Mexico lives for its puentes, those three-day weekends that wheel around from time to time, causing cities to empty and highways to fill. It’s an unspoken rule that when a puente comes around, you must travel. No one travels on 2 day weekends. That third day is apparently all important.
March 21 has come around, coinciding with Spring, bringing a long awaited puente to the people. March 21 celebrates the birthday of Benito Juarez. This is a rare honour; although Mexico has many pantheons worth of heroes, few of them are revered enough to stop work and send the droves bustling to the beaches.
This is not to say that Juarez wasn’t a controversial figure. He was a liberal, and he was at the centre of another era of civil strife in Mexico, La Reforma, the period that links post-independence Mexico with pre-revolution Mexico. Somehow, however, from among all the many liberals and conservatives that have fought for themselves and/or for their nation, Juarez has risen to a greater height.
This rise was improbable to say the least. When Juarez arrived in Oaxaca at the age of 12 he was an illiterate orphan that spoke only Zapotec. He had walked to the city to attend school. Ten years later he had graduated from a seminary. Ten years after that he was a lawyer. Ten years after that he was the governor of Oaxaca and had married the daughter of the man who had kept him as a servant.
In 1853 Juarez protested the dictatorship of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and was kicked out of the country. He spent his exile working in a New Orleans cigar factory, and formulating plans for a liberal revolution in Mexico. When Santa Anna resigned Juarez returned to Mexico to become Chief Justice. When a coup toppled the new government, Juarez became interim president of a country at war with itself. For three years Juarez led the motley liberal forces, confiscating church property and courting USAmerican favour. In 1861 the liberals were (miraculously) victorious, Juarez was elected president, and Mexico was bankrupt.
Had this been the end of Juarez’s story he would have been remembered as the first indigenous head of state in Mexico and the western hemisphere. He would have been remembered as a liberal reformer, hated by conservatives for, if nothing else, his disempowering of the church.
There was more to come though; Mexico could not pay off its debts to Britain, Spain and France, and Napoleon III used this as a pretext to launch the French ‘intervention’ in Mexico. Defeated conservatives welcomed the French forces that swept into the country, installing the Austrian Archduke (he was the Austrian emperor’s little brother) as Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. Maximilian occupied Mexico City (and did up Chapultepec Castle as his residence), while Juarez fled to the north to hold his government-in-exile in a succession of distant cities.
Juarez’s situation was pretty hopeless, there was little he himself could do. His government was saved by three fortuitous factors. One was the forced withdrawal of French troops from Mexico to deal with Napoleon’s adversaries in Europe. The second was the end of the America Civil War, leaving the US free to pursue its doctrine of keeping Europe out of the Americas. Although it wasn’t officially involved in the war the US military repeatedly ‘lost’ tens of thousand of weapons along the Mexican border, which allowed Juarez’s forces to re-arm themselves. The third factor was that the increasingly isolated Maximilian held deep-seated liberal and Mexican nationalist tendencies, making him a pretty ineffective puppet for the conservatives and the French. Maximilian offered amnesty and a role in the imperial government to Juarez. It is this moment, perhaps more than any other, that sealed Juarez’s destiny as a national hero. His reply to Maximilian was eloquent and fiery, condemning traitors, declaring himself president of Mexico, and stating that he would fight to the end for the freedom of his country.
In 1867 the French were defeated and Juarez resumed his presidency. Despite international outcry, he had Maximilian sentenced to death. The liberals were undisputed rulers of Mexico and Juarez was the hero that defeated the foreign invaders.
Juarez’s final term in office saw a tension between his hero status and the grim national situation. Mexico had suffered two wars back to back, had lost international confidence and was strapped for cash. Juarez raised funds by selling confiscated church property to wealthy liberal backers, but in doing so he lost popularity with peasant and indigenous groups hungry for land redistribution. Several such groups took to arms, and Juarez found himself fighting against those that had once called him their champion.
Juarez’s death is probably unique among Mexico’s heroes. Rather than a firing squad (he narrowly escaped one of these during La Reforma) or a treacherous ambush, Juarez suffered a heart attack while working at his desk in Mexico City. It is perhaps a fitting end for one who is remembered as a legislator not as a general, but it did mean that rather than the fiery martyr’s death Juarez was left to succumb to the slow demise of history.
Despite the unspectacular death Juarez is remembered today as one of Mexico’s greatest heroes, risen so high as to be almost beyond the reach of factionalism. While most of Mexico’s heroes are revered by some and reviled by others, Juarez is almost, almost a hero to all.