Benito Juarez was a Mexican politician and statesman of the late nineteenth century. He was president for five terms in the turbulent years of 1858 to 1872. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Juarez’s life in politics is his background: he was a full-blooded native of Zapotec descent – the only full-blooded native to ever serve as president of Mexico – who did not even speak Spanish until he was in his teens. He was an important and charismatic leader whose influence is still felt today.
Born on March 21, 1806 into grinding poverty in the rural hamlet of San Pablo Guelatao, Juarez was orphaned as a toddler and worked in the fields for most of his young life. He went to Oaxaca at the age of 12 to live with his sister and worked as a servant for a time before being noticed by Antonio Salanueva, a Franciscan friar. Salanueva saw him as a potential priest and arranged for Juarez to enter the Santa Cruz seminary, where young Benito learned Spanish and law before graduating in 1827. He continued his education, entering the Institute of Science and Art, graduating in 1834 with a law degree.
1834 – 1852: His Political Career Begins:
Even before his graduation in 1834, Juarez was involved in local politics, serving as a city councilman in Oaxaca, where he earned a reputation as a staunch defender of native rights. He was made a judge in 1841, and became known as a fiercely anti-clerical liberal. By 1847 he had been elected governor of the State of Oaxaca. The United States and Mexico were at war from 1846 to 1848, although the state of Oaxaca was nowhere near the fighting. During his tenure as governor, Juarez angered conservatives by passing laws allowing for the confiscation of church funds and lands.
1853 – 1854 Exile:
Former President Antonio López de Santa Anna had been driven from Mexico after the war with the United States. In 1853, however, he returned, and quickly set up a conservative government that exiled many liberals, including Juarez. Juarez spent time in Cuba and New Orleans, where he worked in a cigarette factory. While in New Orleans, he teamed with other exiles to plot Santa Anna’s downfall. When liberal general Juan Alvarez launched a coup, Juarez hurried back, and was there in November of 1854 when Alvarez’s forces captured the capital. Alvarez quickly made himself president and named Juárez Minister of Justice.
1854-1858 Conflict Brewing:
The liberals had the upper hand for the moment, but their ideological conflict with conservatives continued to smolder. As minister of Justice, Juarez passed laws limiting church power, and in 1857 a new constitution was passed, which limited them even further. By then, Juarez was in Mexico City, serving in his new role as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The new constitution turned out to be the spark that reignited the smoking fires of conflict between the liberals and conservatives, and in December, 1857, the conservative general Félix Zuloaga overthrew the government.
The Reform War 1858-1861:
Many prominent liberals, including Juarez, were arrested. Released from prison, Juarez went to Guanajuato, where he declared himself president and declared war. The two governments, led by Juárez and Zuloaga, were sharply divided, mostly over the role of religion in government. Juárez worked to further limit the powers of the church during the conflict. The United States government, forced to pick a side, formally recognized the liberal Juárez government in 1859. This turned the tide in favor of the liberals, and on January 1, 1861, Juárez returned to Mexico City to assume the presidency of a united Mexico.
After the disastrous reform war, Mexico and its economy were in tatters. The nation still owed great sums of money to foreign nations, and in late 1861, Britain, Spain and France united to send troops to Mexico to collect. Some intense last-minute negotiations convinced the British and Spanish to withdraw, but the French remained, and began fighting their way to the capital, which they reached in 1863. They were welcomed by conservatives, who had been out of power since Juarez’ return. Juárez and his government were forced to flee.
Maximilian and Juarez:
The French invited Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph
, a 31 year-old Austrian nobleman, to come to Mexico and assume rule. In this, they had the support of many Mexican conservatives, who thought that a monarchy would best stabilize the country. Maximilian and his wife Carlota arrived in 1864, where they became crowned emperor and empress of Mexico. Juárez continued to war with the French and conservative forces, eventually forcing the emperor to flee the capital. Maximilian was captured and executed in 1867, effectively ending the French occupation.
Juarez’ Final Years:
Juarez was re-elected to the presidency in 1867 and 1871, but did not live to finish his last term. He was felled by a heart attack while working at his desk on July 18, 1872.
Today’s Mexicans view Juárez much like some Americans see Abraham Lincoln: he was a firm leader when his nation needed one, who took a side in a social issue that drove his nation to war. There is a city (Ciudad Juárez) named after him, as well as countless streets, schools, businesses, etc. He is held in particularly high regard by Mexico’s considerable indigenous population, who rightly view him as a trailblazer in native rights and justice.