This life story is remarkable because it reveals the values, attitudes, and innermost feelings of a famous Mexican intellectual. Such intimacy from the pen of a scholar is almost unique in the literature of Mexico, where frankness is generally considered rather poor taste.
José Vasconcelos was a philosopher who aided Madero during the Mexican Revolution and became federal Minister of Education under President Obregón. At a time when rural education lacked adequate facilities and personnel, Vasconcelos sent trained teachers and circulating libraries to country schools. He promoted the study of great literature by publishing inexpensive editions of the classics. His campaign against illiteracy sent brigades of instructors throughout the country to teach adults as well as children. The fame of Mexico’s great artists, Rivera and Orozco, spread when Vasconcelos authorized them to paint murals on public buildings.
Such were the practical accomplishments of Vasconcelos, yet his primary goal was not practical achievement but the attainment of spiritual greatness. Here I should like to consider an important question raised by Rex Crawford, the translator: To what extent is Vasconcelos representative of the modern intellegentsia of Mexico? Like many of his countrymen, Vasconcelos believed that the pursuit of materialistic ends is an unworthy goal which dulls the mind and starves the spirit. From his viewpoint, the true goal of existence is the quest of the human spirit for Divine beauty in nature, art, literature, music, and love. In his Mexican world, beauty and suffering alternate in a rhythmic balance of opposites. Such spiritual values are not limited to the intelligentsia of Mexico but form a common bond shared by people from all social strata and all parts of the nation.
Vasconcelos emphasizes the conflict between the spiritual goals of his people and the material goals of the U.S. He finds no beauty in the arts of our country. Instead, he sees the U.S. as a stronghold of vulgarity and conformity. This opinion seems to be discreetly shared by quite a few educated Latins. Our towns, customs, foods, and ideas are viewed by Vasconcelos as monotonous repetitions of a single pattern.
“Everything there is washed,” he writes, “but with a soap that leaves everything tasteless, if not indeed contaminated by the aseptic odor, which does not prevent there being more sick people and more hospitals in the U.S. than in Europe. One might say that the evil of external uniformity ends by sickening their bodies as well as their souls.”
Despite his contempt for gringo culture, Vasconcelos was favorably impressed by the warmheartedness of our people. He appreciated the stimulating intellectual companionship he found in the U.S. universities where he taught. However, he deeply resented offers from U.S. institutions to send teachers and scientists to Mexico. Similar aid programs are frequently seen by Latins as an insulting way of implying that their culture is inferior to ours and their educational programs incapable of training their own teachers and scientists. Vasconcelos also resented the attempts of U.S. ambassadors to exert influence in the government and polities of Mexico. Another target for his criticism is the Mexican “pocho” who imitates gringo ways and works for the “Texanizing of Mexico.”
While Mexican scholars may share Vasconcelos’ views of gringoism, they do not share his contempt for the Indian heritage of Mexico. There are some, however, who agree with his opinion that contemporary Indian culture is an undesirable anachronism. These intellectuals want to remake the Indian into a modern Mexican of the mestizo cultural mold. Progress begets uniformity in Mexico as well as in the United States.
If many of Vasconcelos’ values were representative of the intelligentsia, his behavior was not. His arrogance and rudeness were alien to the traditional politeness of Mexican society. His interpersonal relations were marked by perpetual conflict resulting in the loss of former friends.
Crawford has produced an admirable abridgment of the original four-volume work. He wisely cautions his readers not to expect a systematic narrative, for Vasconcelos had no intention of writing one. “For us,” Crawford says, “it is the exactitudes that matter, for him, the ‘inquietudes’ of which Latin Americans believe us to be almost totally devoid.”