Meet Benito Juárez - Chicago History Museum
Meet Benito Juárez
The early years
From his humble childhood to the presidency
of Mexico, the story of Benito Juárez (1806–72)
is legendary. Born on March 21, 1806, Juárez
was raised in a small Zapotec village in the rural
state of Oaxaca. At age twelve, he left home for
Oaxaca City, where he studied with a Franciscan
Friar. Juárez graduated from the seminary but
chose to pursue law instead. He won election to
the Oaxaca City town council in 1831 and later
served as a federal judge. In 1843, he married
Margarita Maza, the daughter of a wealthy
Oaxacan family, which enhanced his local status.
His political views were profoundly influenced
by the ideals of the European Enlightenment,
particularly principles of human rights, equality,
the rule of law, and self-government.
• Benito Juárez, 1968
Painted by Jorge Gonzalez Camarena
Oil on canvas
The U.S.–Mexican War leads to revolt
and exile for Juárez
English Language Arts
In 1847, Juárez was appointed governor of
Oaxaca. He established a reputation for honesty
and efficiency, but his liberal views were at
odds with the ruling Conservative Party. During
the U.S.–Mexican War (1846–48), Governor
Juárez refused to provide a safe haven for
General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the
corrupt, dictatorial Mexican president. Santa
Anna eventually lost the war and signed a
controversial peace treaty that ceded a vast
amount of Mexican territory to the United
States. In 1853, he arrested Juárez and other
• Analysis worksheet
Copies of these materials are provided at the end of the lesson.
The portrait of Benito Juárez is used with the permission of
Museo Nacional de Historia, Castillo de Chapultepec, Consejo
Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Instituto Nacional de
Antropología e Historia.
The exhibition Benito Juárez and the Making of Modern Mexico
is co-curated by the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Goal 3: Write to communicate for a variety of purposes.
Goal 4: Listen and speak effectively in a variety of situations.
Goal 5: Use the language arts to acquire, assess, and
Goal 16: Understand events, trends, individuals, and
movements shaping the history of Illinois, the United States,
and other nations.
The background information continues on page 2.
Educational programs for the Lincoln Bicentennial are generously supported by JPMorgan Chase Foundation and the Guild of the Chicago Historical Society.
Meet Benito Juárez
BACKGROUND INFORMATION (continued)
liberals and sent them into exile. Juárez spent his time in exile in Cuba and New Orleans, planning
to overthrow Santa Anna. In 1855, Juárez and his supporters snuck back into Mexico and started a
revolt. Within a month, Santa Anna lost his supporters and fled Mexico.
Juárez becomes president during the War of the Reform
After ousting Santa Anna, the Liberals worked quickly to install a new president, Ignacio Comonfort,
and draft a new constitution. As secretary of justice, Juárez played a leading role in writing the
constitution, which separated church and state and established equality before the law. Completed
in 1857, the revolutionary document was met with much resistance. Mexico soon divided into two
opposing governments—the Liberals and the Conservatives—and a bitter three-year conflict, known
as the War of the Reform, ensued. When Comonfort resigned in November 1857, Juárez assumed
the presidency. With the Conservatives holding Mexico City, Juárez became a mobile president,
governing from a small, horse-drawn carriage as he traveled throughout the country. Juárez
ultimately led the Liberals to victory.
War continues during the French Intervention
The War of the Reform left Mexico deeply in debt to its European creditors, particularly France.
After the war ended, France tried to collect the money it was owed. Mexico could not pay its debt,
so Napoleon III installed his own monarchs in Mexico City in 1862. Conservatives supported the
new monarchy as a way to defeat the Liberals. Juárez and his supporters refused to accept French
occupation and remained in the countryside, building their resistance efforts. After a series of military
defeats and growing problems at home, Napoleon withdrew his forces in 1867.
President Juárez in Mexico City
With the French in retreat, Juárez finally took his rightful place as president in Mexico City. He
began to implement a set of liberal policies that established the rule of law and eliminated special
privileges for the clergy and military. These and other reforms, collectively known as La Reforma,
had revolutionary consequences for all Mexicans and solidified the country’s transformation into a
modern nation. Although he was regarded as a hero for his victory over the French, Juárez’s final
years in office were not trouble-free. He faced growing criticism from fellow Liberals, largely due to
his consolidation of power, a direct contradiction of republican ideals.
Juárez’s enduring legacy
Juárez died in office in 1872 and immediately came to symbolize the Republic. Even his opponents
quickly aligned themselves with his ideals and accomplishments. His name and image are frequently
seen in Mexico, where he is considered a national hero, and found in Mexican communities
throughout the United States. With approximately 1.3 million individuals of Mexican descent living in
the Chicago metropolitan area, it is no surprise to find a Chicago Public High School named after him,
a statue honoring him on Michigan Avenue, and his likeness painted on murals throughout the city.
Meet Benito Juárez
PRIMARY SOURCE: DESCRIPTION AND SUGGESTED ANALYSIS QUESTIONS
Use the worksheet (provided at the end of the lesson) to introduce your students to the portrait of Juárez.
The questions below are provided for a more in-depth analysis.
Portrait of Benito Juárez, 1968
Artist Jorge Gonzalez Camarena (1908–80)
is well known for his romantic and patriotic
depictions of Mexican history and cultural
allegories. Camarena and other muralists
portrayed idealistic visions of ancient indigenous
life and working-class people that greatly
influenced the way Mexican society understood
its past. This painting shows Juárez as a dignified
and powerful indigenous leader of the Republic.
It includes many of the emblematic symbols
associated with his life, such as:
The papers in Juárez’s right hand represent the La
Reforma, the reform laws he helped establish in Mexico.
The shape of the papers is echoed in the flag, represented
in a sort of tower shape, behind Juárez.
The tips of swords and spears that appear in various
parts of the painting are references to battles and the
continuous fight for justice to which Juárez devoted
In his left hand, Juárez holds the 1857 constitution, which
is considered his greatest achievement and almost always
appears in representations of him or his life.
The suit and bow tie Juárez wears are symbols of his role
as a citizen carrying out his duty for the Republic. Unlike
his predecessors and many of his opponents, Juárez never
wore a military uniform or royal clothing.
The architectural elements at the bottom of the painting
represent the people and the society of Mexico; the
towns, villages, and cities from north to south.
Suggested analysis questions
Discuss the symbols of the portrait. If students were
painting this portrait, what other ways might they
represent these ideas and events?
Imagine this painting hanging on a wall. What caption
should appear beneath it?
Meet Benito Juárez
SUGGESTED INSTRUCTIONAL STRATEGY
Adapt the activity to meet the needs of your students. Feel free to duplicate these materials and
share them with other educators.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
This activity is best completed over two class periods.
Day 1: Using the background information, introduce students to Benito Juárez. Distribute copies of
the portrait and the analysis worksheet. If needed, explain that a portrait is a likeness of a person,
especially one showing the face, created by a painter or a photographer. Allow time to complete
the worksheet as individuals or in small groups. Afterward, discuss the portrait and what it reveals
about Juárez. Ask students to make a list of words and descriptive phrases that they associate with
Juárez’s beliefs and career.
Day 2: Challenge students to create their own Juárez portrait, depicting him at one period (or role)
in his life and expressing the qualities from the list made on Day 1. Assign (or have students choose)
the period or role of Juárez’s life to depict. Draw on the background information as well as the details
below to create portraits.
Life in exile/planning revolt: While in exile in New Orleans, Juárez enjoyed fishing and worked in
a cigar factory to earn a living.
Mobile president: Juárez governed from his carriage during the civil war and the French
Intervention. During this time, Juárez’s government hid Mexico’s national archives in a cave in
Durango. Juárez carried a small portrait of his wife with him during the many years he spent
governing on the run.
Family man: Juárez and his wife, Margarita Maza, had three daughters: Manuela, Felícitas,
and María de Jesús. Unlike Mexican leaders before him, President Juárez refused to take
up residence in the lavish Chapultepec Castle. His notions of civil service to the Republic
led him and his family to take up residence in the far more modest living quarters within
the National Palace.
Legend: In 1906, the Mexican government marked the 100th anniversary of Juárez’s birth by
issuing commemorative coins and publications. The centennial provided inspiration for many
artistic tributes throughout the country. Today, Juárez is widely regarded as a national hero.
Alternative strategy: Instead of drawing portraits, students can create living portraits, where they
pose as Juárez. Their portraits (whether drawn or posed) should include props and symbols that best
express Juárez during that time of his life.
Meet Benito Juárez
Option 1: Portraits are created to communicate without words. In your opinion, are pictures,
specifically portraits, “worth a thousand words”? Why or why not?
Option 2: If you could meet Juárez, what three questions would you ask him? Why did you choose
LISTENING TO HISTORY
Road to Reform history soundscape
Available at http://www.chicagohistory.org/lincolnjuarezaudio
This short audio file suggests the conflict and warfare that marked Juárez’s career and that kept him
on the move as a mobile president for many years. You may play the soundscape at the start of the
lesson to set the mood or prior to journal writing to inspire students’ entries.
Challenge students to represent themselves in a portrait. As they plan their portraits, remind them to
consider setting, dress, personal belongings, and other props to express their personality, interests,
and other information they want to convey to viewers. Portraits can be drawn or students can use
cameras to take one another’s photographs.
Benito Juárez, 1968
Painted by Jorge Gonzalez Camarena (oil on canvas)
Reproduced with the permission of Museo Nacional de Historia, Castillo de Chapultepec, Consejo
Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.
Meet Benito Juárez
1. Describe the source you are analyzing. What is it? When and where was it produced and by whom?
2. Examine it closely. What do you discover? List its powerful qualities, including colors, objects,
figures, or words.
3. What message(s) is this source promoting? How?
4. Who is the intended audience?
5. What does this source tell you about life in Mexico?
6. On a scale of 1 to 10, rank the truth or accuracy of this source (1 is not reliable, 10 is very reliable).
Explain your rank.