This post was originally published on March 21, 2011 in the now-defunct Being Latino Online Magazine. Due to my preparations to get back to work I forgot to schedule this post for Monday. Better late than never, Benito.
Juarez, Mexico. Today, the name evokes images of rampant violence, but in the 19th century, it stood for one of the greatest Mexican men in the history of that great country. Benito Juárez rose from humble origins to become one of the great statesmen of all time. Born a full-blooded Indian in Oaxaca (Mexico) on March 21, 1806 and orphaned by the age of 3, he was still illiterate at age 13. But by the time he reached his 30s, he was an accomplished lawyer, jurist, and politician. He was interested in government, law, and especially indigenous rights, and was the architect of the liberal constitution of 1857. A liberal to his core, Juárez led a Mexican government in exile from New Orleans when forced to leave after conservative uprisings. He was a mix of Abe Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison: a strong statesman, with a brilliant legal mind and a secular sensibility.
One of Juarez’s many achievements was the establishment of a constitutional separation of Church and State in Mexico by not naming Catholicism the official state Church. Considering the pull and influence that the Catholic Church had back in the day (and still has today) in Mexican society, this was no small feat. Today, Mexico, along with France, India, Turkey, and the United States, is one of the largest countries in the world with a constitutional separation of Religion and State. Almost 140 years after his death, this idea is as salient as ever as Mexico is becoming a religiously diverse country.
Juarez’s name is celebrated in Mexico and around the world as a beacon of liberalism and one of the great liberal statesmen of the 19th century, a politically contentious era that witnessed liberal revolutions in many parts of the world, especially in Latin America. His legacy is much more than the places named after him. Let’s remember his achievements today and wish a happy 205th birthday to Benito Juarez!