The “First Couple of Mexico”

20206By Julie Etra

A very famous Mexican pareja (couple), known as the “first couple of Mexico,” Benito Juárez and Margarita Eustaquia Maza Parada, later known as Margarita Maza, were legendary for their closeness and affection for each other. Much is known about Juárez, an orphan and native Oaxacan who only learned Spanish at age 15, but less about the woman who supported him and his presidency, and who bore 12 children by him, only seven of whom survived to adulthood. 

They were married in 1843 when Juárez was in his late 30s and Maza was 20 years younger than he. They had met at the Maza household where Juárez’s sister was their servant, and Maza was just a baby. Maza was of Spanish descent but born in Mexico, making her a Creole, and part of Oaxaca’s upper-class (although her father was supposedly an Italian from Genoa). An unlikely and unusual pair, especially at the time, mixing ethnicities and class as the Indian Juárez married up and the “white: woman – well, I’ll leave it at that. The marriage lasted until her death from cancer in 1871, at age 45. She is buried in the Juárez mausoleum in Mexico City. 

This article depends on my good fortune in taking a class with Clara Valdes Hernández, who helped translate the correspondence from Maza to Juárez, noting the cultural context. For example, the ‘Dear Juárez’ salutation in Maza’s letters, which sounds formal to us “foreigners” is standard and reflects the respect Maza held for her husband. 

But the larger message she conveyed was the inflated and unwarranted admiration of Juárez, given his lack of support for his own people in the state of Oaxaca, and well as the underappreciated policies of Maximilian, Carlota, and the French presence. From her perspective, his worthiness should be noted for his ascension to power having been an orphan, and a Zapotec, and eventually given the title Benemérito (meritorious). Moreover, Maza, as was typical of the time, supported her husband as it was her role and duty, and raised twelve children mostly in his absence and without his help. Clara considers her a martyr, and deserving a greater level of respect, also noting she was almost constantly pregnant when they were together.

The first president of Mexico, following the hard-fought, decade-long struggle for independence from Spain, finally achieved in 1821, was Guadalupe Victoria. He was followed by Vincent Guerrero, of African descent (who was betrayed and assassinated by firing squad, after being taken by ship from Acapulco to Entrega Bay in Huatulco and then overland to Oaxaca City) and then very briefly by José María Bocanegra. Until the Constitution was adopted in 1857, rule of the new country was complicated for this ethnically diverse nation, comprising multiple leaders and coalitions. In 1858 Juárez became president of Mexico according to the rules of succession mandated by the Constitution of 1857 when President Ignacio Comonfort was forced to resign. Juárez remained president until his death by heart disease in 1872, at the age of 66. 

In 1861-1862, however, Juárez’s government was in desperate financial shape, and had to withhold payments of interest on foreign loans with Spain, Britain and France. The three European countries sent a joint expeditionary force and seized the Veracruz Customs House in December 1861. Spain and Britain withdrew from the assault after they learned the intentions of the Emperor Napoleon III to overthrow the Mexican government, in collusion with the defeated Conservatives. The French invaded in 1862 and were ultimately ousted along with their Conservative allies in 1867, saving the Mexican Republic. 

At the Battle of Puebla (May 5, 1862), Mexican forces led by Porfirio Díaz scored a preliminary victory over the invading French by Mexican forces (we now celebrate this victory Cinco de Mayo).  The outcome forced the French to retreat to the coast for a year, but they persisted, capturing Mexico City in 1863. In retreat Juárez and his government fled the capital and became a government in exile; Juárez headed north to Chihuahua City with his cabinet. Margarita Maza and their children also went into exile in New York City and then Washington DC, until the French were defeated in 1867. That was their second and lengthier separation. But before being discovered by the Maximilian government and forced to flee Mexico, she and her daughters organized meetings and small events to raise funds to help support hospitals and families affected by the war. 

Their first separation, at least their first political separation, occurred when he was Governor of Oaxaca during the presidency of Antonio López de Santa Anna. Mexico had lost the Mexican-American War (leading to the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848) and Juárez objected to Santa Anna’s plans to resurrect the conflict and regroup with additional forces. Adding to this, he voiced his objections to the corruption of the presidency and in 1853 was exiled by Santa Anna.  With the financial support of his wife, he went first to Cuba and then on to New Orleans, where he worked in a cigar factory. She and their six children were hounded and sought refuge in a succession of private estates. \

More about the couple. Although much is known about Juárez’ life, a lesser known aspect is the mutual love and devotion between the two. Although they were twice separated, their correspondence during these periods was frequent and very personal, but also insightful and politically helpful during the French invasion. While she was in exile in Washington DC, despite the death of two of her young children, she carried out diplomatic work and served as a liaison with politicians who supported the struggle against the French (it is not well known that U.S. President Andrew Johnson of the United State of America supported the Juárez government and shipped arms across the southern border).

The Juárez-Maza marriage dealt with separations and the premature death of five of their twelve children. In 1850, when Juárez was governor, one-year old daughter María Guadalupe died in Oaxaca. And three years later, during their first separation. two-year old Amada died, followed in 1862 by the death of their daughter Jerónima Francisca in Mexico City.  In 1864, while Margarita and her children were in New York, son José María (Pepe) died at eight years of age. It was perhaps this death that caused the most pain to Juárez (a boy, of course), who in a letter to Matías Romero said, “I do not continue, because I am under the deepest regret that destroys my heart for the death of the son whom I loved most, I have barely been able to write the preceding lines.” Son Antonio (Tono), only one and a half, died the following year, also in New York. 

In her letters, Margarita referred to her husband as “My dear Juárez,” and signed them with a phrase that does not translate well to English – “Take the heart of your wife who loves you.” And from Juárez to Margarita: “My dear Margarita …Your husband who loves you and desires you,” he wrote several times.

On September 22, 1864, he wrote to her from exile in Nazas, Durango:

My beloved Margarita:

Although I already wrote you another letter for you and Santa, I write you these lines to tell you not to worry about me and up until this date I have nothing new to report. Only our separation, and our children’s separation, continues to torment me and I don’t know how you are faring. Perhaps one of these days I will receive favorable news and that will be of great comfort to me. Give a hug to my beloved daughters and Beno and many kisses for the Negro, our little friends, and Antoñito and Maria Doloritas. Accept the heart of your husband who will never forget you.’ 

And from Margarita on December 13, 1865, in exile in New York City, to her husband; Clara Hernández has doubts about its origin due to questionable sentence structure and context from a very literate woman:

My dearest Juárez:

I received your letter of 10 November where you told me that you had not received my letter, nor one from Romero, but I suppose you have by now. Don’t worry, we are fine. He who continues with the Presidency does not surprise me, I understand that you have not answered and we do what we have to do. Finally, even if we were separated, you would not be able to come with us. I have no hope of seeing you again until we triumph, according to the news, it seems this won’t happen for another year and this makes me very happy, as you should consider. On December 8, our son Pepe has been dead for a year and today our son Tono was one and a half years old. These daily memories of my dead children do not let me live. I am very unhappy. Receive a thousand memories of our children and your wife’s heart.