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Authors: Enrique Krauze

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Rivera arrived with sketches of women in costumes typical of each state in the republic and a plan for the stairway that Vasconcelos described as an “ascending frieze that, starting from sea level with its tropical vegetation, would change into the landscape of the high plains and end with the volcanoes.” These might have been Diego's responses to the initial guidelines laid out by Vasconcelos but from then on it was all Diego, there and elsewhere, including the 239 panels (within a space of 17,060 square feet) in the corridors of the ministry. The specific subjects that he set beside each other, from 1923 to the completion of the project in 1928, were not dictated by Vasconcelos, who was capable of a more modest presence before the creation of great art: “The best artistic epochs are those in which the artist works with personal liberty, but subject to a clearly defined philosophical or religious doctrine.”

The doctrine was the Mexican Revolution, interpreted by Diego Rivera with a weight of social idealism and historical (and aesthetic) materialism, very different from the inclinations of Vasconcelos, who might be termed a mystic of the flesh but hardly of the details of daily living, which Diego reveled in: the world of work (women spinning, men working in the fields, miners, dye workers) and the fiestas of Mexico with all their energetic movement and local color. Yet perhaps the most significant mural deals directly with education, depicting a female teacher in a rural setting instructing a class of Indians, while an armed revolutionary soldier stands guard to protect them. Even in his richly descriptive memoirs, Vasconcelos rarely condescends to the description of everyday activities. His themes are nature and the heavens, the environments of God, untouched by human beings. Or one man alone, himself, in touch with passion and the absolute. And yet there was a connection, a current of sympathy, between Diego Rivera and José Vasconcelos. Both of them, the philosopher and the artist, believed in social redemption through art.

As a spiritual architect, a patron of morally charged spectacle, José Vasconcelos touched a deep vein in Mexican history. The so-called Spiritual Conquest, the conversion of the Indians in the sixteenth century, had been accomplished not through sermons or books but by visual means. One of the sources of inspiration for Vasconcelos had been the wealth of mural paintings on the walls of so many Mexican convents, executed by Dominicans and Franciscans, sometimes with the help of Indian artists they had trained. Vasconcelos knew very well that the Mexican Indians had learned the conquerors' sacred history through these paintings and later from the sumptuous façades and altarpieces of the Mexican Baroque, which, like indigenous art itself, would crowd the available surfaces with rich, expressive detail. He was not interested in founding a religion but he did try to carry a message of universal culture (both Western and what he believed to be Eastern) throughout the country. And he complemented this message with a new and powerfully expressive valuation of Mexican culture, drawing from all its past histories: Indian, Viceregal, and Liberal. The Revolution in education represented a new order, a catholicity of culture.

“May the light of these bright walls be like the dawn of a new Mexico, of a splendid Mexico,” José Vasconcelos said, concluding his speech on that morning of July 1922, when he inaugurated the building of his Ministry of Education in its new, dazzling colors. Despite his personal (and national) commitment to cultural splendor, he could never have suspected the tremendous historical and political significance that the corpus of Mexican mural painting would acquire. The murals of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros would be the visual gospels that created the myth of the Mexican Revolution. Instead of the complicated pattern of contending and sometimes stubbornly local forces that it was, the Revolution as well as the previous history of Mexico took on—especially through the later work of Rivera—an idealized form, in clear stages, a new sacred history. First there was the Indian arcadia, then the trauma of the Conquest, the dark centuries of the Viceroyalty, the first redemption through independence from Spain, the second redemption (against the Catholic Church) of the Reform under Benito Juárez, the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, and the final redemptive advent of the Revolution. Orozco's interpretation is less linear, more ambiguous, deeper and often pessimistic. But in the richly flowering, lavishly colored textures of Rivera, the Revolution becomes not what it was but what it would have wished to be, what it sought to be, above and beyond all the differences of groups with differing ideologies resolving their quarrels on the fields of battle. The Revolution became an epic in which the Mexican people took their destiny into their own hands to correct the errors of the past and build a new order of social justice, in the fields and in the cities, marked by democracy, a healthy nationalism, universal education, and pride in their cultural roots.

It was a message that attracted intellectuals and artists from all of America and even Europe. They came to Mexico to photograph its people, to appreciate its landscape, its popular arts, its gastronomy. To translate its poems, to respect its hard-earned national self-esteem, admire its many schools for Indians and for the urban poor (inspired by the American philosopher John Dewey, who also came to Mexico). And in some cases (such as D. H. Lawrence, who wrote
The Plumed Serpent
after visiting the country), they even came to identify with, participate in, and artistically re-create its bloodiest mythical traditions. For some years, Mexico was a magnet for the world and, especially for the political left, a possible utopia.



Martí and Rodó applied their imagination to ideas and worked in the field of letters toward the unity of Latin America. Vasconcelos went a step further. Despite all his talk about higher planes of being, he was always, essentially, a man of the body. He proceeded to bring Latin America to Mexico and in his own person brought Mexico to Latin America. In September 1921, while still Rector of the National University, he organized the First International Convention of Students. Representatives arrived from all the countries of Hispanic America, including Venezuela, then governed by the dictator Juan Vicente Gómez. Vasconcelos gave a fiery speech attacking Gómez. Then he and the student representatives produced a declaration of Latin American nationalism that expanded its wording to include the entire world. All of them, of course including Vasconcelos himself, felt themselves to be apostles, saviors and “socialists of honor.” In their resolution, signed by the president of the convention, Daniel Cosío Villegas, they declared:


The youth of the universities proclaims that it will struggle for the advent of a new humanity, based on modern principles of economic, social and international justice [and affirms] its optimism before the grave problems that are shaking the world and its absolute confidence in securing a new social organization for the renovation of the economic and moral values of humanity that will permit and further the achievement of the high spiritual goals of man.


Many young people (including a number of writers), attracted by the educational experiments of Vasconcelos, would come to Mexico. One of them during his time in the country, the young Peruvian idealist Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, would found the A.P.R.A, a movement inspired by a Latin American vision. Later (as APRA without periods), it would have a long history as a political party in Peru. And among the renowned authors who arrived in Mexico, the Chilean poetess Gabriela Mistral (Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945) would accept the position of general editor for a
Collection of Readings for Women.

Between August and December 1922, Vasconcelos carried the good news of the Mexican Revolution to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. He was accompanied by some old friends from the Ateneo de la Juventud (like the writer Julio Torri), young collaborators like Carlos Pellicer, the opera singer Fanny Anitúa, a military band, a folkloric orchestra with dancers dressed in the conventional Mexican styles of a
(an indigenous woman from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec) or a
china poblana
(a semi-mythical figure from the seventeenth century whose dress had become one of the standards of Mexican kitsch), as well as by cadets from the military college. In September, “Socrates,” Pedro Henríquez Ureña, joined the traveling troupe. At every step they encountered aesthetic fragments, of the past or of the present, that for Vasconcelos seemed to foreshadow a common future. In Rio de Janeiro he thought he had encountered not only the traces of “Iberia, the common fatherland” but also “a religious unction derived only from the power of its beauty.” In São Paulo, they welcomed him at the Teacher's College with songs and dances performed by the students. The city of Ouro Preto reminded him of Guanajuato: “the mineral leaves monuments, buildings and, in a short time, ruins.” It pleased him to see that no single politician or “hero” in Brazil “incarnates the fatherland” as in (Spanish-speaking of course) Venezuela.

On the sixteenth of September 1922 (Mexican Independence Day), he delivered a special gift from Mexico to the people of Brazil, a statue of the last Aztec hero, Cuauhtémoc. (The original now stands on the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City.) In Uruguay, Vasconcelos (still politically the democrat) lamented the use of power by the former president José Batlle but appreciated his moderation. He and his entourage spent a month in Buenos Aires. Alfredo Palacios, the first Argentine socialist legislator, whom he described as “the Argentine patriarch of Iberoamericanism” and “apostle of every noble cause,” gave him an impressive reception at the University of La Plata. Vasconcelos was profoundly impressed by the teachers' colleges Sarmiento had founded and he asked Pedro Henríquez Ureña to deliver a lecture on “The Utopia of America.” His subject: in its cultural nationalism, in its return to origins, “despite how much tends to uncivilize it, despite the terrifying emotions that shake and disturb it to its very foundations . . . Mexico is creating a new life.” Latin America should follow the example of Mexico.

In October he visited the spectacular waterfalls of Iguazú and was enraptured: “the vital nerve of Latin America and the propulsive center of a civilization without precedent in History . . . the people that will control Iguazú will be the people of America.” In Chile he was received by a multitude of students and looked for trouble by criticizing the power of the military. He included a reference to Mexico: “The misfortune of Mexico, the misfortune of Chile, the misfortune of Latin America is that we are governed by the sword and not the intelligence.”

He returned from his long voyage across the body of America convinced of three things: militarism is the central evil of Latin America, power should devolve to the intellectuals, and Latin America will be the cradle of a new civilization.



The presidential election of 1924 was on the horizon. Vasconcelos suggested himself as a candidate for president. The Sonoran generals in power had other plans. He resigned his position at the Ministry of Education and, as a test for his higher ambitions, ran for governor of Oaxaca and lost. Once again he went off into exile.

From then on his dream was to become a “new Sarmiento.” As president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento had constructed hundreds of schools, libraries, astronomical observatories, botanical and zoological gardens, parks, roads, railroads, ships, telegraph lines, and even new cities. Vasconcelos would be a new, modern Mexican Sarmiento. But in his farewell address to the teachers whom he had inspired and trained, he spoke of another antecedent (to him), one of greater significance to Mexico, no less than Quetzalcóatl, the mythological god-man who brought civilization to the Toltec culture, was then driven out of his homeland by Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, but promised to return, from the east where he had gone: “Quetzalcóatl, the principle of civilization, the god who constructs, will triumph over Huitzilopochtli, the demon of violence and evil, who for so many centuries has held destructive and insolent power!”

In 1925, Vasconcelos wrote his most exaggerated fantasy,
La raza cósmica
(The Cosmic Race). On reading it, Miguel de Unamuno said, and not with respect, “The great fantasizer!” Along with Spain, Vasconcelos declared, the Latin American race had fallen into a theological abyss long before 1898, in fact since the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, when a league of European powers, spearheaded by the British fleet, defeated the alliance of Napoleonic France and Spain. While it seemed that God favored “Anglo-Saxonism,” the Iberian race fragmented its geography into small republics and lost its “spirit” to two extremes, dogma and atheism. But destiny would offer a surprise. Using the lens of “race” typical of his time, Vasconcelos discerned a divine design: we Iberians would become a fifth race, the final race, which would fuse the four racial fragments of our planet. Near the Amazon, a city for the ages would arise, Universopolis he called it, where men would live totally suffused with love and beauty. In the glory of the tropics, humanity would be transformed, much for the better.

It was a vision of a future aesthetic empire. Vasconcelos united the philosopher Comte's division of history into three stages with the Neo-platonic myth of the hierarchical, sphere-by-sphere ascent of the soul. At the lowest level was the economic or warrior stage, then the intellectual or political, and, at the summit, the spiritual or aesthetic. The first level was no more than a law of the jungle, a trivial matter of ballistics and economics (Vasconcelos once defined the latter as “the kitchen of the intelligence”). The second level apparently was his view of the modern age, Western culture in its Aristotelian version, the tyranny of rules and reason. The third stage embodied Vasconcelos's version of the Plotinian heights, a very material paradise full of fantasy, inspiration, amorous joy, the miracle of divine beauty. In that state (or place), to be less than beautiful would be a desecration. “The ugliest will not procreate, they will not want to procreate . . . Matrimony [and here we hear the echoes of his autobiography] will cease to be a consolation for misfortunes . . . and will be transformed into a work of art.”

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