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Time has come to shatter the obscurity that surrounds Juan N. Alvarez. Did history produce this outstanding leader because the times demanded such, or did the times create Juan N. Alvarez? Understanding the historical atmosphere that surrounds early 19th century Mexico, surveying the outstanding accomplishments of Juan Alvarez, and realizing the influence he wielded all contributes to our analysis of him and a better interpretation of his place in Mexican history. When a country's history is written, the silent and unnoticed servants also deserve reflection and tribute. The purpose of this paper is to establish Juan N. Alvarez a rightful place in history.
After the deaths of Hidalgo and Allende, the Mexican independence movement continued through a different type of revolutionary leader. Many of them were mestizo in origin and came from humble backgrounds, without the education of Hidalgo. In many ways these leaders were more competent, more military-minded, and more steadfast in accomplishing their objectives. These leaders did not gather their armies from the masses; they created small, well-trained, and disciplined armies. "Instead of gathering hordes of cotton-clad Indians, armed only with knives and slings, they recruited troops of horsemen, equipped with guns and machetes, who could defend against armies."( Parkes 155). In the mountains of the South and northern territories--Zacatecas, Durango, and San Luis Potosí--there were fewer haciendas and many more rancheros. The Indian tribes were more militant. In these large areas, a new meaning of cacique developed. The new cacique was of mestizo heritage, not so much a living god, but more a chieftain father. He represented the will of the masses, commanding unbelievable loyalty and self-willed obedience. This chieftain was able to lead his supporters into war, if necessary or to govern them, with or without legal sanction in time of peace. Such a man was Juan N. Alvarez.
For at least a century, caciquism was the form through which democracy would reign in Mexico. In a land of both Spanish and Indian descent and traditions--a land of illiteracy--elective democracy was not possible. These caciques were the revolutionaries who fought against the Creole caudillos of the regular army. Thus, the birth of the conflicts between liberalism and conservatism and federalism and centralism was confirmed. The caciques and their followers supported a liberal system that gave local autonomy modeled on the federalism of the United States. They hoped to legalize their powers.
On the other hand, the conservative creoles supported a centralized government like the viceroys, which would grant the City of Mexico the right to rule the provinces of all Mexico (Parkes 181). Hence, the stage was set for war. The stronghold of the conservatives was Mexico City and the central provinces where the Spanish rule had been the strongest. This was in sharp contrast to the liberal stronghold in the mountains of the South and the northern territories. The threat of liberalism terrified the Spanish and the Mexican reactionaries. To them, liberalism meant no more fueros, confiscation of church property, spread of education, and illiterate Indians choosing Mexico's government. In actuality, the reactionary government believed that liberalism threatened their means of living. They were afraid liberalism would infect Mexico and spread across the nation. As long as the creoles were in power, Mexico was doomed to failure. The moderados longed for constitutional democracy, while the clericals thought only of an authoritarian government. Neither of these factions were strong enough, honest enough, or had ability enough to establish a stable political system. The government in power in Mexico was always centered around powerful characters, individuals, or dictators who could control the masses.
Enter Augustín de Iturbide, the political conservative, who supported a ruling clergy, a centralized government, and a powerful army. The year was 1813, and Iturbide was a man for himself, controlling all around him and eliminating all those he could not control. "In two months he captured and shot 19 chieftains and 900 of their followers." (Parkes 163). During Iturbide's reign of terror, a new group of liberals emerged, led by José María Morelos. These were courageous men who could not be threatened, bribed, or bought (Parkes 181). One of Morelos' most powerful supporters was Juan N. Alvarez. During the next 45 years, Alvarez was destined to be an outstanding liberal leader known across Mexico for his loyalty to freedom's cause "...a political figure of the first magnitude." (Tlapa, History 5). Of the chieftains or the caciques, Henry Parkes states, "occasionally corrupt and tyrannical, they were sometimes men of genuine integrity and idealism."(Parkes180).
Proud of his heritage, Juan Alvarez worked the land with his own hands and lived the life of a ranchero. Juan N. Alvarez was born January 27, 1790, in Concepción de Atoyac (later called Ciudad Alvarez), Mexico. His lineage was of mixed heritage--Indian and Negro (Tlapa, History 5). History first records Alvarez in 1810, at the age of 20, fighting with Morelos against the conservatives, led by Augustín de Iturbide.
Destined for greatness, Alvarez was a natural born leader. He proved to be loyal to Morelos and the liberal cause (Tlapa, History 5). Morelos was a guerrilla fighter, but also a well-disciplined leader, unafraid of confrontation. He planned to carry out a complete revolutionary break from Spanish control. Morelos did not even pretend to be loyal to King Ferdinand of Spain (Parkes 159). While Alvarez served with Morelos, he tested his own beliefs, values, and loyalties. He made his choices and became a man with a cause. He learned his job well. Alvarez quickly gained the recognition of his superiors. In 1819, the Mexican Provisional Government of the Provinces of the West named Juan Alvarez colonel and second commander-in-chief of the coast of the South (Tlapa, History 2). In 1821, Alvarez captured Acapulco and was named commander-in-chief of Acapulco (Tlapa, History 5). In 1824, Alvarez led another insurrection, supporting the Constitution of 1824 and helping Gómez Farías and the puros return to power (Parkes 214). Between 1810 and 1855, Alvarez participated in numerous revolutionary movements to establish Mexican Independence. He created a great sphere of influence in his native state where he inspired and led his people (Britannica 700).
In the first place, Alvarez and Morelos believed that Mexico should be a republic. The programs of the Mexican reformers included Mexico being governed by the will of the people, racial equality (which would idealistically eliminate class struggle), abolition of fueros for both clergy and military, breaking up of haciendas into small holdings for the peasants, confiscating the property of the rich and using one-half of this money to operate the government, giving the other one-half to the poor, and the seizure of church lands. From the conservative viewpoint, these ideas were more than a little radical. Under the leadership of Alvarez and Morelos, Congress began to draft a constitution that provided for universal suffrage and indirect elections. Sadly though, by the time this constitution was done, the viceroy had driven Morelos back into the mountains. Morelos continued to fight in the mountains until he was captured, jailed, and shot for his revolution of liberalism. (Parkes 160).
In spite of the resistance from the conservatives, Juan Alvarez continued to lead the fight for Mexican independence. From 1822 to 1823, Alvarez distinguished himself by supporting Antonio López de Santa Anna in a revolt that finally ousted Augustín de Iturbide, the first ruler of independent Mexico (Britannica. com). Santa Anna thought of himself as the liberator of Mexico and the founder of the Mexican Republic, but the government of the republic did not view him as such. Without the leadership qualities of Juan Alvarez, Santa Anna could never have succeeded.
During the late 1820's, Vicente Guerrero, the liberal candidate for President of Mexico, was the most popular and gained the most support of the Mexican people. But the conservative candidate Gómez Pedraza was declared President, and Anastasio Bustamante became Vice-president. Santa Anna refused to recognize this government. Vicente Guerrero fought with Santa Anna to regain the presdidency for the Liberals. Guerrero was defeated and fled south into the mountains to join forces with Juan Alvarez. In 1830 and for one year, Guerrero and Alvarez resisted Bustamante and his new government (Parkes 195). Bustamante believed in centralism, and his 1830 campaign slogan defended religion and fueros (Tlapa, History 5). Still bearing loyalty to Vicente Guerrero and the liberal cause, Alvarez tried to save Guerrero's life in 1830, but he was not successful. Guerrero was enticed on board an Italian merchant ship at Acapulco and sold to the new conservative government for 50,000 pesos, convicted, and executed (Parkes 195).
Not only was Juan Alvarez a revolutionary, but he was a defender of his people and a powerful chieftain. For example, in 1842, Guerrero revolted in violent rebellion protesting unbearable taxes and the denial of request to return to the natives the land that was rightfully theirs. By 1845, Alvarez had drafted an agrarian manifesto in support of the farmers. Alvarez used arms, persuasion, and meditation to resolve these problems among the farmers, landowners, natives, and the government. In 1857, Juan Alvarez published a document entitled "Manifest to the Cultural Towns of Europe and America." The purpose of this document was to defend the agrarian cause. Its aim was to hasten the return of Indian lands to the natives. Another time, Alvarez had a confrontation with two brothers that resulted in "The War of the Three Juans." Two brothers, Juan Antonio and Vicarious Juan, refused to honor the General Constitution concerning the agrarian policy (Tlapa History 2). Again Alvarez had proven himself a capable chieftain.
Once more in 1847, Alvarez fought alongside Santa Anna in the Mexican War against the United States, defending Mexico City (Britannica .com). Two years later in 1849, Alvarez entered public service for the first time. He was now 59 years old. From 1849 to 1853, he served as a liberal governor of the newly founded state of Guerrero, whom he named after the famous revolutionary leader, Vicente Guerrero. When Santa Anna reestablished his dictatorship of Mexico in 1853, Juan Alvarez retreated, not threatening Santa Anna as long as he did not threaten Alvarez’s state of Guerrero (Britannica.com). Melchor Ocampo and Benito Juárez refused to accept Santa Anna’s rule and were exiled (Britannica.com).
Meanwhile, Santa Anna was draining Mexico’s treasury again, and many of the leading generals and bureaucrats had turned against him. Juan Alvarez had been a leader in every liberal rebellion for 40 years. At this time in his life, he was an influential chieftain in Guerrero where "Morelos was still a living memory and liberalism still had a stronghold." (Parkes 227). Finally in 1854, Alvarez led a rebellion against Santa Anna who had threatened Guerrero and marched southward to capture it. Alvarez and his guerrilleros avoided battle and retreated to the mountains, waiting for the climate to drive Santa Anna back (Parkes 227). Alvarez and Comonfort, a creole in hiding whom Santa Anna had dismissed, published the Plan of Ayutla. By the spring of 1855, most of northern Mexico supported the Plan. The Plan of Ayutla was a reform program calling for the end of the dictatorship of Santa Anna and the gathering of a representative assembly to frame a federal constitution. It prepared the way for the War of Reform (1856-1861) and the liberal government. Its main supporters were Juan Alvarez, Ignacio Comonfort, Miguel and Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada and Benito Juárez (Columbia Encyclopedia). This work of Alvarez and Comonfort resulted in a liberal trend known as La Reforma (The Reform) and the Constitution of 1857 (Britannica.com).
After Santa Anna left Mexico, the country was in confusion. The returned leaders acted as a brain trust to carry out reform. Its goals were to establish the remnants of colonial government by removing clerical and military privileges; to separate the church and state by secularizing education, marriages, and burials; to reduce economic power of the church by forcing it to sell all of its properties; to begin an economic movement of small farmers and industrialists; and, above all, establish a single standard of legal justice (Britannica.com). Leaders of the revolution accepted Juan Alvarez as chief of the revolution. In a junta met at Cuernavaca and presided over by Gómez Farías, Juan Alvarez was declared provisional president. He organized his government here in Cuernavaca and moved to the Capital. The people paraded in the streets cheering for Levers and Comfort (Parks 228).
Juan Alvarez became President of Mexico in October 1855. On November 14, 1855, he rode into Mexico City attended by his bodyguard of Indian warriors from the southern mountains. This indicated no more Santa Anna. Stern and serious men would now govern Mexico (Parkes 229). Nevertheless, Alvarez was unable to establish harmony among the liberal factions. He did not develop a clearly defined Presidential program for the country (Britannica.com). Then in early December, Melchor Ocampo, the representative of intellectual radicalism, was forced out of the cabinet. Alvarez took this as a warning sign (Parkes 234). Alvarez’s heart was in the right place, but he was just a better revolutionary leader than a Presidential executive. On December 8, 1855, after just 3 months as President, Juan Alvarez resigned in favor of Ignacio Comonfort as President (Encyclopedia Americana). Different reasons had led Alvarez to resign. First, he was despised for his lack of education. He was also a racial figure, of both Indian and Black descent, and he was feared as a representative of racial warfare. When he led his Indian warriors into the City of Mexico, all the wealthy and landed rich became afraid of peasant rebellions and massacres of the Creoles and the destruction of civilized society. Perhaps they were afraid for the masses to choose their own government.
Being able to realistically view himself, Alvarez knew he was unfit for the delicate tasks of statesmanship. Guerrilla leadership was his talent and calling. When Doblado threatened to pronounce for Comonfort, Alvarez resigned without a struggle and returned to his home in the mountains of Guerrero (Tuck 3,4).
However, Alvarez was by no means finished as a leader. Mexico, in some measure, appreciated Alvarez’s leadership. "In 1861 it was declared Meritorious of the Mother country..." (Tlapa, History 2). During the 1860’s, Alvarez now in his 70’s, opposed the French attempt to establish Maximilian as emperor in Mexico (Encyclopedia Americana). He, along with Juárez, defended Mexico during the French invasion to the front of the Division of the South (Tlapa, History 5). Alvarez sent this message to the French and Maximilian sympathizers, "I still live, men of the coast, I who have ever led you to fight against tyrants (Parkes 261). Juan Alvarez was 74 years old now and still master of Guerrero and the mountains of the south. Other liberal generals fled to the United States because the French court-martial or terrorized liberal sympathizers. The French held most of the cities and organized plebiscites for Maximilian. In April 1864, Maximilian accepted the crown as Emperor of Mexico (Parkes 258). Looming in the background and rising was a new liberal who controlled Oaxaca--Porfirio Diaz. In 1866, Diaz had surrendered to the French. He escaped confinement in a roofless chapel in Pueblo and ran across the breadth of Mexico to Alvarez in Guerrero and into the mountains. With Alvarez’s help, Diaz organized a ring of armies to fight the French (Parkes 268). Juan Alvarez’s life had now made a full circle--the learner had become the teacher.
Moreover, Napoleon III had as his goal the regeneration of Mexico in French style. On the contrary, Mexico had not received Maximilian or the French well. Napoleon had only succeeded in uniting Mexico’s cause of reform with that of national independence. In 1861, Juárez had been confronted by many uncontrollable problems. Except for the French intervention, these problems might have thrown Mexico into anarchy. But in 1867, with Napoleon III at a safe distance, "Juárez assumed leadership of an almost united people who regarded him not only as a symbol of a liberal constitution but also of the nation" (Parkes 278).
Before Alvarez died August 21, 1876, he did live to see the Republic recovered by the Liberals (Tlapa, History 2). Few other great leaders were still alive to see the victory of liberalism. Ocampo, Degollado, and Comonfort had been killed. Doblado and de Tejada were dead (Parkes 277). But Juan Alvarez saw the movement he had supported and the Constitution of 1857 blossom into reform and a new beginning for Mexico (Britannica.com).
Once Juan Alvarez was described as "The most uncompromising of liberal warriors during civil war."(Parkes 180). "It was said not a leaf could stir in the entire territory without his consent."(Parkes 181). Mexican history records the events of many prominent leaders, both liberal and conservative. Yet, not enough emphasis is placed on the accomplishments and labors of the common chieftains like Juan Alvarez. As Henry Parkes so aptly stated, "One of the noblest of them was Juan Alvarez, an old follower of Morelos, who for nearly fifty years was the undisputed master of the mountains of the South...." (Parkes 180). He gave his entire life to the cause of Mexican independence. So many questions about Alvarez remain unanswered. Research is very difficult; probably because few records were kept by the uneducated masses.
Without a doubt, Juan Alvarez deserves a distinguished place in Mexican history. The people of Tlapa, his home, describe him as "Republican, federalist, and liberal always ready to defend to the death his mother country and his companions of fight"(Talapa, History 2). We may never form a physical or personal acquaintance with Juan Alvarez, but we know him. His heart was good. He was a diamond in the rough. He was a warrior, not a President. He was an inspiration, not a task master. He was a servant, not a self-seeker. He was a patriot, not an aristocrat. He was of gentle blood, not blue-blood. He was of humble lineage, not a king. He was an emancipator, not an insurrectionist. He was a nationalist, not an anarchist. He was rebellious, but not a rebel. He was a patriarch, not a dictator. He sought freedom for his people and devoted his life to them - the common masses of Mexico.
Henry Bamford Parkes, A History of Mexico (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company), 1960.
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