Although there’s nothing particularly Latin about drinking Guinness and eating corned beef and hash, it seems Latinos are always up for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day every year come March 17. Let’s face it, Latinos always gravitate to a good party, and St. Patty’s Day is kind of like the Irish version of Cinco de Mayo. But below the surface of this apparently good and green time lies a heartfelt bond between those of Irish and Latin American descent that you may not be familiar with. It’s like distant cousins eyeing one another, perhaps detecting some recognizable genes in the mix.
For one, the Irish’s legacy of being devoutly Catholic and having dispersed themselves throughout the world like Latin Americans for economic and political reasons is also a commonality. So are both groups’ fierce loyalties to family values. Not to mention the not so kind treatment they both received as immigrants in the United States.
Like Latinos today, the Irish also underwent discrimination when they first arrived for reasons having to with their funny accents and humble origins and over time they were stereotyped as drunk and redheaded leprechauns with silly green hats and shamrocks. And no matter how hard we try, Latinos can’t seem to shake off being depicted as lazy, mustache-poncho-and sombrero-wearing tequila addicts either.
So this year, as you partake in the St. Patty’s day partying, whether it’s with a spread that includes green margaritas and green enchiladas or just plain Guinness, be sure to spread your knowledge to others about the history of why we Latinos love the Irish.
Kiss Me, I’m Latino
Just who is this saintly Patrick you ask? Ireland’s patron saint was credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. Later on, it was immigrants, particularly those who landed in the United States, who transformed St. Patrick’s Day into a celebration of all things Irish. Cities with large numbers of Irish immigrants who gained power politically began to organize the elaborate parades we know today. According to Britannica, Boston held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1737, followed by New York City in 1762.
The urban melting pots that were such cities also gave way to plenty of Latinos who are of blended heritage, born to Irish and Latino lovers across the Americas. It’s what the Colombian-American actor John Leguizamo comically coined being “Black Irish” in his one man show Freak on Broadway. Since Latinos and Irish Americans have always had to share turfs in U.S. cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago, etc., dramatized in the musical West Side Story where a Puerto Rican gang rumbles and romances against an Irish one in New York, Leguizamo celebrates this dysfunctional family´s history with comedic flair. In one act from his show Freak, Leguizamo tries to hit on an Irish girl in and he tries a little too hard to come off as authentically Irish when we all know he isn’t.
“So I am having some green beer and since everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day I figured I try out my gift and river dance over to her in the thickest Irish accent I can manage…´Toy, hello Lassie, You ever f$%k a leprechaun? Erin go bragh and begorrah. Why are you looking at me like that? Is my shillelagh hanging out? Are my shenanigans banging about?´
She took a long draw of her cigarette and said:
´You don’t look Irish to me.´
´Oh, but I am, Black Irish.´”
Perhaps the most famous Latino of Irish ancestry was Antonio Rodolfo Quinn, otherwise known as Anthony Quinn. He was best known for playing the lead role in Zorba the Greek and Eufemio, Emiliano Zapata’s brother, in Viva Zapata! starring Marlon Brando. Quinn was born on April 21st, 1915, in Chihuahua, Mexico, where his half-Irish father Francisco Quinn had married a Mexican girl of Aztec Indian ancestry, Manuela, while fighting for revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. Apparently Quinn’s real life was just as passionate as his roles because according to Reuters when Quinn passed away in Boston in 2001, he was the father of nine sons and four daughters by his three wives and three mistresses.
War Buddies: When the Irish Took the Mexicans’ Side in the War
Did you know that Irish immigrants in the United States demonstrated solidarity with Mexico and ended up being publicaly hung for it? During the Mexican-American War (1946-1948), a group of Irish immigrants deserted the U.S. Army to join the Mexican Army and fight off the U.S. invasion of Mexico. Why did these Irish immigrants turn their backs on the U.S. you ask?
It’s speculated that these Irishmen preferred to fight alongside Catholic Mexicans against the Protestant Americans who had discriminated against them when they fled the Irish Potato Famine in search of a better life. Since the war was seen by many Irishmen as a war of aggression, hell-bent on the greedy whims of Manifest Destiny, when the Mexican government offered the Irish land and money, they gladly defected to the Mexican army. This group of immigrant underdogs went on to form the Batallón de San Patricio, an artillery battalion commanded by Jon Riley, which fought in the Battle of Monterrey, The Battle of Churubusco, and the Battle for Mexico City.
Although they had their triumphs, when the U.S. eventually won the war and captured Mexico City, members of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion were tried as traitors and 50 were hanged. Evidently they were hated because of the 9,000 who deserted the U.S. army, only members of the San Patricios were hanged.
The San Patricios went down in history as the only group of deserters in American history to band together in the service of a “foreign enemy.” Although Americans of that generation viewed the San Patricios as traitors, Mexico never forgot their solidarity. Former President Vicente Fox Quesada stated that:
“The affinities between Ireland and Mexico go back to the first years of our nation, when our country fought to preserve its national sovereignty … Then, a brave group of Irish soldiers … in a heroic gesture, decided to fight against the foreign ground invasion”. Former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo also stated: “Members of the St. Patrick’s Battalion were executed for following their consciences. They were martyred for adhering to the highest ideals … we honor their memory. In the name of the people of Mexico, I salute today the people of Ireland and express my eternal gratitude.“
The Irish’s influence and diaspora in Latin America
Like Latin Americans laborers, the majority of Irish were unskilled workers who left their homeland in search of work to support their families. For example, in 1835, hundreds of Irish railroad workers recruited in New York to travel to Cuba to build the Havana–Güines railroad, ultimately staying in the island nation after the work was finished and calling it home.
Yet, it wasn’t just work opportunities that called their attention to Latin America. It so happens that the Irish not only fought against colonizing forces in Mexico, but throughout Latin America. In fact, a good number of Irish were inspired by the Liberator, Simón Bolívar’s dream of unifying Latin America and ridding themselves of Spanish rule.
According to the Irish Times, “there are plenty of Irish names sprinkled through the history of the wars of independence in Latin America. Roads, plazas, schools, football teams, even warships are named after Irish men and women who are revered in public memory for their contribution to achieving the independence of the Latin American republics.”
History says that Bolívar’s agents combed the pubs of Dublin and Belfast recruiting impoverished Irish men and their families who were lured by the legends of El Dorado and riches of South America between 1817 and 1820. Sadly many of them died on under-provisioned ships even before they reached the northern part of the continent in Venezuela. And once they landed, many of them died of tropical diseases.
Many simply went to Latin America for the adventure and glory, but there were also those who were motivated by political ideology. Men like Florence O’Leary and Francis Burdett O’Connor, natives of Cork in Ireland, became generals and helped liberate Latinos from Spanish rule. Perhaps the region’s most famous fighting Irishman was Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme, a South American independence leader who, alongside José de San Martín, helped free Chile from Spanish rule in the Chilean War of Independence. Today, there is a Chilean village called Villa O’Higgins named in his honor and a major avenue in Santiago called Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins. His achievements have also been honored back in his native land with a plaque in Merrion Square in Dublin.
Don’t Cry for the Argentinean Irish, They’re Celebrating
Today, St. Patrick’s Day is also celebrated in Buenos Aires Argentina, which was known to have attracted the largest number of Irish immigrants outside the English- speaking world. In the 18th century more than 50,000 Irish immigrants arrived to Buenos Aires where worked as sheep farmers and cattle ranchers.
In fact few people know that the handsome revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was actually of Irish descent. Born in Buenos Aires in 1928, his paternal grandmother, Ana Isabel Lynch, was the daughter of immigrants who had sailed to Argentina from Ireland during the Irish Famine, according to the Irish Times.
There’s no doubt that Latinos probably love the Irish because they have a kind of grounded moral passion about life that sets the apart from other Europeans. They also love to have fun and try their best not to worry too much about what other people think of them. So go ahead and let your inner Latino Leprechaun loose this March 17 and make a toast to the being just a little Black Irish at heart.