Whether it’s rising from rural poverty to the highest office of the land, or becoming a soccer legend after years of washing cars, Mexico has plenty of inspiring stories about people who have beaten extraordinary odds. If you’re looking for some inspiration or some added motivation, here’s our rundown of Mexicans who have overcome major obstacles on their road to success.
Still Mexico’s only indigenous president, the 19th Century leader Benito Juárez is regarded as a Mexican equivalent to Abraham Lincoln – a great statesman whose achievements have echoed through the decades. Born into desperate poverty in the southern state of Oaxaca, Juárez was left an orphan at age three and grew up speaking Zapotec, only learning Spanish as a teenager. A shrewd, liberal-leaning president, Juárez held office for five full terms and guided the country through a series of major reforms and a French invasion.
Santa Teresa Urrea
Born in the northern desert of Sonora in 1873 to an unwed 14-year-old mother and a father who never spoke to her, Urrea became famous as a teenager, when she fell into a coma and was miraculously “resurrected” at her wake. Word that she had healing powers spread rapidly across the country and a following of more than 1,000 sick people camped outside her desert town in search of healing. In 1891, the village of Tomochic in the state of Chihuahua sought her guidance after a serious drought. When unrest broke out against the government, Urrea was held responsible and she was deported to the United States in 1892. Eventually she settled in El Paso, Texas, where she continued as a healer. In 2005, nearly one hundred years after her death, her great-nephew Luis Alberto Urrea published “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” a novel about the folk saint.
The flamboyant Mexican portrait artist overcame a great many obstacles in her life. As an 18-year-old she was involved in a life-threatening bus accident that left her bedridden for months, ended her dreams of becoming a doctor and caused her pain throughout the rest of her life.
Kahlo started a tempestuous relationship with the muralist Diego Rivera in 1928. The pair married the following year and the relationship was marked by infidelity on both sides. Rivera even famously cheated on Kahlo with her sister Cristina. The couple divorced in 1939 before remarrying the next year.
Kahlo channeled her fear and pain into the intimate portraits that have made her a global icon.
The late singer-songwriter Juan Gabriel, known colloquially as Juanga, became one of the most successful recording artists in Mexican history. An incredibly talented singer and composer, the singer was born into rural poverty in the western state of Michoacán. After his father was interned into a psychiatric hospital, his mother took the rest of the family to the northern city of Ciudad Juárez.
After establishing a local reputation as a singer, Junaga moved to Mexico City in pursuit of fame and fortune. He was falsely accused of robbery and was imprisoned for a year and a half. After he was released because of lack of evidence, the singer was signed by a record company. His fame grew over the next fifteen years and he became an international superstar.
Despite never self-identifying as gay, Juan Gabriel became an icon for the gay community. The closest he ever came to confirming the widespread assumption that he was gay was in an interview when he was asked directly. He famously replied, “there’s no need to ask about that which you can see.”
A top name in Mexican media, Carmen Aristegui has never been afraid to challenge those in power. In 2014, the radio host broke the news of a massive scandal involving the wife of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who owned a multi-million dollar mansion provided by a government contractor.
The journalist was rapidly fired from her radio station after she exposed the truth, with rumors swirling that the government was behind the decision.
In a country where more than 100 journalists have been murdered since 2000, Aristegui’s move was a bold one indeed and she earned the praise of many national and international observers. Meanwhile, the scandal seriously dented the president’s credibility, and his approval ratings nosedived.
Like millions of Mexican immigrants, Carlos Salcido made the dangerous journey to the U.S. border, hoping to steal across the desert and pursue a new life in the north. After several failed attempts to cross over, Salcido decided to head back home, where he returned to his job washing cars outside Guadalajara’s bus station. At a soccer match when he was aged 18, Salcido was spotted by scouts for Guadalajara Chivas, the country’s most popular soccer team. Despite his relatively advanced age and his lack of formal training, Salcido was signed by the club. He later played for the European giants PSV Eindhoven and made more than 120 appearances for the Mexican national team.
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