As students and researchers, we are often inspired by topics that are personal to us, and by people — teachers and friends and family — who are close to us. Sometimes serendipity is involved, too! In this blog post, Gleeson Library Intern, Alberto Luna, describes the inspiration, people, and story behind the St. Patrick’s display — about Irish soldiers, or San Patricios, who fought for Mexico in the Mexican American War — that he created for the library last month. What inspires you when choosing a research topic? Do you have a similar story to Alberto’s, about a research topic that you’re passionate about?
As a kid, when I thought of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought of wearing green and dressing up like a leprechaun, but it is more than that. It celebrates the heritage of Ireland and its people. Over the years, I’ve learned all that I can about the holiday, named after the patron saint of Ireland, including information about Ireland’s people and customs. I was surprised to find that there is a connection between Ireland and the land of my parents’ birth, Mexico.
When I was growing up in the Southern California town of Ojai in Ventura County, I saw how St. Patrick was celebrated in school and in public with the wearing of green, eating snacks with green food coloring, and pinching pranks reserved for kids, while adults got merry on beer at the local bars. Growing up in a Mexican-American household, we honored the Roman Catholic traditions of Saints’ Days and going to church. In catechism, I learned about St. Patrick, the man who converted the Irish people to Christianity while driving the snakes out Ireland. In high school, I learned about the struggles of the Irish people and the potato famine that drove them out of their homeland under British occupation, and finally in college, I first learned about the Batallon de San Patricio or the St. Patrick’s Battalion.
I was taking a Mexican History class at Ventura College and we were going over a sad chapter in Mexico’s history. We learned about the Mexican-American War, which is often remembered in the US as triumph of democracy. But in Mexico, it was a national tragedy. In that class, I met my longtime friend Archie Grover McCoy. I remember he asked first in English, and then in Spanish, about an upcoming exam. It left me surprised and shocked that Archie’s Spanish was perfect. I talked to Archie after class and he told me he had arrived from Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. He told me that his family was from Mexico — starting with his great grandfather who came from Ireland via the US. Unfortunately, I never learned why his family came to Mexico, but I do remember that when we were studying about the Mexican-American War, Archie asked the professor, “when are you gonna talk about the San Patricios?”
The professor of the class — Ismael Mayo De La Rocha — then mentioned that, coincidentally, he was doing research on the San Patricio’s Battalion of Mexico, but that his research was not yet complete. I also remember that Archie then volunteered to assist professor De La Rocha with his research and interviews. Apparently, Archie’s family was somehow connected with the San Patricios. Professor De La Rocha interviewed Archie’s grandparents, creating an oral history of their family and how Archie’s great-grandfather migrated to the US from Ireland and then from the US to Mexico due to an unspecific reason related to the law. As a result, he ended up in Mexico and married an Irish-Mexican woman (Archie’s great grandmother) from Jalisco state in central Mexico before moving to Tijuana, BC. In the oral history, Archie’s great grandmother told the story of the San Patricios because she was a descendant of one the original soldiers.
After Archie’s grandparents told their story, Professor De La Rocha went over the recordings and Archie transcribed the interview, which was mostly in Spanish. The following year, my friend Archie was a student aide for De La Rocha’s class and the story of the San Patricios was told in more detail with the inclusion of the Archie’s family oral history connecting to the San Patricios. The class was taught on St. Patrick’s Day in early 2000 and from what Archie told me, they even showed the movie One Man’s Hero starring Tom Berenger and depicting the exploits of the San Patricios fighting for Mexico and further solidifying the connections between Mexico and Ireland.
It was this story and Archie’s family history that inspired me to do research on the San Patricios, and incorporate it into a display for St. Patrick’s Day at Gleeson. It was through Professor De La Rocha’s Mexican History class that I learned about that interesting connection between both Mexico and Ireland that goes beyond Catholicism. Professor De La Rocha sadly passed away in August of 2015, but I took what I learned from his class and created a display about Mexico and Ireland and the San Patricios soldiers, who were valiant heroes. My research and display project were inspired my professor and mentor, Ismael Mayo De La Rocha, and my friend Archie McCoy — who I still remain friends with to this day.