Justo Sierra (1848-1912) was a Mexican educator, writer, and historian. As one of Mexico's leading liberal historians and as minister of education, he was responsible for considerable educational reform and expansion during the first decade of the 20th century.
Justo Sierra was born in Campeche, Yucatán, on Jan. 26, 1848. His father, Justo Sierra O'Rielly, was one of Yucatán's foremost intellectuals. Young Sierra studied in Campeche and Mexico City, receiving a law degree at the age of 23. Elected to the Mexican Congress in 1872, he quickly gained a reputation as a formidable debater. He served 2 years on the Supreme Court prior to his designation as subsecretary of justice and public education in 1902. In 1905 he was appointed minister of public education and fine arts, a post which he held until the fall of the regime of Gen. Porfirio Díaz in 1911.
Sierra insisted that educational progress parallel economic growth, both to train the populace in the requisite skills and to preserve the national identity in the face of an influx of foreign capital and methodology. Consequently, he stressed science and Mexican history in his curriculum. In 1910 he sponsored the First National Congress of Primary Education and revived the National University of Mexico, which had splintered into separate colleges.
One of the foremost propagandists of his day, Sierra edited and wrote regular columns for several newspapers. Though a member of the Díaz Cabinet, he did not hesitate to criticize the regime and never fully accepted the positivism that constituted the official ideology. Maintaining an independent intellectual stance, he considered himself primarily a humanist.
Sierra is best known for his voluminous historical works. Although he attempted to synthesize the broad sweep of human development for the general reader in his Historia general (1896), most of his volumes focused on Mexican history. His interpretation was liberal, and he contended that Mexico had experienced only two revolutions worthy of the name: the Independence movement and the War of the Reform (1854-1867). In México: su evolución social (1902), Sierra argued that the Díaz era was the culmination of Mexican development. He defended Benito Juárez in Juárez: su obra y su tiempo (1905), contending that his era of liberal government constituted the pivotal period of Mexican history.
Sierra's most famous work is La evolución política del pueblo mexicano (1900-1902; The Political Evolution of the Mexican Nation, 1946), intended as a "popular synthesis." In this volume he applied the prevailing evolutionary theories to Mexican history, emphasizing the importance of the liberal revolution of the mid-19th century. He condemned the Mexican leaders of the early portion of that century as petty individuals seeking only self-aggrandizement.
After the collapse of the Díaz regime in 1911, Sierra was appointed ambassador to Spain. He died in Madrid on Sept. 13, 1912.
The best source available in English on Sierra is the introduction to his The Political Evolution of the Mexican Nation, translated by Charles Ramsdell, with notes and introduction by Edmundo O'Gorman (1969). William Rex Crawford, A Century of Latin-American Thought (1944; rev. ed. 1961), discusses Sierra's ideas. Carlos González Peña, History of Mexican Literature (trans. 1943; 3d ed. 1968), examines Sierra's life and career. □