Benito Juarez faced grim prospects as a child. Born today in 1806 — the son of Zapotec peasants — he became an orphan first at age three when illness killed his parents, and then again when his grandparents died shortly thereafter. An uncle adopted him and put him to work raising sheep and corn.
Juarez did not start learning Spanish until age twelve, when he walked to Oaxaca — 40 miles from his home village — to attend school while working as a domestic servant.
Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, but the country’s social and political system remained unjust and undemocratic: A corrupt feudal pigmentocracy, where a small white elite used a near-total monopoly of church and state power to dominate and exploit the native and mestizo majority.
As an orphaned Indian peasant, Juarez clung to one of the lowest rungs of Mexican society. Even his stature conspired against him: he was very short, standing just four and a half feet tall — twelve inches shorter than his near contemporary Napoleon.
Fortunately, the Zapotec’s stunning academic aptitude allowed him to transcend the disadvantages of race, class and height. Juarez became a lawyer, then a judge. After marrying into a wealthy white family, he became Governor of Oaxaca.
In that office, his defiance of central authority helped save Mexico from Santa Anna’s misrule and shorten a disastrous war with the United States. Unfortunately, Santa Anna soon returned from exile and declared himself dictator for life.
Juarez had to flee to New Orleans for several months, but when the political tide turned again, he came back to help save Mexico from Santa Anna again, as a co-founder of the new reformist government. The Zapotec and his Liberal colleagues curtailed church power, expanded political and economic freedom, and swept away feudal privileges based on race and class, making all Mexicans equal before the law.Outraged by these reforms, Conservatives struck back by launching a bloody rebellion.
When the president resigned in 1858, Juarez became commander-in-chief. In that role, he helped save Mexico for a third time by crushing the Conservative insurgents. For this, the Zapotec earned election as president in his own right in 1861.
Unfortunately, when Juarez suspended interest payments to foreign debtors, Napoleon III responded by sending French forces conquer most of the country and install the Austrian prince Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico. The Conservatives — sore losers of the recent civil war — sought to restore their former privileges by supporting the foreign invaders.
This required Juarez to save his nation for the fourth time. From the hinterlands, he led a tenacious rearguard action against the French and their Mexican allies. With some support from the United States, Juarez finally prevailed in 1867, forcing the French to flee, and executing the aspiring emperor.
War had extended his first full term, but with peace restored, he gained reelection in 1867 to what should have been his final term. Sadly, power corrupted him. Four years later — in clear violation of the Constitution of 1857, which the Zapotec had helped write — he ran for yet another term. He “won” a dirty election, prompting yet another armed rebellion.
Mercifully, Juarez saved Mexico from dictatorship for the fifth and final time by dying of a heart attack in 1872. His country briefly became a liberal democracy again, but soon lapsed into the long dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.
Juarez marred an otherwise stellar career by overstaying his welcome. Despite some late missteps, he deserves credit for overthrowing autocracies, defeating a foreign invasion, regaining his country’s independence, and establishing liberal traditions that helped make Mexico more free, democratic and equal.
Innumerable streets, sites and people have been named for Juarez, but the most notable cases have done nothing to improve his reputation. Sadly, his surname is now most associated with serial killings and a violent drug cartel in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso. Moreover, in 1883, a socialist blacksmith in Italy named his son after Juarez; tragically, the boy grew into the polar opposite of his namesake: a brutal Fascist who invaded other lands while ruining his own.