St. Edwards University in Austin, where I did my Bachelor’s in History, was kind of funny in that it didn’t have a dedicated American History department. The study of U.S. History I did there was often through the lens of American Women’s History, Modern European History, or, crediting my two favorite professors there, Russian and Mexican History. The Mexican history connection makes a lot of sense: the university has long drawn a significant portion of its students directly from Mexico, in large part due to the lack of Catholic learning institutions in Mexico (a shortcoming that is traceable to the subject of this post). Long story short, it was at St. Ed’s that my fascination with Mexican history and culture deepened, and where I learned about the great Mexican reformer Benito Juárez, who has an interesting New Orleans connection.
Mexican history is captivating, to me at least, because of the high drama: periods of oppression are followed by serious and promising periods of progressive reforms in democracy, education, and equality, only to be followed by later swings back toward oppression and stagnation. Benito Juárez’s career fits easily into this (albeit arbitrary) dialectic: he was one of Mexico’s greatest reformers who lived through several swings from right to left in Mexican politics.
Born a Zapotec Indian in a small village in Oaxaca in 1806, Benito Juárez was orphaned at the age of three and made a living as a shepherd until he journeyed into the city of Oaxaca to attend school for the first time when he was twelve. Though he began school without the ability to read, or even speak Spanish for that matter, Juárez excelled at his studies and became a lawyer in 1834. In 1841 Juárez became a judge, and in 1847 became the governor of Oaxaca. Juárez’s liberal politics and opposition to the dictatorship of Antonio López de Santa Anna landed him in prison in 1852, though he was able to escape both imprisonment and Mexico in 1853.
Along with his brother-in-law, Juárez arrived in New Orleans with little capital, and though he had been governor of Oaxaca, he had no connections to draw from in Louisiana. As luck would have it, Juárez met a “doctor” Borrego, who saw patients despite a lack of credentials. The “doctor” took Juárez and his companion in, teaching them to roll cigars in the one room cigar factory/doctor’s office that Borrego kept on what is now Dauphine Street in Faubourg Marigny. For two years, Juarez, the former judge and governor, worked as a cigar roller in New Orleans. While in the city, he made the acquaintance of Melchor Ocampo, a Mexican politician and scholar who had been living in exile in New Orleans after running afoul of Santa Anna in 1850. Together, Ocampo and Juárez contributed to Juan Álvarez’s Plan de Ayutla, a liberal push to overthrow the dictator and establish a democracy, from New Orleans (personal note: I was not able to find many details on correspondence between Ocampo and Juárez in New Orleans and Alvarez in Guerrero, and I think this could be an interesting research project).
Juárez returned to Mexico after the ousting of Santa Anna in 1855. A new, democratic, liberal government was assembled under the leadership of president Juan Álvarez, who was selected as a moderating force after the hostilities, in part, because of his old age. Álvarez installed the backers of the Plan de Ayutla as his cabinet, including Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada as Secretary of Development, Juárez as Minister of Justice, Ocampo as Minister of the Treasury, and Ignacio Comonfort as Minister of War. Comonfort was elected president in 1857, and appointed Juárez as head of the Supreme Court. Under Comonfort’s presidency, Lerdo and Juárez enacted two eponymous laws (the Ley Lerdo and Ley Juárez) that greatly curtailed the influence of the church and military in Mexico. Together, the laws essentially created a separation of church and state in a country that had previously operated in a near-theocratic manner (abetted, and perpetuated, by a privileged military class). Reactionary conservative forces balked at these reforms, prompting Comonfort to seek to appease them, even briefly imprisoning Juárez. However, Comonfort continued to stand by the Leyes Lerdo and Juárez, angering reactionaries to the point of counter-revolution, and leading both sides to blame him for the ensuing Reform War.
Amidst the reactionary takeover of Mexico City, Comonfort fled to the United States, first landing in New York, but then settling in (you guessed it) New Orleans to facilitate easier communication with interim President Juárez’s government-in-exile in Veracruz. Juárez’s government was able to retake the capital in 1861 (Juárez may have briefly returned to New Orleans during the Reform War, but details in secondary source material I found are scant), and Juárez was officially elected president that year. Comonfort offered to have himself tried for his role in the start of the Reform War, but a dramatic turn of events prevented the trial. The conservative forces had financed their side during the war through massive loans from France, and when Juárez’s government stalled their repayment, France invaded (Comonfort redeemed himself to Mexico’s liberals when he took a commission as an officer in the fight against France).
Juárez set up a new government-in-exile first in El Paso, and then in Chihuahua (the city is now known as Ciudad Juárez) during the French Invasion. With the aid of the United States, Juárez carried on a war with the French-backed Second Empire of Mexico (which was supported by the conservatives and monarchists who lost the Reform War) and its emperor, Maximilian the First. As it turned out, Maximilian was reform minded, and even reached out to Juárez with the offer of the role of Prime Minister, but legend has it Juárez could not stomach the idea of serving anything less than a free Mexico. His reign constantly troubled by the ongoing war with the liberals, Maximilian decreed that any prisoners of war captured from Juárez’s ranks be immediately executed. When Juárez was able to recapture the capital in 1867, Juárez used this policy of the emperor’s to justify Maximilian’s own execution, despite international outcry. Benito Juárez was re-elected twice after re-assuming the official office of the president in 1867, and he died in office in 1872.
Despite moments of intense controversy, such as his execution of Maximilian, or his re-elections in the new Mexican Republic, Juárez is remembered as one of Mexico’s greatest reformers. His policies, from the Ley Juárez to those enacted as president, expanded education and increased the political power of the common person, at the same time severely limiting the role of priests and the military in politics. Though Juárez is credited with fostering and restoring a stable democracy in Mexico (in Mexico the period of Juárez’s presidency is known as La Reforma), the country tipped towards autocracy again in 1876, and democracy would not return to Mexico until after the 1910 revolution. Juárez is well remembered in Mexico, with two cities and a mountain range named in his honor, as well as various streets and monuments throughout the country.
A city beautification project begun by New Orleans Mayor deLesseps “Chep” Morrison in 1957 renamed the neutral ground of Basin Street the “Garden of the Americas.” Over the next decade the neutral ground would become home to statues commemorating great American (in the broader sense than most in the United States commonly use) leaders: Simon Bolivar of South America, Francisco Morazán of Central America, and Benito Juárez of Mexico. Juárez’s statue was installed in 1965, and officially dedicated on the 100th anniversary of his death in 1972: its inscription reads that the monument was dedicated as a gift from the people of Mexico to the people of the United States.
Further Reading: Ray F. Broussard, “Vidaurri, Juarez, and Comonfort’s Return From Exile,” The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 49 No. 2, 1969.