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A first lady's courageous voyage.


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. By 1853 he and other Mexican sympathizers with his cause were in exile in New Orleans. Margarita and her children were also being tracked by Juarez haters, among them General Ignacio Martinez Pinolo who was a close friend of Benito's nemesis, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Proud and penniless, Margarita had to flee to the haven of Hacienda Cinco Senores. For the children's sake she borrowed money and, when it was safe to travel, she took her family to Etla where she worked as a seamstress and set up a little tobacco shop to pay her debts. Her husband, in exile, was as poor as she.

With the fall of Santa Anna, Benito was able to return to Mexico where he became governor of Oaxaca again. He was on the way to realizing his true ambition--to become Mexico's first, native Indian president. Austere and expressionless, he was calm and cold in the face of danger. But inside burned fires of freedom and ambition. He became Minister of the Interior, then Vice President under Ignacio Comonfort. When Comonfort resigned in 1857, he stepped into a position he would not relinquish until his death: President of Mexico.

Because of political turmoil Juarez moved his government to Veracruz in 1858. Margarita, tired of separation, decided to travel to the coastal city, although the journey would have to be secret because of assasins. She could not travel the better and shorter roads for fear that she and her caravan, which included mules, arrieros and brother Jose Maria Maza, would be recognized. The alternative, and least revealing route, would be over the Sierra de Cuajimulco, renamed later in honor of its historical importance, Sierra de Juarez.

The most direct route today, by air, from Oaxaca to Veracruz hovers around one hundred and fifty miles. Margarita and her group travelled this distance by foot and in the dark for greater safety. With only the moon to guide them, they faced dense undergrowth and wild beasts--and these were less dangerous than the humans who stalked them. Certainly the dress of the day, hoopskirts, must have been discarded for this primitive journey and it is likely that the females wore the more comfortable straightline native clothing called huipils until nearing Veracruz where status would demand crinolines again.

We can be sure that the reunion of these lovers was romantic, although to the public Margarita and Benito were a down-to-earth couple. She called him "Juarez"; he called her "Old Lady." The people loved it and identified with the unpretentious husband and wife who wanted nothing more than to be together but who would be parted again and again.

It is well known that Benito spent years of exile in New Orleans and El Paso. It is not so well known that Margarita and her children were long in exile on the east coast of the United States. Juarez lived under constant and increasing death threats. Although fearless for himself, the stoic Zapotecan was afraid for the safety of his family. The oldest Juarez daughter, Manuela, had married before President Juarez was deposed by the French. Manuela's parents were pleased with their first son-in-law, a Cuban liberal, Pedro Santacilia. Fluent in English, Santacilia took on the task of shepherding Margarita and her brood all the way from Mexico to New York City. It was a journey that, in 185, took four months to complete.

The caravan started off with several hundred torturous miles through desert and valley to Saltillo, then struggled on to Monterrey to take council about the next move to New York. The port city had been approved by Juarez. It was as safe as distance could make it and, as a financial center, was strategic for funneling funds to aid the exiled, fledgling democracy in its effort to return. Best of all, New York was not far from Washington, D.C., where Benito's most trusted henchman, Matias Romero, lived with his wife, Lulu Allen, and his parents. Romero was still recognized as official minister from Mexico despite the presence of a French minister, Charles Tristan, or the Marquis de Montholon, who was ordered to the post by Mexico's puppet ruler, Emperor Maximilian.

Margarita set up household in New York until a cholera epidemic threatened. She had borne twelve children but attrition among infants, in those days, was high. She buried three daughters in Mexico. Determined to protect her remaining six daughters and three sons, she moved to New Rochelle, a quiet pastoral village with few inhabitants where the plague was less likely to spread. Once settled, the children learned to chatter away in the new tongue with ease. Margarita never did, although she would prove her mettle as a statesperson without it. Despite Margarita's move she lost two of her three sons to illness. The first to go was eight-year-old Jose, then fifteen-month old Antonio, the last and youngest of her progeny. In a letter to Benito she wrote: "The loss of my sons is killing me. From the moment I awaken I think of them remembering their sufferings. I do not much blame persons who kill themselves. If I had been braver I would have done it a year ago."

Fortunately there were joyous occasions too. Margarita's first grandchild was a girl born to Manuela and Pedro Santacilia, and the children's progress in school was notable. She also had the comfort of some contact with fellow Mexicans in the area. In her frequent letters to Benito she commented on them, sometimes tartly. On one occasions she described them as, "a roost full of useless specimens." But the greatest compensation of all was knowing that Matias Romero was keeping constant vigil for the opportune moment to enlist the United States in Benito's efforts to oust the French monarchy and restore the republic.

In March, 1866, Margarita learned that Romero's mother was ill and she was galvanized into action. She set out on a long overdue visit to the family. Romero had been secretary of the treasury in Juarez administration and was popular in Washington. Known as an honest and efficient politician, he served his exiled president well and emulated his simplicity of dress. At the dazzling, end-of-the-Civil-War homecoming parades the stands were filled with preening peacocks, "all dressed in the elaborate, official costumes of their court", except for Romero who wore a plain, black unembellished suit. Romero's most important mission in the capital was to persuade Secretary of State, William H. Seward, to change his policy of patient, non-intervention in the French takeover of Mexico.

Margarita took her second oldest, English-speaking daughter to Washington as an interpreter and for moral support. This was her first venture into the lion's den of Washington's diplomatic society. The first week passed quietly with the Romero household. But by the second week the city of no secrets got word that Juarez' wife was in town. President Andrew Johnson immediately ordered a reception to be held in her honor at the White House. Controversial Andrew Johnson, the only United States president to undergo an impeachment trial, was a character to gladden a journalist's heart. He was drunk when he took the vice presidential oath of office at Lincoln' second inaugural and though there were mitigating factors, history has made much of his inebriate ineptitude when he delivered his acceptance speech in the senate chambers.

Although Margarita's first host was the president of the United States, she did not meet his wife. Johnson and his spouse were known to be compatible but Eliza Johnson almost never appeared in public. Her health was the excuse. One of the Johnson daughters acted as hostess and set herself the task of making the war-torn White House, or Presidential Mansion as it was then called, presentable. By the time President Johnson entertained for Margarita the drawing room had been repainted in scarlet, blue and green. And renewed gilt panels made a fitting background for the glittering splendor of foreign dignitaries and their wives. In startling contrast was the guest of honor, still in mourning for her sons, and her austerely garbed sponsor, Romero, wearing his usual dress of plain, black broadcloth. But the New York Herald, newspaper told a different story printing that "Senora Juarez was elegantly dressed with many diamonds." Margarita refutes the description in one of her letters to Benito. "All my elegance consisted of a dress that you bought me in Monterrey shortly before I left...and as for the diamonds, I had no more than some earnings that you gave me once on my saint's day...they shall not say that when you were in El Paso in such poverty, I was here enjoying luxury."

A second social gathering for Margarita followed quickly on the heels of the first. Secretary of State William H. Seward ordered a formal dinner to be given at his home. Seward was a shrewd, affable, political survivor who had been President Abraham Lincoln's secretary of state. He was asked by Johnson to continue filling the office. But again, Margarita was not to meet her hostess. Frances Seward spent most of her time in New York and was rumored to be somewhat of a invalid. The Secretary of State knew the value of social events in diplomacy and entertained frequently and well. Since he was the most deft and practiced of Margarita's three important hosts, it is doubly interesting that he made a political gaff which was whispered throughout Potomac City with amusement. During the course of the evening Seward remarked to Margarita, "I hope that within a year I shall see in Mexico City my two friends, Juarez and Santa Anna." The Minister of Colombia, seated next to Margarita at dinner, translated. After she had recovered her poise, Margarita exclaimed, "Tell Mr. Seward that he will see one or the other but not both." A little over a year later when Juarez was restored to the presidency of Mexico, he ordered General Antonio Lopez Santa Anna to the dungeons of San Juan de Ulua.

Neither Margarita nor Seward was fool enough to let a slip of the tongue endanger relations between their countries. Seward quickly offered to be Margarita's personal escort on a tour of the state department. She accepted with alacrity and, at the conclusion of the visit, accepted a portrait of Seward , promising one of herself in return to be placed beside her husband's. In the privacy of her bedroom Margarita, always hard-pressed for money, wrote Benito, "Who knows how much it will cost [the portrait] but I must do it because it's enough that he would request it." Margarita's visit happened to coincide with a period in which the United States was issuing its most vehement protests against the puppet Emperor Maximilian's occupation of Mexico. The lavish entertainments given in her honor by the country's three most important men helped spotlight the Juarez cause.

Margarita's third host, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army, General Ulysses S. Grant was a vehement supporter of the Mexican republic. Popular in Washington society, he was equally popular with the man in the streets. Grant, eager to oust the French from North America, advised the Johnson administration, "...that the best way to prevent an outbreak of hostilities with the United States would be to establish a sizable body of troops somewhere in Mexico in support of Juarez." Juarez, corrosively aware of the realities of politics, expressed his reactions in a letter to his son-in-law Pedro Santacilia in February 1866, a month before Margarita's visit. "Give the wolf of the Tuileries something to think about and oblige him to retire his forces from Mexico...Napoleon is not the man to undertake a war with this government. The wolves do not bite themselves. They respect each other."

Julia Grant was the only one of her hostesses who Margarita met and they had the most in common. Juarez and Grant shared stoicism under fire and were sparing of words. Both wives had endured lengthy separations from their husbands but the couples were devoted. The two women were well-educated, unpretentious and accessible to the public. The Grants gracious and popular entertainments were held in their large house on Minnesota Row. At a typical evening affair the general wore a dress uniform with four gold stars on the shoulder straps. At his side stood Julia Grant in a plain, high-necked gown and a black lace shawl. The general greeted all who passed through the crowd in his pleasant but controlled way. President Johnson headed the guest list for the ball. Margarita, guest of honor, was accompanied by Minister Matias Romero and wife, Lulu Allen. The evening was going smoothly until the arrival of Maximilian's envoy, the Marquis de Montholon. Now two ministers from Mexico were present at this function but only one was recognized by the United States: amiable, hardworking, honorable Romero.

Montholon was no better liked by his puppet emperor than he was by Washington officials. The Marquis had enraged Maximilian by allowing the rumor to spread that Empress Carlota bore no heirs to the throne because the emperor suffered from syphilitic sterility. Maximilian swept the marquis from his important post as minister to Mexico from La Belle France and sent him to the humiliations of a ministry ignored by the United States. When the Marquis realized he was waltzing at a ball whose world representatives smiled only at the unelegant Romero and the short woman in black, he had no other choice but to depart, leaving center stage to the favorites.

Thus ended Margarita Maza de Juarez enchanted week. But the tide in the affairs of Mexico had turned. A few months later the French intruders departed. United States officials ordered the ship USS Wilderness to transport Margarita and her family home. It was a happy departure but a sad one as well. Margarita had to leave the coffins of her two sons behind in Greenwood Cemetery. Daughter Manuela consoled her with the hope that shortly the coffins would be disinterred and sent home. Four months later the coffins arrived in Mexico and Margarita made a veritable garden around the little graves.

The welcome accorded the First Lady and her party in Veracruz was a joyful contrast to her solemn departure. The Wilderness arrived at 9:30 pm July 14, 1867. Lavishly decorated boasts and barges surrounded the ship, looking like huge floating floral wreaths dropped from heaven. The crowds waved and shouted, "Viva la verdadera madre del pueblo, viva Margarita Maza de Juarez, heroina de Mexico." A twenty-one gun salute boomed out from the cannons of the Fort of Santiago y Ulua in honor of Margarita as she walked down the gangplank and descended into a beehive of admirers. She kissed rough cheeks as well as smooth; shook dirty hands as well as clean. People danced and cried with the relief of being free from the yoke of foreign rule; their own Margarita was home at last. For seven weeks after her return Margarita travelled by train to celebrations of equal intensity in Puebla, Cholula, Tlaxcala, Acuitlapilco and other towns, finally entering the quiet streets of Mexico City late at night to be reunited with President Juarez. Benito had planned a very private meeting. He was not fond of public displays and felt the large amounts of money they cost could be put to better use. More importantly, he was concerned for Margarita's health. The strain of the prolonged return had taken its toll.

The next few years saw the governing members of the infant republic pulling in different directions. Foreign investors stayed away waiting to see if Benito would survive the storms. Lack of cash delayed the start of many reforms Juarez wanted to institute. On a happier note, ex-secretary of state Seward and his son visited the Juarez' and received a warm welcome in the fall of 1869. Benito and Margarita knew that it had been largely his influence that procured her passage on the Wilderness.

It was perhaps the last joyful occasion, free from pain, that the First Lady would know. Her doctors found that she suffered from cancer. On January 3, 1871, pallbearers carried the plain, black box to the cemetery through an ever-widening river of mourners. A year and a half later July, 1872, the man who had been described by his mate as being, "very homely but very good," joined her in the ultimate simplicity of death. History would acknowledge that intelligence, integrity and honesty create lasting memorials. Margarita Maza de Juarez is an outstanding example of these qualities. Bobette Gugliotta is the author of numerous books, ranging from Women of Mexico to Pigboat 39: An American Sub Goes to War.
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Title Annotation:Margarita Maza de Juarez
Author:Gugliotta, Bobette
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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