STREETS ALIVE: Indian Shepherd to President

Which Mexican from the past would you like to have dinner with? I’d choose one of the country’s most well-loved presidents, Benito Juárez and his wife, Margarita. He had an amazing life, he married well, sired fourteen children, defended justice and human rights, restricted the influence of the church, fought against Emperor Maximillian and, unlike many Mexican presidents, died of natural causes rather than from a bullet.

Benito Juárez was born on 21 March 1806 in the small village of San Pablo Guelatao in the mountainous province of Oaxaca to Zapotec Indian parents. Distant from Mexico City and separated from it by almost impassable country the province of Oaxaca was a closed world. Its capital was a Spanish city, noted for books and culture but surrounded by an impenetrable indigenous mosaic. Twenty different languages, twenty distinct tribes, linked only by their peculiar brand of Christianity, shared the mountains and valleys of that Indian universe remote from Hispanic civilization.

Benito’s parents died when he was three years old and he was taken in by an uncle who put him to work as a shepherd-boy looking after his uncle’s sheep high in the mountain pastures. In 1818, when he was just twelve, he quit that life and walked 60 kilometers to join a sister who was working for a wealthy family in Oaxaca. He decided that he had to learn Spanish.

He was virtually adopted by Antonio Salanueva, who apprenticed the young Zapotec Indian to a bookbinder and two years later, when he was fourteen, enrolled him in the Catholic seminary. He took to any sort of education like a turtle to the ocean. In 1827 the Institute of Arts and Science opened its doors and he transferred to it and studied to become a lawyer. Although he didn’t graduate until 1834 he became politically active before that and was elected as a city councilman at age 25 in 1821. From shepherd to politician in thirteen years; not bad for a dark-skinned Indian in those days!

Benito’s sister, Josefa, worked as a maid for many years in the Maza-Parada household in Oaxaca and Benito had a close relationship with the family from the time he arrived in the city as a kid. In March of 1826 the Maza family welcomed a new daughter, Margarita, into the world and, seventeen years later, on 31 July 1843, Benito and Margarita were married. He was thirty-seven and twenty years older than his bride.

The social dynamics must have been interesting in that time. Here was an Indian marrying a woman of almost totally Spanish descent. Their children would no longer be considered Indian like Benito but mestizos; the children of an Indian father and a Spanish mother, not the opposite as in the vast majority of cases. The tongues in Oaxaca must have been wagging. The marriage was a happy one and lasted for twenty-four years, until Margarita died of cancer in 1871. He died of a heart attack a year later, on 18 July 1872, sitting at his presidential desk.

He had an important political career. He served as Governor of the state of Oaxaca, was the Secretary of the Interior, President of the Supreme Court and President of Mexico from 1858 to 1872.

He is so well respected by Mexicans that many places recognize his name. In the National Palace in Mexico City, where he lived while in power, there is a small museum in his honour. The former city of El Paso del Norte is now called Ciudad Juárez (he must be spinning in his grave about that one!). The international airport in Mexico City is called Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez and there is the Benito Juárez monument located at the Alameda Central park in the capital, which has been a meeting place for the start of marches and popular rallies for many years, including the student movement of 1968. He is the only president to warrant a national holiday every year. “The birthday of Benito Juarez” is celebrated on the third Monday in March.

In Puerto Vallarta Calle Juárez is the major south to north traffic artery and bus route running through El Centro. Its main features include the Peyote People art gallery, the west side of Plaza De Armas and, a blast from the past, Woolworths.

To share a meal and a bottle of wine with Benito and Margarita Juárez and to hear their stories would be a privilege indeed.