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National Identity and the Mexican Revolution

By Randy Jackson

One hundred years separated Mexico’s War of Independence and the Mexican Revolution. The War of Independence (1810 – 1821) may have severed Spanish European rule from New Spain, but it left this new country of Mexico to sort through the competing power structures left behind. These were the Catholic Church; the privileged economic structure of the encomiendas (estates owned by the descendants of the conquistadores); and the indigenous and mixed-race underclass majority that had been cemented in poverty since the time of the conquest. These grappling power structures, along with foreign invasions, beset Mexico with a century of wars, coup d’etats, uprisings, and assassinations.

These blood-soaked events of the 19th century led to the 20th-century Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920), which hammered out a constitution and a process of governance in 1917. But only a sense of national identity could hold these new structures in place. For this we turn to the mightier pen, to the artists, the poets and philosophers. Around the time of the Mexican Revolution, there was a diverse group of artists, professors and students called Ateneo de la Juventud Mexicana (Mexican academic youth group). This group stood for (among other reforms) the value of a Mexican identity against the “Ideals” of President Porfirio Díaz, who saw Europe and America as ideals for a future Mexico.

José Vasconcelos Calderón, a philosopher and writer (later politician) was a member of this group. One influence on Vasconcelos was the Uruguayan essayist José Enrique Rodó. Rodó argued against what he called “Nordomanía,” the influence of Yankee materialism and the cultural megaphone of the United States. Rodó saw this influence as a threat that would drown out the regional identities of Latin America. For a century, Latin American philosophers were aware of the decline of the Catholic Spanish empire and the ascendency of the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant paradigm. Finding a foothold of identity amid this cultural erosion was something that Vasconcelos tried to establish for Mexico.

Beyond the support for unique Mexican and Latin American identities, Vasconcelos was philosophically opposed to Social Darwinism, which proposed the superiority of certain races. This concept was gaining ground in parts of the western world around the time of the Mexican Revolution. In 1925, in response to these ideas and influences, Vasconcelos wrote “La raza cósmica” (“The Cosmic Race”) an essay that became highly influential in Mexican political and sociocultural policies.

In “La raza cósmica,” Vasconcelos looks back to the ancient civilizations of the Americas and the mixing of people following the Spanish conquest, to produce el mestizaje (the mixed race). Vasconcelos writes, “Spanish colonization created mixed races [whereas] the English kept on mixing only with the whites and annihilated the natives.” Vasconcelos proposed that el mestizaje would be a “fifth race” that would hold the best aspects of their various forefathers, and in time would become the universal humanity. This was a message of hope for the people of Mexico at a time when national identity was beginning to be articulated.

Vasconcelos and his work are not without controversy. Modern scholars point out his own period’s racism, which Vasconcelos himself held and displayed in his work. Yet his influence lives on. Under President Álvaro Obregón (1920-24), Vasconcelos was made the head of the Secretariat of Public Education. Along with an expanded budget for education under the Obregón administration, Vasconcelos expanded the public education system, initiating a large number of texts for use in schools.

Vasconcelos’ work on modern Mexican identity influenced many artists and philosophers. His work is said to have direct influence on Octavio Paz’s most famous work, El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). Under his secretariat, Vasconcelos commissioned artists like Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, to paint the insides of Mexico’s most important public buildings. This gave rise to the Mexican muralist movement.

The Mexican Revolution was an unfortunate protracted civil war with tremendous loss of life. It does, however, mark a turning point in Mexican history and the birth of a unique national identity. Individuals like Vasconcelos contributed to defining the fascinating and tumultuous history of Mexico and initiating the formation of a Mexican national identity.