Let me introduce you to an ornery group of Catholic immigrants who can’t seem to let go of the past.
They’re proud of their heritage and the country they left behind, even though their homeland — plagued by poverty and corruption — didn’t do right by them. Despite the fact that their country of origin tossed them away, and forced them into the arms of the Statue of Liberty with nothing more than a rosary and some family photos, they’ve held onto their culture with both hands.
They’ve been picked on by nativists and subjected to insults and discrimination. Excluded from some neighborhoods, they formed their own enclaves — only to be accused of segregating themselves by the same folks who did the excluding.
They love the Stars and Stripes, and the Republic for which it stands — even though it has not always been clear that their new home loves them back. Still, to the bewilderment of fellow Americans who have accused them of having divided loyalties, they have been known to wave the flag of their home country.
All of which leads me to ask: When exactly are the Irish going to assimilate?
Not anytime soon, from the looks of it. They’ve done all the blending in they’re going to do, and — if we know what’s good for us — we’ll stop asking for more.
Didn’t we just have a national debate over assimilation?
It happened when NBC Newsman Tom Brokaw, whose mother was Irish, used an appearance on “Meet the Press” to show his ignorance.
“The Hispanics should work harder at assimilation,” Brokaw said.
Is that so? Because, from where I’m sitting, “the Hispanics” assimilate like mad in pursuit of the American Dream.
And it’s the Irish who don’t seem all that interested in the concept of abandoning their heritage and culture.
At least that’s the lesson I gleaned from that one memorable St. Patrick’s Day that I spent watching the parade in South Boston. It was in college, on the banks of the Charles River, that I stopped worrying about assimilation and learned to love the Irish.
The love affair came easily. If I couldn’t be Mexican, I’d be Irish. We’re both Catholic and immigrant. And we both drink hard, and play sad songs so we can cry and be happy with the memory.
The Irish pay tribute — in a classic hymn, written by an Englishman, that dates back to 1913 — to a young man who heard “the pipes are calling” and had to leave Ireland, either to fight in World War I or to seek his fortune in America. No one knows.
It’s the destiny of Danny Boy to come home “when summer’s in the meadow,” or “when the valley’s hushed and white with snow,” and “all the flowers are dying.” When he gets there, he’ll find that his loved ones have passed away — and he never had the chance to say a proper goodbye. Behold, Ireland’s #1 export: heartache.
Mexicans know this song by heart, and they can write their own verse — of leaving, returning, leaving again. Our unofficial national anthem, which I heard at dozens of Mexican weddings growing up in the rich farmland of Central California, speaks of finding love only to lose it and spend the rest of your days hoping that it will return — or “Volver, Volver.”
These two tribes — the Irish and the Mexicans — are also tied together by a lovely story of heroism dating back to the landgrab known as the U.S.-Mexican War.
Mexico loves the San Patricios. In 1846, approximately 200 U.S. soldiers, most of them Irish immigrants, invaded Mexico under the command of Gen. Zachary Taylor. They wound up battling a crisis of conscience. Experiencing an affinity with the Mexican people, and troubled by the atrocities committed by other U.S. soldiers (rape, looting, murder, etc.), the last straw for the Irishmen — according to historical accounts — involved their Catholicism.
When the Irish witnessed fellow soldiers desecrating churches and abusing priests and nuns, they knew they had to act. The Irish soldiers — commanded by Capt. John Riley — deserted and fought alongside the Mexicans. And so was born the legend of El Battalion de San Patricio, or the St. Patrick's Battalion, which was fought with what one Mexican official called “daring bravery.”
After Mexico lost the war, almost a hundred San Patricios were court-martialed as traitors. Many were whipped, hanged, or branded. In Mexico, it’s a different story. Honored with a monument in Mexico City, the San Patricios are still revered as heroes.
Meanwhile, on this side of the border, the arguments continue about immigration and identity.
It’s even been said, in high places, that Mexico sends America its worst people. Rubbish. The truth is, it sends its best.
Just like Ireland did 150 years ago. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, hermanos.
Ruben Navarrette is a contributing editor to Angelus and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is a radio host, a frequent guest analyst on cable news, and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Among his books are “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.”
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