By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Monday, Feb. 6, is an official holiday in Mexico.
It commemorates (one day late this year) the Feb. 5, 1917, proclamation of the country’s Magna Carta.
And whether you see the Monday holiday as a chance to get out of town for a long weekend or just an opportunity to get an early start on doing your tax returns, it is important to remember that in Mexico, it is a celebration of a key pillar of the nation’s history.
While Cinco de Mayo – which commemorates the Mexican Army’s unlikely victory over French forces in 1862 – has gained international recognition and, in many places outside the country (especially the United States), has been transformed into a day of celebration of Mexican national identity, Cinco de Febrero has, to a great extent, become an orphan holiday.
But, as unappreciated as the February holiday may be, it actually venerates one of the most important documents in Mexican political evolution.
The Mexican Constitution (Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos) was drafted in Santiago de Querétaro, in central Mexico, following the 1910 Revolution.
The decade-long Mexican Revolution was a hard-fought battle of the classes that began with the failure of the 35-year despotic regime of then-President Porfirio Díaz, who ran the country like a caudillo and refused to accept presidential succession.
At first it was a war of quarrelling elites, the incumbent president against his political opponent, the wealthy landlord Francisco I. Madero, who eventually ousted Díaz through military force and took the office.
But in time, the Revolution became a struggle for basic human rights, an uprising of the oppressed masses and a demand for agrarian reform to give back the land to the farmers who tilled it.
The struggle was brutal and tedious, and it is believed that as many as 1.5 million Mexicans (a full 10th of the country’s total population at the time) died as a result of the insurrection.
Another 200,000 Mexican fled overseas to escape the bloodshed.
But when the civil war finally came to an end, a new national constitution was drafted, a Magna Carta that would supersede all previous Mexican constitutions (and there were a slew of them), and which would (in theory, anyway) forever enshrine the rights of the nation’s poor and disenfranchised.
Unlike the constitutions that had preceded it, the 1917 charter encompassed a wide range of cutting-edge social reforms.
It was the first Magna Carta in the world to set out economic and social rights such as the right to education, the right to housing and the right to health care, and it would serve as a model for the Russian Constitution of 1918 and for Germany’s Weimer Constitution in 1919.
Among its most important provisions were Articles 3, 27 and 123, which, respectively, secularized education, implemented land reform and empowered the labor sector.
The 1917 constitution, which is still in force today (albeit with numerous amendments along the way), also limited the influence of the Roman Catholic Church (which many people felt had played a complicit role in shoring up the power of the elite), and ensured a peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next (although that didn’t always work out as planned).
The Mexican Constitution is the political foundation and bedrock of the nation’s modern history, a written guarantee that all Mexicans, regardless of race, gender or religious inclination, are protected under the law.
Over the last century, it has evolved and assimilated to reflect current realities, but it has always remained at the core of all common national values.
So happy Constitution Day, Mexico, even if most people don’t remember what the holiday is all about.