What Joe Biden’s Irish identity can teach Mexican-Americans

What will Mexican-Americans have if they continue rejecting their past?  They will have no historical claims to this country and no sense of belonging to the Southwest.

by Alex Gonzalez

Joe Biden is among the 34.7 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry according to the census in 2010.

Joe Biden announced himself during the first debate as an “Irish Catholic” from Scranton, Pennsylvania, one of the most Irish towns in America. In 1960, another Irish Catholic, from another overwhelmingly Irish town, Boston, was also running for president. Biden never forgot the esteem JFK was held in by his elders.

Irish Catholics were still seen by many as an alien force in American society at the 1960s, but it take Kennedy to smash the stereotype.

Often overlooked is a side to Biden is sense of Irishness, Biden is five-eighths Irish, a lineage that leads to the Blewitts of County Mayo in the west of Ireland and to the Finnegans of County Louth on the Cooley peninsula overlooking the Irish Sea. His ancestors fled hunger and poverty in the 1850s, a folk memory steeped in Biden when he grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which he has described as called an overwhelmingly Irish parish. Catholic, too, and Biden is still observant.

“He always said his mother raised him with such Irish values,” said Laurita Blewitt, 37, a fourth cousin who helped gather the clan for a lunch when Biden visited Mayo in 2016. “It’s not just something he created for the election, it’s very much part of him.

Biden has visited Ireland multiple times, often privately, without fanfare, and charmed his hosts. We can expect Biden’s Irish heritage and religious upbringings   to play a big role in his presidency.

Similarly, President Kennedy evoked his ancestral identity as an Irishman when eh traveled to Dublin in 1963. the American Irish experience of a family who was uncomfortable  displaying their identity, at first.  But the story also talks about a man who fully embraced his ancestral ethnic identity as Irishman by the fourth generation.  Yet, It took fours generations for the Kennedys to become a brand in  American society and politics, and it also it took the Kennedys  four generations to get rid of their cultural inhibitions of the Irish Diaspora identity and make a Kennedy a confident American who saw no conflict between his American identity  and his ethnic lineage.

When John F. Kennedy traveled to Berlin in 1973, he was asked “Do you want to come home to Ireland?”  During his four day trip to Ireland, Kennedy  went from being a statesman making official speeches to embracing his “Irish-nesss.”  The trip to Dublin was so emotional for Kennedy that “it truly made him Irish”. During the Kennedy upbringing, the parents objected to the name “Patrick” since they thought it would be perceived as too Irish.  However, two months after the Dublin trip, Caroline Kennedy gave birth to baby named Patrick–“The completion of an Irish culture.”  Essentially,  JFK embraced an “Irish-ness” that his parents had felt uncomfortable embracing two generations back.  Irish-Americans are not unique in the embracing of their ancestral homeland.

In his book “Who Are We,” Samuel Huntington argued that National Identities are constructed by ideology; and Identity is an individual’s or group’s sense of the self. Additionally, in Benedict Anderson’s Imagine Communities, Anderson argues that Identities are imagining selves. They are what we think we are and what we want to be. People may inherit ethnic identity, and they can embrace it or reject it. Identities are defined by the self but they are also the product of interactions between the self and the others. How others perceive an individual or a group affect the self-definition of that individual or group.

A national identity is an “invention” as Benedict Anderson argues in Imagined Communities, or “constructed” as Huntington argues—and often they are mere bureaucratic procedures. So Individuals have a natural tendency to seek spiritual and “Imagined”connection with those with whom they share similar ancestral roots, as Kennedy did  and as Biden does.  Thus, nation-ness is a cultural artifact that used to be invented by kings (and now is invented by governments) through an national myth or ideology, or by religious leaders as it the case of the Jews; and identity is the voluntary individual’s desire wanting to be part of something bigger.

But death brings individuals abruptly face to face with central problems posed by nationalism because a citizen cannot live forever, but a nation can live forever under a romantic version of a country, nationalism. A man’s death is usually arbitrary, his mortality is inescapable. Thus, for centuries religion was concerned with the idea of man-in-the-cosmos, and the exigencies of life; and man’s harsh reality of life.  Thus, religion responds to this harsh terrestrial reality by transforming fatality into continuity (karma, original sin etc..). And governments do the same in the form of nationalism;  and as Anderson believed, “In this, way religion is concerned with dead and the yet unborn, and continuity in the cosmos.” Thus, appreciation for one’s ancestral ethnicity is also an spiritual idea that requires continuity in the present in the afterlife. Religious ideas, then,  after dead is what connects an individuals with ethnic ancestral identity because religion offers the means by which by those like Kennedy and Biden can reconnected with their ethnic history—lineage–of past generations.

By the third or fourth generations, Irishman like Kennedy and Biden felt comfortable embracing his cultural lineage with no fears of being accused of dual loyalism between their American identity—which is a constructed national identity as Huntington argues–and his ancestral roots which is cultural and religious by necessity. And it is only this kind of religious fraternal cross-generational appreciation of one’s ethnic “self” that make all Jewish-Americans, and around the world, wanting the be sons and daughters of Israel. Today, generations of Irish-Americans, just like Kennedy, make this romanticized cultural pilgrimage to Ireland wanting to connected with their ancestors. So fraternal cultural cohesiveness is what subsequently has matured into a cultural historical cohesiveness that is important for groups to garner political power.

As in the case of Kennedy, whose ethnic identity was perceived by his own parents too Irish, the parents objected to be seen as too ethnic because the manner by which others perceived them would affect their own perception of their “self.” So the parents objected to embracing their ethnic “self” because being Irish was not too popular in those days. Similrly, Biden no longer has to hide his ethnic identity  for fear of begin too Catholic or “dual-loyalism.”

Unfortunately, Mexican-Americans in the U.S. still lack the cultural confidence and self-assurance, in politics, of Irish-Americans and Jewish-Americans to comfortably assert their identity and push back any suspicion of “dual loyalties.” Even Samuel Huntington, who advocated Anglo-Protestant cu lure,  agreed that Mexican-Americans are the only ethic group in America with legitimate historical emotional attachment to the Southwest. Yet, often they are forced to reject their identity so as to prove their patriotism, especially politics; in so-called “conservative” circles particularly. However, as in Huntington’s argument about identity, because one’s identity also depends how others perceive you, even if Mexican-Americans don’t want to be perceived as Mexicans, they are already perceived as Mexicans by the others because that is what prompted other to asked them not to be too Mexican. Mexican-Americans are, in fact, doing the opposite of what Kennedy did and Biden has embraced.

Therefore, when Mexican-Americans denounce and hide their Mexican-ness, for and alleged patriotism or hopes of being accepted as “Americans,” or as prerequisite to join a Political Party, or organization, they are denouncing their own “self” because their identity is not only conditioned by how they see themselves, but also by how others perceive them. And, they will be perceived as Mexican, even after they denounce it because, according the Huntington, how others perceive an individual or a group affect the self-definition of that individual or group. So the more they denounce it, the weaker and more fractured their identity becomes  since one can’t  never change—physically–his ancestral ethnic identity.  But more importantly, when Mexican-American denounce their identity, or play it down, they forgo their 170-years claims in this country and 300-years of Mexican culture and history in the Southwest. Essentially, they are forfeiting  their ethnic confidence that comes from their history , or being part of the nation, even before the Southwest was part of the U.S., Which is the opposite of what Irish like Kennedy did when the embraced their  ancestry.

Moreover, at conservative political events, Mexican-Americans are asked to refrain from mentioning their ethnicity while embracing other ethnic groups. For example, many religious and conservative gatherings, Mexican-Americans are told not to think of themselves as Mexican because conservative values are based on universal principles accessible to everyone, equally, they argue. But, in the same events Mexican-Americans are asked to show allegiances to other ethnic religious group like Jewish-American by embracing the Causes of Israel becauseIsrael is very popular among Evangelicals for Biblical reasons.  As a result, conservative Party and religious leaders ask Mexican-Americans to relinquish their Mexican-ness while at the same time imposing other ethnic identity on their Mexican values, and thus, creating a fractured weak confused identity among Mexican Americans on conservative circles.

Ruben Navarrette, in trying to explain why so many “Latinos” supported Trump coined the phrase “post-Latinos” to explain the behavior and political views of  Republican Mexican-American activist. Ruben wrote:

They’re “post-Latino.” They see themselves as Americans. They’re ambivalent about their heritage, relatives, ancestors. They don’t take offense when Trump insults Mexican immigrants because — even for Mexican-Americans — they see the people he’s talking about as another species.

Christian Paz from the Atlantic, also wrote that “many pro-Trump Latinos told me they simply define their interests differently…. They don’t necessarily feel solidarity with Latinos as a whole, and many identify themselves as American first, and some even reject “Latino.”

Evidently, these Mexican-Americans feel that to be accepted as Americans they must deny their own “self.”

The Irish lived as a conquered people in their own nation. Britain controlled the politics, economics and religious life of Ireland. Subjugation and strife gave rise to an unmistakable Irish identity. When they came to America, their sense of cultural cohesion, and an ability to mobilize and  organize to accomplish goals here in America.

Their organizational ability coupled with the large number of Irish living in U.S. cities, made the Irish a powerful political force. They literally transformed politics in American cities by putting local power in the hands of men of working class origin. Building on principles of loyalty to the individual and the organization, they built powerful political machines capable of getting the vote.

Political machines controlled major American cities into the 20th century. From New York to San Francisco, the Irish dominated big city politics. New York’s Tammany political machine was under Irish control for more than fifty years.

Irish-American political clout led to increased opportunities for the Irish-American. Looking out for their own, the political machines made it possible for the Irish to get jobs, to deal with naturalization issues, even to get food or heating fuel in emergencies.” 

Mexican-Americans are doing the opposite of what the Irish did.

When Kennedy embraced his Irish-ness in Dublin and later called his son Patrick (something that his parents rejected), Kennedy—culturally–reclaimed his 500 years of Irish History, and thus he was embraced in Ireland as one of them.  This fit Anderson’s theory of the religious fraternal linage bond that can be relived even after dead (nationalism).  But Mexicans who reject their identity do not fit any of the identity-theories by Huntington or Anderson because it is illogical for one group to denounce their own “self” identity to fit into political identity. Huntington argued  that national identities are constructed by governments and an ethnic identity is an individual’s or group’s sense of the self, or it is product of self-consciousness — wanting to be part of group. But Anderson believes that ethnicity is spiritual connection with those whom we share similar ancestral roots (historical or religious), as Kennedy did and as Biden does.

Groups become confident culturally and politically cohesive when they learn from the past.  Therefore, Mexican-Americans, as citizens of the United States, who objected to their ancestral history as Mexicans, are limiting their future to their short mortality because they have been told to abandon their history and ethnicity as prerequisite to be “American.” But, because they have abandoned their past Mexican-ness, they cannot have fraternal future since they have no cultural foundation for any historical claims to be native people of the Southwest and settlers of this land, even before the arrival of the Pilgrims and “Anglos” to the Southwest.

It took Kennedy four generations of Irish in America to be confident enough to assert his ethnic past. It is difficult to foresee how many generations still it will take for Mexican-Americans to feel free of cultural inhibition to gain enough  confidence to embrace their identity and not have their identity challenges with suspicions of dualloyalism.  Kennedy’s connection to Ireland  and Biden’s Irish-ness is a fraternal and spiritual link to his ancestral homeland.  What will Mexican-Americans have if they continue rejecting their past?  They will have no historical claims to this country and no sense of belonging to the Southwest.


Alex Gonzalez is a political Analyst, Founder of Latino Public Policy Foundation (LPPF), and Political Director for Latinos Ready To Vote. Comments to vote@latinosreadytovote.com or @AlexGonzTXCA

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