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Today is a national holiday in Mexico, the birthday of Benito Juárez, the country's most revered President. (He was actually born on March 21st, but, as in the United States, the observance of holidays is often adjusted to create three-day weekends.) Juarez is often compared to Abraham Lincoln, who was his contemporary.
Juárez was born in 1806 in the town of San Pablo Guelatao in the state of Oaxaca. He was a full-blooded Zapotec Indian. His parents died when he was three years old, and he was raised by his grandparents and then an uncle. As a child, he worked as a shepherd, but at the age of twelve, he walked to the city of Oaxaca to seek an education. A Franciscan layperson who was impressed with Benito's intelligence, arranged for him to attend a seminary school. Juárez, however, was not interested in becoming a priest, and he went on to study law. He entered politics and become a city councilman, a judge, and eventually the governor of the state of Oaxaca. In an era when mixed marriages were rare, he married a socially prominent, white woman, Margarita Maza.
Due to his opposition to the dictator Santa Ana, he was forced into exile and spent a year in New Orleans. He returned to Mexico when Santa Ana was deposed, and became the Minister of Justice under the new liberal government of President Ignacio Comonfort. As minister, he drafted what would become known as the "Ley Juárez" (Juárez Law), which restricted the powers of the Catholic Church and the military. At that time the Church owned one half of the arable land in the country, and the new law expropriated all Church property. Juárez was then named the President of the Supreme Court, a position which was next in line to the President.
In 1857 conservatives opposed to the liberal reforms staged a revolt against the government. President Comonfort resigned, and the conservatives took control of Mexico City. The liberals recognized Juárez as the constitutional President, but he had to flee the capital and spent the next several years in Veracruz. In 1861 the liberals recaptured Mexico City. Elections were held, and Juárez was chosen as President.
Juárez almost immediately faced a new crisis. The years of revolt had left the economy in shambles, and the President cancelled interest payments on foreign loans which had been taken out by the conservatives. Napoleon III of France, eager to expand his country's influence, used this as an excuse to invade Mexico. Mexican conservatives, still smarting from their defeat, supported the invasion. The French forces were temporarily halted at the Battle of Puebla (the 5th of May of 1862), but by the following year the French had regrouped and captured Mexico City. Juárez once again had to flee the capital. He went to El Paso del Norte (present-day Ciudad Juárez) where he headed the government in exile and directed the resistance to the French invasion. Napoleon had the Austrian prince, Maximillian von Hapsburg crowned as the (puppet) Emperor of Mexico.
The United States did not recognize the government of Maximillian, and considered the French invasion a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. However, because the country was in the midst of its own Civil War, the Lincoln government was unable to assist Juárez. By 1867 Napoleon was faced with pressure from the United States and the growing military threat of Prussia and he withdrew his troops from Mexico. Without the French army, Maximillian's regime quickly crumbled, and the Emperor was defeated, captured and executed. The Mexican President returned to the capital in triumph.
Juárez won reelection in 1867 and again in 1871. In 1872 he died of a heart attack.
Today, the image of Juárez is on the twenty peso bill. Mexico City's international airport is named after him. There is scarcely a city in the country that does not have a Juárez Avenue or a monument in his honor.
His most famous quotation is: "Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz." (Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.)