In my 20 years as a resident of Washington, D.C., I have visited a lot of dead white generals sitting on horses. Outdoor monuments dedicated to our war heroes dot the nation’s capital city. You can’t miss them.
They are usually in prime locations near Pennsylvania Avenue around the White House and U.S. Capitol building or in the heart of the city along the famous pedestrian mall that boasts some of the world’s greatest art and history museums as part of the Smithsonian Institution. Prime real estate. A tourist mecca.
Only pigeons might love outdoor monuments more than I do. And none impress me more than the statue of Mexico’s most celebrated president Benito Juarez, sans caballo. He stands near a nest of highways in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Off the beaten path, in front of the Watergate Hotel and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Not a bad location, but probably overlooked by most tourists and pigeons.
Benito Juarez: Mexico’s George Washington
I wonder how many Watergate residents and Kennedy Center theater-goers who drive past the statue will acknowledge Benito Juarez’s birthday. He was born on March 21, 1806. I usually visit the statue around this time as homage to the full-blooded Zapotec Indian who was born to illiterate parents in an Oaxacan village. Taught to read and write by a Catholic priest, he became a lawyer and a judge who helped draft the Mexican constitution.
The statue was a gift in 1969 from the Mexican government in exchange for a portrait statue of Abraham Lincoln that was presented to Mexico in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson. Often called the “George Washington of Mexico,” Juarez is positioned so he is pointing to the bust of Washington that sits on the campus of nearby George Washington University.
When I stare up at the full-length bronze figure, I half expect it to step off its granite base and talk to me. Artist Enrique Alciati created the realistic rendition in 1891. It was recast in 1968. While the statue’s right arm is raised and pointing, the left hand holds a book titled Reforma. Within the base is an urn containing soil from Oaxaca. Plaques contain both Spanish and English inscriptions of a famous Benito Juarez quote: “Respect for the rights of others is peace.”
Juarez’s right arm is pointing so assuredly I expect a taxi to stop any moment and take us touring. I wonder if he was into magical realism, as were so many great Latin American novelists. He wasn’t one for staying put, statuesque. In 1853, he fled to New Orleans to escape the corrupt military dictatorship of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The next year he helped draft the Plan of Ayutla, a document calling for Santa Anna’s deposition and a convention to implement a new constitution. It took. People responded.
Juarez modeled Mexico’s government after U.S.
In 1861, Benito Juarez was elected as Mexico’s 27th president. He befriended Abraham Lincoln, who gave him advice on establishing a democracy. Throughout his tenure, Juarez tried to create a modern civil society and capitalist economy based on the U.S. model. He is revered as a reformer dedicated to democracy and equal rights for the nation’s indigenous Indian population, lessening the power of the Roman Catholic Church, and defense of national sovereignty. Juarez was re-elected president in 1867 and 1871.
In addition to D.C., the United States has statues of Juarez along Sixth Avenue in New York City’s Bryant Park, at the Plaza de las Américas on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago and on Basin Street in New Orleans, where he worked at a cigar factory while in exile. He died of a heart attack in 1872 in Mexico City. The date March 21 has become a national holiday in Mexico and a day for some of us to reflect on a hero who does not need a horse to accent his outdoor monument.
You can see Benito Juarez’s Washington D.C. monument in this video on his life.
Benito Juarez’s story
John Rosales, a native of San Antonio, Texas, lives in Washington, D.C. Contact him at JRosales@nea.org
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