Today is the birthday of one of Mexico’s great presidents. An important statesman and liberal reformer, Benito Juarez was the first and only full-blooded indigenous leader to serve as president of Mexico. Born in 1806 in the village of Guelatao, Oaxaca, he studied for the priesthood before choosing to pursue a career in law. He was elected governor of Oaxaca in 1847 and later served as president of Mexico from 1858 until his death in 1872.
Widely quoted for his saying “Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz,” (Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace), Juarez’ legacy includes the separation of church and state, and free and obligatory education.
Benito Juarez’ birthday is a national public holiday in Mexico.
Today Benito Juárez is remembered as being a progressive reformer dedicated to democracy, equal rights for his nation’s indigenous peoples, lessening the great power that the Roman Catholic Church then held over Mexican politics, and the defence of national sovereignty. The period of his leadership is known in Mexican history as La Reforma (the reform), and constituted a liberal political and social revolution with major institutional consequences: the expropriation of church lands, bringing the army under civilian control, liquidation of peasant communal land holdings, the separation of church and state in public affairs, and also led to 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.
Click here to read Juarez’ bio.