What´s that holiday we´re celebrating today?
It´s Benito Juárez´s birthday!
Happy birthday, Benito Juárez! Wait–who´s Benito Juárez?
Benito Juárez is Mexico´s most beloved president. He was president from 1858-1872, which were some turbulent years for Mexico.
He is most famous for leading Mexico through the Reform Era.
Mexico as we know it began with Spanish colonization. While the Spanish government at the time was officially a monarchy, I think it would be fair to call it a theocracy. Spain, including New Spain, under the Spanish Inquisition was one of the more oppressive theocracies the world has seen.
When Mexico gained independence, they liberated themselves from the monarchy (*cough–theocracy–cough*). However, the Church still held enormous power, both politically and economically. They owned huge tracts of land, and priests owned businesses. The Church ran most hospitals and schools. The Church also had a judicial system, separate from that of the government.
During Benito Juárez´s tenure as president, the Church lost much political and economic power under the law.
Thanks to this era, the separation of church and state is much stricter than in the US. However, despite the fact the vast majority of the Mexican population is Christian (and that percentage is overwhelmingly Catholic), Mexicans seem to support and respect the separation of church and state much more than their Christian counterparts in the US. Perhaps because Mexicans are generally more honest with themselves about the negative aspects of their history, they are aware, from concrete historical examples, that life is better when the Church doesn´t get to call the shots.
Furthermore, even though Mexico is often thought to be a “macho” culture and country (and that is true in far too many situations), during the Reform Era, women were prohibited from changing their last names when they got married. Today, in the 21st century, it´s still controversial for women not to change their last names when they marry in the US. But Mexican women have been doing it (been forced to do it) since the mid-19th century!
Also during Juárez´s time as president, the French invaded Mexico. Despite the Mexican success that Cinco de Mayo is famous for, the French did eventually make their way to Mexico City and established their government. For four years, Mexico was a French colony, and the democratically-elected Mexican government–led by Juárez–was on the run. At one point, Juárez´s government found a home in Saltillo. Yes, that´s right, for a few months in the 1860s, Saltillo was the capital of Mexico! (At least, for those who refused to acknowledge the French government.) The Recinto de Juárez, on Calle Juárez, just opposite the cathedral was where he lived, and can still be visited.
Eventually, the tide turned for the French, and Juárez´s government was able to return to Mexico City in 1867.
During the remainder of his term as president (which he extended, and which may or may not have been strictly approved by the Constitution), he focused on improving Mexico´s infrastructure and making secular, public education more widely available.
Now, if you think that 14 years is a long time for one person to be president of a country, you´d be right. Juárez had just won re-election in 1871, but died shortly after. However, many people who once were his friends, openly opposed his re-election (and the results of the election). Keep in mind, that politics in Mexico were much different then than they are now (or, here´s hoping that´s the case). Juárez´s presidency sits squarely between Mexico´s most famous dictators–Santa Anna and Porfirio Díaz. So, in comparison to those guys, fourteen years really wasn´t much at all! Yes, there were a few presidents between Santa Anna and Juárez, and Lerdo de Tejada was president between Juárez and Díaz. But really, if we remember Santa Anna, Juárez, and Díaz, we´ve pretty much got 19th century Mexican history covered.
However, Juárez did die before anyone could roll out a coup on his government after the 1871 election, and now he is revered and remembered for instituting much-needed reforms, and for maintaining the Mexican government in the face of foreign invasion.
That´s a pretty impressive legacy, after all.