By Kary Vannice
In nearly every city in Mexico, no matter the size, you inevitably find a Benito Juarez Avenue or Boulevard or Street. And most also have a prominent statue of the illustrious native President.
Perhaps, the most famous Mexican President of all time, Juarez served a tumultuous 14 years in office from 1858-1872. It could be said that Benito would never have served all those years in office were it not for his wife, Margarita Maza de Juarez.
While perhaps lesser known, Margarita is no less important in Mexican history, especially when considering influential woman of Mexico.
Margarita was born in Oaxaca City in 1826, at a time when hoop skirts ruled the day and little girls were to be seen and not heard. Born into an affluent Italian family, she grew up when few women had the opportunity for quality education. Margarita however, being born into wealthy European family, had luxuries most did not. She was taught to both read and write, something almost unheard of in Mexico at the time.
Benito, a Zapotec Indian was a fixture in the life of Margarita from her birth. At the age of 12 having been orphaned first by his parents, then by his grandparents he traveled to Oaxaca city to find his sister, a maid and cook in the house of the Margarita’s parents.
Having known him all her life, at the age of 17, Margarita wed Benito, who was then 37. Their 20-year age disparity made little difference for two people of such strong character and ambition.
Margarita’s devotion to her husband must have been tested more than once when his out-spoken and revolutionary ideas clashed with the refined, upper-class society to which she was born. But ever faithful, she never waivered.
They lived during turbulent times, many of which were the direct result of the reform Margarita’s husband wished to see in his country. Benito suffered both strong opposition and exile during his rise to presidency and time in office.
She too, suffered the same. It could well be argued that Margarita and her children suffered more.
In 1853, Juarez was banished from the country for denying shelter to general and dictator Santa Anna. Margarita and her 6 children (at the time) were left in Mexico while Juarez took refuge first in Cuba, then United States.
Also persecuted for her husband’s idealistic, progressive ways, for 2 years Margarita and her children were forced to move from state to state. She worked where the opportunity arose. Once working as a seamstress and another time as a shop-keeper. She earned money not only to support herself and her children, but also to send money to her husband in exile. To make this difficult time worse, Margarita lost the second of 5 of her children who would die while still very young when separated from her husband.
Ultimately, Santa Ana was defeated and her husband returned to Mexico and reunited with his wife and children. But it was not long before they were again estranged.
In 1862, when France invaded Mexico and Maximilian set up an imperialist government, Margarita fled with her children to Oaxaca. There she and her daughters organize meetings, plays and other small fundraisers to support her husband’s cause. Unfortunately, her activities drew the attention of the Imperialist government of Maximilian, and Margarita and her remaining children were obligated take flight to the United States for safety.
Having already buried 3 of her daughters in Mexico, she was not going to risk the lives of her remaining 3 sons and six daughters. Unfortunately, she was unable to prevent 2 of her 3 sons from dying of illness while in the US.
This was probably the most difficult time in her life, writing to her husband upon the death of her youngest son “The loss of my sons is killing me. From the moment I awaken I think of them remembering their sufferings. I do not much blame persons who kill themselves. If I had been braver I would have done it a year ago.”
Even in the midst of her sorrow, she never stopped giving support to her husband or his cause; frequently writing letters to send news and bolster his spirits, while she herself was suffering from severe depression.
While in the US, Margarita championed her husband’s cause quietly, at first. But in 1866, the time came when more aggressive action needed to be taken. She and her second oldest daughter went to Washington DC to raise awareness of Mexico’s plight against the French.
She was received by President Andrew Johnson, the Secretary of State and Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army, General Ulysses S. Grant. Her appearance in Washington spurred the US to action, turned the tide in favor of the Mexican resistance and the French soon departed the North American Continent.
But, the separation from her husband and loss of her two sons had taken their toll on Margarita. She wished to go home.
Having gained favor with many high officials in Washington, Margarita returned to Mexico to reunite with her husband aboard a warship that the U.S. President put at her disposal and the family and friends who accompanied her. Upon her return to Mexico, the First Lady was greeted by throngs of supporters cheering “Long live the true mother of our people. Long Live Margarita Maza de Juarez. Long live the heroine of Mexico”.
As a First Lady, Margarita was distinguished for her charity and for providing assistance to those with fewer opportunities. She never separated herself from the people, often seen walking along the Paseo de Bucareli in Mexico City along with her daughters and remaining son all social classes of people. All citizens were allowed direct access to the First Family. She had spent her life and her time as First Lady demonstrating by her actions that all were equally entitled to the same treatment and respect.
Benito and Margarita considered themselves to be of the people, not apart from them, despite the many hardships they had endured to make a better life for all Mexican people. Finally able to live at her husband’s side, in relative peace and tranquility, in her early 40’s, Margarita fell gravely ill. Doctors told Benito that his wife’s disease was progressive and fatal. Apparently, it was cancer. From that point forward, Juarez, who was known to work in the Presidential office until the very late hours of the night, began to leave early to spend time with his wife.
On January 2, 1871 the day of her death, Margarita asked Juarez to ensure that their unmarried daughters marry in the church. At that point, Juarez cried and said she would get better, her health would improve. But, it was not to be, at 4:00 pm, Margaret died with a smile. Benito, who loved and admired her greatly, screamed in pain. Juarez refused to send obituaries and asked his friends not to do so either, so he may and handle the death of his wife discreetly. But, a trusted friend told him he could not do that, because Margarita was so beloved by all of Mexico. The news of Margarita’s death was published throughout the country and the people went into mourning.
On the day of her official funeral, the thousands of people gathered to accompany her body to the cemetery of San Fernando.
Perhaps, the famous Mexican poet Guillermo Prieto summed up the life of Margarita Maza de Juarez best when he wrote:
Beautiful face, immense tenderness,
yet, at the time of pleasure it disappears;
when pouring out her goodness upon others, she is radiant
even in times of trial and bitterness.
While suffering relentless misfortune
she provides a refuge for her family
at once a loving hen that broods her chicks
and a hawk defying the brutality.
In the midst of power and bestowed laurels,
she nobly remembers her poverty,
and finds vile the boastfulness of other people’s vanity.
She leaves the regal palace deserted
to alleviate the agony of others,
while in misery and solitude, she herself, cries alone.