“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!”
Hear Music 2010
Once, in order to make up a math class, I had to attend a high school I'd never been to before. The class was split up into groups of about five, and after a couple of weeks my fellow group members decided to grace me with the nickname “Jewish Kid.” The thing is, I'm not Jewish. So I told them:
“I'm not Jewish.”
“You're not? But don't you go to a private school?”
“Well, what are you then?”
“It's complicated, but the short answer is Irish-Mexican.”
This response was greeted with blank stares. They ultimately decided that I was still Jewish Kid—they didn't want to bother coming up with another nickname—and remained so for the rest of the summer.
This sort of thing is fairly typical for me. Irish-Mexican is not a “standard American racial category” with a definable culture, so people often just assume I'm whatever they think I look like. Exacerbating this is the fact that I live in Los Angeles, where race is, it's safe to say, a subject of interest. So I have been left somewhat in the lurch, culturally speaking. And this is why the latest album from the Chieftains, San Patricio, drew my attention, and has proven to be something of a challenge.
You see, San Patricio celebrates a peculiar episode of history in which Mexico, Ireland, and the United States all played a part. And to do this, it weaves together the folk music of Mexico and Ireland to create a richly textured hybrid sound, evocative of the wild, border-blurring tale it has to tell. The tale is that of Saint Patrick's Battalion, which fought for Mexico in the Mexican-American War. It was composed mostly of Irish immigrants to America, who had joined—or been conscripted—into the American Army but ultimately defected. As you may expect, since Mexico lost the war, their story does not end happily. But the San Patricios (as they were commonly called) are remembered nonetheless as heroes—at least in Mexico and Ireland.
San Patricio unfolds this history much like a two-act play—the players being Ireland and Mexico, their voices, their respective musical tradition. In act one, Mexico sets the stage with traditional folk music. The songs vary in tone and subject, from the bright, effusive “La Iguana” (and yes, it's about an iguana) to the somber “A la Orilla de un Palmar.” None of them, however, addresses the topic of the San Patricios. Instead, they merely offer a musical panorama of Mexico, giving a glimpse of the land for which the San Patricios fought and died.
While ‘Mexico’ dominates this first half, Ireland is not completely absent. A polite guest on these tracks, she fills out and accentuating the Mexican instrumentation without ever seeming intrusive. It may not be obvious, but the two musical traditions share certain things in common – frequent use of 6/8 time, for instance. The musicians on San Patricio rely on such underlying commonalities to move freely without stepping on each other's toes. The careful interweaving of the two musical traditions foreshadows the eventual alliance of the two cultures in the story of the San Patricios.
Part two is prefaced by the traditional Galician tune “San Campio,” which features Galician bagpiper Carlos Núñez. This is where the story of the San Patricios really begins. The hopeful and melancholic tone of “San Campio” brings to mind the anxiety that many Irish emigrants must have felt when they left their country, fleeing economic disadvantage or the onset of the Great Famine. What happened to those among them destined for the Battalion of Saint Patrick is the subject of two original compositions that follow, “The Sands of Mexico” and “March to Battle (Across the Rio Grande.)”
Both tell the story of the San Patricios from their point of view, but do so in contrasting ways. Ry Cooder's “The Sands of Mexico” is a plaintive Western ballad – reminiscent of “The Streets of Laredo” – in which the Patricios reflect on their sufferings. It addresses many of the motivations that drove them to defect, from the discrimination they faced in the U.S. Army as “conscripted Irish farmers,” to their refusal to slay their Mexican “brothers,” as fellow Catholics and sufferers of imperial aggression.
“March to Battle” takes a more stern view, focusing on the Patricios' defiance. The piece is a military-style march. Actor Liam Neeson gives voice to the Patricios, who wryly remark that all they wanted was “To see the Yankees safely home/ Across the Rio Grande.” The comment is not without pathos. The San Patricios saw their final defeat at the Battle of Churubusco. Most of those captured were executed, and those allowed to live were whipped, branded on the face with a “D” (for “deserter”), and forced to wear iron yolks for the remainder of the war.
The album’s musical narrative then invites the listener to hear Ireland and Mexico mourning for their lost sons. “Lullaby for the Dead,” the most moving of these numbers, features the elegiac voice of Moya Brennan, which is echoed by the rough voice of Chavela Vargas on “Luz de Luna.” The contrast between Ireland's Brennan and Mexico's Vargas is completely captivating. The imagery of moonlight and darkness found on the icy “Lullaby” and impassioned “Luz”, impress on the listener's mind a sense of the tragic end to the Patricios journey.
San Patricio as a whole is saturated with color and energy. Even the album art is bright and vivid, with paintings of symbolic images like “el arpa” (the harp of Erin), “la luna” (the moon), and “la suerte” (luck, represented by a four-leaf clover.) While some songs are stronger than others, there isn't a bad track on the album. The richness of the combined voices of Ireland and Mexico offers an engrossing, immersive experience.
If there's any criticism to be made, it lies not in the music but in the history. It's not easy, after all, to make art both beautiful and honest. Concessions to beauty can lessen a work's significance. Concessions to truth can mar aesthetic intentions. San Patricio is, I'm afraid, somewhat guilty of the former. It streamlines history to make heroes of the San Patricios, sanding down all the rough details. No mention is made, for instance, of how the battalion's leader, John Riley, drank himself to death after the War, dying in poverty in Veracruz.
And it's a shame such details aren't accounted for. Rough though they may be, they are human details, which would have helped us recognize the San Patricios as made of human stuff. Instead, one hears the voices of nations and ghosts. Mexico and Ireland sing, as do character archetypes—the stalwart soldier, the mourning lover—, but never a man or a woman with a face and a name. To commemorate these men in the round would have been better than to glorify their legend. Perhaps that's a bit much to ask of a single album of music, but the lack of a real, individual human presence amidst all the sonic richness is unfortunate.
I suppose this is niggling, though. San Patricio has a broad scope, after all. It tells an epic story with expansive implications, evoking the whole history of American Westward expansion. And in doing so it imposes itself on contemporary concerns: immigrants and minorities facing discrimination; America engaged in a divisive war driven by ideology; and Mexico, burdened by an ineffective and often corrupt government. It's the perennial struggle for justice and freedom that has defined American identity, both northern and southern.
Thus, San Patricio, for me, is ultimately more of a challenge than a celebration. It exposes in harsh relief the paradoxical nature of my own nation, which gives and takes in equal measure. It gives the lie to the national and ethnic lines we so commonly draw to mark out our identities, even as it reaffirms history and heritage. But on a more personal level, it invokes, in the words of W.H. Auden, my own “historical share of care,” for a history and a world I did not make but for which I am now responsible. This is, I think, what gives San Patricio its real power. It affirms and affronts, accuses and celebrates, and by challenging draws us into the presence our true histories, and the burdens and privileges they provide.
Jordan Acosta lives in L.A. and blogs at jordanacosta.com.