St. Patrick's Day has special significance in Mexico and among generations of families who can trace their history to the old Southwest, particularly among those of Mexican heritage. This reverence is due to the actions of unsung heroes known as the San Patricios.
While their bravery and military skills are not particularly well-chronicled outside of Mexico and the Southwest, their hero status among Mexicans almost makes up for the absence of their role in the Mexican American War (1846-1848). They remain fondly remembered and admired as Los Colorados -- the redheaded Irishmen who fought in support of the Mexican forces.
The San Patricios became a respected part of the Mexican Army during the war. Their relatively unknown story (according to whose version you believe) is one of angry, bewildered, naive, or principled young men -- from various nationalities and ethnic backgrounds -- who deserted the U.S. Army for many reasons and paid the ultimate price for their acts. Displeased with ethnic and immigrant bias on the part of Anglo-Protestant officers -- and unconvinced about the reasons they were given for fighting Mexican Catholics -- hundreds of Irish, German and other immigrant soldiers deserted from the U.S. Army to join the Mexican forces.
"The San Patricios were alienated both from [U.S.] American society as well as the U.S. Army," says Professor Kirby Miller of the University of Missouri, an expert on Irish immigration. "They realized that the army was not fighting a war of liberty, but one of conquest against fellow Catholics such as themselves."
They were led by Captain John Riley of Clifden in County Galway -- and in deference to Ireland referred to themselves as the St. Patrick's Battalion. They fought against the U.S. forces in all the war's major campaigns and according to their Mexican comrades "deserved the highest praise, because they fought with daring bravery."
Although their hero status is based on their exemplary performance in battle, the San Patricios suffered major casualties at the famous battle at Churubusco, considered by military historians as the Waterloo for the Mexican Army. Yet, Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who commanded the Mexican forces at Churubusco, is reported to have said that if there had been a few hundred more men like the San Patricios under his command Mexico would have been victorious.
Despite the assistance from the San Patricios, Mexico was no match for the U.S. Army and eventually surrendered -- ceding the modern Southwest to the USA. Every San Patricio who deserted from the U.S. Army was jailed and subsequently court-martialed. Many were set free, but the Irish paid for their crime; accounting for approximately half of those executed.
September 12 is the anniversary of those executions, and on Saint Patrick's Day (March 17) ceremonies are held to honor the San Patricios and celebrate the role of immigrants like the Irish, Scots and Germans in the war. It is not uncommon for an Irish person to hear about the famous "Irish Martyrs" who defected from the U.S. Army and sacrificed their lives to fight with a people whose principles they shared.
Respect for the Irish remains high in Mexico, as well as those of Mexican heritage. In 1959, the Mexican government dedicated a commemorative plaque to the San Patricios in San Angel, a Mexico City suburb. The plaque lists all the names of the battalion of immigrants who lost their lives in battle and execution.
In 1983, the Mexican government authorized a special commemorative medallion in their honor. In celebration, a special mass was followed by school children placing floral wreaths at the plaque, the Mexico City Symphony orchestra played the national anthems of Mexico and Ireland, and Mexican and Irish officials eulogized the "Irish Martyrs." In 1993, the Irish began their own annual ceremony in John Riley's hometown of Clifden.
On this St. Patrick's Day (and future ones as well) don't forget to the toast to the San Patricios, who understood the plight of immigrants and chose to stand with them in battle and death.
¡Viva los San Patricios! ¡ Viva la justicia!
JIM ESTRADA is nationally renowned for his expertise in ethnic marketing and communications. His book "The ABCs & ñ of America's Cultural Evolution" is due to publish this year. Author's website