Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why We Honor the San Patricios

In 1845, the Unites States government, under the leadership of President James Polk, fully embraced the concept of Manifest Destiny. The belief that the Anglo-Saxon race was destined to rule the continent led to a prevailing attitude of expansionism by force, if necessary. Thus, according to those who adhered to this philosophy, the time had come to spread the U.S. Empire all the way to the Pacific Coast.

The problem was that there was disputed land in the American west and in northern Mexico. This did not matter to the U.S. government. They were determined to take this land, by hook or by crook. The Mexican government disputed and then resisted this flagrant act of aggression. The U.S. cavalry was positioned in the disputed territory, now known as the Texas border region. In 1846, the U.S. government officially declared war against Mexico, and for three years the U.S.-Mexico war destroyed families and claimed nearly 30,000 lives in Mexico and the U.S.

At the time, the rank-and-file of the U.S. cavalry was comprised mostly of immigrants, some Germans and Poles, but mostly Irish Catholics. The Irish immigrants, in particular, had come to the U.S. under the most dire of circumstances. The Great Potato Famine was in the process of devastating Irish society and creating a wave of destitute refuges into the U.S. Many of these refuges were prime fodder for the U.S. military, which offered a job, of sorts, and a swift path to U.S. citizenship.

Many Irish were conscripted, their willingness to join motivated in part by the fact that the U.S. military was then battling British forces in Canada. For many an Irishman, the opportunity to do battle with their colonial oppressor, the United Kingdom, within the context of a well-armed and well-equipped U.S. army, was an appealing concept. With great relish, they headed off to fight the Brits in the north, only to find themselves suddenly transferred to the sweltering, desert-like terrain of Southern Texas, which, to the Irish, must have seemed like the surface of another planet.

The officer corps of the U.S. military was almost entirely WASP (white Anglo-Saxon protestant). Generally, they viewed the soldier class, with their immigrant ways and foreign religion, as a lower species of human being. The military was run not unlike a plantation: discipline was harsh. Soldiers who strayed from camp, got drunk, or disobeyed orders were whipped, held in the stockade, or sometimes tied to a stake and left to fry in the sun. Another common form of punishment was to be held upside down and have water poured down your nose and throat, a technique that in a later century would come to be known as “water boarding” and defined as torture.

These inhumane disciplinary techniques, combined with the fact that the army banned any practice of the Catholic religion, created an undercurrent of resentment within the ranks. Faced with the possibility of an insurrection, the military hierarchy passed an order allowing there to be a mass on Sundays. This mass was held at a local church, presided over by a Mexican-born priest. Unbeknownst to the officers, this ceremony would become a place of inter-cultural exchange, based around the concept of a shared faith, which sowed the seeds of the San Patricio Battalion.

Along with issues of cruel treatment and religious bigotry, the Irish American soldiers had another problem. Many of them had a hard time justifying the motives for this war of which they were now reluctant participants. As they came to know the Mexican people who lived in the region, they identified more with them than they did with the WASP overseers of the U.S. military. The Mexicans were peasant people, living off the land, who had not initiated conflict with anyone. It reminded the Irish of their own situation back in Ireland, only now they found themselves on the side of the imperialist and the oppressor.

The immigrant soldiers met secretly amongst themselves and discussed the situation. Eventually, led by an Irishman named John Riley, they decided to do the unthinkable. Over the course of three days, nearly 200 soldiers threw themselves into the Rio Grande and swam across to the other side. They deserted the U.S. Army. In Mexican territory, they re-gathered and formed a brigade, declaring that they would now fight against the U.S. military on behalf of the Mexican people.

The San Patricio Battalion was comprised mostly of Irish immigrants and Irish Americans, but also Germans, Poles, Italians, and some escaped American slaves. They were the outcasts of the American system, men and women who had lived on the dark side of oppression and were now ready to stake their liberty and lives in support of the right to self-determination. Outfitted and armed by the Mexican military, they rode under their own banner, a brilliant green flag with a harp, the Mexican coat of Arms, and the slogan ‘Erin go Bragh’ (Ireland Forever).

With nothing to lose (except their lives), the San Patricios fought valiantly in a number of key battles. At the Battle of Monterrey, they repelled two separate attacks on the city. Led by John Riley, they distinguished themselves as an artillery unit at the Battle of Buena Vista. They inflicted many casualties but also suffered major losses. By August of 1847, reduced in number, they were overwhelmed in a savage, hand-to-hand battle at Churubusco. Nearly a quarter of the battalion was killed, the remainder captured by U.S. forces.

The surviving San Patricios were charged with desertion and found guilty in a series of court martial tribunals. Many were sentenced to death, either by firing squad or, more commonly, public hanging in the town square. Those who were not executed were branded with a hot iron with the letter ‘D’ for deserter on their cheek. John Riley, leader of the San Patricios, was spared the death penalty because he had deserted before war was officially declared. He was sentenced to 50 lashes on his bare back and branded with the letter ‘D’ on each cheek.

For those who know this history, the legacy of the San Patricios is profound. To give your life in a matter of conscience, to do what you believe is just even though you know it could cost you your liberty and life, is one of the greatest sacrifices a human being can make. We honor the example of the San Patricios not as a call to arms, or as a call to battle, but as a call to do what is right.

Today, in the year 2012, we believe the spirit of the San Patricios is alive and well. It is a spirit of multi-cultural solidarity, cross-cultural solidarity, that we celebrate with music, dance and poetic invention. By honoring this history and making it present in our lives today, we hope to harness the spirit of the San Patricios, and use it to bring attention to instances of injustice and human suffering that exists here today in the U.S.-Mexico borderland.



The Irish Mexican Alliance was inaugurated in October 2010 in New York City by a group of Irish American and Latino artists and activists. The genesis for the initiative came from T.J. English, an award-winning author and journalist who had just returned from reporting on the devastation of the U.S.-Mexico narco war in Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere in Mexico. English, also the co-founder of non-profit corporation known as Irish American Writers & Artists, Inc. (IAW&A), wanted to create an event that would call attention to the situation with the narco war, particularly as it relates to the issue of journalists in Mexico being murdered for doing their job covering the story.

The NYC benefit concert was a big success, with Chicano and Irish poets, Celtic and Mexican music, special guest speakers, etc. Proceeds from the evening were donated to the Committee to
Protect Journalists, which has established a legal fund to assist journalists from Mexico who have been forced to flee and are now seeking asylum in the U.S.

The Irish Mexican Alliance was founded on the concept that there is a special connection between Irish and Mexican people, and that this connection can be used as a positive force for social change. The Alliance is rooted in history, specifically the history of the San Patricio Battalion, a group of mostly Irish American soldiers who, during the U.S. Mexico War of 1845-47, deserted the U.S. Army to fight on behalf of the Mexican people. The San Patricios were
captured, and many were found guilty of treason at U.S. military tribunals and executed by hanging.

We honor the sacrifice of the San Patricios. Documents from the era show that the choice to leave the U.S. army and fight on behalf of Mexico was based on principle. The mostly immigrant San Patricios came to believe that the war was wrong, that the U.S. government was engaged in an act of imperialist aggression. The San Patricios came to identify more strongly with the cause of the Mexican people, and they made a sacrifice that would cause most of them to lose their liberty and their lives.

The Irish Mexican Alliance recognizes this history as a heroic example of people standing up to the philosophy of Manifest Destiny. By choosing to identify with the cause of the Mexican people, the San Patricios were saying there is a calling higher than national identity, or nationalism. And that calling is the cause of human dignity and the right of people to self-determination.

The Irish Mexican Alliance hopes to harness the legacy of the San Patricios and apply it to issues of social justice. We hope to do this by staging benefit concerts and other events that celebrate and intermingle Irish, Irish American, Chicano, and Mexican cultural traditions.

NOTE: You do not need to be Irish or Mexican to be a part of the Irish Mexican Alliance. The Alliance is a SYMBOL of multicultural solidarity, cross-cultural solidarity, an example of people coming together across cultures and across continents to support each other on issues of social justice. If you are down with that, you are down with the Irish Mexican Alliance, and we hope to see you at one of our events.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Irish Mexican Alliance rides again


On April 28, 2012 in El Paso, Texas, The Irish Mexican Alliance rides again with a raucous night of entertainment and cross cultural solidarity, all to bring awareness to and raise money for organizations dealing with the trauma of the U.S.-Mexico narco war.

Some of the most popular bands in the Borderland, along with an impressive collection of poets and other artists, are coming together under that banner of THE IRISH MEXICAN ALLIANCE to stage a major fundraising event in downtown El Paso, TX on Sat., April 28. The event will raise money for the El Paso-based charity, Amor por Juárez, an organization that helps fund non-governmental organizations dealing with the trauma caused by the narco war in the U.S.-Mexico borderland.

Along with its serious intent, THE IRISH MEXICAN ALLIANCE event promises to be a raucous night of entertainment, as well as a formidable display of cross-cultural solidarity. There will be Celtic and Mexican music, Chicano and Irish poets, Mexican and Irish beer. Books, CDs, posters, and t-shirts created especially for the event will be raffled off for charity. The event will be held at the historic San Carlos Building at 501 Texas Avenue, in downtown El Paso, from 6-12 pm. The suggested donation for the event is $12.

“There is nothing quite like The Irish Mexican Alliance,” said best-selling author T.J. English, who founded the initiative and will be hosting the event. “We believe there is a spiritual connection between Mexican and Irish people that can be harnessed as a powerful force. In this case, along with staging one of the best concert events to hit El Paso in some time, we will raise money for organizations dealing with the ongoing emotional and human carnage of the narco war.”

Among the entertainers performing at the event are Frontera Bugalú and Radio La Chusma, two of the most popular bands in El Paso; singer Velia Christina, a rising star who will perform songs from her upcoming debut CD; the San Patricios, an El Paso based traditional Irish music group; and Ashley Davis, a Celtic singer who is being flown in from New York City. On the literary side, renowned Chicano poet and author Jimmy Santiago Baca will read, along with local poets Valentin Sandoval and Terrence Welsh, and Myrlin Hepworth, a dynamic young Chicano poet based in Phoenix.

THE IRISH MEXICAN ALLIANCE began in 2010 in NYC with the staging of a similar event in Manhattan. At that event, money was raised for the Committee to Protect Journalists, who established a fund to provide legal assistant to journalists forced to flee Mexico and seek asylum in the U.S. due to threats and the murder of fellow journalists in Mexico.

“Anything that brings attention to what is happening across the border in Juárez is important,” says Valentin Sandoval, a local poet, filmmaker and activist who is a coproducer of the event. “There is a danger people will get tired of hearing about what’s happening there, or simply forget. We want to help make sure that doesn’t happen, and also, at the same, create a special night showcasing some of the most talented artists in El Paso.”

In addition to calling attention to the devastating consequences of the narco war, THE IRISH MEXICAN ALLIANCE draws its impetus from the historical spirit of the San Patricio Battalion, a group of mostly Irish American soldiers who, during the U.S.-Mexico War of 1845-48, deserted the U.S. army to fight on behalf of the Mexican people. Although the San Patricios are thought of as traitors by some (many were executed as traitors by the U.S. military), THE IRISH MEXICAN ALLIANCE celebrates the sacrifice of the San Patricios as an example of men and women following their conscience and standing up to what they saw as injustice and imperialist aggression.

For more information about THE IRISH MEXICAN ALLIANCE and the upcoming event in El Paso, visit the Facebook page and/or website at

Media contact: Valentin Sandoval at or call at 915-694-8863.