The Paseo Santa Lucia is an urban revitalization project come to life in Monterrey, Mexico — a river walk stretching some two miles between the Parque Fundidora to the sprawling Macro Plaza downtown. Tree-lined and flanked by restaurants, apartments, offices, green spaces, outdoor gyms, shops, museums and a massive convention center, it is a city planner’s mixed-use dream come true. From concept to completion, people actually use it. Day and night, couples, families and friends stroll both sides. It is almost storybook picturesque during the day and tealights-in-the-trees lovely at night.
More than 150 years after the Americans invaded Mexico tour boats full of people chug up and back detailing the history of this massive industrial city. Of its resistance. And of its Irish heroes.
Like many Irish Americans, my roots are distant. Both sides of my family come from different counties in Ireland four generations ago. We have no beloved recipes passed down through the ages or time-honored family traditions. All we really have are my Grandpa McDermott’s favorite Irish blessings, a legacy of Catholicism and a vague sense of place. Of fragmented belonging and a conceptual, but unearned, pride. So goes being an American mutt with German and Welsh roots as well. Nevertheless we braid together what roots we have and imagine a sense of identity.
Being an American visiting Mexico during the current administration is an anguished mix of shame, rage and helplessness. But learning that there was a contingent of Irish American dissenters who fought with the Mexicans against the Americans makes me swell with an unearned pride. While exorbitantly overpriced prototypes for the useless border wall compete for the outrage of civilized Americans with children in cages, I learn a better story about borders and soldiers.
They were called the San Patricios. The artillery-turned-infantry unit was comprised mainly of Roman Catholics who had fled the famine in Ireland and then from Anglo-Protestant persecution in the US.
“A group of Irishmen came to the defense of Mexico, and many of them died in defense of Mexico. That has to be lauded as one of the greatest honors ever, because they were fighting for an adopted nation — and they died for an adopted nation,” says US-based Mexican blogger Martin Paredes. He has written widely about these Irish soldiers and about how few Americans, like myself, even knew this part of American history.
“… for the most part, the general population of the United States is not aware of the Irish who fought for Mexico during the Mexican-American War.”
I am no proponent of ethnonationalism. But that immigrant soldiers illegally went south to try for a better life, as mercenaries no less, seems the perfect commentary on the true abstractness of geopolitical borders and the importance of trying to earn your own living with dignity.
Paredes says, “… historians have generally accepted that the war was about the expansion of the American empire through Manifest Destiny.”
I immediately want to call my uncle, a devout Catholic and the tireless genealogist of our family. I take some pictures along the river walk, read the surnames of the soldiers listed on the plaques commemorating their service and sacrifice.
The San Patricios, also called the Battalion of Foreigners, counted among their ranks African-Americans who’d escaped slavery, Canadians, and Catholic immigrants from other European nations — Germany, France, Poland, Scotland, Spain and others. There are women named too. Josefa Zozaya and María de Jesús Dosamantes — Heroic Defense of Monterrey, September 23rd, 1846.
Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo said it well: “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.”
To you, San Patricios, Sláinte!