Benito Juárez was born in the small Zapotec Indian village of San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, Mexico, on March 21, 1806. His parents, who were poor peasants, died when he was three years old. Juárez then lived with his grandparents and later with an uncle. He worked with his uncle until he was thirteen. Then he walked forty miles to the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, to move in with his sister.At the time he could not yet speak Spanish (he spoke the language used in the Oaxaca tribe).
In Oaxaca, Juárez worked with Don Antonio Salanueva, a bookbinder, who basically adopted him. Helped by Salanueva and a local teacher, Juárez eventually learned to read and write. In 1827 he graduated from the Seminary of Santa Cruz, but later changed career paths and decided to study law. In 1831 hequalified to enter a local law office, but as the legal profession was already overcrowded, he began a second career as an antiestablishment Liberal politician with goals to change the Mexican government.
In 1831 Juárez entered politics as an official on the Oaxacan town council. In 1835 the city elected him as a Liberal deputy to the federal legislature. He carried forward his legal career, oftenserving as a representative of the severely poor Indian communities in their struggles to protect their landholdings. Honest and intelligent, he became one of Oaxaca's leading lawyers.
By this time, Mexico seemed on the verge of total collapse. Thirty years of violence had left the treasury bankrupt, communications disrupted, and the population unconfident. Two factions (rival groups creatingconflict), defining themselves as Conservatives and Liberals, constantly fought to control Mexico. The Conservatives, represented large landholders, the Church, the army, and the large cities. The Liberals, who represented small merchants, some intellectuals, political leaders in rural areas, and the small ranchers of the west and south, wanted to modernize Mexico.
During the Conservative dominationof Mexico between 1836 and 1846, Juárez largely avoided elective office but often accepted professional and political appointments from the Conservative state authorities. In 1841 the state government appointed him a federal court judge, a post in which he served with excellence. His local standing had increased through his marriage to Margarita Mazza, the daughter of one of Oaxaca's wealthiestfamilies.
In 1846 the Liberal party, led by former president Valentín Gómez Farías, took power throughout Mexico and Juárez returned to the Liberal faction. In 1847 and 1848, during Mexico's war with the United States over land in America's Southwest, he became Oaxaca's acting governor and then elected governor.
Juárez reduced corruption and built roads, public buildings, and schools. Hereorganized the state national guard, and when he left office in 1852, the economy of Oaxaca was in good standing. His state government became renowned throughout Mexico for its honesty, public spirit, and constructiveness. He also served as a lawyer, often helping the poor.
In 1853 the Conservative party, led by the brilliant Lucas Alamán (1792–1853), seized power by a barracks coup, or hostile takeover.One of the revolt's leaders was Antonio López de Santa Ana (1794–1876), the corrupt general who had frequently dominated Mexico during the previous twenty years. Seeking to strengthen his power, Santa Ana immediately exiled (forced to leave) the leaders of the Liberal party, including Juárez.
In Mexico, Santa Ana had run the country into further bankruptcy (complete financial ruin). Liberalslaunched a revolt and Santa Ana's government collapsed with little fighting. The Liberals again assumed power with Juan Álvarez as president. But the voluntary retirement of Álvarez in 1857 ended the Liberal hopes for a peaceful transformation of Mexico. The following period, known as the Three Year War (1857–60), proved to be one of the most bloody and wasteful in Mexican history.