José Vasconcelos

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José Vasconcelos
A black and white portrait of a formally dressed young man with a short, black mustache wearing a light-colored hat, white shirt, a light colored suit, dark tie and dark shoes. The man is outside a building where a dog is coming out.
José Vasconcelos in 1914
Secretary of Public Education
In office
28 September 1921[1] – 1924
President Álvaro Obregón
Succeeded by Bernardo J. Gastélum
Rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico
In office
Preceded by Balbino Dávalos
Succeeded by Mariano Silva
Personal details
Born José Vasconcelos Calderón
(1882-02-28)28 February 1882[2]
Oaxaca, Mexico
Died 30 June 1959(1959-06-30) (aged 77)
Mexico City
Nationality Mexican
Political party National Anti-Reelectionist Party
Spouse(s) Serafina Miranda (married in 1906, died 1942)[3] Esperanza Cruz (married 1942).[4]
Children José and Carmen;[2] Héctor[5]
Alma mater National School of Jurisprudence (ENJ)
Profession Writer, philosopher and politician
Religion Christian[nb 1]

José Vasconcelos Calderón (28 February 1882 – 30 June 1959) has been called the "cultural caudillo" of the Mexican Revolution[6] He was an important Mexican writer, philosopher and politician.[7] He is one of the most influential and controversial personalities in the development of modern Mexico. His philosophy of the "cosmic race" affected all aspects of Mexican sociocultural, political, and economic policies.

Personal Life, Education, and Career[edit]

José Vasconcelos was born in Oaxaca, Oaxaca on February 28, 1882, the son of a customs official.[8] José's mother, who was a pious Catholic, died when José was sixteen. The family moved to the border town of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, where he grew up attending school in Eagle Pass, Texas.[9] He became bilingual in English and Spanish,[10] which opened doors to the English-speaking world. The family also lived in Campeche during a period when the northern border area was unstable. His time in living on the Texas border likely contributed to fostering his idea of the Mexican "cosmic race" and rejection of Anglo culture.[11]

He married Serafina Miranda of Tlaxiaco in the state of Oaxaca in 1906, when he was twenty-four. With her he had children José Ignacio and Carmen. He also had a long-term relationship with Elena Arizmendi Mejia and through life, many other shorter liaisons, including one with Berta Singerman.[12] When his wife of forty years died in 1942, their daughter Carmen is reported saying "When the coffin was lowered into the ground, Vasconcelos sobbed bitterly. At that moment he must have known and felt who he really had as a wife; perhaps they were tears of belated repentance."[13] He remarried pianist Esperanza Cruz and they had a child, Héctor.[14]

Participation in the Mexican Revolution[edit]

Although Vasconcelos was interested in studying philosophy, Mexican universities during the Porfiriato focused on the sciences, influenced by French positivism. Vasconcelos attended the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, an elite high school, going on to Escuela de Jurisprudencia in Mexico City (1905). In law school, he became involved with radical students organized as the Ateneo de la Juventud (Youth Atheneum).[15] The Ateneo de Juventud was led by a Dominican citizen, Pedro Henríquez Ureña, who had read Uruguayan essayist José Enrique Rodó's Ariel, an influential work published in 1900 that was opposed to Anglo U.S. cultural influence, but also emphasized the redemptive power of education.[16] The Anteneo de la Juventud had a diverse membership, composed of university professors, artists, other professionals, and students. Some other members included Isidro Fabela and Diego Rivera.[17] It was opposed to the Díaz regime and formulated arguments against it and the regime's emphasis on positivism by employing French spiritualism, which articulated "a new vision of the relationship between individual and society."[15]

After graduating from law school, he joined a law firm of Warner, John, and Galston in Washington, D.C. Vasconcelos joined the local Anti-Reelection Club in Washington, D.C..[15] The Anti-Reelectionistas supported the democratic movement to oust long-time President of Mexico Porfirio Díaz 1910, and headed by Francisco I. Madero, the presidential candidate of the Anti-Re-electionista Party. Vasconcelos returned to Mexico City to participate more directly in the anti-reelectionist movement, becoming one of the party's secretaries and editing its newspaper, El Antireelectionista.[15]

After Díaz was ousted by revolutionary violence followed by the election of Madero as elected president of Mexico, Vasconcelos led a structural change at the National Preparatory School, where he changed the academic programs, breaking with the positivistic influence of the past.

After Madero's assassination in February 1913, Vasconcelos joined the broad based movement to defeat the military regime of Victoriano Huerta. Soon after, Vasconcelos was forced into exile in Paris, where he met Julio Torri, Doctor Atl, Gabriele D'Annunzio and other intellectuals and artists of the time. After Huerta was ousted in July 1914, Vasconcelos returned to Mexico.

The Convention of Aguascalientes in 1914, the failed attempt of the factions that defeated the Huerta regime to find a political solution, but which split the factions. Leader of the Constitutionalists, Venustiano Carranza and General Álvaro Obregón split with more radical revolutionaries, especially Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Vasconcelos chose the side of the Convention and served as Minister of Education during the brief presidential period of Eulalio Gutiérrez. Pancho Villa was defeated by the Constitutionalist Army under Obregón in the Battle of Celaya in 1915 and Vasconcelos went into exile again. Venustiano Carranza became president of Mexico(1915–20), but was ousted and killed by the Sonoran generals that had helped put him in power.

Rector of the National University[edit]

Vasconcelos returned to Mexico during the interim presidency of Sonoran Adolfo de la Huerta was named rector the National Autonomous University of Mexico (1920)[18][19] As rector, he had a great deal of power, but he accrued even more by ignoring the standard structures, such as the University Council, to govern the institution.[20] Rather, he exercised personalist power, and began implementing his vision of the function of the university. He redesigned the logo of the university to show a map of Latin America, with the phrase "Por mi raza hablará el espíritu" (The spirit will speak for my race), an influence of Rodó's arielismo.[21] Two eagles with a background of the volcanic mountains in central Mexico. Vasconcelos is said to have declared "I have not come to govern the University but to ask the University to work for the people."[22]

Logo of the National University of Mexico designed by Vasconcelos when he was rector

Secretary of Public Education[edit]

When Álvaro Obregón became president in 1920, he created the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) in 1921 and named Vasconcelos as its head.[23] Under Obregón, the national budget had two key expeditures; not surprisingly the military was first, but the second was education.[24] Creating the Secretariat entailed changing the Constitution of 1917, and in order to do that, Obregón's government had to muster support from lawmakers. Vasconcelos traveled through Mexico while he was rector of the university seeking that support. The effort succeeded and Vasconcelos was named head of the new cabinet level secretariat in July 1921.[25]

During his tenure at SEP he was in a powerful position to implement the vision of Mexico's history, especially the Mexican Revolution.

He printed huge numbers of texts for the expanded public school system, but in the 1920s there was no agreement about how the Mexican Revolution should be portrayed, so earlier history texts by Justo Sierra, who headed the ministry of public education in the government of Porfirio Díaz continued to be used.[26]

Although he was no advocate of Mexican indigenous culture, as Secretary of Education he sent Brazil a statue of the last Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc for their centennial celebrations of independence in 1923, to disdain and puzzlement of the South American recipients.[27]

In Political Opposition[edit]

He resigned in 1924 because of his opposition to President Plutarco Elías Calles. He worked in favor of the education of the masses and sought to make the nation's education secular, civic, and Pan-American (americanista) lines. He ran for president in 1929 but lost to Pascual Ortiz Rubio in a controversial election and again left the country.

He later directed the National Library of Mexico (1940) and presided over the Mexican Institute of Hispanic Culture (1948).

Philosophical thought[edit]

Vasconcelos' first writings on philosophy are passionate reactions against the formal, positivistic education at the National Preparatory School, formerly under the influence of porfirian thinkers like Justo Sierra and Gabino Barreda.

A second period of productivity was fed by a first disappointment in the political field, after Madero's murder. Then he wrote, in 1919, a long essay on Pythagorism, as a dissertation on the links between harmony and rhythm, and its eventual explanation into a frame of aesthetic monism. As he argued that only by the means of rhythm is the human being able to know the world without any intermediation, he proposed that the minimal aspects of cognition are conditioned by a degree of sympathy with the natural "vibration" of things. In this manner, he thought that the auditive categories of knowledge were much higher than the visual ones.

During a later period, Vasconcelos developed an argument for the mixing of races, as a natural and desirable direction for humankind. This work, known as La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race), would eventually contribute to further studies on ethnic values as an ethic, and for the consideration of ethnic variety as an aesthetic source. (Contrary to popular belief, 'The cosmic race' is not a science fiction work). Finally, between 1931 and 1940 he tried to consolidate his proposals by publishing his main topics organized in three main works: Metaphysics, Ethics and Aesthetics.


José Vasconcelos (left) with José Urquidi, Rafael Zubarán Capmany and Peredo.

Vasconcelos is often referred to as the father of the "indigenismo" philosophy. In recent times, this philosophy has come under criticism from Native Americans because of its negative implications concerning indigenous peoples. To an extent, his philosophy argued for a new, "modern" mestizo people, but at the cost of cultural assimilation of all ethnic groups. His research on the nature of Mexican modern identity had a direct influence on the young writers, poets, anthropologists and philosophers who wrote on this subject. He also influenced the point of view of Carlos Pellicer with respect to several aesthetic assumptions reflected in his books. Together, Pellicer and Vasconcelos made a trip through the Middle East (1928–29), looking for the "spiritual basis" of Byzantine architecture.

Other works, particularly La raza cósmica and Metafísica, had a decisive influence in Octavio Paz's El laberinto de la soledad, with anthropological and aesthetic implications. Paz wrote that Vasconcelos was "the teacher" who had educated hundreds of young Latin American intellectuals during his many trips to Central and South America. Vasconcelos was guest lecturer at Columbia University and Princeton University, but his influence on new generations in the U.S. became gradually less significant. Nevertheless, his work La raza cósmica has been used by Chicano and Mexican-American movements since the 1970s, asserting the reconquista of the American Southwest based on their Mexican ancestry.

Statue of José Vasconcelos on San Ildefonso street in the historic center of Mexico City.

Contributions to the arts and education[edit]

Thanks to Vasconcelos, the National Symphonic Orchestra (1920) and the Symphonic Orchestra of Mexico (1928) were officially endorsed. Muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros were given the right to paint the inner walls of the most important public buildings in Mexico (e.g., the National Palace in the capital), creating the Mexican mural movement.


"... the leaders of Latin American independence ... strove to free the slaves, declared the equality of all men by natural law; the social and civic equality of whites, blacks and Indians. In an instant of historical crisis, they formulated the transcendental mission assigned to that region of the Globe: the mission of fusing the peoples ethnically and spiritually." (La raza cósmica, 1948)ƒ

"Each of the great nations of History has believed itself to be the final and chosen one. [...] The Hebrews founded the belief in their superiority on oracles and divine promises. The English found theirs on observations relative to domestic animals. From the observation of cross-breeding and hereditary varieties in such animals, Darwinism emerged. First, as a modest zoological theory, then as social biology that confers definitive preponderance to the English above all races. Every imperialism needs a justifying philosophy". (La raza cósmica, 1948)

"Hitler, although he disposes of absolute power, finds himself a thousand leagues from Caesarism. Power does not come to Hitler from the military base, but from the book that inspires the troops from the top. Hitler's power is not owed to the troops, nor the battalions, but to his own discussions... Hitler represents, ultimately, an idea, the German idea, so often humiliated previously by French militarism and English perfidy. Truthfully, we find civilian governed 'democracies' fighting against Hitler. But they are democracies in name only". ("La Inteligencia se impone", Timon 16, June 8, 1940)


Vasconcelos was a prolific author, writing in a variety of genres, especially philosophy, but also autobiography.


  • Pitágoras (1919)
  • El monismo estético (1919)
  • La Raza Cósmica (1925)
  • Indología (1926)
  • Metafísica (1929)
  • Pesimismo alegre (1931)
  • Estética (1936)
  • Ética (1939)
  • Historia del pensamiento filosófico (1937)
  • Lógica orgánica (1945)

Other publications[edit]

  • Teoría dinámica del derecho (1907)
  • La intelectualidad mexicana (1916)
  • Ulises criollo (1935)
  • La tormenta (1936)
  • Breve Historia de México (1937)
  • El desastre (1938)
  • El proconsulado (1939)
  • El ocaso de mi vida (1957)
  • Las Cartas Políticas de José Vasconcelos(1959) [28]
  • Obras completas (1957-1961)[29]


  1. ^ "Yo perdí la fe cuando murió mi madre. Recuerdo que entré a la Preparatoria (ella aún no moría) como hijo de Santa Mónica. Después me convencí de que lo mejor era ser cristiano. En mi actuación política y nadie me entendió, actué como un cristiano tolstoiano." — José Vasconcelos (see Fell, page 546)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Morales Gómez, Daniel A.; Torres, Carlos A. (1990). "The State and Education in Mexico". The state, corporatist politics, and educational policy making in Mexico. Praeger. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-275-93484-2. ISBN 0-275-93484-5. 
  2. ^ a b Martin, Percy Alvin, ed. (1935). Who's Who in Latin America: A biographical dictionary of the outstanding living men and women of Spanish America and Brazil. California, USA: Stanford University Press. p. 417. ISBN 9780804723152. Retrieved 2009-12-06. 
  3. ^ Fell, Claude (2000). "Notas explicativas". Ulises; Criollo. Colección Archivos (in Spanish) 3. Vasconcelos, José. Editorial Universidad de Costa Rica. pp. 526–573. ISBN 9782914273008. Retrieved 2009-12-06. 
  4. ^ Enrique Krauze, Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America, New York: Harper Collins 2011, p. 84
  5. ^ Enrique Krauze, Redeemers, p. 84.
  6. ^ Enrique Krauze, Redeemers, chapter 3 is subtitled "José Vasconcelos, the Cultural Caudillo"
  7. ^ "José Vasconcelos". 
  8. ^ Enrique Krauze, Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America, translated by Hank Heifetz. New York: Harper Collins 2011, p.53.
  9. ^ Krauze, Redeemers, p. 53>
  10. ^ Krauze, Redeemers, p. 53
  11. ^ Margarita Vera Cuspinera, "José Vasconcelos" in Encyclopedia of Mexico. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn 1997, p. 1519.
  12. ^ Krauze, Redeemers 55, 67.
  13. ^ quoted in Krauze, Redeemers, p. 84.
  14. ^ Krauze, Redeemers, p. 84.
  15. ^ a b c d Vera Cuspinera, "José Vasconcelos", p. 1519.
  16. ^ Krauze, Redeemers, p. 54.
  17. ^ John Mason Hart, Revolutionary Mexico: The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1987, p. 95.
  18. ^ "Texas Archival Resources Online José Vasconcelos". 
  19. ^ Krauze, Redeemers, p. 61
  20. ^ Krauze, Redeemers, p. 62.
  21. ^ Krauze, Redeemers, p. 62
  22. ^ quoted in Krauze, Redeemers, p. 62.
  23. ^ "José Vasconcelos Britannica". 
  24. ^ John W.F. Dulles, Yesterday in Mexico: A Chronicle of the Revolution, 1919-1936. Austin: University of Texas Press 1961, p.118.
  25. ^ Dulles, Yesterday in Mexico, p. 119.
  26. ^ Thomas Benjamin, La Revolución: Mexico's Great Revolution as Memory, Myth, and History. Austin: University of Texas Press 2000, p. 141.
  27. ^ Paul Gillingham, Cuauhtémoc's Bones: Forging National Identity in Modern Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press 2011, p. 173.
  28. ^ edited by Alfonso Taracena, Mexico: Editoria Librería 1959
  29. ^ Mexico: Libreros Mexicanos Unidos
  30. ^ "Awards Education". 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bar Lewaw, Itzhak. Introducción Crítico-Biografía a José Vasconcelos. Madrid: Ediciones Latinoamericanas, 1965.
  • ---. José Vasconcelos. México: Clásica Selecta Editora Libreria, 1965.
  • Carballo, Emmanuel. Diecinueve protagonistas de la literatura mexicana del siglo XX. México: Empresas Editoriales, SA, 1965; see especially. 17–47.
  • Cárdenas Noriega, Joaquín, José Vasconcelos, 1882-1982: Educador, político y profeta. Mexico City: Oceano 1982.
  • De Beer, Gabriela. José Vasconcelos and His World. New York: Las Américas 1966.
  • De Beer, Gabriela. "El ateneo y los atenistas: un examen retrospectivo". Revista Iberoamericana 148–149, Vol 55 (1989): 737–749.
  • Garciadiego Dantan, Javier. "De Justo Sierra a Vasconcelos. La Universidad Nacional durante la revolución mexicana." Historia Mexicana, vol. 46. No. 4. Homenaje a don Edmundo O'Gorman (April–June 1997), pp. 769–819.
  • Haddox, John H. Vasconcelos of Mexico, Philosopher and Prophet. Austin: University of Texas Press 1967.
  • Enrique Krauze. Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America, chapter 3, "José Vasconcelos, the cultural Caudillo". New York: Harper Collins 2011.
  • Lucas, Jeffrey Kent. The Rightward Drift of Mexico's Former Revolutionaries: The Case of Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama. Lewiston, NY, USA: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010.
  • Molloy, Sylvia. "First Memories, First Myths: Vasconcelos' Ulises criollo". En At Face Value: Autobiographical Writing in Spanish America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 186–208.
  • Vera Cuspinera, Margarita. El pensamiento filosófico de Vasconcelos. Mexico City: Extemporáneos 1979.
  • Vera Cuspinera, Margarita. "José Vasconcelos" in Encyclopedia of Mexico, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn 1997, pp. 1519–21.
  • Ward, Thomas. "José Vasconcelos y su cosmomología de la raza". En La resistencia cultural: la nación en el ensayo de las Américas. Lima: Editorial Universitaria URP, 2004, pp. 246–254.

External links[edit]