“MRS. BENITO JUAREZ“ - MEXICO’S GALLANT FIRST LADY
Margarita Maza, of Spanish descent, was born in Oaxaca in 1826, the daughter of Antonio Maza and Petra Parada. In 1843 she married Benito Juárez - a Zapotec Indian, who became the President of Mexico.
Orphaned at three, Benito became a shepherd boy and did not speak Spanish. At twelve, the Mazas hired him to work for them and provided him an education. Benito and Margarita became friends and later married. Although tutored by Spanish monks for the priesthood, Benito decided to join an Indian liberal protest group and got his law degree instead. Starting in 1831, he served in many elected offices – as city councilor, state representative, judge, secretary and advisor to several Mexican presidents, national representative, Governor of Oaxaca, President of the Supreme Court (equivalent to Vice President) - and then becoming the President of Mexico by 1858.
Juárez was a liberal who fought for the rights of the workers and women and to reform the Mexican government, laws, church and taxes. He introduced many new advanced ideas in education, agriculture, mining and finances. He wanted to keep Mexico independent and democratic and to write a new constitution. And always beside him in countless deadly political and military battles was his beloved wife, Doña Margarita. They had 10 children - 7 girls and 3 boys.
When Benito became the President of Mexico in 1858, opposition right-wing conservative, military and church forces within Mexico rejected him and he had to escape the capitol for Veracruz. Margarita and the children left the capitol, too, crossing the dangerous eastern sierras at night to avoid capture and joining Benito on the coast. But Juárez and his liberal armies defeated the opposition forces and he returned as President triumphantly to Mexico City.
Whenever Benito was arrested, exiled, and nearly assassinated for fighting for justice, Margarita and the children fled from friendly hacienda to hacienda to survive. She even ran a store to support her family and earn money to send her husband in exile. She always helped and protected the poor and suffering. She formed a women’s group that organized theater shows to raise money for the wounded and families who lost loved ones in the fight for the liberal cause.
In 1864-66, President Juárez and Mexico faced an even more ominous threat - invasion by the army of France. The economy of Mexico had been so disrupted by the political war that she could not pay her foreign debts, including that to France. After Benito suspended such payments for two years, France sent an army to Mexico to collect what was due.
During the French occupation, Benito remained as President but went to Chihuahua for safety and Margarita and the children went to live in Washington DC. While in the U.S., she lobbied for support for Mexico’s war against France and attended White House receptions in her honor and that of her husband.
In Washington, D.C., General Grant dedicated a dance to her, President Johnson provided her a ship to return to Mexico and the U.S. sent arms and supplies for Benito’s army. When the French were finally driven out in 1867, she returned to join her husband, the President, in Mexico City. When she landed in Veracruz the Mexican people welcomed her with a great show of respect and affection.
Margarita is an excellent role model for First Lady - showing superhuman love for her husband, endless courage and devoted service to the people of the nation. She was the greatest inspiration in Benito’s life. She died in Mexico City on January 2, 1871. He died a year later.
As a reminder for all to see and remember, in 1966 Margarita’s name was written in gold letters across the wall of the House Chamber of the Mexican National Congress - for this Spanish woman and others like her had fought as hard to reform and keep Mexico independent and democratic as anyone.