- Historic Sites
The Emergence Of Modern Mexico
The period between Mexican independence and the constitution of 1917 was turbulent and painful
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
Between 1821 and 1861, while fifty-six different governments came and went, daily life in Mexican towns preserved its unique blend of European and Indian ways. The handsome display of foods in the market stall at right is in the traditional Indian style that can still be seen and admired by visitors to Mexico. The three pictures at left were painted by Augustín Arrieta. In 1839 Fanny Calderón de la Barca, the Scottish wife of the first Spanish ambassador to Mexico, described a scene like the one in the bottom painting: “Street cries begin in Mexico at dawn and continue till night. At midday the beggars begin to be particularly importunate, and their cries, and prayers, and long recitations, form a running accompaniment to the other noises. Then above all rises the cry of ‘Honey cakes! Cheese and honey!’ Tortillas, which are the common food of the people and which are merely maize cakes mixed with a little lime, and of the form and size of what we call scones, I find rather good when very hot and fresh-baked, but insipid by themselves. They are considered particularly palatable with chile, to endure which in the quantities in which it is eaten here, it seems to me necessary to have a throat lined with tin.” In an upper-class store (left top) girls sell candy and horchata , a Spanish soft drink made from almonds and fruit juice. The common drink of the lower classes was and still is pulque, which is consumed in rowdy drinking houses called puiquerías (left center). The traditional alcoholic drink of the Aztecs, pulque is made by fermenting juice from the maguey cactus. Unlike its sophisticated stepdaughter, tequila, it has a heavy flavor resembling sour milk. Pulque does not keep well, and good puiquerías pride themselves on its freshness.
Colonial priests taught the Indians not only the rudiments of Christianity but also European architecture and decorative arts; Mexico in time came to rival Spain in the magnificence of its churches. Church festivals were enthusiastically absorbed into the popular culture, and if the people had only a superficial understanding of religious doctrine, they made up for it by the devotion and earnestness they displayed in the great religious celebrations. All was not peace within the Church, however. In stern opposition to priests like Hidalgo and Morelos, who fought for independence and reform, stood conservative prelates who supported the colonial government. Even after independence, the Church was still closely tied to the government —its tithes were collected by the State. In the economy it was the largest landowner, its revenues in the first decades of independence being five times those of the federal government. It was also, in a sense, a state within the State, since people connected with the Church enjoyed immunity from national law. Inevitably, the Church came under attack. It was responsible for education; but even in Mexico City ninety-five per cent of the people were illiterate. Many rural parishes were badly neglected in every respect. Working men were asked the equivalent of five months’ pay for a wedding or funeral. That such conditions prevailed despite the Church’s great wealth galled the liberals. Stimulated by similar attacks in Europe, they put the blame for all social ills on the clergy. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Church question was heating up, and the two extremes were moving further apart, hardening their positions and blotting out all possibility for compromise.
The handsomest, best-known avenue in Mexico City is the Paseo de la Reforma, which commemorates the reform constitution of 1857. The best-known, most respected leader in Mexican history is Benito Juárez, whose views inspired the reform and whose leadership made the new constitution stick. He was typical of the wave of liberal revolutionary reformers who swept out Santa Anna in 1855. A Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, Juárez became Minister of Justice, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and finally, in 1858, President of the Republic. The reforms forced the Church to give up most of its lands, secularized education, and legalized civil marriages. The jurisdiction of religious and military courts was restricted, giving all citizens equality before the law. The conservatives counterattacked with civil war, 1858–60; but they were defeated by Juárez’ forces. Desperate, the conservatives sought the intervention of Napoleon III, who was only too glad to oblige. After an eighteen-month fight, his troops entered Mexico City in 1863 and installed Maximilian of Austria as emperor, forcing Juárez into exile. In 1866, however, needing his troops in Europe and facing American hostility, Napoleon withdrew. The following year, Juárez returned, Maximilian was executed, and the constitution was restored. Juárez was reelected President in 1867 and 1871, but he died suddenly in 1872. Although he did not live to see the Mexico he dreamed of, his fame and influence, like Lincoln’s, grew after his death. Many of his sayings have become household expressions. One of the most typical and frequently quoted is: “Respect for the rights of others is peace.”