A Strange Saint Patrick’s Day

    This St. Patrick’s Day is markedly different than all others past. I came to school today not clad in traditional green, but wearing overalls and a plain white t-shirt. Ringing in my ears were not the Gaelic jigs and Celtic reels but rather the worker chants and the pro-immigrant songs we sang over the past nine days’ march from Roma to Brownsville. I thought less today about the military Molly Maguire’s and their violent fight for worker’s rights and instead meditated on Cesar Chavez’s fasts for his people and Martin Luther King’s words of empowerment and hope. Today was less about nationalism and more about opposing nativism, less about drinking beer and more about living in such a way as to forward the cause of the immigrant, wherever he or she may originate.

    My great-great grandparents came from County Mayo, Sligo, and County Cork. They came to escape the ravages of the potato blight and the resulting famines. They came seeking a better life, and they found it buried deep in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. Towns like Carbondale and Mauch Chunk welcomed them and buried them in their strip-mined hillsides. But, as is always the case with immigrants, they managed to survive and hew out a life for themselves in this America they helped create.

    It was their backs that fed coal into the iron-horses which shrank this vast country into a two-day trip. It was their leadership and collective bargaining powers which scared groups like the Know-Nothings, the first political party formed with the aim of opposing a specific immigrant group. They were able to overcome religious persecution, employer discrimination, and widespread xenophobia to become rightful heirs of the American dream.

 

    This past week, walking alongside many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, I was reminded of the Batalia de San Patricio, the group of Irish soldiers who defected to the Mexican Army during the Mexican-American War. There was and is so many similarities between those Irish immigrants of yesteryear and the immigrants of today. Both groups rely heavily on their faith in a God who champions the cause of the poor and the sojourner. Both of these immigrants focus on family values and a strong work ethic. Both the Irish of the late 1800s and the Mexicans of the early 21st century are immigrant groups which are being slandered for their desire to come to this land for a better life. News about both of these groups has centered on an “invasion” or any number of natural disaster metaphors such as “flood of immigrants,” “drain on the economy,” and “wave after wave of workers.” None of these nativist metaphors are new – no, they have been around since people first started emigrating to new lands. It is this brand of hateful rhetoric that spurred the command in Leviticus 19:34, “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as the native among you, and you shall love the stranger as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

 

 

    As I teach my class today, I am standing in front of them not as a college graduate, a son of Pennsylvania, a Texas-certified teacher, or a social activist. I stand before them in overalls and my walking shoes as the son of immigrants. There is a solidarity here which we must not deny. I do not believe in otherness; if we believe that every man, woman, and child bears the indelible image of God and the spark of the divine, we can never separate ourselves from one another. We are inextricably caught up in an “inescapable network of mutuality, tied up in a single garment of destiny,” and that means that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As King also stated, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter;” this happens for the sheer fact that in not speaking up for the rights of others we are not speaking up for the rights of ourselves and future generations.

    To all those immigrants, past, present and future, I impart this traditional Irish blessing: “Céad míle fáilte romhat!” or “A hundred thousand welcomes to you.”

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One Response to “A Strange Saint Patrick’s Day”

  1. Mark Purcell Says:

    Well said! History repeats itself over and over. How quickly many of us forget we are a country poor immigrants. A country of immigrants who left Europe for a better life. Lets not forget that family values and a strong work ethic are common bonds between us. Thank you for the essay!

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