Amid Talk of a Wall, Mexico’s Icon of Resistance in DC Turns 50

Amidst a prolonged U.S. government shutdown and the raging debate about the merits of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, a former Mexican statesman looks out on the heated political rhetoric with a mix of bemusement and nostalgia. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the dedication ceremony for the statue of Benito Juárez, the former president of Mexico and anti-imperialist icon, who overlooks an intersection a few blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C.

On January 7, 1969, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Mexico’s Foreign Minister Antonio Carillo Flores to dedicate the statue, which was described as a gift by the people of Mexico to the American people. Since that date, the figure of Benito Juárez has stood at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and Virginia Avenue in Northwest Washington, a little-noticed Mexican symbol nestled among such venues at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Watergate Hotel, and just a short walk from the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of the U.S. State Department.

The Benito Juárez statue was intended in part as a show of reciprocity, following the 1966 visit by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to Mexico City to dedicate a statue of President Abraham Lincoln that was presented by the United States to Mexico. In August 1968, the U.S. Senate responded by approving the placement of the Juárez statue in Washington. As the Washington Post recently recounted, the tough part was not the politics of honoring an anti-imperialist Mexican hero in the U.S. capital, but rather the logistics of transporting the 20-foot, 3,600 pound statue from Mexico City to Washington, D.C. The truck ride from Mexico City to Laredo, Texas, followed by a rail car ride to Washington, left the former president with a broken right arm and and damaged legs that a local repair shop was hired to repair before the dedication ceremony.

During the five years that I worked at the U.S. State Department on Latin American affairs, Benito Juárez was the first figure to greet me as I turned left off of Rock Creek Parkway onto Virginia Avenue on my morning commute to work. On my way home in the evenings, I would often wait opposite his outstretched hand as I stopped for pedestrians who were crossing the roundabout. I never thought of that intersection as “Juárez Circle,” and in fact traveled past his likeness for many months before figuring out that the statue represented one of Mexico’s foremost leaders. However, as someone who had previously lived in Mexico, with many Mexican friends and regular engagement on Mexican affairs, I was delighted when I did find out that the striking statue that I saw at least twice a day was Benito Juárez.

Born in 1806 to a poor, indigenous family in the rural Mexican state of Oaxaca (pronounced “wa-HAW-kah”), Benito Juárez lived through extraordinary times. Trained as a lawyer and gifted with a sharp intellect that enabled his upward mobility, by 1858 he was the head justice of Mexico’s Supreme Court, when the resignation of the sitting president elevated him to the presidency. Juárez served as president of Mexico from 1858 until his death in 1872. He endured the three year civil war known as the “War of Reform,” followed by the invasion of Mexico by Emperor Napoleon III of France from 1861 to 1867, prompted by Juárez’s decision to impose a two-year moratorium on loan interest payments to European powers owed for bridges, ports, and mines. (Note: This could be described as an early effort by foreign powers to build infrastructure to serve their ends, and then get Mexico to pay for it!) The initial defeat of the French Army in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 (now commemorated by the Cinco de Mayo holiday), was followed by the difficult but ultimate triumph of the Mexican Army, resulting in the expulsion of France and the court martial and execution of the French-imposed Emperor Maximilian I on June 19, 1867. Juárez ruled throughout that time, including several years in internal exile. He was handily re-elected in 1871, in defiance of constitutional term limits (a decision that foreshadowed Mexico’s later installation of a single six-year presidential term, without exceptions). Juárez died suddenly of a heart attack the following year, at the age of 66. In Mexico, he is fondly remembered as a symbol of both the country’s indigenous roots as well as its steadfast resistance to foreign intervention.

The statue of Benito Juárez in Washington has soil from his native land of Oaxaca embedded in its foundation. One of his best known quotes from his legendary life is “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.” The quote is carved at the base of the statue in abbreviated form as “Respect for the rights of others is peace.” The words are hard to see when driving by, but they are impossible to miss when passing the statue on foot. The phrase is carved not only in English, but in Spanish too: “El respecto al derecho ajeno es la paz.”

As the political tug-of-war over the U.S.-Mexico border wall continues to rage in Washington, those are still words to listen to and understand.

So, on January 7, 2019, I would like to wish a very happy 50th Birthday to Washington, D.C.’s statue of Mexican President Benito Juárez.

Or, better yet, “¡Feliz cumpleaños!”