The History, Birth, and Celebration of Benito Juarez
I remember when I first celebrated the birth of Benito Juárez (March 21). It was 2011, and I had been living in Mexico for a few months. I was teaching in an International school and just getting used to new national holidays.
Benito Juárez’s name was not completely unknown to me since I graduated from Spanish Philology, but he was simply one of so many important, historical figures. Not until I lived and worked in Mexico did I realize how fascinating Benito Juárez is.
Do you want to know why the birth of Benito Juárez (March 21) is such an important day in Mexico?
Let me share with you some of the things I learned about Benito Juárez over the years, and I hope you’ll appreciate him and his legacy as much as I do.
Who was Benito Juarez?
Benito Juarez’s life could be successfully made into a Hollywood blockbuster. An indigenous boy, born at the beginning of the 19th century, who doesn’t even speak Spanish, becomes one of the most important presidents in the of Mexican history. He leads his country through one of the most difficult times and his modern gains are impressive. His history of personal growth is difficult to believe, even almost 200 years later.
Not so long ago, Benito Juarez was highly unpopular in certain conservative circles. His liberal legacy from the 19th century included civil marriage, equal rights for indigenous people, confiscation of church properties, and the abolition of special privileges of clergy and army. He wasn’t especially worshipped by everyone in his own country.
Now, it’s not only the birth of Benito Juarez (March 21) that is a big day but also the name of Benito Juarez is everywhere. There are numerous cities in Mexico named after him. Mexico International AIrport bears his name. You’ll see his face on the 20-peso banknote, and you’ll find towns, schools, and even roads in other countries named after him.
Let’s take a closer look at this prominent historical figure.
Life of Benito Juarez
Pablo Benito Juarez García was born on March 21, 1806, in the village of San Puablo Guelato in Oaxaca. It is located in the remote Sierra Juárez mountain range.
His early years were difficult and built his character. He was born to a family of primitive Indians, as he called them himself, but his parents died when Benito was only three years old. His grandparents adopted him but also died shortly afterward. He was ultimately raised by his uncle. Young Benito worked in the cornfields and as a shepherd and only spoke Zapotek.
At age 12, he moved to Oaxaca City to attend school. To make ends meet, he worked as a servant in a house where his sister was a cook. He was lucky enough to meet the right people on his path who were impressed by his intelligence. He was admitted to the city’s seminary and advanced quickly in his studies. When he realized that being a priest is not his thing, Benito studied law at the Institute of Sciences and Arts, the most liberal institution in the city.
Juárez started to step up the political ladder even before his graduation. He married an adoptive daughter of the people he worked for as a servant (!) and had 12 children with her. From 1847 to 1852, he served as the governor of Oaxaca. However, after strong disagreements with president Santa Anna about foreign policy, he was exiled to the U.S., where he worked in a cigar factory.
After the fall of Santa Anna in 1855, Benito Juárez was elected a provisional president, but the times were still tumultuous and he had to move the capital to Veracruz. He started several sweeping reforms, such as taking away special privileges from the church and the military. He ordered the sale of any church lands that were not being used for religious purposes and placed the army under civilian control. He also gave the Mexican people their first authentic bill of rights.
Of course, the clergy and the army were not eager to give up their power and start a civil war. Juarez declared himself the President of Mexico. Because of the precarious financial situation of the country after the civil war, he decided to stop paying off foreign debt. France, Spain, and Great Britain are not happy at all with this decision and land their troops in Mexico.
Juárez managed to negotiate with Spain and Great Britain, but the French were more insistent and took over Mexico City. In 1864, Mexico got an emperor, Maximilian, and Benito Juárez continued his military resistance. Three years later, after another civil war, Juárez was back, once again re-elected as president. Now, he focused on the economy of Mexico and educational reforms. He died of apoplexy on July 18, 1872.
How Mexico Celebrates the Birth of Benito Juarez (March 21)
Today, the birth of Benito Juarez on March 21 is known as El Día de Benito Juárez (Benito Juárez Day), and it is a national holiday. The feast day falls on the third Monday of March.
If you happen to be traveling through Mexico on this day, check out any timetable and route changes. Almost everything is closed on this day. You won’t find an open bank, and many shops are closed, too. Schools and government offices also close for the national holiday.
In San Pablo Guelato, the town that saw the birth of Benito Juárez on March 21st, you can attend a range of events, activities, tournaments, fireworks shows, and public dances.
In Mexico City, official acts perform on the Alameda Central in the historic center of Mexico City, the president makes a speech, and flashy flower decorations abound. Most of the houses and buildings display Mexican flags, and numerous parades are held.
If you liked reading about Benito Juárez and would like to know more about Latin American history, check out A Brief History of Latin America.
Tell us what you know!
Have you celebrated the birth of Benito Juárez (March 21) and attended any interesting celebrations in his honor? Do you know any other stories about this Mexican president? Or maybe you have seen his name in your country on a building, street, or monument?
Tell us about it! Be part of our community and leave a comment!
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