As I sit here writing this column on Saint Patrick’s Day, I cannot help but think of the rich Irish connection to the culture and history of the United States. Like a sizable number of Americans, Irish blood runs through my veins and I am proud of this fact. I’m equally proud of my Mexican ancestry and the profound impact of my cultural heritage on my own life. As someone of Irish and Mexican ancestry, I have found it to be an interesting mixture, one perhaps best captured by a friend of mine who dubbed me “Juan O’Clock” in graduate school.
Today, there is little controversy regarding being Irish in America, however, the same is not true of many Mexican immigrants and those who have come from other parts of Central and South America through Mexico. Our president did not begin his presidential campaign by railing against Irish rapists and criminals as he did about Mexicans. There is not a plan and an executive order to build a wall to keep Irish immigrants from coming into this country. However, if we were to go back nearly 200 years ago, the story would be vastly different.
In New York, Irish immigrants found themselves unwelcome and the victims of much overt discrimination by English and Dutch Americans who audaciously referred to themselves as “Native Americans.” This is depicted in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film “Gangs of New York.” Americans, nearly all of them immigrants, viewed the Irish suspiciously because of their culture and their religion. They had fled horrible poverty and famine in Ireland in search of a better life across the Atlantic. However, as Roman Catholics, other Americans feared these Irish would not truly assimilate into the United States. As scholars like Noel Ignatiev demonstrated in his 1995 work, “How the Irish Became White,” originally the Irish were not viewed as white people.
Time does indeed change everything. Today as parades proudly celebrate Irishness and as rivers run green and people eat corned beef and cabbage with a pint of Guinness, those aforementioned “Native Americans” roll in their graves. Who could imagine that these questionable immigrants would become part of one of the most, if not the most, celebrated ethnic holiday in the United States?
So while I have many concerns about the current president and his policies, I am hopeful, if not confident, that in a century or more when Trump is in the dustbin of history with other ignoble bigots from our past, the United States will similarly celebrate the many contributions Mexican Americans have made to the history of the country.
There are already celebrations of Cinco de Mayo, though it is often an excuse for people to sicken themselves from too many margaritas and shots of tequila. I believe that September 16, Mexican Independence Day, will become celebrated with parades and fiestas. I believe this because as a student and teacher of history, I know this is how truly great nations handle periodic influxes of immigrants.
Both cultures, Irish and Mexican, are hardworking, proud and faithful people. If any of you have ridden a train, it is very likely you owe the ride to Mexican, Irish and possibly Chinese workers who laid the tracks. As I teach my students in my classes, most immigrants did not necessarily choose to come to America. Many like the Irish fled because of the bleakness of life at home. Others like Mexicans left because of revolutions or terrible economic conditions. While the immigration situation with Mexico is in need of reform, a wall is not the answer.
What makes America great and what makes America a destination for people in search of a better life on our shores is the very idea on which this country was founded – freedom. I cannot wait to see the beautiful colors that new immigrants will add to the American mosaic.