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The Vacuum Issue 12 Down Mexico Way spacer The Vacuum Issue 12 - Down Mexico Way
Duck You Sucker
by Jason Mills
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The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence. - Mao Tse-Tung
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I recall with some bemusement my A-Level Politics class, during which some of the prospective 'solutions' to the Northern Ireland problem included the suggestion that it abandon any scant sense of inherent reason and officially attach itself to the USA as the 51st State. Unsurprisingly the notion didn't gain much ground, and it's surely for the best considering we'd all probably have been conscripted and packed off to the Middle-East for cannon fodder by now. It is possible that the whole idea was conceived by a conniving Southern Irish political academic seeking to exact revenge for the jovial yet condescending tone in which we occasionally refer to our cross-border neighbours as 'Mexicans'. This is, of course, merely local parlance. However, while meaningful modern connections between Ireland and Mexico may seem tenuous at best, beneath the veneer which so often belies the true nature and complexities of other cultures lie some interesting reference points.
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The quote above is straight out of the Little Red Book of the famed Chinese communist dictator, and it is this which opens Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dynamite, flashed onto our screens phrase by phrase. Considering that the year of the original release was 1972 (under the questionable title of Duck You Sucker) it will come as little surprise that the Mao quote was dropped like a hot potato. What with the fun and games in Vietnam in full swing, talk about revolution, communist or otherwise, was not something the American establishment cared to give much of an open forum to. In France, by contrast, it was called Once Upon A Time... The Revolution!. What is interesting about the film is that through it's pitting together of self-exiled IRA dynamite-freak Sean (played emphatically by the late James Coburn) and Mexican bandito Juan (Rod Steiger - also recently dead), it focuses rather widely on the concepts of revolution itself rather than simply the Mexican Revolution which it depicts. Addressing notions of empire and deep-rooted post-colonial issues, it can be viewed through several prisms partly due to its somewhat anachronistic approach. Although we are not explicitly told so, by all indications it appears that the main action occurs around the time of the main insurgencies against Victoriano Huerta's military dictatorship in 1913/14. There is even a sneaky reference to the revered guerrilla leader Emiliano Zapata (once immortalised in a mural in Ballymurphy beneath the caption 'You Can Kill The Revolutionary, But Not The Revolution') who led an army of peasants in the south of the country around this time. However, when Coburn's character arrives on his strange little motorbike complete with IRA T-shirt, 'United Irishman' newsletter, bottle of whiskey and other labouredly suggestive items, it appears that he must have travelled at least five years back in time considering that the IRA did not form until 1919. Is this Leone's Irish freedom fighter from the future come to sow the seeds of dissent in his long lost Mexican hermano (Sean/Juan)? Throughout, events in Mexico are used as a nexus for addressing the full scope of revolution as a break from the past, Sean instilling in this non-political peasant the will to fight against his oppressors through his own traditional ideological Republican stance. It is through Sean that Juan inadvertently becomes a hero of the Revolution, freeing political prisoners while trying to rob a bank and eventually gunning down the Governor himself. All the time the subtext of their kinship is allowed to play itself out against a backdrop of violence and comedy, and is occasionally visualised as in the scene where Sean gives Juan his Celtic cross.
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It is not inconceivable that Leone's unlikely partnership between Irishman and Mexican was partially conceived through his knowledge of a little-known incident during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Although glossed over in most history books, the story of the San Patricios (Saint Patrick's Brigade) evokes much feeling in Mexico itself and certainly provides the strongest tie between the two countries. In the midst of a war which eventually saw Mexico lose half of it's territory (including the modern states of California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Montana), a band of conscripted Irish immigrants defected from the American side to fight with the Mexicans. Reasons offered for this have ranged from too much tequila and the allure of Mexican women to land grants offered by the Mexican government. However, the most popular interpretation of events, especially in Mexico itself, is that these soldiers became disillusioned by an unjust war inflicted by jingoistic American policy, and valiantly decided to fight alongside their Catholic brethren rather than comply to the dictates of a discriminatory Anglo-Protestant ascendancy. It was Galway man John Riley who first deserted, swimming across the Rio Grande after asking permission to attend Mass. He then conspired with Mexican generals to distribute leaflets encouraging his countrymen to join him in no uncertain terms: 'May Mexicans and Irishmen, united by the sacred tie of religion and benevolence, form only one people'. Indeed, the ranks of the San Patricios swelled to around 200 with Irishmen accounting for between 50-60% of that figure alongside soldiers from other Catholic countries. Although they fought bravely, 50 of them were eventually hanged for their trouble within sight of the citadel where the American flag was raised in victory at the end of the war. An action surely evocative of the fate of the Easter Rising conspirators who themselves pass into Irish history books as martyrs.
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This incident appears to have formed a lasting bond between the two nations, despite the fact that the battalion accounted for only a small percentage of Irish soldiers fighting in the war. The story of the San Patricios has given way to all manner of comparisons in the national character of the two countries, from familyvalues and spirituality to poetry and art. In many respects it is easy to see how 19th century agrarian, social and political imperatives could be construed as similar, with overtones of imperialism informing a certain colonialism of the mind. In his hopelessly and unapologetically biased book on Ireland/NI, Irish on the Inside, US writer Tom Hayden briefly describes the Mexican connection in terms of 'a gut-level affinity based on a common experience of colonisation, religious and spiritual similarities as well as a cavalier attitude towards central government'. Obviously taking him at his word, President Mary McAleese then hastened to Mexico City for the 150th anniversary of the hanging of the San Patricios, where at the monument dedicated to their struggle she allegedly affirmed to the gathered crowd that 'If the Irish and the Mexicans got together they could take over the US'. Bill Clinton was on the receiving end of an unceremonious blow-job at the time and was unavailable for comment.
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Even the modern day revolutionary struggles of the indigenous peoples of Mexico has been taken up in this spirit by a small organisation based in Dublin known as the Irish-Mexico Group. They were set up several years ago in support of the Zapatistas (named after the aforementioned US-Mexican war hero), a group which forcibly seized control of a small area of southern Mexico called Chiapas in 1994 in protest at the continued exploitation of peasants by the government. Although the social terrain has obviously changed since the days of Zapata, both groups, seemingly connected by an opaque socialist ideology, insist that it is these old principles of land and freedom (which also formed the foundations of thinking in the traditional republican movements of the United Irishmen and the Fenians) which they are fighting for today. It is somewhere around this point, however, that the whole thing degenerates into dubious territory, with the armed Zapatistas claiming to wear balaclavas to prevent a cult of personality developing, not to mention talk of collective farms (such a raging success under Stalin). Nevertheless, the Irish-Mexico Group do occasionally make their voice heard, for example handing out leaflets outside a Mexican embassy-sponsored event at Dublin's Irish Writers Centre in protest at the suppression of art by the Mexican government in Chiapas.
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It is up to you whether or not you subscribe to the idea of some kind of intrinsic Irish-Mexican communion, to the Marxist meanderings of Sergio Leone, or to notions of anti-imperialist martyrdom. Perhaps as you read this, St. Patrick and Zapata are indeed enjoying a peyote and whiskey fuelled conversation in the afterlife about how many snakes you could fit in a broad-brimmed sombrero. However, what evidently does transpire from these gentle probings of art and history is the threading together of various cultural strands, incorporating a loose sense of political affinity and made ever-so-slightly more geographically apt with reference to America and Britain's current cosiness. By the way, did I mention that both football teams play in green?
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