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The Vacuum Issue 12 Down Mexico Way spacer The Vacuum Issue 12 - Down Mexico Way
A Sign of the Future
by Cliona Murphy
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When I was first interviewed for a position in Modern European and Women's History by conference call, while sitting in a flat in Dublin on a drizzly day in 1988, I asked if I would be able to teach courses in Irish history. There was nervous laughter at the other end of the phone and the opinion of my interviewers seemed to be that there would be little interest in this hot city on the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley in Irish matters. My future colleagues did not seem to think Daniel O'Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, deValera, Mary Robinson (who was not yet President) and the rest would be of interest to the descendants of the 'Okies' who came here during the Dustbowl in the 1930s, nor to the recent, and not so recent, Mexican immigrants.
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I found out to the contrary when I arrived at California State University, Bakersfield which, today, is one of twenty-three campuses of the biggest State University system in the world. My courses, which steal their titles from Larry McCaffrey's books Ireland from Colony to Nation State and The Irish Diaspora in America, attract students, only a few of whom are Irish-American and many of whom are Latino or, to be more precise, Mexicano or Mexican. Indeed, these courses have always had larger enrollment than my English history classes. The reason why is still not clear to me. It may have something to do with the commercialization and romanticization of Ireland through River Dance, Enya and U2 and the television commercials which advertise soap, credit cards and phone companies, against a backdrop of Irish rain, waterfalls and telephone boxes. It could be linked to the confused concern about Northern Ireland or to do with the fact that the course instructor is from Ireland. Or, the answer may be found in the underlying elements of Irish history and culture that have appeal beyond an Irish population. Whatever it is, it works. Hence, the intersection of what might seem to be two very different topics and what is the subject of this article the future of Irish Studies and the growing Latino population in the United States.
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Bakersfield, a city that is known for its oil, agriculture, country music and unflattering quips from former night show host, Johnny Carson, is rapidly evolving into a sprawling metropolis. It is situated in the county of Kern on the southern end of the three hundred mile long San Joaquin Valley. Its increasingly distinctive Mexican flavor is evident all around. One is as likely to hear Spanish as English at the Mall, local markets, the university campus, and on the airwaves. Mexican restaurants and Mariachi bands abound. Children regardless of ethnicity have piñatas at their birthday parties and many Spanish words have become part of the daily lingo of the so-called 'Anglos'. Burritos, tacos, enchiladas and frijoles are as likely to be eaten as burgers and hot dogs when fast food is being considered.
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According to the U.S.Census Bureau, Latinos composed 38.4% of the population in Kern County in 2000. Fresno County to the North, has a Latino population of 44% and also has a California State University campus. Over fifty percent of the student body on the Los Angeles Cal State campus is Latino. This trend is being echoed to various degrees throughout California and the United States.
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Most of the people here who have origins 'south of the border' came to work in agriculture in this fertile valley. Many of the 38% of our Latino students (up from 12% when I arrived in 1988) are the children of immigrant farm workers and are first in their generation to go to college. Some of them grew up in the agricultural towns scattered within a fifty mile radius of Bakersfield, picking grapes, carrots, almonds or pistachios with their parents after school and during summer vacation. Most are bilingual, an accomplishment not always appreciated by their monolingual neighbours, a subject that will be returned to below.
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For the most part, my Latino students are made up of a combination of recent Mexican immigrants, first and second generation Mexican-Americans, and Chicanos who have been here for generations. Some have had positive contacts with elements of Irish culture which make them well disposed to learning more about Irish history. One of my colleagues told me, 'I attended a Catholic mission school in Bakersfield composed of 90-95% Mexican kids. There was one kid in our class, who also grew up in our neighborhood, named Patrick O'Malley. He seemed to be Mexican, so we (and he) all grew up thinking O'Malley was a Mexican name. The school and church was run by Father O'Reilly and by mostly Irish nuns and priests. We grew-up singing Irish folk songs but, I must admit, I never really knew what 'cockles' or 'mussels' were, or why she [Molly Malone] sold them singing, 'alive, alive all [sic]''. Such local memories are echoed from the northern end of this valley by the controversial author of Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002), Richard Rodriguez. One of his earliest memories is of being five year old and taught 'the Queen's English' by Irish nuns in his school in Sacramento.
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Today, there are not so many Irish nuns and priests but they are part of the folk memory. As are the stories one hears about Irish great-grand uncles or great, great grandmothers 'back' in Mexico or, in some cases, really 'here' in California since, until 1848, it was part of Mexico. The experiences of both groups (Irish and Mexican) in the American south-west have become somewhat blended and the history of the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans I meet has become intermingled with my own history and my children's history.
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Irish and Irish-American history has appealed to my students. I know this from the way they tap their toes when I start the class with Irish music (whether it is Bono, the Corrs or the Chieftains). I know it from their reaction to the movie The Field, based upon John B.Keane's play, about dispossessed tenant farmers, and from the sadness they feel when we read James Joyce's short story, The Dead. It is also apparent from their ventures into the National Library and Famine web sites. They come back with details about convicts transported to Australia for stealing a handkerchief or a sheep and they are visibly affected by harrowing famine accounts from The Cork Reporter. It was evident, too, when one my students called his new baby Michael Collins (last name, Mira) and another student wrote to me after graduating that he was still perplexed about the relationship between Collins and deValera.
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Clearly, the content of what we teach depends upon the context. Teaching Irish history to someone from Dungarvan will be different from teaching it to someone from Durango. The student from Sneem will come with different preconceptions to the student from Sonora or students from the primarily Mexican neighborhoods of east Bakersfield. When teaching a class that is one third Mexican or Chicano, Irish history takes on a different perspective. These students, like their non-Latino peers, may initially lack the historical background and cultural insights an Irish student might have. However, the students relate to those elements of Irish history that are part of the general human experience. It is not necessarily a case of manipulating history and moulding it to fit the audience but, rather, presenting it in a comprehensible way to students, regardless of their ethnicity and geographic location.
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The comparisons, analogies, and even differences provide fertile ground for lectures, discussions and research papers. The Irishmen in the San Patricio battalion, who fought in the Mexican-American War (1846-48), have already been the subject of film, books, articles and even a commemorative stamp. Many other topics deserve attention and further research. They include the role of Catholicism in these colonial peasant societies. In particular, the veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Knock begs a comparative examination. Colonialism, post colonialism, emigration, and immigration are also themes from both countries' histories which seem to culminate in the present here in the United States. Then, there are the strained relations between the home country and the diaspora and the sometimes tense relations between the home country and the strong dominant neighbour. There are the border communities and border mentalities which have not only inspired historical and sociological studies but rich literature as well. There is also the strange amnesia many Americans have (including Irish Americans) about the huge land mass taken from Mexico in 1848 under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, an amnesia which is in contradiction to their indignation about Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom.
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There is a time lag in the two countries' histories that give Mexican students insights that their Irish peers may miss. The experience of the Irish immigrants sending money home, feeling discriminated against and isolated, and developing a particular type of immigrant nationalism is familiar to them. The appeal Angela Bourke's The Burning of Bridget Cleary has for these students is also a testament to their empathy with Irish history. With its intriguing mixture of folk medicine, professional medicine and Roman Catholicism, it pulls them in as a wonderful micro-history which illuminates the 'big picture'. Moreover, they relate to the portrayal of the 'outsiders' in the book, the police, the land agents, and those connected with national and imperial politics who, in one sense, impinge on the lives of the Cleary family and associates and, in another, having nothing to do with them.
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Then, there is Douglas Hyde's essay The Necessity for De-Anglicising De Ireland. Students can observe similar attitudes towards the Irish language in late nineteenth century Ireland as those manifested towards the Spanish language in twenty-first century California. Hyde's essay, written in 1892, has delightful passages on inter-generational bilingual conversations that are just as applicable to Mexicans in the San Joaquin Valley in the present as they are to Irish peasants in late nineteenth century Mayo. The disregard associated with Spanish in modern California, similar to what Hyde describes with regards to Irish in his day, is difficult for European readers to imagine. The same 'Anglo' community which glorifies and romanticizes Ireland, and other European countries to a lesser extent, has little interest in the vibrant and rich Mexican culture all around them. This contradiction is clear when one observes the hype with regards to St. Patrick's Day compared to the indifference towards Chicano (Cinco de Mayo) and Mexican (September 16, Mexican Independence Day) Holidays.
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Clearly, the Irish-Mexican connection takes on greater significance when one is teaching in the south-western United States as opposed to in Ireland or back in the mid-west or north-east teaching Irish Americans from middle-class backgrounds. Nevertheless, the benefit of presenting Irish history in a different way is that one can come up with unexpected paradigms that throw new light on Irish history. It is similar to reading Dermot Keogh's Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland or Maria Luddy's Women in Ireland 1800-1918: A Documentary History. While the subject matter of these books is placed against the backdrop of Irish history, with all the familiar landmarks, the reader is left with a completely different worldview of Irish society.
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Conferences and publications on similar themes in Irish-Mexican/Latino/Chicano history could build on this idea. Bring those who have a mutual interest in immigration into the United States, Marian veneration, or post-colonial discourse together on conference panels. More collaborative publications along the lines of Distant Relations: Cercanias Distantes, Clann i gCéin: Chicano, Irish, Mexican Art and Critical Writing by Trisha Ziff et al should be encouraged in order to promote a ground base of knowledge for further research.
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The concern should not be just with the future of Irish Studies as we know it today (defined within an Irish, Irish-American and European context), but also based on redefinitions and reinterpretations of what it encompasses now and in the near future in a places which are not on the usual 'circuit' of Irish and Irish American scholars. A reassessment of what and who comes within the boundaries of the label 'Irish Studies', not just as subject matter but also as audience, may lead to new questions in what we teach or research.
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