From a childhood of backbreaking work in the cornfields to Cinco de Mayo, this indigenous peasant grew up to become a symbol of freedom and national pride for the Mexican people.
Benito Juárez was born in 1806 to the Zapotec Indian tribe of Oaxaca, Mexico. His parents were poor peasants. They died by the time he was three. At 12, Benito worked in the cornfields to feed himself. And when he wasn't working, he walked, every day, to the city of Oaxaca to attend school.
He learned to read, write, and speak in Spanish. In his 20s, the brilliant young mind turned its attention to the study of law.
Like elsewhere in the world at that time, Mexico was undergoing tremendous change. For centuries, politics had been dominated by European-descended landowners and the Catholic Church. This "conservative" faction owned nearly all the country's land and enjoyed nearly all the wealth. They now feared the grassroots power of the majority peasant classes. To maintain the status quo, they supported a repressive dictator, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had no qualms about using violence to oppress the most oppressed.
But a new generation of Mexican – young, smart, and educated – wanted to throw off the yoke of feudalism. They sought to nationalize Mexico's privately-owned lands and limit the power of the Church. They flocked to the city of Oaxaca, where they could rub shoulders with peasants, one of them Benito Juárez. At the age of 25, Juárez was elected to the city council of Oaxaca. Working as a city prosecutor, he earned the respect of locals for his honesty and simple manner of living. He became known as "Juárez the incorruptible." Fifteen years later, they elected him Governor of Oaxaca. He was then 40 and a leader of the “liberal” faction.
When the United States invaded Mexico also at about this time, in 1846, Juárez organized and led a ragtag volunteer army to defend it. He opposed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded half of Mexico to its young neighbor to the north. That’s when General Santa Anna exiled Juárez, having deemed the charismatic and savvy leader simply too dangerous. Juárez fled to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he worked in a cigar factory. There, he waited for his chance to return home to support the revolution to establish democracy in Mexico.
In 1855, he got it: A coalition of young liberal reformers succeeded in forcing Santa Anna from power. In a heartbeat, Juárez was back and helping to draft a new constitution. The document abolished slavery and guaranteed freedom of speech. However, the conservatives were not ready to admit defeat. With the support of the Catholic Church, they launched a rebellion to restore the dictatorship. It failed. Rebels seized Mexico City.
Liberals rallied around Juárez. While the conservatives had guns, Juárez had the hearts of the people. In the election of 1857, he'd become head of the new Supreme Court and effective vice president of Mexico. So when the conservative revolt ousted the president in January 1858, Juárez had a legal claim to the presidency. He marched into Mexico City protected by a peoples' army of peasants and idealists and, as president, promptly restored the Constitution. He launched a flurry of critical social reforms, among them, the nationalization of properties owned by the Catholic Church, which had traditionally been a leading landowner in Mexico. He redistributed them to the poor peasants who heretofore had none. He decreed that henceforth the Church would be forbidden from owning land in Mexico.
Still, the defeated conservatives refused to back down. In addition to being sore losers, were now heavily in debt. They had borrowed from foreign powers, including the French, to fight the liberal faction. France invaded Mexico in 1861 with the goal of establishing a puppet regime friendly to its colonial interests as well as willing to repay the overdue war loans. Conservative Mexicans stood behind the French colonizers, who propped up Emperor Maximilian to rule Mexico. Though forced into exile in areas of Mexico not controlled by the French, however, Juárez maintained that he was the legitimate head of the state. He would not relinquish his office.
He sent his family to the United States for safety – they were welcomed there by then President Abraham Lincoln. But Juarez stayed in Mexico to fight for the rights of his people. On May 5, 1862, his troops defeated the much larger, better equipped, and professional trained French Army at the Battle of Puebla. Mexicans still celebrate that victory today with the annual event, Cinco De Mayo.
It took another five years, but in 1867, the French finally withdrew. After decades of fighting, the liberal faction had won liberty for Mexico and Juárez was globally recognized as president. A period of reform followed, which transformed education and land ownership practices, instituted a new national army, and established a secular state that limited the power of the Church.
Mexicans remember the period of Juarez's leadership as La Reforma, when the power of democracy beat out the forces of dictatorship to create the modern Mexican state.
In 1872, Juárez died of a heart attack at the age of 66.
Controversial in his lifetime, Juárez was a brilliant, pragmatic, and ruthlessly savvy politician. He is remembered as a progressive reformer dedicated to overthrowing feudalism in favor of democracy and equal rights, particularly for his nation's indigenous peoples. His unwavering efforts on behalf of the Mexican people made him a hero and a symbol of resistance to foreign intervention both in Mexico and beyond. That's why we're proud to name Benito Juárez a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
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