Happy Birthday, Benito Juárez!

What´s that holiday we´re celebrating today?

It´s Benito Juárez´s birthday!

Happy birthday, Benito Juárez!  Wait–who´s Benito Juárez?

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Yes, he´s the guy on the 20 peso bill.

 

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.

006During 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!

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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.

 

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Guadalupe Day in Saltillo

002A word of warning:  if anyone plans on going downtown this weekend, particularly on the streets just northwest of the Alameda, you might be sitting in traffic for much longer than usual.

Why?  Monday, December 12th, is the annual commemoration of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  All the little old (Catholic) ladies go nuts for her.  In fact, for many people in Saltillo, Guadalupe Day is a big, fat, hairy deal.

Why?  Nearly 500 years ago, Mexico was in the earliest stages of adjusting to Spanish colonial rule.  To put it lightly, the conquest was rather devastating for just about everyone 005involved.  Indians were being round up and enslaved.  There was even a debate going on about whether Indians had souls–after all, it´s much easier to enslave people if it´s possible to convince others that the people in question aren´t fully people.  (Oh, the horrible things people do for power.)

In the midst of all this turmoil, a man named Juan Diego was on his way to Mexico City when he was stopped on top of a hill by a vision of the Virgin Mary.  She asked him to go to the bishop and ask him to build her a church.  He kept trying to convince the bishop, but understandably, the bishop wasn´t about to build a church for everyone who waltzed through his door.  The bishop asked Juan Diego for some miraculous sign.  Guadalupe appeared to him again, telling him to go to the bishop one more time.  She told him to pick some roses growing on the hill for the sign the bishop asked for.  Roses weren´t native to Mexico, were blooming out 006of season, and had not been planted on that hill–all reason enough to constitute the necessary miracle, right?

Juan Diego gathered the roses in his tunic.  When he met with the bishop, he let his tunic fall open, showering the floor with roses.  Moreover, everyone in the room could see the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe imprinted on his tunic.  All those present noted that this apparition appeared to be of an Indian woman, which effectively ended the debate of whether Indians were to be counted as fully human in the eyes of God.  Horrible things still happened to the native population, but at least those atrocities weren´t theologically justified.

Juan Diego´s  tunic is still on display in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, just about007 on the very spot where Juan Diego met Guadalupe.  However, since she is so popular all over Mexico, Saltillo has a Sanctuary to Guadalupe on Perez Treviño, just west of the Alameda.

So watch out if you´re headed that way!  Street vendors, food stalls, matlachines, and pilgrims will be blocking traffic all weekend.  But it´s a good time, too.  So–for those not faint of heart–come on down!  It´s a good time to buy a cup of champurrado and enjoy soaking in some culture.
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Matlachines come in and out all day long.  Bring earplugs, because I´m sure everyone inside loses a few decibels of hearing when they come thundering in!

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Saltillo´s Revolution Museum

Know what holiday we´re celebrating on Monday?  (OK, actually Sunday . . . always on the 20th.)

It´s the commemoration of the beginning of the Mexican Revolution!

Now, if you´re from the US like me, we tend to use the words for Independence and Revolution interchangeably.  We talk about the American Revolution when we talk about the US´s independence movement.  However, strictly speaking, the US´s independence movement wasn´t really a revolution.  Revolutions are more commonly classified when the peasants rise up and revolt against the powers that be.  In the US´s example, wealthy landowners rose up against the king.  Which was a big, fat, hairy deal.

But not a revolution, per se.

However, Mexico´s revolution was a revolution.  At the same time, part of it was wealthy landowners were throwing off the yoke of a dictator.  Also, a big, fat, hairy deal.  But not precisely a revolution.  But as those wealthy landowners threw out the dictator, the peasants also rose up, demanding basic human rights, land, and dignified treatment as citizens.  It was messy.  It was complicated.  That was a revolution.  As it all happened at the same time, with certain sides working together, then working against each other, then together again, and–what the heck–it was really each man for his own, we just call the whole mess the Mexican Revolution.

And I guarantee, I will oversimply the story here.   img_4423

Since this blog centers on Saltillo, the capital of the state of Coahuila, it makes sense to attempt to explain the Mexican Revolution by using by using Coahuila´s two most famous people as bookends.  To oversimplify:  Francisco I. Madero started the revolution and Venustiano Carranza ended it.

Throughout the end of the 19th century, Mexico´s president was Porfirio Díaz.  He was president for 30 years.  Suffice it to say, lots of people were sick of him being president.  Lots of journalists started agitating for a change in leadership.  However, under a dictatorship, that kind of talk doesn´t go real far.

 

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One of the Revolution Museum´s more impressive artifacts–a Madero´s wife´s´s copy of Madero´s book, On Presidential Succession, complete with a personal inscription.

Leading up to the 1910 presidential election, Francisco I. Madero threw in his bid for the presidency.  He was jailed for it (and his popularity), escaped and fled to Texas.  Finally, all the unrest surrounding this election caused Porfirio Díaz to resign, and Madero won the first free elections in decades.

Unfortunately, a little over a year later, Madero and his vice-president were assassinated in a coup.  Therefore, to this day, Madero is one of Mexico´s few non-controversial historical figures.  He´s one of Mexico´s best-known martyrs.  Everyone loves him.

This is where Venustiano Carranza comes in.  General Huerta was the guy who staged the coup and killed Madero.  In contrast to Madero, Huertaimg_4417 is Mexico´s undisputed villan–everyone still hates him.  So Carranza formed an opposition government to Huerta´s “official” government.

We could just say that Carranza´s forces fought Huerta´s forces for nearly 10 years, and that´s the end of the story.  But that´s too much of an oversimplification for even this short summary.

During this time period, much of Mexico´s land was owned by a few very wealthy families.  Their large tracts of land were organized into haciendas.  They were rather like the Mexican equivalent of the plantations of the US antebellum south.  While slavery in Mexico was abolished when the country won independence from Spain, the majority of people who worked on these haciendas were essentially slaves.  While they technically had legal rights, they had no way of excersizing those rights.  There wasn´t much of a middle class.  The majority of the country´s wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few very rich families.  There were very, very many people who had next to nothing.  They were desperate.  They were angry.

That makes for a very dangerous combination.

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Carranza and his buddies, signing the Plan de Guadalupe, stating that they did not recognize Huerta´s government.

So while Madero and Carranza were busy turning Mexico´s political situation on its head, leaders like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata led armies seeking significant social and economic changes (like breaking up those large haciendas and redistributing the land).

To be honest, there are so many ins and outs, intrigues, alliances and alliance-breaking among the many armies that took part in the Mexican Revolution, that I get a bit lost following the story.  Ánd, since I live in Coahuila, and Saltillo´s Revolution Museum focuses mainly on Coahuila´s heroes (Madero and Carranza), so I don´t know much about Villa, as both he and Zapata were staunchly against him.

To make a long story short, after 10 years of fighting, everybody was sick of it and eventually the revolution came to and end.  But, let´s be honest and admit that Carranza had a pretty heavy hand in squashing Zapata´s and Villa´s armies.

What lasting effects did the Revolution have?

  • The current constitution was adopted in 1917.  (This coming 5th of February will be its 100th anniversary.
  • The haciendas were, by and large, broken up.
  • Mexico has not had a dictator since Porfirio Díaz.  (The 70 years that the PRI was in undisputed power is a different story.  But, despite all that, no president has been in power for more than one term since the revolution.)
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You–what have you done to defend the conquests for which we gave our lives?

Want to learn more about the Mexican Revolution?

Visit the Mexican Revolution Museum on Hidalgo, in downtown Saltillo.  (Go up Hidalgo, past the cathedral, past the Casino, past a gorgeous house, and the museum will be the next building.)

If anyone is interested, but would need translation, throw me an email at saltilloexpats@gmail.com or jilldouglas01@hotmail.com

 

 

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The Revolution Museum also has two Bleriot airplanes on display from that era.

 

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Disclaimer:  yes, I left out about a billion crucial points.  Feel free to add in those important pieces of history that I omitted in the comments section.

What´s With Cinco de Mayo?

490It amuses me that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated throughout the US, yet the day is barely mentioned in Mexico (with the glaring exception of the city of Puebla, of course).  Why is this?

In the US, Cinco de Mayo (the 5th of May) is celebrated as a day to show Mexican pride
for  all the Mexican-Americans in the US.     I´m beginning to liken it to St. Patrick´s Day for all the Irish-Americans.  After all, the holiday is beginning to catch on among the anglo crowd, making it a great excuse to drink Coronas and margaritas.  Just like on St. Patrick´s Day, when everyone claims Irish ancestry, everyone can pretend to be Mexican on Cinco de Mayo.

Aftercincodemayo investigating the holiday a bit, it turns out that there really is a reason why Cinco de Mayo should be celebrated more in the US than in Mexico.  Of course, that´s not the reason that it is celebrated there, but it´s good to know that there SHOULD be a reason more solid than a serious margarita craving.

Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle between the Mexican army and the French on the 5th of May, 1862.  At the time, Mexico owed quite a bit of money to the French government, and France was tired of waiting to be paid back.  They decided that if Mexico wasn´t going to pay them back, they´d just take over the country.

Normally, this would have been a trickier plan to pull off, as the US would have stepped in with the Monroe Doctrine and told France to shove off.  However, this was 1862, and the US was knee-deep fighting amongst itself.  France knew that they would have no problems with the US, beyond a memo expressing the US´s displeasure.  France didn´t lose any sleep over that.  Furthermore, keep in mind that this France was a few decades removed from Napoleon (Napoleon III was the actual emperor) and France´s army had long been established as the world´s superior military force.  They were just about assured to breeze into Mexico City and be in control of the government within a few months.

But they were stopped at Puebla–for reasons still not quite understood.  France´s army boasted 6000 troops against Mexico´s 2000.  The Mexicans did not have the superior training of the French army or up-to-date weapons.  But they held their ground and drove France back to Veracruz.  This overcoming all odds in defense of their country is why the 091Battle of Puebla is still celebrated every year in Puebla.

However, a year later, France regrouped, marched again to Mexico City, and succeeded in overthrowing the government.  (Or, at least sending Juarez´s government on the run for the following five years.)  So, in the end, did the events of Cinco de Mayo have any lasting significance?

Not necessarily for Mexico, but it sure made a world of difference for the US.  In early 1862, the Confederacy still had the upper hand in the Civil War.  The Battle of Gettsyburg had not yet happened.  Had France been able to seize Mexico City in May or June of 1862, they would have been just in time to send much-needed soldier reinforcements and supplies to the Confederacy through Texas.  France had solid reasons for supporting the Confederacy in their fight for independence, and there is little doubt they would have, had they had the chance.

However, they had to wait until 1863 until they were in a position to help.  By that time, the tide of the war between the US and the Confederacy had turned.  The help France could have sent in 1863 or 1864 would have been futile.  Thanks in part to the events of the 5th of May, in the city of Puebla, the US is the country it is today.

Keep that in mind, while washing down the chips and salsa with a few margaritas!