By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Just in case you are wondering why Monday, March 18, is an official holiday here in Mexico, it is in observation of the 1806 birthday of five-time president Benito Juárez, a national hero, who helped chase the French out of the country, overthrew the Hapsburg-imposed empire of Maximillian I, and restored the republic under a liberal regime that served as the backdrop for modernization and urbanization.
Not bad for a Zapotec native that started life out in an adobe hut in the Oaxacan Sierra Mountain highlands and was orphaned at the age of three.
Raised by an authoritarian uncle who sent his young ward to work the fields and shepherd his herds from the age of six, Juárez, whose actual birthday falls on March 21, didn’t attend school until he was 12 years old.
Even then, he had to trek 52 kilometers by foot to the nearest public school in Oaxaca City to get an education, and the fact that he only spoke Zapotec at the time didn’t help his cause when he applied for a scholarship.
In order to pay for his studies, Juarez took a part-time job as an errand boy for a local Franciscan layman, who was so impressed with Benito’s determination that he arranged to have the boy placed in the city’s Catholic seminary.
But priesthood was not in the stars for Juárez, who later became a lawyer, and then a judge.
Juárez also has a proclivity for politics, and by age 41, he was the governor of Oaxaca.
A man who refused to take orders from anyone, Juárez earned the political disfavor of Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna when he rejected the latter’s demands to back up his army in the 1946 war against the United States, a decision that would lead to his subsequent exile to New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1853.
There was not a lot of demand for Zapotec-speaking Mexican lawyers in Louisiana in that day, so while living in the Big Easy, Juárez worked in a cigar factory and plotted vindication against Santa Anna.
That retribution was soon translated into the Plan de Ayutla, a document demanding the military dictator’s immediate ouster and the drafting of a new constitution.
By 1855, the tide had turned against Santa Anna and Juárez returned to his native Mexico, but this time, not to his beloved Oaxaca but rather to the capital city, where political reform and economic development were afoot.
Two years later, a new Mexican constitution was rolled out, and Juárez assumed the seat of head of the Supreme Court under the presidency of Ignacio Comonfort, who had a cozy relationship with the Catholic Church, much to the chagrin of most of the supporters of the Ayutla Plan.
Comonfort’s reign was short-lived, and when he was ousted and jailed in 1857, Juárez, his second-in-command and designated successor, was tossed in the slammer along with the erstwhile president.
But since political upheaval was the pain quotidien of that era in Mexican history, the revolt against Comonfort was soon met with an equally subversive coup against its initiators, and in short order, Juárez was named interim president on Jan. 15, 1987.
Yet another political putsch followed, and Juárez and his government had to hightail their way out of the capital and into first Queretaro and then Veracruz as the various factions duked it out for control of the nation.
Finally, in 1861, Juárez was elected president in his own right, and the then-55-year-old Juárez set about the job of reconciling the various political cliques that had turned the country into a bedlam of social instability.
Decades of political unrest had wreaked havoc on the Mexican economy, and Juárez’s response to the situation was to cancel repayment of foreign loans, a decision that, understandably, did not sit well with the country’s debtor nations, primarily Spain, France and Britain.
The European response was quick and to-the-point: a military overthrow of Juárez and the coronation of an Austrian emperor to oversee the continent’s interests in Mexico.
The ensuing battles were gory and notorious, but in the end, Juárez and his army prevailed, and, with the help of its northern neighbor, Mexico regained its hard-fought sovereignty and sent the Europeans running back to their native soil.
What followed was another election in 1867, and another clear win for Juárez, who had now earned near-demigod status among his supporters, who considered him the nation’s political savior.
Juárez would serve two more terms before dying of a heart attack in his National Palace office on July 18, 1872.
And while he did embroil himself into a degree of political controversy in his later years for rewriting the constitution to allow him to serve extra terms, he remained – and still remains – one of the nation’s most important heroes.
His unflinching commitment, resilience and fortitude have been an example to all Mexicans, particularly those who grow up in poverty and depravation.
He is the architype of Mexico’s can-do vitality and its unwavering determination to maintain its independence and sovereignty, no matter what the cost.
Juárez was the epitome of the Mexican spirit.