Today in 1806, Mexico’s first Indian president, Benito Pablo Juarez, was born in San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, Mexico. The Zapotec Indian is considered one of Mexico’s greatest leaders who saved the country from foreign occupation and created the constitutional framework ensuring Mexico exists as a democratic federal republic.
Equally impressive was his success against all odds. He was orphaned at 3-years-old, did not speak Spanish only his Indian dialect and did not go to school until he was 12-years-old, instead working in the fields.
Juarez entered the political arena in his home town of Oaxaca shortly after obtaining his law degree. He served as a municipal council member, state and national legislative office holder, judge and then governor of his state. His political prominence and reputation as an honest man that could not be bought caused him to be exiled in the U.S. when Mexican conservatives were in power during the 1850s.
When he returned to Mexico and liberals were restored to power, as Minister of Justice he enacted one of Mexico’s most dramatic legislation: Forcing the Catholic Church to sell its property, nationalizing the land and returning it to the people thereby reducing the powerful hold the Catholic Church had in the country since the invasion and colonization by the Spaniards.
During his five-term presidency from 1858-1872 Juarez constantly fought for Mexico’s independence against foreign influence and advocating for liberating ideas to remove colonial influence. It was his successful three year (1864-1867) battle, however, against French occupation of Mexico that made him a beloved national hero.
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