By Daniel L. Muñoz, Sr.
During the month of March, the country of Mexico stops to remember one of the most important figures in the history of Mexico; the former President of Mexico; Benito Pablo Juárez. He was not a Spaniard nor a Mestizo but a Zapoteco Indian.
Benito Juárez was born March 21, 1806, the child of Zapoteco Indians. The upraising against the Spaniards had already occurred when Father Miguel Hidalgo led a revolution by the Mestizos and Native Americans who wanted equality and self-rule.
Following a series of valiant attacks against the Spaniards led by Father Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon who was then able to declare Independence for Mexico in 1813.
Independence was short lived when the criollo Agustin de Iturbide defeated Morelos in 1813. A flurry of upraisings occurred for the next 50 years or so.
Benito Juárez was oblivious to the wars surrounding him. His parents had died when he was only three years old. He then went to live with his uncle.
At the age of 12, when he could neither read, write nor speak Spanish, he moved in with his sister in Oaxaca, in the village of San Pablo. His destination was the house of the Maza family, where his sister worked as a servant.
A friend of Señor Maza, Antonio Salanueva, a lay member of the Franciscan order taught the boy reading, writing, arithmetic, Spanish grammar and bookbinding. They were so impressed with Benito’s aptitude that they sent him to the Franciscan seminary in Oaxaca with the idea of turning him into a Priest.
Though young, Juárez immersed himself in the study of Aquinas and other great Catholic philosophers. He decided, in the end, that his career lay in law rather than religion. He eventually graduated with a law degree in 1831. After his graduation, he served as a city councilman in Oaxaca. By 1841 he had become a Civil Judge, and then, the Governor of Oaxaca! Two years later, he married Margarita Maza, the daughter of his patron! By this time, the Mexican-American War had taken place (1846-1848) and the U.S. had annexed Texas in 1845.
In 1853, the under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California for $15 million.
In Mexico, the Conservatives had taken power. Benito Juarez, who was a Liberal, along with many others of like mind was exiled. Juarez spent his exile in New Orleans. There he made friends with those that would later assist him in turning Mexico into a modern day nation.
By 1855, the Liberals had won the election in Mexico and Benito Juarez returned to become the Minister of Justice. He was soon elevated to preside over the Supreme Court. He would go on to become the Vice President of Mexico! Unfortunately, the Conservatives rebelled and Juarez was once again forced to flee for his life.
This time he didn’t leave Mexico but fled only as far as Veracruz! This time the revolution was short lived and by January 1861, the Conservatives had lost power once again. This time Juarez returned as the President of Mexico! But, by this time, Mexico was broke!
Juárez was forced by the financial toll of the Reform War (1858-1860), to suspend debt payments to Mexico’s chief European creditors, France, Britain and Spain. These powers organized a punitive expedition, seizing Veracruz, but Britain and Spain pulled out when they learned of Napoleon III’s desire to install a puppet regime in Mexico City with Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, Archduke of Austria as Emperor of Mexico.
The French, were defeated at Puebla, (Cinco de Mayo, 1862) but poured in reinforcements and captured Mexico City in 1863 and maintained control of Mexico. Evacuating the capital, Juárez organized resistance in the north.
President Lincoln, during this period of turmoil had his hands full with the Civil War; he did what he could to help Juárez. President Lincoln supplied the Mexican Liberals with arms and munitions. He sent 30,000 muskets from Baton Rouge alone. The President ordered General Grant “to concentrate, in all available points in the States, an army strong enough to move against the invaders of Mexico.”
Lincoln was dead by 1867. That same year Juárez vanquished Maximilian. The initiatives, Lincoln had put in place, inexorably worked their way to ensuring victory for the Juaristas. Louis Napoleon had sympathized with the South, but growing Union power made him stop short of granting recognition to the Confederacy.
In 1867, with the Civil War over and the Union-backed Juaristas growing in strength, Napoleon III pulled his troops out of Mexico and left Maximilian to his fate. Perhaps the greatest dividend attained by the informal but highly effective alliance between Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juárez was the way it served to ease the bitterness felt by Mexicans thanks to the disastrous consequences of the U.S.-Mexican War.
In the flush of victory over Maximilian and his European sponsors, Juárez won the 1867 election by a wide margin. But he faced serious problems. Two devastating wars had left the treasury empty. There was an oversized army and resentment among the European powers over Maximilian’s execution.
Attempting to cope with the situation, Juárez adopted a policy of centralization, to weaken Congress; he used all his prestige to ram through a constitutional amendment that would add a Senate to the Chamber of Deputies. Another amendment, designed to further strengthen the executive branch, gave him the right to veto any bill, with a two-thirds majority required to override the veto. Worn out by five years of frustration and disappointment, Juárez succumbed to a heart attack on July 17,1872. Mexico lost a great leader and America lost a friend!