March 21, next Monday, is a national holiday in Mexico commemorating the birthday of the visionary Zapotec Indian leader and great 19th century president of Mexico, Benito Juárez. In addition to his many other achievements, Juárez was the author of the quotation, “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (respect for the rights of others is peace), which is displayed on the flag of the state of Oaxaca, is well-known throughout Mexico, and is used as one of the epigraphs for this website.
Juárez is easy to look up in the Wikipedia or in other sources on the Web. He was born in a Zapotec village in southern Mexico in 1806, but he was orphaned three years later. At the age of 12, he walked to the state capital, the city of Oaxaca, to join his sister who worked as a household maid. The owner of the house and another man were so impressed by his intelligence that they helped the boy learn to read, write, and speak Spanish, and to get an education.
He turned away from the priesthood, the intention of one of his mentors, and went on to get a law degree. He quickly entered Mexican politics as a reformer dedicated, among other things, to selling off the extensive land holdings of the Roman Catholic Church. In the 1850s he became a key figure in promulgating several major reforms, but conservative armed forces ousted the reformers in 1858. In 1861, however, the reformers re-took Mexico City and Juárez was elected President.
Since the national treasury was nearly empty, he decided to suspend payment for two years on Mexico’s foreign debts. In response, England, Spain, and France decided to invade, though England and Spain withdrew their troops when they realized that France was determined to stay and colonize Mexico. France installed a puppet ruler, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, in 1862. On May 5 that year, the Mexican army defeated the French in a major battle at Puebla—celebrated as the Cinco de Mayo holiday—but French reinforcements allowed Maximilian to continue his rule until 1867. Juárez was re-elected as president in 1867 and again in 1871, dying in his office of a heart attack in 1872.
Mexicans have admired his life and work ever since, and they have named numerous towns and one major city, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, after him. His famous quotation, “respect for the rights of others is peace,” captured the essence of this honest, modest, idealistic leader.
It also epitomizes the way people in at least one relatively peaceful Zapotec community, known as “La Paz,” firmly believe in mutual respect as the basis for their nonviolent family and community relations. Douglas Fry titled an interesting anthropology journal article in 1992 after the Juárez quote, effectively tying together his research on La Paz with the ideals of the famous Mexican leader. Reading Fry’s article, available in many academic and research libraries, on Monday would be an appropriate way to join the Mexicans in celebrating their national holiday.