In 1925 José Vasconcelos, the Mexican philosopher and educator, wrote La raza cósmica both to challenge Western theories of racial superiority and purity and to offer a new view about the mixing of African, European, and indigenous peoples in Mexico and throughout Latin America. The essay was an effort to undercut the maligned position of indigenous people and their material domination since the conquest, but it was unable to break completely from the civilizing motives of New Spain. Mestizaje was the political ideology of modern national identity, unity, and social progress. Yet Vasconcelos's vision pointed to Iberian culture, particularly Christianity, as the source for modernization and progress. Mexican nationalism has continued to construct its citizens as mestizos.
The material and ideological weight of the conquest was also difficult to shake in earlier formations of mestizaje. Even while under Spanish rule, criollos exalted the Aztec or Inca past and condemned the conquest, but their celebration of mestizaje did not include the elimination of economic domination, political disempowerment, and cultural genocide of indigenous populations. Throughout New Spain, claims of mestizaje were meant to indicate a bond against the peninsulares, the Spanish settlers with exclusive rights to high political office, and to legitimate creole equality with peninsulares at home and in Europe. Other classifications of mixture in the caste system were not exalted, and the status of mulattos and others was not reconsidered. Historians agree that during the colonial, independence, and revolutionary periods, mestizaje functioned to reduce cultural, linguistic, and political diversity in Mexico and to authorize the privileged status of ruling elites. In short, the original concept emphasized the assimilation and appropriation of indigenous cultures and the promise of progress and justice through Europe. As such, hybridity was cloaked under the banner of national unity. For the Mexican philosopher Octavio Paz (1914–1998), however, the trauma of mestizaje serves as a symbol of illegitimacy, a concept he develops in Labyrinth of Solitude (1961) and a foundation of his argument on Mexican national character.