IAW&A President T.J. ENGLISH reports on THE IRISH MEXICAN ALLIANCE event, which last week took El Paso, TX by storm and raised money for Amor por Juarez, a charity dealing with the devastation of the narco war in the U.S.-Mexico borderland.
About one hour into The Irish Mexican Alliance benefit concert, held last April 28 in El Paso, Texas, I knew we were on to something special.
Celtic songstress ASHLEY DAVIS had taken the stage and begun to play the familiar opening strains of the song “On Raglan Road” on her guitar, accompanied by fiddler MEGAN HURT. Quietly, without much introduction, Ashley was joined on stage by VELIA CHRISTINA, a beautiful and talented Chicana singer based in El Paso.
Like most Irish Americans, I’ve heard “On Raglan Road” hundreds of times in my life, but never before had I heard a version like this.
Ashley and Velia sang alternating verses, Ashley’s in English and Velia’s in Spanish. It was stunningly beautiful, and at that moment, with these two lovely and talented women exchanging verses of a song in two different languages, the entire emotional impact of The Irish Mexican Alliance was captured in this simple musical duet.
The Irish Mexican Alliance began in 2010 as a way to call attention to the horrendous toll the U.S.-Mexico narco war has taken on Mexico and, by extension, the Southwest borderland region of the U.S. Our first event was in New York City in October 2010. It set the standard for what we hope will be a recurring barnstorming tour of benefit concert events around the U.S.
From the beginning, the idea was to draw on what we felt was a special spiritual and historical connection between people of Irish and Mexican descent. Specifically, the inspiration for the Alliance is to be found in the story of the San Patricio Battalion, a group of mostly Irish American soldiers who, in the war between the U.S. and Mexico in 1845-48, deserted the U.S. army to fight on behalf of the Mexican people. Many of these soldiers were captured, put on trial for treason, and executed in the largest mass execution by hanging in the history of the North American continent.
For those who know this history, the sacrifices made by the San Patricios is a call not to battle, or a call to war, it is a call to do what is right. Today, in the early decades of the 21st Century, the human rights tragedy of the narco war has become an assault on democracy. The goal of the Irish Mexican Alliance is to raise awareness about this ongoing tragedy, particularly as it relates to the issue of journalists in Mexico who are being murdered, threatened and forced to seek political asylum in the U.S. for doing their job i.e. covering the narco war in Mexico.
It was no accident that after the success of our initial event in Manhattan we decided to take this initiative to El Paso, in the heart of the borderland. There is not a huge Irish American presence in El Paso, but the issues that the Alliance is attempting to address – human rights violations, the assault on journalists, the staggering death toll and emotional devastation of the narco war – is front-and-center in El Paso as it is in few other cities in the U.S. Butted up against Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican border city that has for years now been one of the most volatile battlegrounds in the narco war, the people of El Paso are living these issues on a daily basis. They are especially well positioned to hear the call of the Irish Mexican Alliance.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE SAN PATRICIOS
The public relations and awareness aspects of the Alliance began even before the event was underway. The media in El Paso was intrigued by this event; we received advance coverage in the El Paso Times, the city’s main daily newspaper, and in What’s Up, a weekly news and entertainment paper and website. Our event producer in El Paso, VALENTIN SANDOVAL, a poet and activist, had set up interviews for us with three of the biggest radio talk shows in the borderland.
One of those shows, in particular, was instructive. I had been warned in advance that although the Buzz Adams Radio Show had huge ratings that made it well-worth doing, I should be prepared that Adams tended towards scatological humor and irreverence, and that he aspired to be a kind of Howard Stern of the borderland. When we did the interview, however, I was surprised to find out that Buzz was, in fact, a man of conscience. He knew the history of the San Patricios and took the event seriously. It was an expertly conducted half-hour interview during the popular 7:30 a.m. drive-time slot on the most highly rated show in the region, and it set the tone for how the event would be received by the local populace.
Graphic artist ADOLFO ALVARADO created a spectacular logo design and poster for the event that became an instant collector’s item. T-shirts were created by SABA, a printer and old-school Native American (Navajo) craftsman based in Las Cruses, NM, a one-hour drive from El Paso.
One afternoon, when Valentin and I drove to Las Cruses to check on the t-shirts, something occurred that we took as a good omen. In Las Cruces, we stopped at a bar called Dublin’s to put up posters and have a beer. A man at the bar spotted our poster and asked if he could look it over. He told us he was a local criminal defense attorney originally born in the northern Mexico state of Chihuahua that encompasses Ciudad Juárez. Upon looking over the poster, he was noticeably moved. “The San Patricios, “ he said. “I know all about this history. This is an important thing you are doing.” He pledged to attend the event and bring as many friends and associates as he could. Then he said to the barmaid, “I insist on paying for their drinks. These guys are doing God’s work.”
ON WITH THE SHOW!!
On an outdoor patio stage at the historic San Carlos Building, the show kicked off with a set by the San Patricios, a local traditional Irish music band. In keeping with the theme of the Alliance, which mixes local acts with visiting musicians, Ashley Davis from NYC joined the band for a song or two. The San Patricios then gave way to Velia Christina, who gave way to BOBBY BYRD, who, along with being an accomplished poet, is co-founder of Cinco Punto Press, a small book publisher that is an important cultural institution in El Paso.
The show began at 6 pm, in daylight, with people trickling in from dinner, home, or other events taking place elsewhere in the city. As the sun set, the beautiful sky over downtown took on an amber hue, and the event transitioned from a coffee house atmosphere, with informational asides and instrumentalists and vocalists, into an outright celebration. The band that led the charge was RADIO LA CHUSMA, a rousing reggae-Mex band with a world beat consciousness that captured the spirit of the crowd. From then on, it was a night of dancing, some hot spoken word, and some of the best music the borderland region has to offer.
There were so many highlights it is hard to mention them all: GRISELDA “LA RANA” MUÑOZ, a dynamic local poet, read “No Apologies,” a riveting feminist statement of principle; LAWRENCE WELSH, a highly accomplished Irish American poet, expertly represented the El Paso Irish with poems from his recently published collection “Begging for Vultures”; MYRLIN HEPWORTH, a rising spoken word artist from Phoenix – half Chicano, half Irish – so wanted to be a part of the event that he drove through the night to arrive in El Paso at 1 a.m. on the day of the show. Standing under a glorious desert sky, complete with half moon and stars, Myrlin dazzled the audience with his presentation of “Columbus,” a poem that is equal parts street rap and history lesson.
AN IRISH MEX CELEBRATION
Musically, the evening offered almost more talent than any one event could contain. Along with the San Patricios, Ashley Davis, Velia Christina, and Radio La Chusma, there was MEXKLAN, a hot Mexican rock band based across the border in Juárez, and FRONTERA BUGALU.
Having played at the very first Irish Mexican Alliance event in New York, Frontera Bugalu is now virtually the house band of the Alliance. With accordion player and front man KIKO RODRÍGUEZ setting the tone, and RAMÓN VILLA-HERNÁNDEZ on base guitar, Bugalu plays an infectious mix of cumbia, norteno and salsa that had everyone there dancing under the stars. Accompanied by guiro player and vocalist GRISEL RODRIGUEZ – a classic Mexican American beauty – the band presented an original mix of traditional and contemporary sounds that moved the audience from celebration to meditation and back again. It was the perfect way to wrap up a spectacular evening of entertainment.
Of course, the evening wasn’t only about music and good times. Midway through the night, a spokesperson from AMOR POR JUÁREZ, the charitable organization this event was designed to benefit, spoke about the situation in Mexico. Ciudad Juárez and El Paso form a cross-national border culture that is unique to the U.S.. They are, in a way, flip sides of the same city, equal parts Mexican and American. The devastation of the narco war has cast a shadow over El Paso; there is hardly a local family that hasn’t been affected in some way. Amor por Juárez, through events, fund raising and a campaign of awareness-raising, has been trying to focus attention on the crisis, and, on this night, the Irish Mexican Alliance was honored to have them at our side.
NO BORDERS, NO DIVISIONS
If you ever wondered how or why we believe there is a spiritual connection between people of Irish and Mexican descent, all you have to do is attend a gathering of the Irish Mexican Alliance. To look out over a crowd of people – brown and white – in a state of mutual celebration through conversation, dancing, drinking, music and poetry, across lines of language and culture, it would hit you in the head like a corned beef and cabbage burrito. The Alliance is real. And it continues to grow every day.
The San Patricios died for the Mexican people, because they believed it was the right thing to do. We honor their sacrifice by attempting to harness this history and bring it into the present day, to use this history as a means to focus on a contemporary crisis that should be of concern to everyone.
It is our hope to do future events in other cities, bringing people together under the banner of the Irish Mexican Alliance. Although we choose to call attention to what we believe is a special connection between Irish and Mexican people, the Alliance is, in truth, a symbolic alliance meant to represent the coming together of all people across cultures, continents, borders and racial divides. If you are down with that, you are down with the Irish Mexican Alliance.
(Special thanks to the following people for contributions beyond the call of duty on behalf of the El Paso Irish Mexican Alliance: NORMA CHAVEZ, activist and popular radio host of “Border Talk,” who allowed myself and Valentin to come on her show and promote the event; ADAM MARSHALL, highly skilled event organizer who has his own wildly popular event in El Paso called “La Parada”; FRANCISCO MARTINEZ, senor suave, who designed Facebook and web pages for us; LEO DE FRANK, activist and web magazine creator whose new site, Orbis Forum News (OBN), has created a documentary about the event; LETICIA “LETTY” GURROLA, the chula of all chulas, who graced us with her presence and expertly handled raffle duties for the event.)
PHOTOS: Erick “Chuco” Chavez