Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Gracia Molina de Pick Speaks on Benito Juárez

Local Activist’s Grandfather Was Mexican Hero’s Biographer


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Gracia Molina de Pick, Ricardo Griswold del Castillo

The San Diego Humanist Association’s program for June 17 at the San Diego Public Library — a discussion of the career of Benito Juárez (1806-1872), the Mexican president often referred to as “Mexico’s Lincoln” because they were contemporaries and he also led his country’s legitimate government in a civil war — was livened up by one of the speakers, Gracia Molina de Pick. A veteran activist in her own right both in Mexico and the U.S., Molina de Pick was also the granddaughter of Andrés Molina Enríquez, who lived in Mexico in the early 20th century and wrote the first sympathetic biography of Juárez in Spanish, a book she has recently reissued. Throughout her talk, Molina de Pick made clear that her grandfather’s example — including his direct involvement in the 1910 Mexican revolution — has fired her own career as an activist, from working to get Mexican women the vote to her involvement in the Democratic Party and the Chicano rights movement since she moved to the U.S. in the 1950’s.

Molina de Pick described her grandfather as a man with a mission: “restoring the figure of Juárez during the 35-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.” Ironically, Díaz had served as a general in Juárez’s army and had been instrumental in its military victories against both the Mexican conservatives who had fought Juárez’s liberal government in a civil war, and against the French, who had invaded Mexico in 1862 and attempted to install a puppet government under the rule of the Austrian Prince Maximilian. After the war was won, however, he became a political opponent of Juárez, and in 1876 — four years after Juárez’s death — he won his own civil war against Juárez’s successor, Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada. Molina de Pick described how Díaz’s victory “eroded” the reformist ideals of Juárez — and the direct role her grandfather played in the revolution that finally brought Díaz down in 1910.

In addition to his Juárez biography — which Molina de Pick has reissued in Spanish and is seeking a translator to bring out a version in English — Andrés Molina Enríquez also published a two-volume book in 1909 called Los Grandes Problemas Nacionales. Historian Lesley Byrd Simpson called this book “a terrifying exposure of the whole hypocritical, stifling miasma of [Díaz’s] despotism.” But Molina’s book wasn’t just a muckraking exposé of the abuses of Díaz’s government; it also included valuable information on Mexican culture, including the first attempt to document the surviving indigenous languages from Mexico’s pre-Columbian past. Molina de Pick pointed out that Juárez himself was a full-blooded Zapotec from a small village in Oaxaca, and he grew up speaking the Zapotecs’ traditional language and didn’t learn Spanish until he went to school as a boy.

“Mexico suffered terribly from the time Juárez was born in 1806 to 1857,” when the liberal party of which Juárez was a member gained power, Molina de Pick said. When Juárez was born, Mexico was still “New Spain,” a Spanish colony, and its fight for independence lasted 11 years, from Miguel de Hidalgo’s revolution in 1810 to 1821. “Hidalgo proclaimed that Mexico abolished slavery in 1810, before the European ‘enlightened’ people decided that it was a crime against humanity,” she said (though actually Great Britain had abolished slavery in 1808). Unfortunately, Molina de Pick explained, instead of a unified government Mexico’s war of independence produced “wars between people, each of whom wanted to be the one ruler.” The worst moment of Mexican history came in 1848, when — largely due to infighting within the Mexican government that prevented it from offering a unified resistance — the U.S. conquered and annexed more than half of Mexico, which became the U.S. states of California, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

As Molina de Pick pointed out, those ongoing civil wars included a major player: the Roman Catholic Church. Under Spanish law, the Catholic religion had been the only one allowed in Mexico, and the Catholic leaders — most of whom weren’t Mexicans — backed the conservative side in the civil wars to make sure it stayed that way. Juárez ran up against the power of the church early on; he was educated in its schools because that was the only way a poor indigenous Mexican boy could get an education, but he quit in disgust when he found that Mexicans, especially indigenous ones, would never be allowed to rise above the lowest levels in the church hierarchy. Juárez also decided that Mexico could only prosper as a nation if it ended class distinctions between those of Spanish and those of indigenous descent, and embraced its destiny as a mestizo — mixed-race — nation.

“Somewhere in his studies Juárez decided he wanted to help Mexico become a modern nation and build its loyalty and citizenry from the mestizos,” Molina de Pick explained. “He knew that the indigenous people could not go back to ruling the country outright, but by aiming at a political life step by step, he became an elected president. He realized that the people who had been bleeding the country dry were not the real Mexicans; the real Mexicans were the mestizos, and that’s also true of all Latin American countries with an important indigenous culture.”

Molina de Pick’s co-presenter, history professor Ricardo Griswold del Castillo, explained La Reforma, the anti-clerical reform movement Juárez joined and eventually led. “La Reforma was a time when Mexico and Juárez created ideals in the Constitution of 1857, including separation of church and state, secular education and developing a capitalist economy to take Mexico out of the Middle Ages. Juárez wasn’t alone; he was part of a movement to make Mexico a modern nation. There were factions in his group, and he tried to reach a consensus. But he was fighting a war, first a civil war with the church and its conservative political supporters, and then a war with the French. So it wasn’t possible to carry out the reforms during the war” — and, he added, after the war infighting between the members of Juárez’s party created further complications, especially over the direction of the economy.

Asked how Juárez became anti-clerical despite his church-sponsored education, Molina de Pick explained, “The indigenous people had been marginalized and got no help from the church. Every town had an indigenous name and a Catholic name, and the only time the church acknowledged the indigenous villages was once a year, when they sent a friar — the lowest person in the hierarchy — to each town with the blessings of the bishop and the archbishop. Juárez shared in the values of his indigenous community, which included consensus and helping the poor. The church made people pay to be priests or nuns, and always kept an alliance with Europe and the European populations in Mexico. No one in any of the higher echelons of the church were Mexicans.”

Juárez and his government fought the church, and the church fought back. One of the first laws passed under Mexico’s liberal government in the 1850’s was the Ley Juárez, which made church and military leaders accountable to the civil justice system instead of their own private courts. Another was the Ley Lerdo, which was intended to break up the church’s enormous landholdings — and which, like the recent privatization of state-owned property in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, had the unintended consequence of building up the holdings of exploitative private individuals and creating a class of economic oligarchs. Juárez’s constitution of 1857 also proclaimed the separation of church and state, set up a secular education system, and provided that the only marriages which would be considered valid would be those performed by the government. If you wanted a church ceremony, you could still have one, but it was the government registry, not the minister, that conferred mutual rights and responsibility upon a married couple. (Molina de Pick suggested that U.S. Queers should be demanding this reform here, so ministers could no longer claim that they would be forced to violate their religious beliefs by having to marry same-sex couples.)

The church fought back, not only in Mexico but in Europe as well. The reigning pope of Juárez’s time, Pius IX, not only formally excommunicated Juárez and every leader of his party from the church, he issued an extraordinary document which claimed the power to invalidate the Mexican constitution of 1857 because it granted separation of church and state and refused to ban all other religions. “For the purpose of more easily corrupting manners and propagating the detestable pest of indifferentism and tearing souls away from the Most Holy Religion, it allows the free exercise of all cults and admits the right of pronouncing in public every kind of thought and opinion,” the pope wrote. “We raise our Pontifical voice in apostolic liberty … to condemn, to reprove, and declare null and void the said decrees and everything else that the civil authority has done in scorn of ecclesiastical authority and this Holy See.” In response to the Italian independence movement led by Giuseppe Garibaldi — who sent a congratulatory telegram when Juárez’s army defeated the French at Puebla on May 5, 1862 (the origin of the Cinco de Mayo holiday) — Pius IX had also issued an encyclical declaring democracy itself to be un-Christian.

What’s more, Molina de Pick said, the conflicts between the church and the Mexican government in Juárez’s time have persisted to the present. While she didn’t make the obvious parallel between the betrayal of Juárez’s ideals under Díaz and the actions of Mexican presidents in the 1980’s and 1990’s of opening the country to foreign investment and economic servitude through the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), she did note that Mexico’s two most recent presidents, Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, were elected from the National Action Party (PAN). This party started in the 1940’s as an outgrowth of the violent counter-revolution of the 1920’s and 1930’s, in which supporters of the Roman Catholic church, called Cristeros, took on the post-1910 government which had adopted and strengthened the anti-clerical laws of Juárez’s time.

“Mexico has gone backwards with the last two Presidents,” Molina de Pick said. One way in which they have done that is that, for the first time since the 1910 revolution, Mexico has accepted a diplomatic representative from the Vatican — something the U.S. also refused to do until the 1980’s, when Ronald Reagan ordered that the U.S. accept a Vatican ambassador and thereby endorse the church’s claim to be a sovereign nation. “Under the new president, a new archbishop was sent to Mexico — a Spaniard — and the day before Congress was supposed to vote on a law legalizing abortion nationwide, the pope sent a message saying Mexico was going to the dogs, no Catholic legislator should vote for it, and anyone who did would be excommunicated.”

According to Molina de Pick, the latest attempt by a church hierarchy and a pope to interfere in Mexican politics backfired big-time. Usually, she explained, the remnants of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which formed in the wake of the 1910 revolution and ruled Mexico continuously until losing the presidency in 2000, vote in the Mexican legislature with the PAN against the more progressive Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Not this time, Molina de Pick said; “I think some of Juárez’s spirit got back to the PRI representatives, and they voted to decriminalize abortion throughout the country. In my opinion, that was a vote of protest against the influence of the archbishop and the pope.”