José Vasconcelos was born on February 28, 1882, in Oaxaca, in the south of Mexico. His family later moved to the far north of Mexico. For his education Vasconcelos attended primary school at Eagle Pass, Texas, crossing the U.S.-Mexican border each day.
After the U.S. invasion of Cuba in 1906–09, the Vasconcelos family feared a similar invasion of Mexico, and they moved to Campeche in eastern Mexico. Vasconcelos became worried about the seeming permanence of the Porfirio Díaz presidency. He ended up studying law, graduating in 1907, and in 1909 going to work for the Anti-Reelectionist Movement.
Vasconcelos became the editor of El Anti-reeleccionista, the movement's newspaper, and was forced to flee to the United States during the political climate of 1910. He returned to Mexico City when Fransisco Madero became president.
When Madero was assassinated in 1913, the United States took over the Mexican port city of Veracruz. Vasconcelos was involved in the subsequent Niagara Falls Conferences, at which the United States agreed to pull out its soldiers.
In November 1914 Eulalio Martín Gutiérrez Ortiz became provisional president of Mexico and appointed Vasconcelos his minister of public instruction to oversee the education service. However, when Venustiano Carranza became president in October 1915, Vasconcelos was forced to return to the United States in exile.
It was during this time that he wrote his first two books, La intelectualidad mexicana (1916) and El monismo estético (1919). He came back to Mexico City in May 1920 when Carranza was overthrown and replaced by Adolfo de La Huerta, who made Vasconcelos the rector of the National University of Mexico.
Vasconcelos urged for a federal ministry of education rather than allowing schools to be run by individual states. As a result, on October 12, 1921, President Álvaro Obregón appointed Vasconcelos the secretary for public education. This new department was quickly divided into schools, libraries, and fine arts.
Although Vasconcelos started work on building more rural schools, his long-term aim was to develop the thinking of children so that they could enjoy philosophical concepts rather than just settling for learning how to read and write.
This was further encouraged by the libraries department, which produced cheap editions of many major works of literature and provided them at low cost to schools and interested members of the public. The fine arts section was particularly central to promoting muralists, who were allowed to paint in schools and in other public buildings
On June 30, 1924, Vasconcelos resigned as secretary of public education and decided to enter opposition politics. He campaigned for the post of governor of Oaxaca but then had to go into exile in the United States. He then went to other parts of Latin America and to Europe, returning to Mexico after the overthrow of Obregón.
The new president, Plutarco Calles, promised free elections, and Vasconcelos decided to contest the election in what became known popularly as the Campaign of 1929. He portrayed himself as an inheritor of the tradition of Francisco Madero. The official results showed that the government candidate, Pascual Ortiz Rubio, won 1,948,848 votes and Vasconcelos got only 110,979 votes.
The supporters of Vasconcelos claimed that the election was fraudulent, and Vasconcelos himself fled to the United States, where he called for an armed rebellion. The beliefs and attitudes of Vasconcelos lurched heavily to the right.
In 1940 Vasconcelos, by now a strong anticommunist, returned to Mexico, where he ran a newspaper, Timón, that received support from the German government. His new stance was at odds with the radicalism he had espoused in the 1920s.
His new philosophy was "aesthetic monism," which saw the world as a cosmic unity where the future lay with the mestizo rather than the whites. He set forth his ideas in two books, La raza cósmica (The cosmic race, 1925) and Todología (1952).
Beginning in the 1930s José Vasconcelos wrote an extensive autobiography: Ulises criollo (A creole Ulysses, 1935), La tormenta (The torment, 1936), El desastre (The disaster, 1938), El proconsulado (The proconsulship, 1939), and La flama (The flame, 1959). Many have hailed these books as some of the greatest works of Mexican literature covering the period from the 1910 revolution through the tumultuous 1920s and 1930s.
José Vasconcelos was appointed director of the Biblioteca Nacional (national library) in 1940 and from 1948 was in charge of the Mexican Institute of Hispanic Culture. Vasconcelos spent his last years in quiet retirement and died on June 30, 1959, in Mexico City.