Happy Birthday Benito!

Juarez: A champion of the oppressed

"Among individuals as among nations, the respect for the rights of others means peace."

Benito Juarez

Colima and Manzanillo have ties with Benito Juarez, considered by many to be the "Father of Mexico," or the "Abraham Lincoln of Mexico."

Born of poor parents, March 21, 1806, in a hill town of Oaxaca, Southern Mexico, Benito Juarez lived till he was twelve years of age without being able to read, write, or even speak, the Spanish language. He was a true Mexican, a Zapotec Indian, of unadulterated blood.

The race of Indians to which he belonged, had never been wholly conquered by the Spaniards; more than once have these Indios de Las Sierras,—"Indians of the hills"—marched down into the valleys, and dictated terms to their rulers. It was fit that the future deliverer of Mexico from the subjugation of three centuries should have been born of such stock.

Benito Pablo Juárez García, was born in the village of San Pablo Guelatao, located in the mountain range now known as the "Sierra Juarez." His parents, Marcelino Juárez and Brígida García, were indigenous peasants who both died when he was three years old. Shortly after, his grandparents died as well, and his uncle then raised him. Later, he described his parents as "Indians of the original race of the country." He worked in the cornfields and as a shepherd until the age of 12, when he walked to the city of Oaxaca 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. He studied there but decided to pursue law rather than the priesthood. He graduated from the seminary in 1827 and went on to gain a degree in law. He took a job as a domestic servant for Antonio Maza. In 1841 the state government appointed him a federal court judge, a post in which he served with distinction. By 1843, his local standing had increased through his marriage to Margarita Maza, the daughter of one of Oaxaca's wealthiest families, and where he had formerly worked as a servant.

Juarez served 5 terms as president of Mexico, after Santa Anna's 20-year on-again-off-again dictatorship. During Santa Anna's reign, at great personal peril, Juarez joined the army of freedom fighter Juan Alvarez (a hero who launched the Revolution of Ayutla), and marched with him to the capital, Mexico City. He had previously met with harsh treatment, and had even been imprisoned and sent into exile by Santa Anna, whose overthrow he now saw so triumphantly accomplished.

After having been a member of the city council of Oaxaca, a civil judge, and secretary of state, he was elected by the people as a deputy to the "General Constituent Congress," which met at the capital of the Republic in December, 1846. It was there he showed himself to be the friend of freedom and the uncompromising enemy to oppression.

Juarez was promptly recognized as the president of the people, and, during the long years of strife that followed, he nobly sustained their trust. The army was mainly against him; the Church—with all its money and influence—was against him; but the people rallied in increasing numbers about the banner of reform.

At first his national guards were defeated. In March, Juarez and his cabinet were captured and on the point of being shot by the rebels, but was rescued at the last minute. They retreated from Mexico City to Colima, then to Manzanillo, in great danger all the way. In April Juarez embarked on the John L Stephens* for Veracruz, and, to reach the eastern port, was forced to cross the Isthmus of Panama, sail for New Orleans, and thence take passage for the ancient seaport, where he arrived in May.

The "Three Years' War of Reform" lasted from 1858 through 1861. In the year 1860 the people elected Juarez constitutional president by an overwhelming number of votes. In July, 1859, he decreed the "Laws of Reform," by which the property of the Church was confiscated and declared to belong to the nation. The forces on both sides were incited anew to fresh conflict, and many bloody battles ensued.

The decisive battle between the contending parties was that of Calpulalpam, December 25, 1860, subsequent to which the Liberal army entered and took possession of the capital, followed by Juarez and his cabinet, amid great rejoicings.

Juárez accomplished much in the remaining 4 years of his life. The government began to build railroads and schools; the military budget was cut; and the Church was stripped of its large landholdings. Most important, Mexico had its first effective government, based upon the Constitution of 1857, which guaranteed free speech, free press, right of assembly, and the abolishment of special legal privileges.

Juarez served five terms as president of Mexico: 1858–1861 as interim, 1861–1865, 1865–1867, 1867–1871 and 1871–1872. Benito Juárez was the first Mexican leader who did not have a military background, and also the first full-blooded indigenous national ever to serve as President of Mexico and to lead a country in the Western Hemisphere.

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 defense 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.

March 21 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. A monument to Benito Juarez is in the central plaza in downtown Manzanillo.

*Built in New York for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in 1852, the John L. Stephens, 275 feet long and 2,183 tons, was apparently named for one of the founders of the Panama Railroad. She had a wooden hull, side paddle wheels and 2 masts, with accommodations for 350-cabin and 550-steerage class passengers. 
She was placed on the Panama to San Francisco run, arriving in San Francisco on 3 April 1852, where she remained in this service until October 1860. In 1864 she ran between San Francisco and the Columbia. In 1878, she was sold in San Francisco to Sisson, Wallace and Company, who sent her to Karluk, Alaska, as a floating cannery. She was retired upon her return to San Francisco and broken up in 1879.  

Oddly, the Golden Gate, owned by the same company, Pacific Mail S.C., and of similar size, design and tonnage, entered the San Francisco - Panama service in Nov.1851 and stayed in this service until she burned at sea and was beached near Manzanillo, Mexico on July 271862 with the loss of 223 lives.