Mexican President Benito Juárez worked for democracy and Indigenous rights

Benito Juárez, was President of Mexico from 1858 to 1872. He overcame the disadvantages of being Indigenous and poor to became a well-educated lawyer and politician.

The third Monday in March is a national holiday in Mexico in honor of his birthday on March 21, 1806.

A Reformer who laid the foundations for modern Mexico

Juárez was a progressive reformer who worked for democracy, Indigenous rights, separation of church and state, and the sovereignty of his country.

Contemporary Mexico has an Indigenous foundation with a Spanish socio-political and religious overlay.

In Mexico, official Indigenous heritage is based on language, not genetics. The country recognizes 89 official Indigenous languages. These include peoples who migrated to Mexico from the United States in the north and Guatemala in the south.

Having a president with an Indigenous heritage was really important for the country. He fought against the Catholic church because it was part of Spanish and later French efforts at colonization.

The Second French Intervention in Mexico

Juárez even played a role in U.S. history because he was president during the second French intervention in Mexico from 1861 to 1867.

The French were looking to establish a colonial empire in Mexico and create a Catholic counterbalance to the growing power of the Protestant United States.

The U.S. at the time was distracted by our Civil War (1861-1865). The French actually planned to join the fight on the side of the Confederacy, but the Battle of Puebla, which we celebrate as Cinco de Mayo, delayed them long enough for Union forces to gain the advantage. French plans fizzled and Juárez regained control of the entire country.

Benito Juárez Statue in Bryant Park

There is a statue of Benito Juárez in Bryant Park in Manhattan’s Garment District.

It reads:

Benito Juarez, 1806-1872
Presidente of México (1858-1872)

Born in Guelatao, Oaxax, of humble origins, Juárez established the  foundation for the Mexican Republic. In 1867, he defeated the French invasion, thus preserving the independence of México.

Benito Juárez was Zapotec from Oaxaca

Juárez was born in San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca on March 21, 1806. He was an orphan who grew up speaking only Zapotec.

His intelligence and drive got him into a seminary in the city of Oaxaca, but he completed his studies too young to become a priest and chose to study law instead.

His path in politics began in the Oaxaca city council. He also became a judge.

He married Margarita Maza, an American-born European of Italian descent, who was part of Oaxacan society. At the time it was unusual for an Indigenous man to marry a woman of European descent. During the French intervention in Mexico, the first lady of Mexico lived in exile in New York City.

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