Today is Benito Juárez Day!
Benito Juárez (Spanish pronunciation: [beˈnito ˈxwaɾes]; 21 March 1806 – 18 July 1872) born Benito Pablo Juárez García, was a Mexican lawyer and politician of Zapotec origin from Oaxaca who served five terms as president of Mexico: 1858–1861 as interim, then 1861–1865, 1865–1867, 1867–1871 and 1871–1872. He resisted the French occupation of Mexico, overthrew the Second Mexican Empire, restored the Republic, and used liberal efforts to modernize the country.
Juárez was born on 21 March 1806 in a small adobe home in the village of San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, located in the mountain range now known as the “Sierra Juárez“. His parents, Marcelino Juárez and Brígida García, were peasants who both died of complications of diabetes when he was three years old. Shortly after, his grandparents died as well, and his uncle then raised him. He described his parents as “indios de la raza primitiva del país,” that is, “Indians of the original race of the country.” He worked in the corn fields and as a shepherd until the age of 12, when he walked to the city of Oaxaca de Juárez to attend school. At the time, he was illiterate and could not speak Spanish, only Zapotec.
In the city, where his sister worked as a cook, he took a job as a domestic servant for Antonio Maza. A lay Franciscan, Antonio Salanueva, was impressed with young Benito’s intelligence and thirst for learning, and arranged for his placement at the city’s seminary. In 1843 Benito married Margarita Maza.
Today Benito Juárez is remembered as being a progressive reformer dedicated to democracy, equal rights for his nation’s indigenous peoples, his antipathy toward organized religion, especially the Catholic Church, and what he regarded as defense of national sovereignty. The period of his leadership is known in Mexican history as La Reforma del Norte (The Reform of the North), and constituted a liberal political and social revolution with major institutional consequences: the expropriation of church lands, the subordination of army to civilian control, liquidation of peasant communal land holdings, the separation of church and state in public affairs, and also the almost-complete disenfranchisement of bishops, priests, nuns and lay brothers.
La Reforma represented the triumph of Mexico’s liberal, federalist, anti-clerical, and pro-capitalist forces over the conservative, centralist, corporatist, and theocratic elements that sought to reconstitute a locally-run version of the old colonial system. It replaced a semi-feudal social system with a more market-driven one, but following Juárez’s death, the lack of adequate democratic and institutional stability soon led to a return to centralized autocracy and economic exploitation under the regime of Porfirio Díaz. The Porfiriato (Porfirist era), in turn, collapsed at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.
21 March is a day set to commemorate Juárez. This date has become a national holiday in Mexico, which has continued to grow in acceptance within Mexican culture.
Juárez’s famous quotation continues to be well-remembered in Mexico: “Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz“, meaning “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.” The portion of this motto in bold is inscribed on the coat of arms of Oaxaca.
“Law has always been my shield and my sword” is a phrase often reproduced as decoration inside court and tribunals buildings.