José Vasconcelos Classical Readings for Children and the making of childhood in post-revolutionary Mexico
This paper discusses the work of Mexican writer and politician José Vasconcelos, focusing on his polemic ideas regrading notions of childhood and race in the context of post-revolutionary period, during the 1920s. Our approach centers specifically on a very rare contribution to children’s genre: Classical Readings for Children, an anthology of “high literature” adapted for young readers. This edition, in two volumes, was conceived, planned, and sponsored by Vasconcelos during the time he served as Minister of Education. It represented a part of a vast cultural project intended to redefine the principles of Mexican identity through the exaltation of miscegenation and the promotion of the concept of “Cosmic Race.”
Vasconcelos, Mexico, Classical Readings for Children, Mexican revolution
[End Page 14]
During the 1910s, Mexico went through a complex process of changes widely known as the “Mexican Revolution,” which resulted in a deep transformation of political and cultural groundings of what was understood as a “national project.” It began as a civil war against the reelection of the dictator Porfirio Diaz, whose authoritarian administration was prolonged for over thirty years. Nevertheless, for many of the different people that took part of the movement, it represented the chance for rebuilding a new nation by vindicating their long ignored identities and needs. In fact, there was not one singular “Mexican Revolution” but many revolutionary projects that violently collided. Hence, the hardest part of the process was to reach a common understanding of this new idea of Nation.
At the beginning of 1920s, although the war was not entirely over, a group of military chiefs from the northern State of Sonora took control of the country and began a slow process of institutionalizing revolutionary principles (Aguilar Camín and Meyer 76-80). Evidently, one of the major aspects of this consolidation was related to a deep educational reform. It was necessary to find a way to reach as many people as possible in order to gain a strong political adhesion and reinforce the group’s presence in the wide Mexican territory. To achieve this ambitious goal, President Alvaro Obregon placed writer Jose Vasconcelos as the head of a brand new [End Page 15] Ministry of Education (Fell 79-82).
Although he headed the Ministry for a short period (from 1921 to 1924), it was enough to conceive a large scale program involving a group of writers and artists that earned international recognition thanks to Vasconcelos’s support (such as celebrated painters Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco). It is only fair to say that he played a major role in the defining process of the post-revolutionary Mexican State. He developed the country’s first massive cultural project of the twentieth century, through two complementary undertakings: first, the sponsorship of public big-format art (initiating the “muralist movement”); and second, the publication of a large series of universal literature “classics” to distribute in libraries and schools across the country.
Vasconcelos considered art the key to the spiritual evolution of human kind, and he tried to keep it away from immediate political interests in order to maintain the purity of his purpose. Nevertheless, this idea became a great obstacle in his relationship with power, as well as with several artists (Rivera, for instance), who observed art more like a vehicle for ideological transmission. Such a disagreement would eventually drive most muralists apart from him (Crespo 307-308).
Murals developed during his time at the Ministry are a reflection of the historical-idealistic thoughts that underlay Vasconcelos’ aesthetical convictions (Fell 406). This inspiration would achieve its formalization a few years later, with the publication in Spain of his famous essay The Cosmic Race (Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race). These first paintings, which still cover the Ministry’s walls, do not depict static images but stage long term processes. They establish a time-space dynamic that links Amerindian past with the “high universal culture,” offering a teleological vision of human experience headed to a spiritual destination. More than a portrayal of “Mexicanity” in the folkloric sense, the first murals became the graphic representation of an integral concept of Latin-American being (Crespo, 238). Their message was both inclusive and attractive, resulting in an invitation to the observer to take part in the great historical plan. They offered a vision of the past that designates a common destination, the merging and triumph of the “Latin-American race,” understood as the great mixture of “the fourth human races”: American, Asian, European, and African.
The use of big format images was only a part of Vasconcelos’ whole proposal, which was addressed to a massive, mostly illiterate, audience. But his educational project included, as well, the idea of going from collective cultural practices to individual ones, reinforcing the practice of reading, conceived as an exercise of introspection and spiritual growth. As synthetized by Javier Garciadiego, Vasconcelos’ project rested on three pillars: the strictly instructive matters, the cultural and artistic affairs, and the one regarding books and reading. This last spanned from book publishing to the construction of libraries. Thereby, “more than an institutional legacy it became part of Mexico’s cultural legend” (Garciadiego 51).
From his Ministry, Vasconcelos took over a publishing project (only comparable, in its monumental character, to muralism itself) with the purpose of creating a huge community of readers and training them in the reading of classic authors. He created a Publishing Department, which translated to Spanish a vast selection of classics (Homer, Shakespeare, and Dante, among many others) and turned them into massive editions, distributed for free in schools and libraries in every town across the country.1 He developed a comprehensive policy. Since there were few publishing companies in México, which could not keep up with the huge government demand, massive purchases were made from Spain. Finally, The Minister decided to acquire the necessary machinery to establish a printing shop: the National Graphics Workshop, “Talleres Gráficos de la Nación” (Garciadiego 52).
Needless to say, a big part of this effort was designed for children. Vasconcelos shared with other publishers of his time an old worry about the small number of books produced specifically for early reading, beyond the traditional school lessons, presented in the shape of catechism, fables, or as moralizing poetry. He openly disdained a new wave of children’s books that began to appear in Mexico since the beginning of the twentieth century. He criticized the graduation of readings for children according to different levels of elementary instruction, alleging that this kind of criteria [End Page 16] responded to an Anglo-Saxon scheme but made no sense in a Hispanic context:
Our texts of the second and third year are shameful because we copy the forms of culture but without penetrating its intention. Why do we have to adjust the reading in two and three books if this is very well in English, where every word has to be learned orthographically, in addition to ideologically, whereas in our language, a person who learns to read a good book in first year, can already understand any written work?(Vasconcelos, “Prólogo” X)
Vasconcelos stood against a corpora of patriotic trends that had been assembled by authors so celebrated as poet Amado Nervo in order to pull out from a heterogeneous sample of texts (from Pre-Columbian oral tradition to nineteenth century romanticism) the essence of an alleged “Mexican children’s literature” (Nervo). The stubborn pursuit of “Mexican childhood,” which the Minister so much disliked, was consistent with liberal governments program along the second half of the nineteenth century. After the victory of the Republican Party (in 1867), Mexico witnessed the construction a renewed idea of childhood that instilled in the youngest population the confidence in the Nation’s future (Alcubierre Moya).
The leading space occupied by children in nationalistic turn-of-the-century discourse was shown in the development of a narrative that exalted heroic deeds performed by children, clearly following a model set by Edmundo De Amicis’s Coure. The finest example of this is the legend that tells the military feat of young cadets (the so-called “child-heroes”) who died in defense of Chapultepec Castle during the Mexican-American war in 1845.2 The purpose underlying the promotion of such fictionalized historical tales was to instill in Mexican children the highest values of liberalism (homeland, family, and work) and point them out as the future of an ideal citizenship (Neufeld 69-74).
During the first decade of the twentieth century, many publishers profited from this trend—putting out diverse types of books and magazines addressed to children and characterized by their nationalistic contents (yet mostly adapted or copied from foreign patterns). Instead, Vasconcelos advocated for a notion of childhood that would provide a sense of universality to the future citizenship, which could approach Mexican experience to that of other countries where children had been traditionally observed as consumers of literature. He acknowledged English “wonderful children’s literature” and its usefulness in the making of trained readers. He considered as “vanity” and “indolence” the derogatory attitude towards children and rated them as “geniuses”: “much more awake than adults, not being dulled by vices and appetites” (Vasconcelos, “Prólogo” XI-XII).
Thereby, Vasconcelos turned around the traditional concepts concerning childhood. Although he shared the essential idea about the nation’s destiny resting in its children, he pushed back the positivist principle of children’s intelligence as weak and therefore corruptible. So he published in 1924 a new selection and adaptation of literary classics, intended to endow Mexican children with a literary corpus of universal nature: Classic Readings for Children (Lecturas clásicas para niños).
The word “Classic” causes alarm; nevertheless, classic is what should serve of model, of type, the best of an epoch. What today we call genial will be classic tomorrow, and classic is the best of all the epochs. Why should it be reserved for the old men that often no longer read? And why should we give to children trash of the understanding only because we suppose that they do not understand another thing?(Vasconcelos, “Prólogo” XII)
If the correspondence between graphic discourse of the first muralism and Vasconcelos’ ideas about the “Cosmic Race” is evident, the same can be said about this selection of classics.3 In the same way that first murals of the Mexican muralist movement narrated the history of Latin American people through emotional symbolism, the Classical Readings for Children intended to relate its young readers to the history of what Vasconcelos called “intense civilization” through a journey along the cultures that lead the evolution of humanity in its successive stages.
The sequence of the selected texts along [End Page 17] the two volumes is supposed to be chronological. Nonetheless, the order of its succession responds more to a geographical and diachronic map, which only acquires coherence if observed from the perspective of The Cosmic Race’s timeline.
The Classical Readings for Children in the Light of The Cosmic Race
The itinerary begins in the East, more precisely, India. It starts with adaptations of very ancient religious texts—such as the Vedas, the Kata Upanishad, the epic of Ramayana, the Legend of Buddha, and the Panchatantra. These texts are immediately followed by an abrupt leap in time, clearly breaking the chronologic criteria, to the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). This thousand-year leap, though, does not reveal a lack of sense. There are two aspects of Indian culture that stand out for Vasconcelos: first, that it represents one of the oldest arenas of “intense civilization”; and second, that it achieved, through Hinduism, a cultural fusion that resembles Latin American “cosmic” essence. Tagore seems to represent, therefore, this contemporary Hindu element that spiritually unified a region submitted to the political and cultural control of British Empire.
After Tagore’s sudden appearance, come along the tales of Arabian Nights—the old compilation of Persian stories, translated to French by Antoine Galland in the early eighteenth century—which weren’t much known in Mexico at the time. Following the stories of Sherezade, Sinbad, and Aladdin, the oriental cycle is closed by three dark Japanese legends extracted from the Kwaidan, an anthology of traditional Japanese stories of phantasmagoric atmosphere, published in English by the Greek-Irish orientalist Lafcadio Hearn in 1905.
It attracts our attention, however, the fact that this section of the first volume refers to the legends of “The Far East,” but Chinese culture is almost completely circumvented from the book. This omission is coincident with their rejection (racial and cultural) that Vasconcelos expressed in the Cosmic Race. Is important to contextualize this expression in a specific time when Chinese migration to Mexico had multiplied enormously, becoming the target of an unprecedented xenophobic reaction (Gómez Izquierdo). Sadly, Vasconcelos was no stranger to it:
We recognize that it is not fair that people as the Chinese, who, under the saintly guidance of Confucian morality multiply like mice, should come to degrade the human condition, precisely at the moment when we begin to understand that intelligence serves to refrain and regulate the lower zoological instincts, which are contrary to a truly religious conception of life. If we reject the Chinese it is because man, as he progresses, multiplies less and feels the horror of numbers, for the same reason that he has come to value quality.(Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race 19-20)
In contrast, he showed an opposite attitude regarding the Japanese, referring to them as “clean, intelligent, and in their way, as handsome as any other” (20). It seems as it is exclusively in them that Vasconcelos finds what he recognizes as virtues of “the Mongol,” an essential element in the conformation of “cosmic race” (20).
[End Page 18]
The second great step in the journey of Classical Readings for Children is placed in the heart of the Mediterranean region—with stories of some central characters of Greek mythology, like Hercules and Prometheus, immediately continued by fragments of the two Homeric poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. This selection emphasizes the nautical avatars of the voyager Ulysses, in whose honor Vasconcelos would title, a decade later, the first part of his Memoires: Ulises Criollo (A Mexican Ulysses: An Autobiography). Evidently, Ancient Greece plays a fundamental role in the Classical Readings as it does in the Cosmic Race—being considered as the bridge of “intense civilization” from East to West, in which the “clear mind of the white” was developed (Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race 22).
This selection of heroes is attached to the idea of building a “universal” canon. Hence, it reveals male model behaviors corresponding to Western values: Achilles’ bellicosity and fury, Ulysses’s audacity and wit. This deep Westernism (or bizarre universalism) throws light on the real motives of the selection, which clearly coincide with Vasconcelos’ historical view: “Greece laid the foundations of the Western or European civilization, the white civilization that, upon expanding, reached the forgotten shores of the American continent in order to consummate the task of re-civilization and re-population” (The Cosmic Race 9).
Leaving behind the Hellenic context, the following stop in Vasconcelian itinerary ventures, once more, against the chronologic criteria and goes back in time to the prophetic mission of Hebrew people. By presenting Judaism precisely from the texts included in the Christian Bible under the title of Old Testament, it makes clear that Vasconcelos’ appreciation for this ancestral culture is limited to the recognition of its subsidiary relationship with Christianity. Thus, even while admitting that in Latin American people are revealed “Judaic striae hidden within the Castilian blood since the days of the cruel expulsion,” so much as traces of “Arabian melancholy, as a reminder of the sickly Muslim sensuality,” the truth is that Vasconcelos does not recognize any religion other than Christianity.
The Hebrew race was, for the arrogant Egyptians, nothing more than a miserable caste of slaves. Yet for that race was born Jesus Christ, who announced the love of all men and initiated the greatest movement of the History. This love shall be one of the fundamental dogmas of the fifth race that will be produced in America.(35).
Therefore, in recognizing the prophetic and historic value of Judaism, Vasconcelos offers the adaptation of several biblical passages from the Old Testament in Classical Readings for Children: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samson, and Ruth.
The first volume of the Classical Readings ends with the New Testament, from the birth of Jesus and Herod’s pursuit to some of the Parables, which represent—as Homeric heroes did—a canonical selection of behavioral models: men and women who take advantage of good opportunities but, above all, who consciously act in favor of future benefits for their community.
As for the second volume, a quick summary describes an approach to European civilization according to its main cultural areas (Iberian, French, [End Page 19] German, Italian, and Anglo-Saxon),6 followed by the crossover of the “white race” towards American lands. This journey begins in the Low/Early Middle Ages, with the Christian Re-conquest of Muslim Spain. The feats of Rodrigo Diaz (El Cid Campeador) represent the starting point of a warlike voyage culminating in Catholic Monarchs’ domain over the Iberian world, as well as the newly discovered lands at the other side of Atlantic Ocean. The medieval Spanish hero embodies in The Cosmic Race the best of its spirit: the capacity to join creative genius and military impetus, which would be inherited by conquerors such as Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro.
From our perspective, such textual and ideological integration is not a coincidence, even if intends to be covered with a geographical argument. We think, in contrast, that Vasconcelos believed “intense civilization” went to the end of its European stage and began its ultimate transition when the New World was discovered. Thus, at this point, the Classical Readings seem to leave behind the most clearly literary element to offer stories of historic character. For instance, the second volume gives account of Columbus’ and Magellan’s voyages, both shown as great navigators who resemble the Greek Ulysses in boldness and vigor but whose enterprises would go much further than his—not only because these are non-fictional characters but also because their enterprises would transform the vision of the world, overpowering a feared ocean, freeing the European man of his faded continent, and placing the “intense civilization” before the “splendors of a Nature swollen with potency, habitually generous, and shining with clarity” (Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race 24).
Divided into four episodes, referring to the fall of Aztec Empire, the narration of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico intends to synthesize the testimony of religious and military chronicles—echoing the voices of Cortes, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, and even Fray Bartolome de las Casas, the most severe critic of what he denounced as the “destruction of Indies” (Casas). In Classical Readings, conquerors are displayed in a multidimensional perspective: proud of their military superiority but also humbled and amazed by the exuberance and beauty of the discovered world and capable of bewailing the drama of native defeat. Therefore, the story of the conquest of Mexico, presented as the fusion of two vital impulses in the same heroic spirit, confronts the symbolic figures of Cuauhtémoc and Cortés: the one as the tragic hero, and the other as the even-tempered leader (who acknowledges the bravery of the defeated and refuses to execute him in cold blood).
The anthology arrives at the end of its journey along the history of “intense civilization” and makes its last stop at “The Colony,” only to draw the link so many times forgotten among conquerors, conquered, and emancipators—recognizing the latter group as leaders of a transcendental mission that would surpass the provincial sense of patriotism. Cuban Jose Marti, Mexican Miguel Hidalgo, or Central American Simon Bolivar, whose stories are related one after the other, share a common essence:
All felt animated by a humane and universal sentiment which coincides with the destiny that today we assign to the Latin American continent…. All were concerned with the liberation of the slaves, with the declaration of the equality of all men by natural right, and with the civil and social equality of Whites, Blacks, and Indians. In a moment of historical crisis, they formulated the transcendental mission assigned to that region of the world: the mission of fussing all peoples ethnically and spiritually.(Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race 18-19)
Reaching the final pages of the Classical Readings, we cannot help but feel the end of the story remains unwritten, as if all these tales were followed by blank pages to be written on by a spectral reader. The Latin American destiny stands as a promise attached to the acceptance of a unique identity and reaching a higher human state. In this way, the child-reader that followed the path outlined by the pair of volumes will have witnessed—much like the viewer in front of a mural—a process in which he is supposed to take an essential part.
Epilogue: In Search of the Cosmic Child
It is intriguing how the discursive opposites end up touching each other: Vasconcelos’ obsession with ethnic fusion as an ethical and aesthetical [End Page 20] goal, which is seemingly opposed to the chimera of racial pureness, has brought him close to fascism. In fact, he eventually sympathizes with Nazi ideology (Pérez Montfort 70). His ideas about miscegenation (mestizaje), as Alan Knight analyses, reproduced many of the racist assumptions of Western Europe and contributed to the continuation of racist paradigms and practices in Mexico, which continued throughout the twentieth century and are still very much operative nowadays (Knight 86-87).
Within the two decades that separated both World Wars, racism was in the rhetorical core of almost every political and cultural leader around the globe. Thus, in spite of his bizarreness, we have to understand Vasconcelos as part of an epoch. His concept of race, though, was not a simple one. It involved a complex combination of ideas about culture, civilization, people, tradition, language, breeding, and of course, genetics (Fell 639). So what was the role played by children and literature in this [End Page 21] particular scope?
The dream of building the ideal citizen from scratch was nothing new; it was an essential part of liberal discourse since the nineteenth century. But it did not reflect in the living conditions of Mexican children. In contrast, between 1920 and 1940, child-centered reforms not only affected children’s everyday life in a variety of ways but also resulted in their progressive incorporation into political and civic culture (Albarran 6). Thanks to Vasconcelos, and other men and women of his time, discourse became more about real children than about a romantic notion based on Western stereotypes (Higonnet). And these flesh and blood kids, who showed their little faces and voices in different forums and through modern media, were not Caucasian (as the romantic child was) but Mestizo.7
Vasconcelos based his creed (a combination of philosophy, religion, and pseudoscience) on the idea that races tended to improve through fusion, as their best qualities were inherited by the descendants. Thus, from his view, the process of miscegenation was mostly positive: discarding defects and polishing to achieve physical and spiritual perfection. Then, if Latin American people embodied the “cosmic race”—a synthesis of humanity at its best—Latin American children were nothing less but its most complete version: the highest breed of humanity as a whole. But these children would not achieve perfection unless they were spiritually fit, by the means of education, fulfilling two main objectives: ethical behavior and aesthetic taste (both profusely displayed within canonical exempla, as we have shown). Therefore, they had to nurture from the highest literature, one “that incites to action” (Fell 529), that challenges their minds and spirits and compels them to keep on with their task of consummating the loving fusion of the “cosmic race.”
BEATRIZ ALCUBIERRE MOYA is author of Ciudadanos del futuro, a history of the publications for children during the XIX Century in México, and Los niños villistas (in collaboration with Tani Carreño King), a history of the children in Francisco Villa’s army. Lately she has been working, in both the history of childhood and children’s readings. She lives in Mexico City and is a research professor of History and Humanities in the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos (UAEM).
RODRIGO BAZÁN BONFIL teaches in the Hispanic Literature program, Postgraduate in Humanities and the Masters in Edition & Publishing in the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos (UAEM), where he is a research professor. He is author of a highschool textbook (Literatura 1. Para la construcción del aprendizaje), and compiler of Y si vivo cien años. Antología del Bolero en México. He studies the production and consumption of popular culture, through modern media.
Beatriz and Rodrigo have worked together in various research groups since 2006, and they jointly published “Lecturas clásicas para niños: contexto histórico y canon literario” (Sociocriticism, XXIII, 2008) and coordinated the book Oralidad y Escritura. Trazas y trazos (UAEM, 2011)
1. Clearly, the achievements of this project did not meet the original expectations. This is easily explained by Vasconcelos’ short time in the office, and also because of the economic situation in the country. However, it has been said that in the three-year period between 1921 and 1924, more than two thousand libraries (ambulant, scholar, laboring, and public) were created along Mexican territory (Garciadiego 76)
2. The anecdote is partially true. A small number of cadets did die in the attack. But they weren’t exactly considered as “children” at the time, nor were their actions as heroic as remembered (Placencia de la Parra).
3. The edition, presented in two volumes, was illustrated by Roberto Montenegro and Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, two of the few graphic artists who remained loyal to the Minister when the others began to distance themselves from him.
4. The Cosmic Race was originally published in 1926, two years after the Classical Readings for Children. However, its preparation goes back to 1922, when Vasconcelos visited South America (Fell 639). So it is safe to say that both works are contemporary.
5. Featuring, among other canonical texts, Cervantes’s Quijote, Anatole Frances’s The Juggler of Notredame, Goethe’s Hermann and Dorothea, Grimm’s and Andersen’s Fairytales, and Shakespeare’s King Lear.
6. Recently, the concept of mestizaje has been heavily questioned by some scholars, who denounce it as an ideological imposition in order to evidence a disturbingly racist culture deeply rooted in Mexican society, as well as the lack of equality between “white” and “colored” people (Urias Horcasitas). Ultimately, this is more a political discussion than an academic one, since it deals mostly with the rhetorical use of the term and its implications in our daily life. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge the polemic nature of Vasconcelos’ writings, specifically about his ideas regarding race, without departing from the initial purpose of this paper, which focuses on the analysis of a specific literary piece and its significance in the construction of a very influential concept of the Mexican being. [End Page 22]