A Ballad of Love and Glory
By Reyna Grande
Atria Books: 384 pages
On their 2008 album, State of Grace, the Boston-based, Irish-American punk band Street Dogs included a track that immediately captured my attention the first time I spun the album. In a track titled “San Patricios,” frontman Mike McCoglan shouts:
Two hundred Irish go into Mexico
To fight a battle of Manifest Destiny
Driven by their Catholic conscience
They chose to rise and do what’s right
Joined up with the natives for the fight
The song recounts a brief history of the San Patricios, known also as Saint Patrick’s Battalion, a group of Irish—as well as other foreign-born—soldiers who deserted from the U.S. military, both in response to mistreatment by their Protestant American counterparts and superiors, as well as their affinity with a Mexican population that was also Catholics holding off an imperialist Protestant invader, much like Ireland had experienced at the hands of the British.
I immediately sought out more information about this seemingly unlikely alliance that I had no clue had existed. I guess this was not surprising, since I never learned much about the Mexican-American War, the invasion that prompted this Mexican and Irish unity, until college—and even then, it was briefly mentioned.
Reyna Grande’s latest novel, A Ballad of Love and Glory, seeks to be the antidote to amnesia regarding this chapter of U.S. and Mexican history. Throughout the text, Grande’s writing seeks to be both historical documentation as well as love story, intertwining the two to both recover the details of the U.S. invasion of Mexico that is often glossed over—or downright absent—from American history textbooks, and show how the fight against imperialist violence can draw together peoples from seemingly disparate backgrounds to fight side-by-side for freedom and liberty.
The novel centers on the relationship between Ximena Benítez y Catalán and John Riley. Ximena had already been privy to the wages of war, with her father joining forces with the Americans in gaining Texas’s independence from Mexico during the Texas Rebellion in 1835. Yet, Ximena quickly found out that, “after the Texas Revolt, things were never the same between the Texians and the Tejanos. Anyone of Mexican origin was suddenly viewed with suspicion and even hatred.”
Despite fighting on the side of the Texans, Ximena and her family were forced to flee due to racist treatment—but the Tejanos’ alliance with the white Texans simultaneously rendered them as suspect by Mexicans that saw them as traitors to Mexico for taking up arms alongside the Americans. Following her husband’s death at the hands of Texas Rangers, Ximena becomes a soldadera, a battlefield nurse, utilizing her knowledge as a curandera to aid her nation in protecting itself from the onslaughts of war.
John Riley also found himself having to side with the enemy. While born in Galway County, Ireland with a strong connection to his Irish heritage and his Catholic religion, Riley also watched as his home was conquered by the English, leaving him to join the Redcoats as his only option for economic stability, with him being labeled a “coward” for joining “those dirty English maggots” that robbed the Irish of their sovereignty and their way of life.
Riley immigrated to America and joined the U.S. Army, another colonial power—and a Protestant one at that—in order to provide for his wife Nelly and son Johnny back across the Atlantic. Yet the Americans’ cruel treatment of Riley and the other Irish soldiers, immigrants, and the enslaved Black men forced to serve the army, pushed Riley to desert and join the Mexican forces that promised land, fair treatment, and a bond through their shared Catholic faith.
Both protagonists are outsiders from their own community, with Grande using this shared experience of displacement and disconnect as the convergence point for their budding romance. They have both lost everything—their homes, their spouses—as a result of imperial conquest. Their relationship, though, also offers a critique of nationalism and nativism. While they both fight for the protection of Mexico, Ximena and John see the struggle reflecting the larger questions of sovereignty and loyalty to one’s principles and community more so than loyalty to a nation. Throughout the text, Ximena “tends to the wounded from both sides of the battlefield” indiscriminately, her compassionate healing not being hemmed in by national or ethnic identity.
Rather, her concern is with the war as representative of the deadliness of manifest destiny and how nation-building uses the bodies of soldiers as mere fodder for westward expansionism: “This darkening storm was deadlier and more sinister than any created by nature. For this one was manmade, forged by greed, vanity, tyranny.” Even when John Riley enthusiastically shares his promotion to become the leader of his own Saint Patrick’s Battalion, Ximena warns him to “be careful with [Mexican President] Santa Anna. Do not sacrifice your honor for him.” Instead, the San Patricios fly under their own flag that Riley envisions: “It is green, as green as my isle, and embroidered on it are the words that will forever be etched in my heart: Erin Go BraghI!“
The flag here, one proclaiming “Ireland forever!” flies alongside the Mexican flag throughout the battles Grande meticulously depicts as demonstrative of the power of intercultural, interracial, and interethnic coalitions against colonization. From having Mexican nuns sew the San Patricio flag, to having the San Patricios stand side-by-side with the Mexican forces even as hope seems lost, to the community of Mexico City pleading with U.S. General Scott to grant parole for the captured Irish soldiers, Grande reveals that if there is ever hope in challenging power, the marginalized must unite forces against oppression—otherwise, those who die will only continue to feed the war machine: “This is what conquerors do to the conquered… They build their empires on the stones and bones of those they defeat.”
While Mexico’s eventual surrender brings with it the pain of loss for the nation, the larger concern here is not to protect one’s country, but to battle against the ramifications that were to follow in the war’s wake. After their capture, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion is charged and found guilty of desertion, many suffering death by hanging in the public square, with Grande foreshadowing the near future—much like Ximena who has premonitions of the San Patricios hanging—of the ceded Mexican territories that featured rampant, hideous lynchings of Mexican Americans following the end of the Mexican-American War.
Ximena reflects on the outcome of the war, lamenting that “Mexico is now half the country it used to be. Imagine that. My rancho is officially in the United States now. The border has crossed me.”
This solemn reality continues Grande’s aim to situate us in the historical while also showing how these events are the root of generational traumas that continue to plague the Mexican-American community in the U.S. Yet this phrase of being crossed by the border also instills within it a hope, as it also prefigures (spoiler) Ximena and Riley’s voyage to Ireland, to “the future that lay before them.” And as “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” has become a rallying cry for Mexican and Chicanx activists critiquing anti-Mexican, and anti-Latinx, immigration practices, the success of Ximena and John Riley’s romance opens up the possibility of escaping the terrain of colonization through uniting with others in shared struggles for liberation and sovereignty.
At the end of the novel, Grande includes two maps of Mexico: one from 1835 that depicts the border of the nation “before the Texas revolt and the U.S. invasion of Mexico,” and one a mere 13 years later, showing half the Mexican state surrendered to the U.S. following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, giving shape to the map of the United States that we are familiar with today. The two maps stacked on a single page both speak to the vastness of the land Mexico lost to the U.S. following the Mexican-American War, as well as to how little discussions of American history bring up the military intervention that lead to the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny. But, more than that, it also reminds us to think of the forgotten histories and the forgotten people whose lives were—and continue to be—shaped by American conquest.
A Ballad of Love and Glory gives the reader insight into just one of these histories that get washed away, buried, erased, through the seemingly simple moving of a single line on a map. Grande’s brilliant novel adds another voice to the chorus of songs and stories of the San Patricios, reminding us that we can come together with others against oppression and marginalization, that we can share with them in unity, love, and victory: “One way or another, they would find a way to thrive.”
Featured image: Author Reyna Grande