When Julio Vallejo lived in Mexico he didn't like what he saw when he looked in the mirror. "He'd say, 'Ok, I'm ugly, but at least I'm smart,'" he says. The 43-year-old Mexican explains that he associated beauty with white skin until he moved to California in 2001.
Vallejo left after finishing his studies in Economics at one of the best private universities in the country, Tecnológico de Monterrey. But even that achievement was not enough to take away his conviction that he was not going to succeed because of his skin tone.
"Here (in Mexico) there is the myth of mestizaje: that since we are all mestizos, we cannot be racists. But I believe that racism operates through the definition of beauty," he explains. That led him to establish Fundación Pigmentocracia, which has been working for ten years to make all the diversity of skin tones appear in the Mexican media.
Pigmentocracy, a term coined by Chilean physiologist Alejandro Lipschütz in the mid-twentieth century, defines the way in which the Spanish colonies in the American continent hierarchized the people of the American continent according to their skin color, in the so-called castes, social groups to which one was placed from birth and from which it was almost impossible to move.
It all began on November 8, 500 years ago, when Hernán Cortés and the Mexica emperor Moctezuma II met for the first time in today's Mexico City. That encounter gave rise to the Conquest and the mestizaje between the Mesoamerican settlers, the Europeans, and the African slaves.
The classification served the ruling class, the European whites, to maintain their privileges in the face of the growth of mestizos and mulattoes in Mexico, as stated in the study " An interdisciplinary approach to the reminiscences of the colonial caste discourse in Mexico", published in 2017. The idea that one race, the European whites, should be considered superior expanded with the castes.
"The Indians were not racists, they did not know other races. Racial discrimination began with the trafficking of black slaves, spread against the Indians and survives to this day," says anthropologist and historian Luis Barjau, an expert on pre-Hispanic Mexico. In 1810, when independence was declared, slavery and castes on paper were abolished, but social prejudices and that pigmentocracy have been dragging on to this day.
This is shown in the report " For my race inequality will speak", by the Colegio de México in collaboration with Oxfam, in which researchers gather the experience of more than 25,000 people. The data indicate that two out of ten dark-skinned and three out of ten dark-skinned respondents are in Mexico's poorest group, while two out of ten light- or light-skinned respondents are in the richest stratum.
In addition, 41.7% of Indians and 31.4% of Black Mexicans are in the most economically disadvantaged group, while the majority of whites and mestizos are among the three richest groups in Mexico. But the social and economic position of the family today seems to be what most determines opportunities in Mexico: almost half of those born into the poorest group and almost half of those born into the most advantaged group inherited socioeconomic status.
Vallejo understands that Mexican racism sometimes operates unconsciously. "Those of us who are brown live it every day," he says, without anger, but convinced: "We continue to think that we are the driver and not the executive. To change it, Pigmentocracia is working on the development of software that monitors the skin tone of all the people who appear in commercials in Mexico, in association with the Geena Davis Institute, because Vallejo is convinced of the power of the media to change narratives.
Since he works at a production company in Los Angeles, he's had to see Hollywood become increasingly racially inclusive. And that, he concludes, "helps prepare society for something that doesn't exist".