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  THE THREE MEN OF OAXACA, by Marvin H. Perton
It's practically impossible to separate travel from history, particularly where Mexico is concerned. You live it, breathe it, taste it throughout the country wherever you travel. The colonial cities. Mundo Maya. Mexico City. Baja. You can't escape it. Take Oaxaca, a primary travel destination. Besides its many other claims-to-fame, and its general interest to the visitor, Oaxaca was home to three distinctively different men, all contributing to the history and culture of Mexico: Benito Ju�rez, Porfirio Diaz and Ruffino Tamayo.


Visitors to the tiny village of San Pablo Gelatao (high in the hills, about 40 miles north of Oaxaca City), can see the birth-place of Mexico's first elected president, Benito Juarez. Born to a sheep-herding Indian family of Zapotecs, Juarez, as a young boy (who only spoke the Zapotec language), worked for a wealthy Creole family. Favorably impressed by his abilities, the master of the house helped Juarez get an education and then become a lawyer. He was made governor of Oaxaca in 1847 and served until 1852.

A revolutionary at heart, he opposed the powers-to-be and was repeatedly sent to prison - and finally exile. After Santa Ana was deposed, Juarez was made the minister of justice. Meanwhile, on the way to the presidency, he made many enemies: the Catholic church; the military; political conservatives; the whites.

As president, he was unable to repay his debts to Great Britain and France. This gave Napoleon III (backed by Juarez's arch enemies, the conserva-tives) and his puppet emperor, Maximilian, a reason to assume power. And, although the emperor actually did some good for the people of Mexico, Juarez ultimately cast the deciding vote that sentenced Maximilian to death - not so much as punish-ment, but as a message for all the world to see: respect -the sovereignty of Mexico. Maximilian's last words as the bullets of the firing squad ripped through his body: "Viva Mexico! Viva la independencia!

El Palacio Nacional in Mexico City has a museum honoring Benito Juarez (be sure to see Diego Rivera's stunning murals adorning the staircase on your way up.) Also in the capital, there's a Monumento a Benito Juarez located on the Avenida Juarez. In his home town, Oaxaca, the Museo Casa de Benito Juarez, not only houses memorabilia of the man, the house itself is where he worked as a servant in his youth.


It was another man from Oaxaca, one of Juarez's early supporters, who would ultimately grab the presidency from him: Jose de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz, who reigned for more than three decades (his long tenure is otherwise known as the Porfiriato).

A mestizo, also from humble beginnings, Diaz put the revolution on hold, gave land as "pay-backs" to his trusted cronies, and sold three-quarters of the country's mineral rights to foreign interests.

On the plus side, Diaz built an enduring railroad system, which made it possible to move cotton (and other agricultural products); gold and silver; oil. (He was also able to move troops very efficiently.) But meanwhile, back on the farm, the corn crop was so poor, it had to be imported; land was snatched from the Indians and given to the hacendados and other supporters.

Diaz did make peace with the church - not completely, but enough to win some additional support from the conservatives. It was not enough. Diaz finally lost to Madero who lost to Heurta who lost to Carranza, etc., etc., etc.


Another Oaxaqueno of Zapotec origins, a man who was never political, was the painter/muralist, Rufino Tamayo, who, in 1991, died at age 92. Raised by an aunt who was outraged that the young Tamayo spent his evenings in art classes, Tamayo was yanked out of school and put to work as a delivery boy. It did no good; he continued with his studies and his artwork - in secret.

Tamayo's artwork is considered to be Mexican to the core. He took structure from Mexican tradition; colors from the people. Yet, like fine Mexican cuisine, his work takes on a flair that is decidedly international, which was intentional on his part. What he was trying to do was free himself from the limitations of ethnic traditions without losing his feeling for Mexico, its inherent tragedy and its people. As one critic described his work: "mexicanismo amplio y universal."

In Mexico City, the Tamayo Museum, in Chapultepec Park, contains some fine examples of his work. In Oaxaca City, his home town, the Museo Rufino Tamayo houses the artist's personal collection of pre-Hispanic art.

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