By Brooke Gazer
March 21 marks the 205 anniversary of the birth of Benito Juárez. It is astounding that from his humble beginnings in Oaxaca, he became one of the most respected figures in Mexico’s history. Orphaned at age 3 and raised by his grandparents, Juárez moved to Oaxaca City at the tender age of 13. He arrived in the city illiterate and speaking only Zapotec, the language of his Indian heritage. He must have been both brilliant and charismatic to have acquired a Law degree, married a woman of high social standing and had a triumphant albeit turbulent political career.
Arriving in Oaxaca City, young Juárez was employed by the Maza family where his sister was also a servant. From there he was introduced to Antonio Salanueva, a lay member of the Franciscan order, who first tutored the boy and then helped with his admission into seminary school. Rather than taking religious vows upon graduation, Juárez entered law school. With his law degree began a political career as an anti-establishment Liberal representing poor Indian communities. Nine years later Juarez married Margarita Maza, the daughter of one of Oaxaca’s wealthiest families and his former patron. In spite of the wide gap of both age and socioeconomic class, theirs was a strong marriage. She supported him in his endeavors to help the poor and, despite severe hardship, during his political banishments from Mexico.
While, serving as governor of Oaxaca from 1847-52, Juárez reduced corruption, built roads, public buildings, and schools. He reorganized the state national guard, and when he left office, the economy of Oaxaca was in good standing. His state government became renowned throughout Mexico for its honesty, public spirit, and constructiveness.
In 1853 the dictator Santa Anna returned to power and Juárez was one of several liberals expelled from Mexico. His time in exile was not idle. He worked in a cigarette factory in Louisiana while participating in a widespread movement to overthrow Santa Anna. In 1854 troops marched into Mexico City and General Alvarez, who took over as president, appointed Benito Juárez as his minister of justice. It is ironic that this former illiterate boy who was educated by the clergy was responsible for the “Juárez Law,” which severely limited the clergy’s jurisdiction.
In 1857, Juárez was elevated to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The same year a new constitution was adopted, guaranteeing social equality, free speech, and further limiting the powers of the church. This so enraged the opposition that they formed a coup, ultimately dissolved congress and removed the president from office. As Chief Justice, Juárez was next in line for the presidency in the event of the President’s death or unlawful removal from office. Juárez declared himself president, triggering a bloody three year civil war, pitting liberals against conservatives.
Juarez was captured in Guadalajara and it was only through the intervention of the poet Guillermo Prieto, that he escaped execution. In a dramatic moment of bravery, Prieto threw himself in front of Juárez, declaring: “Brave men do not assassinate.” The soldiers lowered their rifles, allowing Juárez to flee and to continue to his battle for the rights and freedoms of the Mexican people.
In 1860 the liberals dominated and Benito Juárez was elected president. Unfortunately he inherited an economy devastated by years of bloody conflict. Not only was Juárez unable to introduce some of the social reforms he so desperately wanted, but the nation was drowning in foreign debt. He appealed to his debtors to defer the loans temporarily while Mexico recovered economically.
As one of the debtors, France saw this as an opportunity to gain a foothold in the Americas and invaded Mexico. Napoleon along with a small group of conservatives wanted Mexico to have a monarchy and the Austrian Archduke Maximilian was appointed Emperor. In 1863 Benito Juárez retreated into exile again.
The Emperor appeared to share several of the liberal views and extended an invitation to Juárez to return to Mexico City as the Prime Minister. Juárez refused to serve in an imperial cabinet and continued his resistance against the monarchy. In a written response to Maximilian he noted that he was entirely distrustful of the offer extended and that he viewed his responsibility as the Elected President to the Republic of Mexico a sacred trust which he would not abandon. Juárez, unwavering in his duty and obligations, continued to foster guerrilla warfare against the Monarchy.
In 1867 the Emperor and his forces were defeated and Maximilian was executed in June of that year. Pleas came from around the world including heads of state and intellectuals such as Victor Hugo. All begged Juárez to spare to the deposed emperor but Juárez adamantly refused to commute the sentence. He claimed that this was in respect to the Mexicans who died fighting against Maximilian’s forces, and to send a message that Mexico would not tolerate any government imposed by foreign powers. It is plausible however, that his own near brush with the firing squad steeled him in this decision. Dead men do not return to retake control as Juárez had just done.
Following Maximilian’s execution, Juárez was again elected President of a war savaged country in financial ruin. Not only was the country bankrupt but many Europeans viewed Mexico as barbaric for having executed Maximilian. This made it virtually impossible to secure loans and without funds he was unable to perform many of the reforms that he had hoped would assist the poor and the indigenous.
Despite economic woes, his presidency is known for its reform to democratic principles and for taking Mexico from a semi feudal state to a more market driven one. Juarez reinstated the constitution of 1857 which both limited the power of the church and gave rights and equality to all citizens. . He reformed the electoral process, granting the vote to all males over the age of 25. He reduced the army by 75% allocating those funds to other priorities such as land reform. Finally, he was able to keep the country stable using diplomacy rather than military force.
Had Juarez not died during his fourth term as president, Mexico’s history may have been quite different in the twentieth century. The next president elect was Porfirio Díaz who later became a dictator. Although Díaz did much to stabilize the economy and to modernize Mexico over his thirty-five years in power; he also reversed many of the reforms enacted by Juárez. The Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 was largely a result of the policies of repression developed by Díaz.
Benito Juarez was considered above all to be a man of principle and is best remembered by the following quotation: “Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz”, “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.” The underlined portion is inscribed on the coat of arms of Oaxaca. For an illiterate boy from a remote village he left an abundant legacy. It is fitting that he is the only president that Mexico honors with a national holiday, March 21.