More than whiskey and tequila
Reno’s Irish-Mexican Alliance distills a tasteful new American spirit
“The power of the idea is its implausibility,” says Judge Brent Adams, a member of the Board of Directors of the Irish-Mexican Alliance (IMA). “You look at it, and you ask yourself, what are old, successful Irish guys doing with a bunch of Mexicans?”
At first glance, the entire phrase seems incongruous, with the words “bunch of Mexicans,” dragging its cultural stigma behind it like dirty chains.
But to clarify the strange and wonderful relationship between two of America’s core immigrant groups:
The story of the IMA begins 161 years ago during that rape-and-pillaging excursion known as the Mexican-American War. A group estimated to be around 800 foreigners, mostly Irish, along with some Scots, Germans and a handful of Dutch immigrants, defected from the Union Army and joined the Mexican war effort, fighting the majority of the war on the Mexican side. The unit, led by Lt. John Riley of Ireland, came to be known as “St. Patrick’s Battalion” and served with distinction. The battalion of “colorados,” as they were called for their red hair, was known to have been among the best artillerymen in the Mexican army at the time.
Toward the end of the war, in a singularly sadistic move, General Winfield Scott ordered 30 of the captured Irish to be hanged in full view of both armies at the Battle of Chapultepec in Mexico City, at the precise moment when the United States placed its flag on the citadel. This included the hanging of a man who had both legs amputated the previous day. The citadel’s only defenders were the teenage military cadets who took down the Mexican flag and committed suicide rather than have their country’s colors captured. It’s a quietly overlooked episode of U.S. imperialism in the 1800s that almost doubled the size of the U.S. territory.
Nonetheless, the basic question to historians then, as now, is similar to the one Judge Adams posed. What were these seemingly dissimilar groups doing joining forces?
Friends in strange places
Consider that most of the Irish had immigrated to the United States from an Ireland that, under the thumb of British rule, was now being asked to fight for a country bent on similar conquest. Couple this with the fact that the Irish were constantly being harassed for their Catholicism, a religion which they shared with the Mexican people, and it’s not difficult to understand the sympathy between the groups.
“The Irish and Mexican people are both very strong Catholic cultures,” says Sandra Jimenez, secretary for the Alliance and counselor at Truckee Meadows Community College. “Not enough people know about the relationship between the two. We need to put a lens on it, promote it, and be proactive.”
A branch of the nationwide Irish-Mexican Alliance is doing just that in Reno.
“In Texas, the Irish [Union soldiers] would cross over the border to attend Catholic services in Mexico, for which they were then flogged,” says Honorary Irish consul Dr. Bernard Brady in a soft brogue. “[In the United States,] businesses would have signs up that said ‘No Irish, No Catholics Need Apply.’
“People don’t realize it, but back then, 85 percent of the Irish didn’t speak English. They had problems with the language, religion and with work. Even when I [first] came here, people would hear me talk, and they would say, ‘Not another Irish mick,’ and that was in 1979.
“The alliance grew out of a friendship between myself and Jesse Gutierrez [the director of Nevada Hispanic Services],” says Dr. Brady. “Initially, we just came together to educate people about St. Patrick’s Battalion.”
They would invite people to the community room at KNPB Channel 5 for a free screening of the 1999 movie One Man’s Hero. It was a Hollywood treatment of the story of St. Patrick’s Battalion starring Tom Berenger and Mexican actress, Daniela Romo.
In his home office, Dr. Brady keeps records and memorabilia of the group since its birth in 2003. There are currently more than 250 members in the IMA, a membership with an impressive array of professionals from both cultures, including academics, executives and public officials. Every Sept. 16, which is Mexican Independence Day, the group comes together to honor St. Patrick’s Battalion and to celebrate both cultures.
“As the organization has progressed, it has offered a great deal of support to the Mariposa Academy [a dual-language charter school],” says Gutierrez of Nevada Hispanic Services. “The school fills a need that is not met with ESL classes alone because it is designed to keep culture alive. Be proud of your English skills, but don’t lose your culture. You can be an American of Mexican decent or an American of Irish decent. There is no shame in keeping your roots and culture intact.”
“The Irish understand the importance of language and the Mariposa school is going to be huge,” says Brady. “Within the European Union, a huge quantity of the officials are Irish, and you must speak multiple languages to work. These Irish are fluent in Spanish, German and Italian. What people don’t understand is that the Mexicans here want to learn English, and they want to progress. For both cultures, this is our new homeland … But we know where we came from, and we don’t let go of that.”
Judge Adams says Irish-Americans once faced many of the same prejudices many Mexican-Americans experience today.
“If you ask someone now, ‘Are you scared of the Irish? Are there too many of them? They are going to take over, take our jobs?’” says Judge Adams. “No one says that they are, but if you ask them if they’re scared of people who speak Spanish, they say ‘Yes.’ People are always scared of people who look or talk differently.”
Hope over fear
Listening to Judge Adams speak about the IMA is to come face-to-face with the political implications of the organization, particularly at this moment in time.
“The argument of politics is a fight for the future, not a debate about the past,” he says. “I’m concerned that what underlies a lot of the immigration debate is fear. The idea of the Irish-Mexican Alliance is to honor hope over fear. If we wish to be great, we cannot treat new immigrants like we were treated. If established immigrants support new immigrants, the era of prejudice will be even shorter, and their success will be greater.”
In honor of the leader of St. Patrick’s Battalion, Lt. John Riley, the Mexican flag flies in the town center of Clifden, County Galway—his birthplace. The members of St. Patrick’s Battalion are also honored as heroes.
“Even further back in history, there are ties between the Irish and the Mexicans,” says Dr. Brady. “The greatest quantity of settlers in Ireland originally came from what is Spain, and these [people from Spain] are the same people that later conquered the Aztecs and mixed blood with the indigenous peoples that went on to become Mexicans.”