The past, present and future are linked in fascinating ways. Don Beníto Juárez, El Benemérito (“meritorious”), was a leader in Mexico’s Liberal Reforms and first Indigenous President in the Americas. On March 21st Mexico celebrated his 211th birthday.
Ciudád Juárez was named in honor of Don Beníto. It is the largest city in the Mexican State of Chihuahua, on the U.S. border, across from El Paso. It has changed a great deal. We should pay attention.
Both entities are important: Don Benito Juárez was notable for his role in Mexico’s past. Ciudád Juárez was notable for its role in welcoming Don Beníto when he needed sanctuary. It is to be commended today for its progressive policies.
Juárez, the City, is complicated; once the “murder capital of Mexico,” it is now one of the safest cities. Don Beníto, the Reformer, was complicated, a Liberal, an opponent of dictatorship, but one who could and did utilize tough measures to retain power.
Don Beníto, a full-blood Zapotec indigenous Mexican, was born poor but rose—through education (well, and through warfare) —to become a great nationalist hero. He has been called the “Abraham Lincoln of Mexico.” Lincoln, for his part, recognized Juárez’s appeal and their mutual hardships. They both faced disillusionment and even treason (Jim Tuck, Mexconnect, April 1999). They both valued education.
As a Liberal, Juárez was faced with Conservatives who not only were allied with the Church, Military and Landlords but suppressed art (sound familiar?). A poet, Guillermo Prieto, had saved Juárez from a Conservative firing squad; he survived to become President in 1858 until his death in 1872 (with numerous military and political battles in between).
Juárez believed in separation of Church and State, a tenant of faith which persists to this day. He was religious but supported freedom from religion. He opposed foreign intervention (the attempt of France to impose Emperor Maximiliano as well as the invasion of U.S. troops). He championed national unity and equality under the law for Mexicans of all classes and races. For that, he was opposed by Conservatives. (Deja vu? Yes, “all over again”.)
When Confederates of the South of the United States chose slavery and rejected national unity (deja . . . hmm, by now, the parallels to today should be obvious), they approached Juárez for support. He rejected slavery and had those racists jailed.
Don Beníto Juárez is honored today—in Europe, in New York, in the U.S. capital, as well as Mexico—with statues, many bearing his famous admonition: “Entre los individuos como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz.” (“Among individuals as with nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.”)
Fast forward to Ciudád Juárez. Juárez’s quotation, which precedes Gandhi, had been neglected in Juárez. In 2012, tired of the cartels, of the gang wars, shake-downs and murders, Prosecutor Jorge Gonzalez Nicolas, was about to resign. He was persuaded not to do so by a father of a murder victim: “You can’t give up—or they have won” (Harriet Alexander, World News, February 2016).
He and other citizens persisted. Juárez is now “a city transformed.” Deaths have been reduced by 92 percent; it is now “safer than many U.S. cities.” Some cynically maintain “the gangs killed off each other.” Experts disagree; dozens of new pools, schools, sports clubs (including “Las Yankees,” a girl baseball team), museums—all with citizen sponsorship—have sprouted up. Culture is the key. Families take outings again in El Chamizal Park (Sam Quiñones, National Geographic, June 2016).
More telling, more likely a cause of reform, has been the ability to rid corrupt police and train new ones (partly with U.S. help). Checks on suspicious or illicit financing by banks are enforced. The prisons are no longer controlled by gangs; one, especially notorious, was found equipped with cabaret and stage for pole dancing. Corrupt guards are gone.
Changes in national Mexican law have been made. Mandatory life sentences are now imposed for deaths of police or journalists. Mexicans value and try to protect the media; Americans, are you paying attention? Soldiers, who had been deployed en masse, went back to barracks. Citizens breathed a collective sigh of relief and felt pride in their accomplishments, which had seemed so unlikely just a few years before.
Pope Francis was welcomed to Ciudád Juárez in 2016 in a city-wide, jubilant celebration. The words of that Pastor of Peace co-mingled with Don Beníto’s own prescient pronouncements. He prayed along-side weeping prisoners in the jail. He asked them to pray for him. He acknowledged the citizens of El Paso, across the border, calling on both countries to unite in peace.
Americans who listen to the wisdom of the past—to Don Beníto Juárez–and recognize the reality of the present—Ciudád Juárez’s progress—will be guided in new and better ways to shape the future.