Jose Vasconcelos was born in Oaxaca, Oaxaca on February 28, 1882, the son of a customs official. Jose's mother, who was a pious Catholic, died when Jose was sixteen. The family moved to the border town of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, where he grew up attending school in Eagle Pass, Texas. He became bilingual in English and Spanish, 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.
He married Serafina Miranda of Tlaxiaco in the state of Oaxaca in 1906, when he was twenty-four. With her he had children Jose 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. 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." He remarried pianist Esperanza Cruz and they had a child, Hector.
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). The Ateneo de Juventud was led by a Dominican citizen, Pedro Henriquez Urena, who had read Uruguayan essayist Jose Enrique Rodo'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. 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. It was opposed to the Diaz 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."
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.. The Anti-Reelectionistas supported the democratic movement to oust long-time President of Mexico Porfirio Diaz 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.
After Diaz 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 Alvaro Obregon 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 Gutierrez. Pancho Villa was defeated by the Constitutionalist Army under Obregon 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.
Vasconcelos returned to Mexico during the interim presidency of Sonoran Adolfo de la Huerta was named rector the National Autonomous University of Mexico (1920) 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. 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 hablara el espiritu" (The spirit will speak for my race), an influence of Rodo's arielismo. 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."
When Alvaro Obregon became president in 1920, he created the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) in 1921 and named Vasconcelos as its head. Under Obregon, the national budget had two key expeditures; not surprisingly the military was first, but the second was education. Creating the Secretariat entailed changing the Constitution of 1917, and in order to do that, Obregon'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.
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 Diaz continued to be used.
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.
He resigned in 1924 because of his opposition to President Plutarco Elias 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).
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 cosmica (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.
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 cosmica and Metafisica, 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 cosmica has been used by Chicano and Mexican-American movements since the 1970s, asserting the reconquista of the American Southwest based on their Mexican ancestry.
Thanks to Vasconcelos, the National Symphonic Orchestra (1920) and the Symphonic Orchestra of Mexico (1928) were officially endorsed. Muralists Diego Rivera, Jose 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 cosmica, 1948)f
"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 cosmica, 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.Pitagoras (1919)
El monismo estetico (1919)
La Raza Cosmica (1925)
Pesimismo alegre (1931)
Historia del pensamiento filosofico (1937)
Logica organica (1945)
Teoria dinamica del derecho (1907)
La intelectualidad mexicana (1916)
Ulises criollo (1935)
La tormenta (1936)
Breve Historia de Mexico (1937)
El desastre (1938)
El proconsulado (1939)
El ocaso de mi vida (1957)
Las Cartas Politicas de Jose Vasconcelos(1959)
Obras completas (1957-1961)