Monday, May 07, 2018

closing another cold case

I love a good mystery.

Better yet, I love solving a good mystery.

When I moved to Mexico, I had a lulu in my sights. Why was the Mexican village of San Patricio named after a Romano-British missionary who became the patron saint of Ireland?

The question, of course, was a bit silly. Mexico is filled with villages named for Italian or French saints along with the Jewish apostles (unlike my current neighborhood that is named in honor of a Mexican-born missionary who was martyred in Japan -- San Felipe de Jesus). And no one bothers asking why. After all, the saints are as universal as the church.

I instinctively knew there was no answer to that question. After all, why is San Luis Potosi named for a sainted French king?

But there was an additional mystery that intrigued me. During the Mexican-American War of 1846-7, several Irish and German soldiers in the American army were induced to desert and switch sides. The Mexican government promised land and military commissions to American deserters.

One of the few military advantages the United States had in that war was is artillery tactics. Most of the deserters had served in artillery units and brought that skill to the Mexican side. They styled themselves as the San Patricio Battalion. (Seven years ago, I described the genesis of the battalion in more detail in mexi-irish rose -- part i and mexi-irish rose -- part ii.)

The war did not end well for many members of the battalion. When the Americans won, they tried a group of them and hanged them for desertion. 46 of them.

But some were merely whipped and branded. Others had melted away into the expanse of Mexico.

When I moved south, I had several clues to follow about a popular local myth that San Patricio was named for the battalion. In the 1990s, a professor from Evergreen College in Washington, brought a group of students to Mexico to sensitize them to the evils of America. (It was the same group of students Mexico would eventually deport for interfering in Mexican politics. count me out -- but in.)

The professor claimed there was a direct link between the battalion and the name of the village, and he used the battalion as a role (or rile) model for his charges. The students were instrumental in re-building the gazebo in San Patricio's square. A plaque still honors their efforts to immortalize the battalion.

As proof of the connection, the professor claimed to have seen a deed awarding a local hacienda to a member of the battalion. That seemed to cinch the connection.

But, when I asked where he saw the deed or if he had retained a copy, our connection went dead. I do not want to ascribe any lack of honesty on his part. That would not be magnanimous.

A Mexican acquaintance, who was an elected local official at the time, told me another tantalizing tale. There is a hill just north of San Patricio that contains a cave. According to my acquaintance, a member of the battalion came to the area and lived in the cave as a hermit.

No deed. No hacienda. But it did have a sense of Catholic authenticity. A grieving soldier paying penance for his violent past.

Or so goes the story. When I asked him if there was any documentation supporting the tale, he just chuckled.

That did not surprise me, though, he is the same fellow who told me years ago that he believed there was a connection with the battalion, but he knew of no objective evidence to support that conclusion. "You don't understand the mystery of Mexico. Thinking about this simply destroys its beauty. Myth is true. Facts are lies. If you want it to be true -- it is."

And, apparently, officialdom has adopted that approach. During one of my trips, a large flag pole (one of those poles that bear the weight of a giant Mexican flag on secular holidays) was installed on the north end of the town square. At its base is a very carefully-worded plaque that honors the memory of the Irish soldiers of the San Patricio Battalion and declares them to be local heroes for their sacrifice.

No claim that the town is in any way connected to battalion members who moved to the area. Nothing about a romantic hermit in a cave. No yellowing hacienda deed. Just a homage paid by grateful people to soldiers who volunteered to defend them.

I have been told by people who attended the dedication ceremony that what does not appear explicitly on the plaque was overtly stated in speeches.

And, who knows? Maybe there is something other than a precatory connection between the battalion and the town. But, I have decided that I am not going to find it. I will simply smile when people mention the connection. What sense is there railing against myth?

After all, there are people who still go around spouting the long-ago discredited tale that the term "Gringo" was a taunt of the Mexican people urging the green-clad American soldiers of 1848 to go home. (For the record, "gringo" dates back to at least the early 1700s in Spain and was used to refer to a non-native speaker of Spanish. Probably, derived from the Spanish word for "Greek" -- as in, it is all Greek to me.)

Now, I need to find another quixotic research quest. Any suggestions?

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