Both the Irish and Mexicans received rough welcomes to the U.S. Why we all need to do a better job of paying attention to what unites us

The first thing I detect during the phone call with my old friend is the sadness in his voice. 

I would expect nothing else. With an Irish father and a Mexican mother, sadness is in his DNA. It seems that for inhabitants of either country, it’s only a matter of time before you learn that life will break your heart. 

That lesson is not lost on Timothy O’Leary, a 61-year-old cancer survivor and father of two girls. Raised in an Irish-Mexican, Catholic household in the Washington, D.C., area, O’Leary has also lived in Switzerland and the Philippines. 

He is also a recovering journalist. We met in 2000, when we both worked as editorial writers for the Dallas Morning News.

Who better to walk me through the idiosyncrasies of the relationship between Irish-Americans and Mexican-Americans, and why it is that some of the former don’t think they have much in common with the latter?

This fact came to my attention earlier this month when I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by writing a column that paid respects to one of my favorite tribes of rogues.

It was the Irish who during the U.S.-Mexican War switched sides and wove their way into their hearts of our neighbors.   

In 1846, about 200 U.S. soldiers — most of them Irish immigrants — who had marched into Mexico as part of an invading party under the banner of Manifest Destiny, found themselves face-to-face with a crisis of conscience. 

By many historical accounts, the final straw came when the Irish — who were also Catholic — saw fellow soldiers desecrating churches and mistreating Mexican priests and nuns. Under the command of Capt. John Riley, the soldiers deserted the U.S. Army and finished the war fighting alongside the Mexicans. 

The renegades distinguished themselves in battle, displaying what one Mexican official later called “daring bravery.” After the war, almost 100 of these Irish soldiers were court-martialed as traitors and 50 were hanged.

But, in Mexico — and, for that matter, in Ireland — they are still revered as heroes. So was born the legend of El Battalion de San Patricio, the St. Patrick’s Battalion.

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Hand-tinted lithograph of the “Battle of Churubusco,” fought near Mexico City, August 1847. (J. CAMERON/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Meanwhile, as I wrote in my column, the experience of Irish-Americans in the United States — say from about 1840 to 1920 — was not exactly covered in four-leaf clovers.

You might say that the Irish were the original “bad hombres” — Catholic immigrants who in their day were vilified, scapegoated and insulted. Cartoons depicted them as monkeys. They were labeled as drunkards and criminals. They were denied jobs because of their religion or ethnicity. 

And when they could find work, they did the sorts of dangerous and dirty jobs that earlier waves of Americans — mostly from Germany and England — thought were beneath them. 

Then they were accused of usurping resources and taking jobs from more-deserving natives. They were tormented by the Know-Nothings, openly discriminated against and mistreated for decades. 

They were told they would never blend in, then accused of having divided loyalties between this country and the one they left behind. They loved this land and fought its battles — even when it didn’t love them back. 

Does this tale sound familiar? It should. Today, as I observed, it is often Mexican immigrants who are described with the “d-words” — dirty, dangerous, devious, dumb, defective.

O’Leary knows this history. In fact, he is well-versed on both histories — that of the Irish who came to the United States and of the Mexicans who followed.  

With his father, Jeremiah, and mother, Maria Teresa, O’Leary was raised with what he calls “strong identification” with the Irish community in the nation’s capital. He feels intimately connected to both cultures. 

“I know my cousins in Mexico,” he told me. “And I know my cousins in Ireland.”

Unfortunately, not all Americans are as knowledgeable. In response to my column, I heard from more than a dozen readers who — having identified themselves as Irish-Americans — said they were offended by the comparison. How dare anyone liken their Irish ancestors to Mexican immigrants? 

One reader protested: “The difference is we came respectfully humble and poor. My family entered the promised land LEGALLY through Ellis Island. My relatives have many similarities with the families today desperately coming from Mexico. Some families like mine came respectfully through the legal process. But you have been confusing your readers. It is not the act of coming that counts, but the way they come.”

Another wrote: “You are not being completely honest with this article. The Irish came here as ‘legal’ immigrants. So don’t be lumping them in with the ‘illegals’ who are coming to America today — sneaking in.”

Another chimed in: “Did the Irish come into the country illegally and then claim they had a right to be here and march around waving Ireland’s flag? I have no problem with Hispanics who come here legally and start assimilating into the culture — as the Irish did.”

Finally, a reader insisted: “You (intentionally, I suspect) leave out the core issue in the comparison — legality. Irish immigrants were in compliance with the law. I also think that most of the Mexicans are in compliance with the law. BUT, many are not, and therein lies the confusion and misrepresentation.”

One point of clarification: It is indeed a fact that a majority of Irish immigrants who came to the United States from 1840 to 1920 came legally. Make that all of them. 

After all — with the exception of those Chinese immigrants who were barred from entering the United States by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — it wasn’t possible for immigrants to come illegally until after the Immigration Act of 1924. It’s a pointless distinction.

But what I really wanted to get to the bottom of was this tendency of one immigrant group to hold itself above another.

I asked O’Leary what he made of this dynamic, where he thought it came from and what we can do about it.

“Well, it’s true that the Irish came legally, at least some of them did but not all,” he said. “But as for assimilating, the Irish were not the greatest assimilators for a long time.”

That explains all the parades on St. Patrick’s Day.

“My aunts and uncles married other Irish people,” he recalled. “My grandparents lived in an Irish-American neighborhood. The Irish are not the largest ethnic group in America. The English and Germans are bigger. But it is the largest group with an ethnic sense of itself. Is that assimilation? I’m not sure.”

Then I asked O’Leary about the significance that these “Irish deniers” are presumably also Catholic. Shouldn’t that give them a greater sense of compassion and a broader worldview? 

“You would expect more empathy, no? Maybe it’s all about fear,” he said. “It could be people are afraid of cultural differences and so they don’t want to identify with them.”

He might be onto something. If it is fear, it could be a fear of losing the uniqueness of one’s culture. People who know their history might have developed a sense of pride for having endured so much suffering and abuse. 

Another group comes along and claims an affinity. The first group instinctively feels protective of its experience, and so it rejects the comparison outright. This could be what’s going on.

Finally, I asked O’Leary how we get beyond the protectiveness, pettiness and provincialism. How do we get the various tribes in the American community to empathize with one another, and look for similarities instead of differences?

“Well, we set good examples for children,” he said without hesitation. “We teach them to treat other people with dignity and respect, and to share the commonality between cultures and not give into bigotry. That’s all we can do.”

That’s enough. Future generations are not destined to inherit the blind spots of previous ones.

But for all the Irish-Americans who resisted the comparison to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, there were just as many — if not more — who embraced it.  

One reader wrote: “Great article that touched my Irish, Swedish, Polish, German heart. My grandkids added ‘Mexican’ to the mix, and I couldn’t be prouder. Usted es un amigo mio.”

Another added: “This second-generation, Irish-American, 61 year old wants to thank you for your recent column. I have long felt an affinity for our southern friends coming to America for a better life. My dad’s stories about ‘No Irish Need Apply’ were burned into my rebel soul. History repeats itself.”

Another reader wrote: “Thanks so much for publishing your column on the Irish and Mexican connection. It was extremely moving for me to read this, especially since it was written by a Mexican-American. 

“My father came to the U.S. at the age of 17 in 1914. He came from an extremely poor family of 12 children and was the first in his family to cross the ocean. He had never gone past the fifth grade. Someone had to find money to send back home to help out the family. 

“People forget what prejudice awaited the Irish at this time. He served in the U.S. Army and then as a New York City policeman from 1920-1961. Thanks again for writing this column. We are brothers. Abrazos.”

Finally, one reader summed it up beautifully: “Any Irish-American who doesn’t see a comparison with Mexican immigrants is not paying attention.” 

It is really that simple. As Americans, we all need to do a better job of paying attention to what unites us.

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An immigrant holds a U.S. flag during a naturalization ceremony in New York City. (CNS PHOTO/SHANNON STAPLETON, REUTERS)

Ruben Navarrette, a contributing editor to Angelus News, is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a Daily Beast columnist, author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano,” and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.”