A First Lady's Courageous Voyage

Article excerpt

EXILED ON THE EAST COAST OF THE UNITED STATES, MARGARITA MAZA DE JUAREZ HELPED ADVANCE HER HUSBAND BENITO'S CAUSE

THE SHORT, DARK, BROAD-SHOULDERED, young man, sitting by the fire, absentmindedly prodded a nearby cradle with the toe of his boot and set it to rocking. The baby within ceased to cry. Benito Pablo Juarez, student at the Seminary of Oaxaca, was talking to his sister, Maria Josefa, the Maza family's cook, as she peeled vegetables for supper. No premonitions, no extra sensory perception informed Benito that this same infant would grow into the attractive, intelligent woman that he would claim as his bride, Margarita Eustaquia Maza.

Benito Juarez and his two sisters, Zapotec Indians from San Pablo Guelatao, state of Oaxaca, Mexico, were orphaned by 1809 when the boy was only three years old. They lived briefly with grandparents who soon made the Juarez children orphans again. Benito went to live with an uncle but ran away at age twelve. With the tenacity and endurance that would see him through a dangerous, difficult but glorious life, Benito determinedly made his way on foot to the city of Oaxaca and his sister Maria Josefa who worked there in the household of a merchant, Don Antonio Maza. Don Antonio helped the boy find work and later helped him with his schooling.

The Mazas were of Italian origin, born in Genoa. Margarita, their youngest and last child and the darling of the family, was taught to read and write, an unusual opportunity for females of that era. Early in her life she became used to the serious, black-eyed, young man who, as time went by, could hardly keep is eyes off her. Benito visited his sister regularly and, almost literally, became a member of the Maza household.

Love developed between Margarita and Benito despite a twenty year age difference which was not then uncommon. What was uncommon was the acceptance of the romance by the Maza parents. Both North and South Americans of the era guarded the so-called purity of their European backgrounds, often with the ferocity of a pit bull. Indian mistresses were acceptable but Indian husbands for girls of European family background were rare.

Seventeen-year-old Margarita and thirty-seven-year old Benito were wed in the church of San Felipe Neri, July 31, 1843. From the beginning, Margarita shared her husband's views and his commitment to revolutionary changes which would correct the inequalities in Mexico's clerical, governmental and educational systems. She would never be one of the boring, illiterate, upper-class females who spent their days puffing cigars, lolling in over-stuffed sofas and carriages, garbed in elegant, finger-stroking creations of satin and velvet.

The first year of the Juarez marriage included many weeks of intensive study by Benito for his final professional examination followed by admission to the bar. The relative peace and quiet of this beginning was abruptly terminated by the fall of the Federalist government, making it obligatory for Juarez to leave Oaxaca fast. These sorts of lightning changes were to be the rule. By 1847 Juarez had become governor of Oaxaca. He and his wife antagonized the establishment, especially army and clergy, with their advanced ideas of equality. Benito built new schools, roads and, because of frequent epidemics such as cholera, was determined to replaced the old fashioned, unsanitary burials in churches by creating municipal cemeteries for all. Upon the death of their daughter Guadelupe in 1850, Benito and Margarita insisted on the child's interment in the municipal cemetery (as a member of the governor's family she should have been buried in the church). In this instance they had each other's support, but there would be time after time when Margarita had to go it alone, in hiding and penniless, solely responsible for her growing brood.

A fine example of how Margarita faced danger and hardship on her own is the story of her safari through the mountains to reach Benito, who had become known as a dangerous, renegade rebel and was being hunted by the conservatives. …