José Vasconcelos (1882-1959), a Mexican philosopher, sociologist, essayist, educator, and historian, is best known for his four-volume autobiography.
José Vasconcelos was born on Feb. 27, 1882, in Oaxaca, but the family soon moved to Piedras Negras. When José started to school, he walked across the bridge each day to attend classes on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. Later the family moved to various other Mexican cities, and for a time he attended the Instituto Campechano (Campeche Institute) and then, in Mexico City, the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School) and the law school, receiving his law degree in 1907.
Vasconcelos belonged to the Ateneo de la Juventud (Athenaeum for Young People) and participated in the Mexican Revolution on the side of Francisco Madero and Pancho Villa, meanwhile publishing numerous articles on the activities of Mexican intellectuals. When the revolution triumphed, Álvaro Obregón appointed him president of the National University of Mexico, and from 1921 to 1924 he made an extraordinary contribution as secretary of public education, organizing popular education, creating libraries, stimulating mural painting, carrying out an extensive program of publication, and importing educators such as Pedro Henriquez Ureña and Gabriela Mistral.
In 1925 he published La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race), followed by Indologia (Indology) in 1926, in both of which he dealt with the culture of Hispanic America.
Because of political difficulties, Vasconcelos had to leave Mexico several times, so he traveled in Europe and the United States. In 1929 he launched his campaign for the presidency of Mexico but was defeated and again went into exile, living in Europe, Asia, and South America. From Paris and Madrid he directed La antorcha (The Torch), a magazine which he published in the years following his presidential campaign.
Vasconcelos is best known for the four volumes constituting his autobiography: Ulises criollo (1935; A Creole Ulysses), La tormenta (1936; The Storm), El desastre (1938; The Disaster), and El proconsulado (1939; The Proconsulate), of which the first two volumes are particularly outstanding. In this autobiography he reveals himself as a man of very strong, sometimes contradictory, feelings; but because of its spirit, this work is the most valuable document of its time and, in spite of itself, a literary work, especially in Ulises criollo, which recreates the years of his childhood, adolescence, and early manhood, bringing the story up to the events following the assassination of Madero. Under the term of "Creole, " Vasconcelos undertook to defend a Hispanic type of culture, both against a falsified indigenous cult and against Anglo-Saxon influence.
In 1940 he returned to Mexico and became director of the Biblioteca México (Mexico Library), continuing in that position until his death. He belonged to countless cultural groups, both in Mexico and abroad, including the Colegio Nacional (National College) and the Academia Mexicana de la Lengua (Mexican Academy of the Spanish Language). He died in Mexico City on June 30, 1959.
For information on Vasconcelos in English consult A Mexican Ulysses: An Autobiography, translated and abridged by W. Rex Crawford (1963), and Vasconcelos and Manuel Gamio's Aspects of Mexican Civilization (1926). A remarkably succinct exposition of Vasconcelos's philosophy is John H. Haddox, Vasconcelos of Mexico: Philosopher and Prophet (1967), which, dealing with just the major ideas, serves as a useful introduction to his work. □