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Why Spanish Harlem Celebrates St. Patrick's Day PDF Print E-mail
RAFAEL MERINO CORTÉS   
Saturday, March 15, 2008

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While studying at Harvard University after WWI, Pedro Albizu Campos’ solidarity and aid in the Irish struggle against the British Empire led him to a meeting with Éamon de Valera (who's father was Spanish-Cuban), who invited young Albizu to assist in the drafting of the Irish Free State constitution. Today, while much of Ireland experiences the world as a sovereign republic, Puerto Rico remains a colonial territory of the United States.


Imagen St. Patrick's Day, everyone's Irish. Even Latinos put aside their Medallas, Dos Equis and Presidentes for a pint of Guinness. However, our commemoration to the shamrock and salute to the Emerald Isle has a more interesting foundation than the excuse to consume Irish stout (as if we needed an excuse).

In fact, we can trace our connection to the folks of Éire to before Christianity – and before Latin America became "Latin" or "America."

The Lebor Gabála Érenn, (Book of the Taking of Ireland) is one of the most influential books of Irish culture and history, almost comparable to the Old Testament of the Israelites. It was compiled and edited by an anonymous scholar in the 11th century who blended history with dubious accounts of places, people and events. However, there is a consensus that much of the origins of modern Irish culture point to the same historical mark: the Iron Age associated with the Celtic invasion of Ireland.

The Celts invaded Ireland in waves throughout the last centuries leading to Christianity. The last of these invading Celts were known as Gaels, who came from the northwest region of the Iberian Peninsula known today as the province of Galicia, in modern Spain. The Gallaeci (or Callaeci) tribes of Celts in Galicia were given that name by the Romans because they worshiped the Celtic goddess Cailleach.

Early Irish people also referred to themselves as Milesians -- sons of Míl Espáine (the Iberian Peninsula).

By this account, it is not surprising that the harp and other folkloric elements of Galicia resemble those of Ireland more than traditional Spanish culture. And when the Spanish began to conquer the Americas (and spread the Spanish language and Catholic religion to the native civilizations), they brought with them their Galician brothers and sisters -- and their Celtic bloodline.

However, as we scan through history, we find more recent Latino/ Irish connections in the post-Columbus and Cortés narrative of the Americas.

In Argentina, and especially in Buenos Aires, along a street called "Reconquista," all-night long parties are celebrated in honor of St. Patrick.  The street is named that way remembering the take over of the city after it had been invaded and occupied by a detachment of the British Army for 46 days in 1806 (a second British force occupied Montevideo in 1807, remaining for several months). Today, while much of the popularity of St. Patrick's Day is due to the sympathy and solidarity with the Irish struggle against the British and the continued occupation of Northern Ireland, the colonization and subsequent war over Las Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands) certainly plays a role as well.

Even before the British Empire carved a line below Northern Ireland, the idea of a superpower clutching part of another country has rarely sat well with the Irish. When the United States annexed the Republic of Texas, a former part of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas, the two countries went to war.

Having served in the British and US Armies, Jon Riley was an experienced soldier fed up with imperial occupations of other countries. Together with fellow Irishman Patrick Dalton, Riley formed the Batallón de San Patricio (St. Patrick's Battalion). The battalion would grow to 800 fighting Irish, Germans, Swiss, Scots and other Roman Catholics of European descent, who went on to engage US forces in 5 major battles. The St. Patrick's Battalion was responsible for some of the toughest fighting (and the heaviest casualties) that the US Army had faced in the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. The Battalion fought under a flag bearing the Harp of Erin with "Erin Go Bragh" ("Ireland Forever" in anglicized Gaelic) written beneath.

Today, the Mexican flag flies daily in the town center of Riley's native Clifden, County Galway, in Ireland. A statue, donated by the Mexican government in 2004 to the Irish in recognition for the bravery, honor and sacrifice of the St. Patrick's Battalion, also stands in Clifden's town center.

Then in 1912, a young Puerto Rican by the name of Pedro Albizu Campos is awarded a scholarship to study Engineering at the University of Vermont. In 1913 he transfers to Harvard University before volunteering in the US Infantry at the outbreak of WWI. Although he was proud to serve, he was also exposed to racism after being placed in a 'negro unit.' This experience began to mold his view of Puerto Rican and US relations. After an honorable discharged as a First Lieutenant, he returned to Harvard, where he was elected president of Harvard's Cosmopolitan Club. His exposure to WWI and brush with racism opened his mind to social and political struggles around the world. He hung out with Irish nationalists in school, making a conscious connection between British rule over Ireland and the US colonization of Puerto Rico. Albizu helped establish clubs and centers throughout Boston where young Irish congregated and discussed the independence of their homeland. Albizu's solidarity with the Irish struggle led him to a meeting with Éamon de Valera (who's father was Spanish-Cuban), who invited young Albizu to assist in the drafting of the Irish Free State constitution.

After Harvard, Albizu returns to Puerto Rico and joins the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, and within a relatively short period, becomes its leader. Albizu would reorient the Nationalist Party using the Irish Republican Movement as a model. Today, while much of Ireland experiences the world as a sovereign republic, Puerto Rico remains a colonial territory of the United States.

Back in County Galway in Ireland, we find that Jon Riley was not the only Irishman with a historical connection to the Latino community. In 1715, an Irishman by the name of Patrick Lynch, native of Galway, journeys to a Basque region of Spain known as Bilbao. From there, he travels to South America, visiting many regions of the continent before settling down in Argentina, where he becomes a prosperous merchant. The Lynch family gives birth to Ana Lynch in 1868, who in 1900, gives birth to Ernesto Guevara Lynch. Mr. Guevara Lynch marries a lady by the name of Celia de la Serna y Llosa in 1927 and together have two daughters and three sons. Of the boys grows up to become a figure of note in Latin American history: Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

The first thing to note is that in my son's veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels, the Spanish conquistadores and the Argentinean patriots. Evidently Che inherited some of the features of our restless ancestors. There was something in his nature which drew him to distant wanderings, dangerous adventures and new ideas.”
— Ernesto Guevara Lynch, Che's Father

In this immigrant nation, it is not difficult to trace political and cultural crossings and exchanges of all sorts. The Irish/ Latino connection came to mind because in Spanish Harlem, a bar/restaurant has become renowned for, among other things, its frequent servings of Guinness pints -- not just to Irish or British patrons, but to the Hispanic community from and around El Barrio. In fact, the bar’s principal owners, Orlando Plaza and Raúl Rivera, founded Camaradas El Barrio back in 2004 after working in Downtown Irish pubs, such as Puck Fair and Ulysses, and befriending the owners, who were gracious in sharing their experience and guidance. So when Orlando and Raúl embarked on their own pub-style establishment, in honor of their working class descendents, they were mindful in paying homage to their Irish friends by offering one of the finest pints of Guinness north of 96 Street.



RAFAEL MERINO CORTÉS



Comments
. Written by virtualboricua on Saturday, March 15, 2008
When I lived in the Bronx, I formed many friendships with progressive Irish immigrants based on our similar colonial histories. But as with all things Diaspora, the pubs along Bainbridge Avenue have all been replaced with fast food outlets and dollar stores and many Puerto Rican and Irish have moved away. The few that remain (some intermarried) seem to have lost that common bond, although Black 47 will forever remain in our hearts. 

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