The story of los San Patricios

St. Patrick's Day is a good time to look back through history and pay tribute to my favorite band of Irish rogues.
My Mexican ancestors long ago lost their hearts to los San Patricios.
The reference is m the approximately 200 U.S. Soldiers, most of them Irish immigrants, who marched into Mexico in 1846 as part of an invading party commanded by Gen. Zachary Taylor and wound up in a crisis of conscience. Experiencing an affinity with the Mexican people, and offended by the atrocities committed by other American Soldiers (which included tape, looting and murder), the Irishmen were torn.
They objected to the U.S.- Mexican War, which they recognized as not a war al all but an act of aggression against a sovereign people. Along with other foes of the war, including Abraham Lincoln, they realized that the land grab was fueled by a belief in "manifest destiny" and the designs that the United Slates harbored on the region that would become California and the American Southwest.
But, as soldiers, they also felt a sense of duty and, despite the fact that Irish immigrants were treated poorly in the United States, a loyalty, to their adopted country.
By most accounts, the final straw came when the Irish, who were also Catholic, witnessed fellow Soldiers desecrating churches and mistreating priests and nuns. The inner conflict was resolved. Principle won.
The Irish soldiers deserted the U.S. Army, armed the battlefield and finished the war fighting alongside the Mexicans. So was born the legend of El Battalion de San Patricio, the St Patrick's Battalion.
Under the command of Capt. John Riley, who organized the renegades, the San Patricios distinguished themselves in battle, scrapping with what one Mexican official later called "daring bravery."
At the battle of Churubusco, near Mexico City, the Americans suffered 177 casualties, most of them attributed to assaults by the Irish soldiers. The Americans eventually won the skirmish and the defeat led to Mexico's surrender. Famed Mexican general, and eventual president, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, later remarked that if he had commanded a few hundred more San Patricios, Mexico would have won at Churubusco and avoided the humiliation of losing nearly half its territory to the United States.
After Mexico's surrender, almost a hundred San Patricios were court-martialed as traitors. Many were whipped and branded on the face with the letter "IY" for deserter. Fifty were hanged. In Mexico, the San Patricios are still, to this day, revered as heroes who chose the right side of history.
This story has been told in books, on documentaries, even a feature film. About the only place that one won't find it is in American history textbooks, most of which omit any refer-ence to the San Patricios .
That is not surprising. You can't tell the story of the heroes without telling of the atrocities that prompted them to cross battle lines. The preferred version of those U.S. historians who do engage the story is that these conscientious objectors were little more than disoriented deserters who, one day, drank too much and stumbled across enemy lines.
More than 150 years later, the legend of the San Patricios lives. Mexico holds celebrations in their memory and Ireland recently issued a stamp commemorating them.
On this side of the Atlantic, and of the Rio Grande, Irish-Americans are falling in love with the rogues. A group in Phoenix formed the San Patricios Society. Founder Bill O'Brien says that what draws him to the tale is the notion that a group of brave outcasts would give their all in what some would say was a lost cause - all in defense of conscience and principle. Made up of Irish and Mexican-Americans, the group tries to keep the story alive as a way of bridging the modem cultural divide that exists between the two communities in that city.
That divide isn't limited to the desert. Whole parts of the country are suddenly losing sleep over the "Mexicanization" of our cities and towns. There is probably as much fear and re-sentment today toward Mexican immigrants as there was 150 years ago toward Irish ones.
An old story firm south of the border reminds us how silly that is. My Irish friends and I have no quarrel -not given the possibility that their great-grandfather and mine could well have fought side by side in pursuit of a righteous cause.

Navarrette can be reached via e-mail at