A teacher and civil servant, Daniel Cosío Villegas (1898-1976) was best known for his broadranging studies of Mexican history. He came to be known for his lucidity and intellectual capacity in economics, history, and political science.
Daniel Cosío Villegas was born into a lower middle class home in Mexico City in 1898. During his childhood his family lived in several Mexican cities. Later he received bachelor degrees in both arts and letters from the National Preparatory School. After studying a variety of subjects, including engineering and philosophy, he received a law degree from Mexico's National School of Jurisprudence in 1925. Cosío Villegas excelled as a student and was active in student affairs. He successively served as head of the Student Federation of the Mexican Federal District, of the Mexican National Student Federation, and of the International Student Federation.
Cosío Villegas' post-graduate studies reflected his broad-ranging interests. He studied economics at Harvard and agricultural economics at both the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University. Then he went to Europe, where he studied economics and political science. Upon his return to Mexico, Cosío Villegas began working at the Ministry of Education, starting a career in public service which would span over a third of a century.
At this time Cosío Villegas was heavily influenced by the recently concluded Mexican revolution. His post-revolutionary spirit led to a commitment to serve Mexican development. This desire in turn led him to concentrate on economics, a field which he felt was key to developing Mexico.
By the age of 30, Cosío Villegas was a secretary general of the University of Mexico. In that year he created a special economics section of the university, which developed into the National School of Economics. After economics classes began, Cosío Villegas observed a lack of economics texts available in Spanish. As a result, in 1934 he founded the Fondo de Cultura Económica, which became one of the most respected academic publishing houses in the Spanish-speaking world. Also in the 1930s he founded the magazine Trimestre Económico, which shifted the focus of Mexican economic discussion from abstract theory and considerations of European nations to the concrete reality of Mexico.
Cosío Villegas continued his public service and was appointed Mexican chargé d'affairs in Lisbon. He was serving there in 1937 as the Spanish Civil War intensified. He personally arranged for many Spanish intellectuals to come to Mexico. With the defeat of the Republican government in Spain, their stay in Mexico became permanent. The Spaniards taught and did research at the Casa de España, which Cosío Villegas helped organize for them. This institution later became the Colegio de México, which is one of the principal social science research centers in Latin America.
Cosío Villegas continued in government service as economic adviser to the Mexican secretary of treasury, to the Bank of Mexico, and to the Mexican embassy in Washington. In addition he was an adviser to Mexican delegations at various international conferences. From 1957 to 1968 he was Mexican ambassador to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
Cosío Villegas combined government service with teaching at the National Preparatory School, the National University, and the Colegio de México in Mexico City. He also taught at the Central University of Madrid in Spain and at the University of Texas in Austin.
This middle period of his life was also one of prodigous scholarship in history, economics, international relations, and political science. In addition to Trimestre Económico, he founded and edited Historia Mexicana and a journal on international relations, Foro Internacional.
By the late 1940s Cosío Villegas began to feel what he described as a "general disillusion about the political climate" of Mexico, due to the emphasis on stability and economic growth rather than on social justice and political openness. Thus he shifted his attention to Mexican history, hoping that this would illuminate the priorities of Mexican society and make people aware of the original goals of the Mexican revolution.
His study of Mexican history occupied him for over a decade and led to the publication of the monumental ten-volume Historia Moderna de México. Harvard historian John Womack, Jr., called it the "greatest historical work on modern Mexico." Cosío Villegas wrote five of the ten volumes in the series and supervised the group of young Mexicans who wrote the other five. Thus he not only created a monumental scholarly work, but helped train a whole generation of Mexican historians.
Cosío Villegas' energy is indicated by his activity in his 60th year. He was still working to coordinate the Historia Moderna de México, was president of the Colegio de México and of the Economic and Social Council of Mexico, and was editing two of the magazines which he had founded, Historia Mexicana and Foro Internacional.
In 1968, after the bloody suppression of student demonstrations in Mexico, as Cosío Villegas stated in an interview, he began to feel a "general dissatisfaction about the situation of the country." Thus he left government service and became an essayist commenting on the Mexican scene. He wrote a regular column in Excelsior, Mexico's outstanding newspaper, and in addition published a series of popular books on the Mexican political system. The degree to which Cosío Villegas was in touch with the public is indicated by the press runs of his books. As many as 80,000 were printed, a phenomenal sales record for Mexico.
He continued in this role of critical essayist until the time of his death. After his death then-President of Mexico Luis Echeverría spoke of him as an "honest and courageous intellectual and teacher," and Mexican writer Octavio Paz noted his "incorruptible conscience." An obituary in the American Historical Review praised him as the "dean of historians of modern Mexico."
The honors Cosío Villegas received far exceed the space available to list them. Included were membership in the Colegio Nacional of Mexico, a life-time recognition limited to 20 members, and the presidency from 1957 to 1963 of the Colegio de México.
Further Reading on Daniel Cosio Villegas
No biography of Cosío Villegas has been published in English. However, several of his books, including A Compact History of Mexico (Mexico City, 1974), have been translated into English. Additional information about Mexico at this time can be found in Change in Latin America: The Mexican & Cuban Revolutions (1961); The United States versus Porfirio Diaz (1963); and American Extremes (1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Cosío Villegas, Daniel, Memorias, Mexico: J. Mortiz, 1976, 1977 printing.
Krauze, Enrique, Daniel Coso Villegas, una biografia intelectual, Mexico: J. Mortiz, 1980.