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Mexico and Neocolonialism: An Irish perspective

By Tony Phillips


Another Immigrant War, the San Patricios [3]

Plaque in Plaza de San Jacinto, San Ángel
(Francisco Trejo, 2007)

Less well known than the Alamo story is the story of the European-born immigrants who fought and died in the Mexican-American war and in particular, the significant minority who took part on both sides.

One Mexican army brigade was called the Saint Patrick's Battalion (or 'San Patricios'). It was made up of men who began the war in the US army but defected en masse to the other side, thereby defending Mexico from the US invasion.

The San Patricios brigade was made up of recent US immigrants, mainly professing the Catholic religion. The majority were Irishmen, recruited from high Texan unemployment by US army recruiters headed south to fight Polk's war.

The protection of immigrant rights was a non-issue in those days predating Homeland Security. Then, as now, rules were particularly lax in wartime, which meant that many army men were horribly mistreated to keep them in line. This led to a slew of army defections to 'volunteer and embrace Mexico's cause'. Among reasons cited for this traitorous behaviour, was the conduct of their mainly British Protestant officers, and the particularly vicious antics of the Texas Rangers when capturing Mexican towns; desecration of Catholic Church property, rape and slaughter.

These opportunist Mexican soldiers of fortune were commanded by John Riley of Clifden, County Galway. The Battalion of St. Patrick, 800-strong, fought a commendable retreat from US invading forces as the Americans pushed south to the capital, DF. One reason cited was the brigade's determination not to be captured alive. It is even said that the Patrick's battalion threatened to shoot their Mexican colleagues if they capitulated to the US forces.

The mainly Irish-born, English-speaking battalion was given a great deal of autonomy as to how they fought their former employers; unfortunately for them they found themselves on the losing side. As it turned out the Patricios were prudent in avoiding capture - the US Army had been instructed to make an example of the Irish Catholic defectors. They meted out face branding with hot irons (the letter 'D' for Deserter) and most survivors were summarily hanged. In DF, the US army made a point of hanging most of the remaining Patricios in the same Zócalo.

The valiant Patricios are commemorated annually in Mexico. Recently Irish dignitaries were invited by former Mexican President Vicente Fox to share in the 1847-1997 celebrations in the Zócalo, DF.

The myth of National Independence

It may at first glance seem like an incongruous list of populations but modern-day DF and its suburbs were host to the Olmecs, the Aztecs, the Spanish, the 'Mexican' and for a short time even the US conquerors. One might suggest that the Spanish conquerors should be treated as a special case as they ruled 'New Spain' as a European colony, the other regimes being self-governing, though I would argue otherwise.

What exactly is the logic of a modern-day self-governing republic? To what extent is it possible for a modern nation to control its own destiny, especially in the context of the massive influence of global transnational corporations and in the context of regional trade communities such as the European Union (EU) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)? These questions are especially pertinent in the case of Mexico, whose northern neighbour is the largest economic and military power on the planet.

When colonial powers cede control to new nations, contacts rarely come to an abrupt end. Ireland maintained laws that protected British property rights after 1921. These were written in the English language as part of predominantly English laws. Ireland also maintained an economy entirely dependent on Sterling for many decades. The Mexican revolution was not dissimilar, although the second Zapatista revolution did alter some property rights to the benefit of local Mexicans over foreign landowners, largely as a result of the first Zapatista rebellion.

Central Mexico seems like an appropriate place to explore the legacies of colonial power and to delve into their neocolonial counterparts.

Dust of Colony

DF has some really impressive colonial architecture but the colonial architectural style is found in many Altiplano Spanish cities. Particularly beautiful are Zacatecas, Guanajato, Puebla, Querétaro and, perhaps the most famous of them all, San Miguel de Allende.

San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato
(Ruiz, December 2004)

San Miguel de Allende is a city frozen in time by an architectural heritage law enacted in the nineteen twenties. Her districts are called 'Colonias' and much of the architecture is from the more splendid periods of Spanish colonial opulence. San Miguel is currently undergoing another type of invasion. This began as a small artistic hippy community. Now in San Miguel, a thriving real estate industry offers 300-year-old palatial mansions to a global market. Affluent visitors are tantalised by monthly bus tours conducted in English, taking curious tourists to some of the prettier mansions in the city, many of which are for sale. Most of the buyers are retired people from the US. In recent decades there have been many Canadian visitors also, but fluctuating exchange rates affect participation. Geographical factors such as proximity and the availability of flights play a significant role in determining who occupies these beautiful properties, though the buying power of a nation's currency is also a major factor. There are more British property owners in San Miguel than Guatemalans.

An Anglo-Irish Colonial Viewpoint

As an Irish citizen of British descent I have always been somewhat conflicted about the notion of 'colony'. In the beautiful and hospitable environs of San Miguel de Allende it is difficult to recognise a traditional colony. One could argue that traditional colonies were largely eradicated in the early 1900s with the self-destruction of the Western empires in the wake of the First World War. In the absence of a foreign army of occupation, can a colony really exist? If so, how would we recognise it? What exactly is neo-colonialism?

Hegemony Defined

Colonisation involved much more than property rights. Any successful colonial power understands that a precursor to property ownership is ownership of the mind. Every expansionist military is accompanied by an expansionist religion, Spain had its Catholic Jesuits, Dominicans and others, and the US has evangelical Protestant sects. It is important to maintain control of property when governments change. What use is a paper land title, or paper currency for that matter, if it is no longer negotiable? Religion, language, and cultural assimilation played a huge role, some might argue greater than the military role, in maintaining the colony of 'New Spain' for three hundred years.

Founding Mexico

Modern Mexico is a sovereign nation state born in the traditional manner of various anti-colonial rebellions, and constitutionally governed by the Mexicans as a Federal state. Or so it seems. As a nation state, the founders of modern Mexico learned the value of property the hard way and took some measures to protect their land from becoming the property of external powers. Non-Mexican citizens are not allowed to buy property in Mexico but they can buy and sell a ninety-nine year lease and, recently, former Mexican President Fox of the neoliberal PAN party made it easier for foreign citizens to apply for Mexican citizenship.

There are many parallels to this form of protectionism. Take London for example. The Duke of Westminster owns some of the most lucrative land leases in the City of London; in fact it is more precise to say the Duke of Westminster owns the City of London. You cannot buy land in parts of central London because those lands are not for sale. Why sell when you can lease? By this means, the Duke of Westminster has income in perpetuity, and the land will always belong to the Crown. The title passes down through the British Royal family to the next Duke.

Trust in Money

On the back of a US dollar note, one reads 'In God We Trust'. Since currencies broke with the gold standard under US president Nixon, their values float. The 'Gods' of international finance determine the relative value of the pieces of paper we carry in our wallets. Whether I get 10.9 or 11.2 Mexican pesos to the US dollar, or 13 or 14 to the euro, is a decision made at the currency markets of New York, London and Zurich, and to a lesser extent in DF.



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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 1 March 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Phillips, Tony, 'Mexico and Neocolonialism: an Irish perspective
' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:1 (March 2007), pp. 16-22. Available online (www.irlandeses.org), accessed .


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