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Benito Juárez's Thirst for Education—Memoir

A memoir is a firsthand description of an individual's personal experiences. Memoirs can provide helpful information about customs and historical events in a specific place and time period. They are often written many years after the events took place. Below, Benito Juárez, a famous Mexican leader, describes his childhood desire to gain an education.


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…as soon as I could think at all, I dedicated myself, insofar as my young age permitted, to work in the fields. In the few intervals in which we were not working, my uncle taught me to read; he showed me how useful and advantageous it would be for me to know the Spanish language, and since at that time it was extremely difficult for poor people, and especially for Indians, to follow any learned career except the ecclesiastic [holy orders], he revealed that he wanted me to study for ordination…. However, my uncle's work, and my own, in the fields, frustrated my ambition, and I advanced very little in my lessons. Furthermore, in a village as small as mine, which had hardly twenty families, at a time when hardly anyone was concerned with the education of youth, there was no school; and there one hardly ever heard Spanish, because the parents who could pay for the education of their children sent them to the city of Oaxaca for that purpose….

…I too was hesitant to separate myself from [my uncle], to leave the house that had sheltered me in my orphaned childhood, and to abandon my little friends, with whom I had always had the deepest sympathies and from whom any separation always wounded me. The conflict that arose within me, between these feelings and my desire to go to another society, new and unknown to me, where I might acquire an education, was cruel indeed. However, my hunger overcame my emotions, and on December 17, 1818, when I was twelve years old, I fled from my house and walked on foot to the city of Oaxaca, where I arrived on the night of the same day.

Excerpts from Apuntes para mis hijos [Notes for My Children], ca. 1857 by Benito Juárez.


Background

Benito Juárez was a Zapotec Indian, born in San Pablo Guelatao, Mexico. He grew up speaking the Zapotec language. In Oaxaca, he studied law and became active in politics. He was known as an energetic and honest government official. He joined other Mexicans in a revolt against Mexico's corrupt government. Their victory led to a new government that ended slavery and forced labor and provided a bill of rights. Juárez served as Mexico's president from 1858 to 1872. During part of this time, he continued to serve as president of Mexico from the extreme north even though an emperor from France was in control of most of Mexico. After the French withdrew from Mexico, Juárez returned the presidency to Mexico City. He is remembered as a hero of Mexico who withstood foreign conquest and tried to improve life for all people in the country.