Benito Juárez was born on March 21, 1806, in San Pablo Guelatao, a Zapotec-speaking hamlet in Sierra de Ixtlán (renamed the Sierra de Juárez on July 30, 1857) in Mexico’s southeastern state of Oaxaca. He died in the National Palace on July 18, 1872, as President of the Republic, an office he had occupied since January 1858, when, as President of the Supreme Court, he had succeeded the moderate Liberal Ignacio Comonfort, who had been driven into exile by a Conservative military revolt. During his fifteen years as president, a younger generation of Liberals, few of whom could remember the revolution of Independence (1808–1821), radically transformed Mexico’s laws and institutions. In October 1855, when Juárez was the minister of justice in the newly formed Liberal government, he implemented the “Law of Restriction of Corporate Privileges,” which is credited with setting in motion the wider Reform movement.
Between 1855 and 1860, in what was at the time called La Revolución but soon became known as La Reforma (the Reformation), Mexico moved from being a “Catholic Nation,” in which many of the social and racial hierarchies and corporate privileges of colonial rule still held sway, to becoming a secular federal republic regulated by a liberal constitution based on the sovereignty of the people and equality before the law, reducing the legal immunities and special privileges of the army and the Catholic Church and establishing a single system of civil law that guaranteed a wide range of freedoms and social rights. In the face of a Conservative uprising in January 1858, which broadened into the Three Years’ War (1858–1861), Liberals pressed ahead with an ambitious project of religious and civil disentailment (desamortización) that abolished corporate or communal property in favor of individual private ownership. The Liberal revolution was further strengthened in 1859 by the “Laws of Reform,” which ordered the wholesale nationalization of Church wealth and the closure of nunneries and monasteries; barred Roman Catholicism, the national religion until 1857, along with any other religion, from external manifestations of the cult; and established a civil registry and a strict separation of church and state.
Conservatives, undeterred by their defeat in the Battle of Calpulalpan, in December 1860, and in spite of Juárez receiving his first full popular mandate in the elections of March 1861, redoubled their resistance to the Reform by encouraging Napoleon III’s colonial ambitions, efforts that culminated in January 1862 in the occupation of Veracruz by forces from France, Britain, and Spain and the imposition of Maximilian Habsburg as emperor in April 1864. Juárez now led the defense of the Liberal republic on two fronts, and he retreated to northern Mexico, from where he coordinated resistance to the Empire.
Following the defeat of the Second Empire, which culminated in the execution of Maximilian alongside the principal Conservative generals at Querétaro on June 19, 1867, Juárez returned to the national capital wearing the twin laurels of Liberal law giver and savior of the nation. Although at his death, in 1872, he faced many enemies, especially in the Liberal camp, Juárez soon became enshrined as Liberal Mexico’s undisputed founding father and moral guide, much in the mold of his contemporaries Giuseppe Garibaldi and Abraham Lincoln. Under his leadership, liberalism had become insolubly fused with patriotism in the republican victory over European monarchy—Mexico’s second revolution of independence. La Reforma is recognized as a major watershed in Mexico’s history on a par with the revolution of Independence from Spain and the Revolution of 1910–1917.
Michele McArdle Stephens
The Caste Wars of the Yucatán tore apart the peninsula between 1847 and 1901. While the violence was not constant throughout the more than five decades between the start and conclusion of the war itself, the threat of rebel hostilities was ever present. Scholars have debated the origins of the war for many decades, with most recent academic treatments focusing on heavy tax burdens, poor working conditions for Yucatán’s peasantry, and the loss of land that occurred during the second half of the century. Tensions between political leaders exacerbated relations with the Mayas in particular and the peasantry more generally. The emergence of the breakaway state of Chan Santa Cruz, in the southeastern part of Yucatán, allowed rebel forces to coalesce between 1850 and the early 1870s. Here, a “Speaking Cross” oracle gave direction to the rebellious Mayas, who crushed their enemies and exacted revenge against those who would not support their cause. The emergence of Porfirio Díaz as President of Mexico in 1876 led to a gradual “reconquest” of the areas held by the cruzob, or “people of the Cross.” By 1901, the Mexican military ended the Caste Wars, though violent episodes still marred Yucatán until the early 1930s.
William E. French
A persuasive literature has argued that the course of Latin American history from the arrival of Europeans to the present has been shaped to a large extent by a small but expanding group of literate bureaucrats, church officials, lawyers, and intellectuals, known as letrados, who made their lives in urban centers. Those marked by this combination of power, urban living, and the written word, an assemblage that Angel Rama has dubbed “the lettered city,” utilized literature, history, the law, politics, and higher education to imagine the country into existence textually and to justify the hierarchies and inequalities that characterized their rule. Yet in Mexico, as elsewhere in Latin America, writing has a long history in nonelite settings, a venue that, in recognition of this fact, has now been referred to as “the lettered countryside.” Moreover, as understandings of a single literacy are giving way to a concern with “literacies,” defined in the plural and operating in relationship rather than opposed to such things as orality and visuality, traces of literacy practices are being discovered in many locations. Foregrounding the conjunction of the lettered city and the lettered countryside is an attempt to bring these venues into conversation while doing away with the binary that associates literary with the city and orality with the rural.
Over the course of the 19th century in Mexico, although the written word was still pressed into the service of national imagining, a number of other characteristics shaped the conjunction of the lettered city and the lettered countryside. A struggle over secularization was one new development, as authority came increasingly to be invested in the written word itself rather than justified in religious terms. New forms of literacies emerged, especially those associated with the novel and other forms of publications, including newspapers, periodicals for and by women, and the penny press, creating new publics with distinct senses of themselves as communities of readers and listeners; oratory, public discussion of politics and other issues in various venues, and the phenomenon of indirect readers also brought together these two locations. As early as the 1840s, rural residents in some parts of the country had made writing their own, drafting political proclamations in which they defined such things as federalism in their own terms and asserted themselves in national politics. While elite diarists, both men and women, left traces of their emotional lives in various forms of life writing over the course of the entire period, ordinary people, including mine workers, agricultural laborers, and women who carried out household duties, wrote love letters to each other by the last third of the century, if not before. Composed and exchanged by means of cooperation, the use of intermediaries known as evangelistas, or by individuals with various degrees of facility in reading and writing, love letters served as privileged means of communicating the emotions they brought into being while often ending up as evidence in legal proceedings that continued to assert the prerogatives of the lettered city even as it came ever more intimately conjoined with the lettered countryside.
Luz María Hernández-Sáenz
In 1861, Spanish, British, and French forces all landed in Veracruz to collect the debts Mexico owed them. After two months, the Spanish and British representatives reached an agreement with the Mexican government, but the French troops remained with the objective of imposing a monarchy. This period of occupation, 1861 to 1867, is known as the French Intervention. France’s interference in Mexico was partly due to the efforts of a group of conservative Mexican politicians who believed that a monarchical rather than a republican system would solve Mexico’s problems. In 1863, with the French army occupying Mexico City, the provisional government offered the crown to the Austrian archduke Maximilian of Habsburg. After long negotiations between Maximilian and the French emperor, Napoleon III (who would lend military support and extend credit to the future emperor), Maximilian signed the Treaty of Miramar and accepted the crown.
The empire faced the opposition of President Benito Juárez and his republicans, who rightfully claimed to be Mexico’s legitimate government. Furthermore, Maximilian, a liberal who believed in a secular society, clashed with both the clergy and his conservative supporters. A dismal financial situation, military opposition, and the emperor’s inability to reconcile the different political factions doomed his reign. The premature withdrawal of the French troops and Maximilian’s inability to form an effective army resulted in the empire’s demise. The last remnants of the imperial army were defeated in Querétaro on May 15, 1867, and Maximilian was executed. The monarchical experiment was a complete political and military failure for those who promoted it and for Napoleon III, who supported it.
Nonetheless, the empire was not a complete failure. The monarchy did set important precedents for the administrative organization of the country: promoting nationalism, solidifying liberal reforms including the separation of church and state, and establishing the foundation for the modernization of Mexico.
Irving W. Levinson
The Mexican-American War ranks among the most consequential events in the history of both nations. Although the casus belli for the United States’s May 12, 1846, declaration of war was the Mexican ambush of a U.S. Army patrol in the disputed Nueces Strip on April 25 of that year, two underlying causes rendered conflict inevitable. The dispute over Texas was the first, and the desire of both nations to control the Mexican provinces of Nuevo Mexico and California was the second. President James Knox Polk identified the acquisition of that territory as the principal objective of his administration.
The conflict also remains noteworthy for the extent to which the political milieu in both countries proved as important as events on the battlefields. In México, a devastating war of independence (1810–1821), multiple violent overthrows of the federal government, the failure of two constitutions to produce a structure acceptable to both conservatives and liberals, and enmities generated by the socioeconomic structure severely limited México’s growth, tranquility, and potential for armed resistance to an invader. In the United States, the national unity evident at the outbreak of the war faded in the face of sectional rivalries, unexpectedly high casualties, and declining relations between the executive and legislative branches.
The military phases of the war fall into two segments. In the first, forces considerably smaller than those deployed in later phases of the war fought in Texas and in the Mexican provinces of Nuevo Mexico, California, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo Leon. When United States victories in northern Mexico failed to produce the anticipated Mexican surrender, the second phase of the conflict began on March 9, 1847, with General Winfield Scott’s invasion of central Mexico and ended with his entrance in Mexico City on September 14, 1847.
In the following seven months, both governments sought to obtain the best terms. A rising tide of violent rural rebellion in Mexico and a rising tide of Whig opposition to the Polk administration in Washington served as catalysts during the negotiations. Two agreements, the February 2, 1848, Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the March 6, 1848, Truce Agreement brought hostilities a close.
Consequences of the conflict included the Mexico’s loss of 525,000 square miles of territory, the emergence of the United States as the dominant continental power, the dispossession of many Mexican citizens living in what had become U.S. territory, and the reestablishment of Mexican sovereignty over territories in rebellion.
Christon I. Archer and Stephen B. Neufeld
By 1821, a decade of bloody warfare had fragmented the viceroyalty of New Spain, divided the population into hostile factions of patriots and royalists, and intensified old hatreds among peninsular, or European-born, Spaniards (gachupines), American-born criollos, the complex racially mixed groups, and the indigenous population. In many regions, the native villagers were angry, resentful, and politically mobilized. The war had taught different segments of the population that mobilization and the effective use of political action—even violence—could address their political demands, their interminable grievances concerning landholding, and their chronic disputes over taxation.
These campesino insurgent and guerrilla fighters, many of whom knew little Spanish, fought tenaciously and often successfully for different factions and regions. Although some sought to escape combat and brutal suppression by fleeing into rugged mountains or posing as neutral noncombatants, guerrilla warfare, endemic banditry, and pervasive violence changed the lives of ordinary people.
In the cities, large floating populations of vagabonds, gamblers, and petty criminals frequented cockfights, bullfights, and other popular entertainments; loitering in parks and public markets, they made the night extremely dangerous for respectable urban residents. Nevertheless, even as indigenous and mestizo people suffered from the dislocations of war, arbitrary conscription, heavy taxation, and narrow paternalism, some also developed feelings of pride and empowerment that would find new expression in the post-independence decades.
By the outbreak of the war with the United States twenty-five years later, Mexico was ill-equipped and unprepared to defend its territory. Its economy was in ruins, its army lacked modern weapons and training, and many of its citizens were unwilling to engage in the defense of a nation that they did not fully comprehend. Others rose to lead the republic in its heroic, but impossible, defense.
Alejandro Tortolero Villaseñor
For several years, some of Mexico’s most influential literary figures associated mountains with the presence of certain characteristics: wildlife, botanic variety, and most importantly, backwards and/or mysterious indigenous communities. Order and civilization, it seemed, for writers like Ignacio Altamirano and Manuel Payno, ceased to exist in mountainscapes. For these writes, mountains constituted social afterthoughts—places lacking history and dynamism, places that did not matter. They were, in Braudelian terms, the margins of civilization and factories that supplied human resources to cities.
Such portrayals were not derived from reality, however. Far from solely being dull or dangerous sites where banditry and romantic indigeneity prevailed, Mexico’s mountains were, between the colonial era and the Porfiriato, the places where dramatic transformations took place. Impresarios’ mastery of Mexico’s natural resources fueled the country’s economic growth during the 19th and 20th centuries. Concomitant with this growth came dramatic alterations of the country’s landscape that left much of Mexico’s environment in disrepair.
Mountains, thus, have histories. They are not landscapes where civilization parts ways with society. Such an argument has relevance in parts of the world like Latin America, where nearly half of the people who reside there live at elevations above sea level, and where only 7 percent reside under an elevation of 1,000 meters above sea level.
Romana Gloria Falcón Vega
During the formation of the Mexican nation, jefaturas políticas, or prefectures, as they will be called generically in this article, were basic institutions (1812–1917) for centralizing and organizing power and assuring governance. This was a vital task given the civil and international wars the country would endure. These powerful institutions were the mediators between the upper and lower political echelons and social classes. In the prefectures were vested an impressive range of diverse responsibilities—agrarian, fiscal, preserving order, military conscriptions, educational, medical and sanitary services, promoting the economy, elaborating statistics, mapmaking—which made modernization and administrative functionality very difficult. At the turn of the 20th century, this was an obstacle to the modernization and efficacy of the regime.
Even though prefectures had responsibilities for all of Mexico, they also had an important degree of flexibility to attend to local needs. Therefore, laws and practices were adapted to the peculiarities of the different states, for example, regulating labor or conciliating rivalries that sprang from the application of liberal agrarian policies.
Prefects governed specific political districts in which the states were divided and were generally appointed and removed freely by the governors as their personal representatives to enforce laws and policies and to control any opposition. They were remembered in popular imaginary, literary, and revolutionary historiography as brutal and corrupt functionaries loyal only to the upper classes and their clientelist networks. Contemporary studies have proved that these modalities—brutality and corruption—have a place in the prefect’s box of tools, but new research has widened the historiographic perspective and showed how differently these functionaries could act. In fact, they used most of their energy trying to negotiate with the whole range of social classes and political factions. But their repressive character led to its elimination: they fought the revolution of 1910, and when they lost they were suppressed in 1917.
Rediscovering the Aztecs and Mayas: Field Exploration, Archaeological Exhibits, and National Museums
Kevin M. Gosner
In the last decades of the 18th century, with the visit in 1784 of José Antonio Calderón to the Maya ruins at Palenque and the discovery in 1790 of the statue of Coatlicue and the Stone of the Sun in the central plaza of Mexico City, the study of ancient Mexico entered a new era. In the century that followed, teams of field surveyors, mapmakers, graphic artists, and artifact collectors worked across central and southern Mexico as well as in Guatemala. Some were commissioned by the Spanish Crown or later by national governments; many arrived from England, France, Germany, and eventually the United States. Early on they worked side by side with geologists, geographers, and field biologists as part of natural history expeditions, accumulating collections of artifacts that would be displayed in curiosity cabinets and early museums alongside trays of colorful butterflies and stuffed tropical birds. And then, as foreign travel books won popular audiences in Europe and the United States, and as international investors arrived in Mexico and Central America, archaeology also was taken up by enthusiastic amateurs looking to sell books, build private collections, or organize international trade fairs.
For serious students of ancient history, field exploration and advances in archaeological record-keeping transformed a body of research and scientific speculation that since the 16th century had been dominated by theologians, historians, and philologists, who studied Spanish chronicles and native language annals but paid scant attention to the remnants of material culture. In the process, Aztecs and Maya were rediscovered as historical subjects, their histories disconnected from that of contemporary Indian peasants and recast as rivals to the great civilizations of the Old World. Ruins of monumental architecture, recovered artifacts in sculptured stone or finely crafted metals, and ancient texts inscribed on wooden lintels and bark cloth were reclaimed as part of national patrimonies to be protected by new state agencies and displayed in modern museums. On January 20, 1911, the International School for American Archaeology and Ethnology formally opened in Mexico City, and this formative period in the archaeological study of ancient peoples ended. Manuel Gamio introduced the study of stratigraphy to fieldwork practices in Mexico and the discipline was transformed once again.
Paul Vanderwood and Robert Weis
By revealing the weaknesses of its political system and the fragmentation of its social fabric, Mexico’s devastating loss to the United States in 1848 forced a reexamination of the nation’s very foundation. It also emboldened leaders to redouble efforts to either refashion Mexico into a modern, democratic republic or strengthen colonial-era institutions that had ensured unity and stability despite cultural and regional heterogeneity.
Those who hoped to modernize Mexico were the liberals. Their ideas regarding the depth and pace of change varied considerably. But they coalesced around broad principles—democracy, secularism, and capitalism—that, they insisted, would help Mexico overcome the vestiges of colonialism. In pursuit of equality under the law, liberals proposed to dismantle legal privileges for nobles, ecclesiastics, and the military. In order to stimulate the economy, they wanted to force corporate entities, especially the church, to sell their lands to individual owners. Finally, liberals sought to establish the primacy of the state by granting civil leaders authority over the church.
Conservatives countered that the liberal program and its exotic ideas constituted an attack on Mexico’s Hispanic Catholic legacy and would only further weaken the nation. It was a chimera, if not demagoguery, to declare the equality of citizens in a society where the masses were illiterate, isolated hamlets who barely spoke Spanish, and residents in the far-flung regions regarded national rule with deep suspicion. Conservatives feared that the liberal program would foster more of the peasant revolts, threats of regional succession, and racial antagonism that had roiled the nation since independence. They wanted to conserve the pillars of order—the military and the Catholic Church—reinstate monarchism, and curtail political participation. Liberals and conservatives vociferously debated these divergent visions in the public forum. But ultimately their differences plunged the country into civil war.