the side of the Mexicans and this group was called 'St. Patrick's Battalion'. And so I am writing you in the name of all of my compañeros and compañeras, because just as with the 'Saint Patrick's Battalion', we now see clearly that there are foreigners who love Mexico more than some natives who are now in the government do. And we hear that there were marches and songs and movies and other events so that there would not be war in Chiapas, which is the part of Mexico where we live and die.
We like the Irish around here!"
The Irishmen, who had never formed much devotion to America due to the treatment they had received, were unfortunate in choosing the losing side. This did not diminish their bravery, since heroism can surface in the heat of battle on either side of a conflict. The bond of friendship between the Irish and Mexicans still exists, and if you visit Mexico and run across some Mexicans with Irish surnames, they may be descendants of San Patricio Battalion soldiers that escaped from the battle of Churubusco.