Streets of Mexico – January 2024

La Reforma

The liberal Constitution of 1857 defined The Reform, a tumultuous two-decade period (yet another one!) between the fall of Santa Anna and the rise of Porfirio Díaz. Melchor Ocampo was its philosophical architect, Ignacio Zaragoza and Ramon Corona its military defenders, and Benito Juárez its political leader.

In 1854, Mexican liberals overthrew Santa Anna in the Revolution of Ayutla, enacted a new constitution, and thus attempted to transform the culture, economy, and government of their long-suffering country. (Approximately 300,000 Mexicans had died in the myriad conflicts and coups since independence; and the nation was bankrupt.) Their main target was the privileged, powerful, extremely wealthy and, not surprisingly, conservative oligarchy composed primarily of the military and the Church. They endeavored to modernize Mexico by breaking up and privatizing Church lands (more than half the country!), latifundios (vast estates) and communal Native farms, ejidos. Meanwhile, they’d separate church and state, secularize and extend education, expand the national infrastructure, especially railroads; and thus finally enable México to take its rightful place among the great nations of the world.

The conservatives would have none of it. Required to swear allegiance to the new constitution, they rose up in counterrevolution instead, but ultimately lost the bloody, three-year War of Reform. Undaunted, they aided the French in installing a European royal as king. (Conservatives had never given up the hope of establishing a Mexican monarchy, the only antidote, they believed, to the chaos liberals had wrought. In fact, there had been 50 governments during the 30 years since independence.)

General Zaragoza briefly delayed the French at Puebla (Cinco de Mayo), but President Juárez still had to flee and govern in exile while Maximilian took the Mexican throne.

Maximilian—well-meaning but naive—soon lost everyone’s support. The conservatives recognized too late his liberal, democratic leanings, the United States dramatically increased its support for Juárez after the U.S. Civil War, and the French subsequently removed their troops. Maximilian was done for.

After winning this second war for Mexican independence, Juárez redoubled his efforts to enforce the liberal Constitution of 1857. However, its land reform, for example, implemented haphazardly, succeeded only in concentrating land ownership into even fewer hands (which eventually did much to spark the Mexican Revolution a half-century later). Juárez also consolidated power in his centralized government and his political  party; which, after his death, led to Diaz’s coup and The Porfiriato: 35 years of dictatorship.

Mexicans celebrate La Reforma, nonetheless. Indeed, they named the most beautiful avenue in Mexico City after it.

But, they’re still longing to achieve it.

[Ed. Note: This is a selection from Dave’s recently published book, Mexican Streets: Tales of Tragedy and Triumph.]


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David Ellison
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