The Pigmentocracy Problem: A Brown Mexicano Gets Real About The Color Hierarchy
I was in my early twenties when I graduated college in Mexico with a degree in economics. I got a job at one of the country’s largest companies, based in my hometown of Monterrey.
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It was just the beginning of my career, and pretty quick I realized there wasn’t a bright future for me there. I didn’t see anyone in leadership who looked like me — a brown-skinned kid with Indigenous features. So I decided to immigrate to the U.S.
Almost everyone I knew back home warned me about the rampant racism I would face once I got here. “Esos gringos are so racist,” they told me.
So I came here expecting the worst. But as time went by, I realized I was not feeling a whole lot of discrimination against me, strangely enough. I felt the exact opposite. I felt significantly more accepted, acknowledged, and respected than I often did back home — by my own people.
When I tried to convey this feeling to my friends and family, it didn’t make any sense to them. To be honest, I was intrigued as well.
Then one day, after I started my first job in the U.S. as a financial analyst for a film company, I attended a business meeting. At this meeting, my boss, a successful Latino film producer, was physically describing an actor — and he used my appearance as reference.
“He has Indigenous features, very much like Julio,” he said. I felt deeply offended. I thought, “How dare he say in public that I look Indigenous! Me? That’s outrageous!”
For a Mexican, you see, one of the most offensive insults is to be called “indio,” which translates in English as Indigenous. “Indio” is used as synonymous with stupid, lazy, uneducated, disgraceful, ugly, and pretty much every negative sterotype imaginable.
There is a reason why so many of the Mexicans who have migrated to the U.S. over the years are brown-skinned, and it has to do with the socioeconomic structure back in Mexico, and its racial components.
As a study from El Colegio de Mexico last year points out, wealthier Mexicans skew lighter, while those who are poor skew darker.
Racism in Mexico is the cornerstone of economic and social differences among people there. In essence, a small minority of the population monopolizes access to education, capital, and resources — and to belong to this privileged elite group, there is an unspoken requirement that has to be met: whiteness.
'Aren't We All Mexican?'
During my first year here, I was afraid of being discriminated against by gringos, so I looked for other college-educated, first-generation Mexicans my own age living in the U.S. to whom I could bond with and feel “safe.”
I reached out to the L.A. chapter alumni association of the university I attended back in Mexico. At one of our first social gatherings, I invited the members to participate in a project that focused on increasing the presence of Latino executives in U.S. Fortune 1000 companies.
One of the attendees, a light-skinned man who at the time was an MBA student at UCLA, replied: “I am not Latino — I’m Mexican.” I told him that by U.S. definition, yes, he was Mexican, hence, Latino.
He refuted again, this time raising his voice and emphasizing, “No! I am Mexican, not Latino!” I then asked him to explain the difference between both, to which he replied, “Mexicans are white, nice people who have visas and travel to the U.S. by plane, like me. Latinos, on the other hand, are indios prietos (dark-skinned Indigenous) who cross the border illegally and work in kitchens”.
The rest of the attendees listening, most of them other white Mexicans like him, openly laughed and nodded, celebrating his comeback and agreeing with him. One might expect that kind of outrageous racist statement from a white supremacist, but from a Mexican, referring to other Mexicans? How is that even conceivable?
“Aren’t we all Mexican?” I thought.
To be honest, many white Mexicans take pride in not looking Indigenous, and secretly enjoy being told by a foreigner that they “don’t look Mexican,” that they could be Spanish, or even better, French or Italian.
The distinction between “Mexican” and “Latino” as depicted by this MBA student in my meeting reflects a severe, deep, embedded, yet denied and overlooked problem in Mexico and Latin America: racism.
I am a Brown Mexican, like the majority of Mexicans. And having lived the first half of my life in Mexico and the second half in the U.S., I can say that I’ve experienced more open and vicious racism back in Mexico from my white fellow Mexicans than I have in the United States.
Unfortunately, even mentioning the word “racism” is taboo for us. It’s awkward and uncomfortable. There is no acknowledgement of the issue, and when you try to bring it up, you are shut down immediately and accused of being over-sensitive, because after all, “we are all Mexicans,” “we are all one race,” “we are all mestizos,” and all mestizos are the same, the conversation goes. Except that light-skinned mestizos have big advantages over dark-skinned mestizos in what is called pigmentocracy.
'An Intricate Social Contract'
This pigmentocracy is an intricate social contract that we have all signed into.
Mexicans have been trained to define ourselves as one race: mestizos. During and after Mexico’s independence from Spain, the dominant elite, mostly white Europeans of Spanish descent, embraced this idea to help strengthen and consolidate the newborn nation. Let’s give them some credit, race-blindness within national boundaries sounds like a good idea — given the assumption that everybody gets treated equally, and no special privileges are granted to anyone based on physical appearance.
But when that condition is not met, and the reality is not acknowledged, racial injustices against dark-skinned Mexicans of Indigenous or African descent — the latter group counted for the first time last year in the country's census — are systematically made invisible. This is exactly what happens in Mexico today, and in most Latin American countries that share the same Spanish colonial heritage.
Over the centuries, dark-skinned Mexicans have been taught to embrace and replicate a racialized system, becoming unconscious supporters of their own oppression and living in a constant state of self-hatred, taught to wish deep inside they were white, like young Pecola Breedlove in “The Bluest Eye.”
There are virtually no successful role models for dark-skinned kids. Mexican leaders in every arena are predominantly white. Even today, you’re highly unlikely to walk into a Mexican corporate board room and find a dark-skinned person there.
One of the strongest and most efficient mechanisms through which racism is depicted and replicated is media: TV, film, magazines, and advertising.
Mexican media systematically underrepresents and misrepresents brown Indigenous people, claiming that consumers don’t want to see brown, but white, because white is seen as “aspirational” and “beautiful.” This practice is so embedded and normalized in Mexican media that nobody questions it.
Televisa, a Mexican media company and the largest Spanish language content producer in the world, distributes “novelas” (soap operas) in dozens of countries including the U.S., portraying to the world how “white and beautiful” Mexicans are.
My realization about Mexican pigmentocracy came to me as a consequence of my being in the U.S. My first job here was located next door to a casting agency. One day I ran into one of the women who worked there, someone I used to say hi to every day.
She said they were shooting a Coca-Cola commercial at the beach that upcoming weekend, and asked me if I was interested in being an extra. I stared at her in disbelief and thought she was joking, though she wasn’t.
I grew up watching commercials in Mexico where there are absolutely no dark-skinned people, unless of course they were playing stereotyped roles: criminals, peasants, narcos, and in the best-case scenario, the help.
So the idea of someone with my looks being part of a Coca-Cola commercial with a bunch of people hanging out at the beach seemed unrealistic. I honestly thought she was making fun of me. Did she plan to cast me as the street vendor, maybe? I did not contact her back.
Even though American mainstream media is still not where it should be in terms of diversity, it’s still way more inclusive and diverse than Mexican media today. The situation in Mexico is comparable to where the U.S. was in the 1950s.
This racial unconscious bias in media and advertising traveled along with immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America across the border into the U.S., and found a new home in Spanish language media outlets.
Even white supremacists have taken notice: Spanish-language television apparently was enough for South Carolina mass shooter Dylan Roof, who went on to kill nine Black church members, to opine on race relations in Latin America. He wrote in his manifesto [capitalization choices are his]:
“I remember while watching hispanic television stations, the shows and even the commercials were more White than our own. They have respect for White beauty, and a good portion of hispanics are White. It is a well-known fact that White hispanics make up the elite of most hispanics countries. There is good White blood worth saving in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and even Brasil [sic]. But they are still our enemies.”
This is a disturbing statement, but it reflects an equally disturbing truth: U.S. Spanish language networks portray mostly white Latinos in their programming and commercials.
Cracking The Glass Ceiling
People en Español magazine pages are full of celebrities and socialites who are light-skinned, pictures that misrepresent Latinos’ real racial distribution. Most Mexican-born talent actively working today in Hollywood are predominantly light-skinned: Alfonzo Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, Karla Souza, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñarritu, Diego Boneta, Eiza Gonzalez, Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal, Ana de la Reguera, Luis Gerardo Mendez, and even Univision’s lead news anchor Jorge Ramos.
In 2019, an Indigenous woman did make a crack in the glass ceiling of the entertainment industry, both in Mexico and the U.S. when Yalitza Aparicio was nominated for an Academy Award as best actress in a leading role in the film “Roma.”
But her success caused a vicious and hateful backlash among her Mexican peers — and let’s not forget what her role was in the movie.
So even though the mainstream Hollywood establishment might count the inclusion of Mexican celebrities as part of their diversity efforts, the reality is that most of them represent the same #OscarsSoWhite situation — just with a Mexican nationality.
The core of the problem lies in the fact that we have normalized this over the centuries. We don’t acknowledge it. Without recognition of the racism that exists among Mexicans and Latinos, we will never start the path to equity and reconciliation.
Mexicans and Latinos have struggled for many years to occupy a respectable place within American society. And we have focused our efforts to gain acceptance outside of our community, without realizing what is happening within.
We have a saying, “Hay que barrer la casa antes de barrer la calle.”
We need to clean our own house before we start sweeping the sidewalk.
Julio Vallejo was born in Morelia, Michoacan, and grew up mostly in Monterrey. He moved to the United States at 22. He was a founding team member of Maya Cinemas, a company with the mission to develop, build, own and operate first-run movie theaters in underserved, Latino-dominant communities.
Julio has a deep understanding and experience on Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (REDI) issues and is the founder and executive director of Pigmentocracia, an organization which seeks to change the narrative on dark skin among Latinos. Since 2005, Julio has worked to call out and challenge racism in Mexico and among Latinos in the U.S.