The weekly newsletter of the México Solidarity Project


March 17, 2021/ This week's issue/ Meizhu Lui, for the editorial team

A St. Patrick’s Day Lesson: Identifying the Real Snake

Back in the 5th century, the classic story goes, St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland. Centuries later, in the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848, the Irish immigrants conscripted into the US Army never did succeed in driving any snakes out of México. But they and their battalion — the San Patricios — did succeed at something far more important. They correctly identified the “snake” in México that so needed to be driven out.


These Irish soldiers arrived in México under orders to force México, at gunpoint, to hand over a vast swath of its territory. The Irish quickly realized they were helping perpetrate a grave injustice. They were being used. They switched sides.


The San Patricios knew snakes when they saw them. In Ireland, British snakes had seized the people's land and destroyed the system of communal control. Their colonial rule impoverished once thriving Irish farmers. The San Patricios, once inside México, saw stark similarities between their experiences and the lives small Mexican producers were leading. These Mexicans had fought for independence from Spain just thirty years earlier to defend their communal land. The San Patricios understood the brutality these farmers had faced.


The Irish, with their colonial history, have sometimes been called as the only “white people of color.” But the United States the Irish emigrated into rested on white supremacy, and, after a generation, Americans of Irish heritage became fully white-identified. Enjoying the privileges of whiteness, many joined in the violence against Chinese immigrants and fought against equal rights for African Americans. In more recent days, many have donned MAGA hats.


But throughout US history many other Americans of Irish heritage have fought for the rights of all working people. They have understood that becoming “white” comes with a stiff price: the loss of Irish identity, an identity of solidarity across racial and national lines.


Bruce Hobson, a co-editor of this Bulletin and our Voices interview this week, has Irish roots that go deep enough to touch the San Patricios, and Bruce holds this Irish heritage dear. Today, he understands, cross-border movements for justice will only succeed if we all sharpen our ability to identify a real snake when we see one. If we don’t, that snake will fill us with its venom too.


Irish Americans opposing the racist California Prop 187 in the spirit of the San Patricios


In the 1970s Bruce Hobson found himself deeply influenced by community college co-workers who had been Brown Berets in the revolutionary Chicano movement. Bruce would go on, in the 1980s, to work at a villager-run health program in the mountains of western México where he served disabled children and their families. The UN refugee commission in Chiapas later hired Bruce to train Guatemalan refugees in orthopedic diagnosis and rehab. But then, after the Zapatista uprising in 1994, the Mexican government deported him, declaring his work “a front for gathering international support” for the Zapatista Army. A member of Liberation Road and a co-editor and translator for the México Solidarity Bulletin, Bruce now lives and celebrates St. Patrick’s Day in Guanajuato, México.


Irish-American workers often get stereotyped as racists. But how did Irish immigrants react when the United States invaded Mexico in 1846?


The US was determined to expand across the whole continent, “from sea to shining sea.” But the southwest belonged to México. So first the US annexed Tejas, México, and then, when México refused to sell its territory, the US made war to take it by force.


Irish immigrants, conscripted into the US cavalry, became part of the invading army. They came to be known as the Batallón de San Patricio, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion.  These Irish soldiers rode south deep into México. The deeper they rode, the more they understood they were invading a country that had done the US no wrong. The Mexican villages they rode into reminded them of their own villages. The Mexican peasants seemed just as poor, and they practiced the same Catholic religion as the Irish. Under the leadership of John O’Reilly, the San Patricios would forge profound connections with the peasants, connections strong enough for the Irish to tear off their uniforms and join the Mexican side.

What conditions of life in Ireland caused these men to leave their homes?


Two things led to the roughly one million Irish emigrating to America from the 1840s through the 1860s. The first — the Potato Blight and famine — had a million people starving to death. The other would be the inhumane actions of the British landlords. They didn't just dispossess the Irish farmers. They continued to export food crops, for their own profit, even after the mass starvation had begun!


What happened to the San Patricios?


The US won the war in short order. When the Battalion was captured in México City, the San Patricios were tried by the US Army. Fifty were hanged in the largest — official — mass execution in US history, others flogged and branded with a “D” for deserter on their cheeks. But México has not forgotten that these San Patricios gave up their lives in opposition to an unjust war.


As someone with Irish-American roots, what makes solidarity with México so important to you?


Let me tell a story. Riding the bus in México City a few decades ago, I found myself sitting next to an older man dressed in a worn suit. He was intrigued by my left background, and I was fascinated by his knowledge of US and Mexican history. When he asked if I knew about the San Patricios, my eyes lit up. We both had been inspired by their actions. Nearly crying, the man told me that the San Patricios amounted to proof that the US had citizens who believed in justice.


Today, look at the Irish-American workers who have lost manufacturing jobs to NAFTA. They have plenty in common with workers in Mexican maquiladoras who do the jobs they used to do, for a fraction of the wage that they had been paid in the US. The San Patricios recognized the fight of the Mexican people as their own fight. We need to do the same. We need to be San Patricios.


The best history of the Mexican-American War? Pulitzer Prize-winning Princeton historian James McPherson, in a New York Review of Books piece, has bestowed that rating on Amy Greenberg’s 2012 book, Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 US Invasion of Mexico. We’ve taken this excerpt from McPherson’s review.


'A war of choice, not of necessity'


“I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico,” said Ulysses S. Grant in 1879, more than thirty years after he had fought in that war as a young lieutenant. It was one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”


Like the adventure in Iraq more than a century later, it was a war of choice, not of necessity, a war of aggression that expanded the size of the United States by nearly one quarter and reduced that of Mexico by half. And in a glaring example of unintended consequences, the issue of slavery in this new American territory set in motion a series of events that would produce a much bigger war fifteen years later that nearly tore apart the United States.


Two principal forces impelled Americans toward a wicked war. The first was the annexation of Texas in 1845. Soon after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the new government offered American settlers large land grants to move into its sparsely populated northern province of Tejas. The Mexican government soon had reason to regret this policy. The Americans brought slaves in defiance of a Mexican law abolishing the institution. They also defied Mexican efforts to regulate land claims and political activities.


Despite Mexican attempts to ban further immigration, by 1835 30,000 Americans lived in Texas, where they outnumbered native Mexicans (tejanos) by six to one. Determined to establish their own government, the American Texans met at a village appropriately named Washington in 1836 and declared their independence . . . The Texans managed to maintain their independence for almost a decade even as they petitioned repeatedly for annexation by the United States . . .


[In 1845 the new US President James Polk] sent an envoy to Mexico City to try to intimidate the unstable government into accepting the Rio Grande border and selling New Mexico and California to the United States. Meeting refusal, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to lead a contingent of American soldiers to the Rio Grande. Polk hoped this move would provoke an incident that would enable the United States to declare war and seize the territory that Mexico refused to sell . . . the Mexican commander on the south bank of the Rio Grande created an incident by sending troops across the river to attack an American patrol, killing eleven of them . . .


American armies had a long string of military successes that gave the United States control of New Mexico and California, and they captured Mexico City itself by September 1847. Nevertheless, the growing list of casualties and reports of atrocities by American soldiers against Mexican civilians and of savage attacks by Mexican rancheros (guerrillas) on American soldiers intensified antiwar sentiment in the United States . . .


By the summer of 1847, even journalists employed by pro-war newspapers “found themselves forced to report on and condemn American atrocities that left them questioning their assumptions about American morality.”


Recent news reports and commentaries, from progressive and mainstream media,
on life and struggles on both sides of the US-México border


Mexico Set to Become World’s Largest Legal Marijuana Market After Historic Legalization Bill, Democracy Now! The legislation could bring major shifts to a nation long plagued by drug-related violence.


Mexican president vows to challenge suspension of electricity law, Reuters. A judge has frozen a new electricity market law that aims to strengthen the national power company Federal de Electricidad at the expense of private sector energy producers.


Leigh Thelmadatter, A century after the Revolution’s end, the Adelitas still await real recognition, México News Daily. Depictions of Mexico's female revolutionaries haven't evolved past archetypes.


David Brooks, Abruma éxodo de menores en la frontera al gobierno de EU, La Jornada. La llegada incesante de miles de inmigrantes indocumentados menores de edad no acompañados a la frontera estadunidense amenaza con empantanar las intenciones del gobierno de Joe Biden de promover reformas migratorias.


Pandemic Death Narratives of México and the United States, Los Angeles Review of Books. México, as we know it today, rose from pandemic, the smallpox that Cortés and his conquistadors carried in.


Maya Dukmasova, ‘He's a Real One’: The Squad's Middle-Aged, Mustachioed Ally in Congress, In These Times. How Chicago’s Jesús “Chuy” García went from challenging the city’s machine to taking on D.C.’s Democratic establishment.


Oscar Lopez, A Green Wave? México’s Marijuana Market May Be Middling, New York Times. Opinions appear mixed on the economic impact of México's impending cannabis legalization.


Sadie Brown, Mexico Attempts To Improve Poor Record On Money Laundering, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. México’s financial authorities have announced they will put together a guide for the prevention of human trafficking and other crimes, the fourth in a string of such guides released this month.


Isaac Enríquez Pérez, La minería y la actualización de la acumulación por despojo en México, América Latina en Movimiento. En México, tan solo las empresas mineras canadienses establecidas allí controlan el 60% del total del oro extraído.


The Mexico Solidarity Project brings together activists from various socialist and left organizations and individuals committed to worker and global justice who see the 2018 election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as president of México as a watershed moment. AMLO and his progressive Morena party aim to end generations of corruption, impoverishment, and subservience to US interests. Our Project supports not just Morena, but all Mexicans struggling for basic rights, and opposes US efforts to undermine organizing and México’s national sovereignty. 


Editorial committee: Meizhu Lui, Bruce Hobson, Bill Gallegos, Sam Pizzigati. We welcome your suggestions and feedback. Interested in getting involved? Drop us an email!


Web page and application support for the México Solidarity Project from NOVA Web Development, a democratically run, worker-owned and operated cooperative focused on developing free software tools for progressive organizations.