Ed’s note: The following is excerpted from a talk given at Cooper Union earlier this year. Benito Juárez (1806-1872) served two terms as president of Mexico (1861-63 and 1867-1872) and is considered the hero of Mexican independence.
Benito Juárez was never in New York, but while he was alive he knew how to make his presence felt in the city, always in defense of the cause he was called upon to defend. Here outside Cooper Union, if you take away the cars and the few pedestrians that come out early in the morning, some of these streets look nearly the same as they did during those difficult, highly charged years for Mexico between 1864 and 1867. It was here on these streets that many of Mexico’s illustrious citizens lived, defending the republican cause against the French Invasion and the so-called Empire of Maximilian of Habsburg. The hours pass and the streets begin to fill with the sounds of Spanish, spoken by the numerous Mexicans who now form a considerable part of the New York City population, although in the years 1864-1867 the Lower East Side was mostly occupied by Germans and the Irish.
Though the nation was enduring the Civil War, New York City itself was nonetheless viewed as a safe haven by Mexican liberals. After the fall of Puebla into French hands, many Republican officials were able to escape to what people throughout the world were calling the great Imperial City. There they established the Mexican Club of New York, formally inaugurated on October 16, 1864 under the presidency of Benito Quijano, after whose death in 1865 the presidency passed into the hands of Francisco Zacro. José Rivera y Río, one of the Club’s members, observed the generosity of a city that although it had received all manner of rogues, all of whom put down roots, “in return New York had seen its streets and its theaters fill with the world’s most illustrious outlaws: the pompous reception of Lafayette in 1824; the refuge it gave to Kossuth and the Hungarian patriots of 1851, to the Spanish of 1830, to Garibaldi and his companions, to the Mexicans who were deported or went into exile in 1864, followed months later by the Polish, and then, finally, to every man who ever formed a part of the revolutionary storm waiting for better days to come on the shores of the Hudson, whose melancholy mists gave rise to our best canticles.”
New York City had gradually become the most important commercial center in the country, but it was also the showplace for the achievements and the splendors of a materialist civilization. Little by little, New York’s tourists had to admit it was here, too, that the country’s cultural achievements were gathered. The Appleton travel guide, which Guillermo Prieto used for his exploration of New York in 1877, affirmed that New York, together with London and Paris, completed the trilogy of the world’s great capitals.
The most notorious figure of the exiled Mexicans was, of course, Margartia Maza de Juárez. As the French Invasion gathered speed and took control of strategic points throughout Mexico, the republican government feared the family of the constitutionally-elected president Juárez could be kidnapped with the intention of making him abandon the resistance. They decided, therefore, it would be wise to send Juárez’s wife and family to the United States, particularly to New York City. The Juárez family’s time in New York City is commemorated by a plaque on the building that is now 208 13th Street, in the East Village, and it marks the very place where Juarez’s family lived from their arrival in 1864 until 1866. Next to this very building is another plaque dedicated to another woman who was born shortly after the death of Señora Juárez—namely Emma Goldman. She too was indomitable and resolved and, for the Mexican president’s wife, it is very good company indeed.
The neighborhood where the Juárez family lived was both crowded and friendly since it was mainly inhabited by the Irish who had arrived in massive numbers after the potato famine. The Mexicans who shared these streets surely did not forget the enterprising, crucial role the Saint Patrick’s Battalion played in Mexico’s war against the United States. The Juárez family subsequently moved to 31st Street where Juárez’s son Pepe contracted pneumonia and died in December of 1865. Juárez’s correspondence with his wife at this time contains letters that are both stoic and deeply moving. Most notable of all his letters is one that Juárez wrote to Matías Romero in which he addresses some of Mexico’s most pressing issues before finally confessing the grief he feels at losing his son.
Proud of its booming economy, New York City wagered on its glitz and glitter. Among Margarita’s most outstanding letters is one she sent to her husband to assure him the reports were false about the ostentatious jewelry she wore to the reception organized in her honor by U.S. Secretary Seward: “I would like to clarify I wore the very same earrings you gave me on my Saint’s Day.” Another day, on Broadway, Señora Juárez found herself in a scene that is recounted by Enrique M. de los Ríos in his book Illustrious Mexican Liberals of the Reform Era and the Intervention:
In New York a fishmonger was reading with great interest the Herald Tribune’s articles on the war waged by Mexico’s liberal party against the so-called Empire. On seeing Margarita and her daughter Mañuela, and knowing they were Mexican, although he didn’t know who they were, he excitedly asked Ms. Juarez in broken Spanish, “You’re Mexican, aren’t you? Surely you’ve had the honor of knowing the great patrician, President Juárez?”
“Yes, we know him,” responded Margarita, modestly keeping her identity a secret. Juarez’s admirer had no idea he was talking to the wife of Mexico’s reformer.
If the buildings hold the footprints of the historical facts, if they hold the apartment in which Margarita Maza lived, it’s worth remembering that one need only walk four blocks to Astor Place and the Cooper Union Building that was built in 1855. This solid four-story building, protagonist of various lithographs from the 18th century, is one of the first buildings in New York City to boast a steel-structure. It is, therefore, the father of the skyscraper. From its very beginning Cooper Union was created to teach the liberal arts to students with few financial resources. Its mission resembled the mission of the universities in Mexico that made a secular education available to all and which were condemned by the church as centers of heresy and sin.
A decisive moment in the life of Benito Juárez was when he crossed the threshold of the School of Arts and Sciences which is now a part of Mexico’s University of Oaxaca. It is here in the university’s central patio that a statue can be found of the school’s old and distinguished student, professor, and rector. Founded on January 8, 1827, the school was only as old as its student. Juárez’s rite of passage occurred in this institution and it changed his destiny by convincing him that it was through secular thought, and a secular education, that men could become masters of their own destinies. Later on, when it came time to educate his own children, Juárez would write in a letter: “I beg you not to put them under the influence of the Jesuits or any other religious sect, and I pray they learn to philosophize, that’s all, and that they learn to investigate the ‘why’ of things, or the reason, so that in their passage through this world they will have the truth for a guide rather than the errors and anxieties that cause the unhappiness and the degradation of both men and countries.”
Cooper Union, the great liberal bastion, became the chosen meeting place for marginalized groups. The American Equal Rights Association was created there and it was between its columns that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized a convention in defense of women’s rights. From then on Copper Union was a formidable—and funded—ideological trench. At the end of 1864 the indefatigable Matías Romero received news of a Washington’s imminent recognition of Maximilian in exchange for Napoleon III’s recognition of the United States. In response to the news a public gathering was immediately organized and reported on by the New York Times on July 20, 1865:
A meeting was held at Cooper Union last evening, for the purpose of expressing sympathy and respect for the exiles of the Mexican republic now in the city. About one hundred persons were present. The platform was decorated with the Mexican colors and the Stars and Stripes.
It was Francisco Zarco’s task to give a speech before the New York community expounding the motives behind the republican cause in Mexico. It was July 19, 1865. Richmond had fallen April 3. Who was this short man, as energetic as his moustache was long, who defended the Mexican cause in perfect English in a speech that was also an example of diplomacy, rhetoric, and historical knowledge? In 1847, when he was only 22 years old, with the Mexican capital lost to the American army and serving as the Assistant Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Francisco Zarco lived in the city of Querétaro.
At the time Zarco was profiled as one of the most promising young writers of his generation. Articles about fashion and everyday life—as meaningless as they were—acquired through his pen an unequaled aesthetic quality. Even before Baudelaire, Zarco explored the theme of man’s solitude in a crowd. Using the pretext of a fashion mannequin, Zarco obliged his readers to accompany him to the last line of a text that is in reality a sincere essay of analysis and introspection. But this young author, who was intellectual, curious, and insatiable, changed the direction of his pen due to the gravity of the events in Mexico. It is both surprising and admirable that in a city as intense and alive as New York City, Zarco closed his eyes to the excellent literary man that he was and instead dedicated himself to being a war correspondent, sending articles to several states in the Mexican Republic and to other Hispanic countires. From New York he reported on the progress of the American Civil War, whose outcome was so important to the Mexican cause. “Richmond and Sadowa” is the title of a chapter in Juárez, His Work and His Time. Mexico’s destiny, and the world’s destiny as well, was played out in those two cities and Mexico’s liberals knew how to profit as much from the South’s defeat as from Prussia’s victory over the French. Zarco, both methodical and confident, detailed the progress of events.
Even in the most difficult moments of the republican struggle, the Mexicans in New York had to make a living. Manuel Balbontín, for example, wrote one of the most curious examples of travel literature ever written. His pamphlet, Winter, or A Day in the Month of January at 40 Degrees Latitude North, describes a day in the life of New York City from dawn to dusk. Its introspective character, its sharp eye for detail, and the metamorphosis of the city in each one of the narrator’s acts makes it, according to Emmanuel Carballo, a precursor of Joyce’s Ulysses. Curiously Balbontín, as a young man, was also a soldier who took part in the campaigns against the 1846 and 1847 American invasions. Balbotín wrote about those tragic times for Mexico in the book The American Invasion, although it’s his small book about New York City that constitutes one of the best portraits of the city in the second half of the nineteenth century.
A Mexican enemy to all Mexicans was Antonio López de Santa Anna, who came to New York in 1866. In a sweeping, ambiguous speech Santa Anna declared that he had arrived to serve Juárez, who had once been his antagonist and his prisoner, and to fight against the Foreign Occupation. With a cynicism that borders on ingenuity, Juárez told American authorities on May 14, 1866, in accordance with the communication sent via Matías Romero: “They assure me that Santa Anna says that he can’t spend any of his own resources and that if the United States is willing to send him to Mexico and to pay the trip’s expenses he will go with pleasure. They also tell me he is going to receive fifty thousand pesos which, it is said, this government is going to loan or promise us.” The Mexican Club of New York reacted energetically and published a manifesto in which it concludes: “The republicans of Mexico will never commit the irreparable error of dishonoring its ranks by admitting into them someone who was an enemy of freedom and who now, abusing his power, begs for on behalf of Mexico an ominous foreign yoke.” Thanks to the signatures on the documents it is possible to discover who made up the Club at that time: Juan José Baz, Pantalcón Tovar, Felipe Berriozábal, Jesús González Ortega, Rafael de Zayas, and Epitacio Huerta.
These immigrants of the highest order whose names and actions have been studied belonged to a select political class that was both educated and resolved. The collaborators were few but they form a strong part of Mexico’s political canon. In the United States they found refuge, respect, and the support they needed to continue their struggle. U.S. Secretary of State Seward had the political ingenuity to neither promise too much nor interfere with the difficult consolidation of the unionist victory. As Zarco said, “The United States has done much by not recognizing the monarchy attempted by foreign invaders as the work of the Mexican people.”
In this attitude of understanding and openness it’s worth remembering the group of Mexicans who briefly touched New York soil, but who found in this port what so many other immigrants found: the door to liberty. I refer now to the 532 Mexican soldiers who after the fall of Mexico had been sent to France as prisoners of war after refusing to sign a document that stated they would not take up arms again against the French Occupation. After nearly two years of forced labor in Tours, Blois, Bourges, Moulins, and Clermont Ferrand, it was in February of 1865, thanks to steps taken by General Juan Prim, that the Mexican prisoners were finally able to move from San Sebastian to New York. At all times they were under the protection of their general, the Michocan Epitacio Huerta, who like other liberals in New York had to oppose Juarez when he felt the country’s extraordinary conditions violated the constitution. I have not been able to locate any documents about the time our soldiers spent in the United States, but the generous welcome bestowed upon them so they could join the struggle against the French Occupation as soon as possible is an example of the freely chosen affinities of our two nations during a historical moment in which fraternity was more powerful than rivalry and freedom and democracy were stronger than suspicion. Let us learn from what Carlos Monsiváis calls their hidden legacy. Let us learn from the Mexicans who made of their time in New York a patrimony that will not yield.
Vicente Quirarte is currently the director of the Institute of Bibliographical Investigations at the National Auonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. He is a distinguished author of poetry, narrative literaure, theater, literary and historical criticism.