Ashoka Fellow since 2023   |   Mexico

José Aguilar

Racismo MX
José Antonio dismantles narratives around racism in Latin America to expose and tackle the inequalities it generates. His work documents, analyzes, and raises awareness of how racism operates in…
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This description of José Aguilar's work was prepared when José Aguilar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2023.


José Antonio dismantles narratives around racism in Latin America to expose and tackle the inequalities it generates. His work documents, analyzes, and raises awareness of how racism operates in different spheres, and seeks to change the laws, policies, and corporate practices that perpetuate it.

The New Idea

Although "race" is a social construct derived from colonialism and not a scientific fact, Mexico continues to suffer the ravages of this man-made division. Mexico is among the top four countries with the highest inequality rates in the world, according to the 2022 World Inequality Report. Racism is a fundamental factor: dark-skinned or “racialized” people make up 80% of the population, yet they are twice as likely to be born and trapped in poverty and face double the risk of experiencing discrimination.

Yet the problem remains overlooked. Mexican society generally denies that racism exists in the country, an attitude mirroring the lack of action by authorities. As a consequence, a discriminatory system for people of a specific phenotype and skin color continues to exist. While various efforts have made strides for Indigenous and, recently, Afro populations, discrimination affecting the “mestizo” (mixed) majority is normalized and conflated with classism, preventing a more nuanced approach.

Inspired by his personal experience, José is breaking centuries of silence to ignite cultural and structural change. The key engine of his success is leveraging multimedia communications to raise awareness and change narratives around race, using tangible examples such as algorithm bias, media representation, and xenophobia against migrants. The massive reach of RacismoMX’s campaigns sparked a public debate that paved the way for institutional responses.

To support this deeper transformation, José and his team develop research that enables a more detailed understanding of how racism works in different settings. Using this evidence, RacismoMX supports public institutions and companies to identify their role in perpetuating racism and collaborates to develop both internal and sector-wide solutions. They also advocate for new laws and policies and work to set legal precedents to ensure enforcement.

Various RacismoMX research tools and advocacy strategies have already been replicated by CSOs and international organizations, academic institutions, and government entities in Mexico and other countries. Additionally, the participation of multinational businesses has enabled RacismoMX to scale impact quickly in the private sector. To spread impact further, José is also weaving regional alliances with organizations across the Americas. He is also building a network of young leaders against racism, supporting them in creating their own projects to champion the cause in the long term and across sectors.

The Problem

There is a pronounced racist culture in Mexico, historically legitimized through discourses and practices inherited from colonialism. These attitudes impact the access that racialized people have to economic opportunities, political participation, education, health, and other basic rights, which overlap with and exacerbate other forms of exclusion such as poverty.

Although there are laws (Federal Law to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination) and public institutions for research and actions against discrimination (National Council to Prevent Discrimination – CONAPRED / National Survey on Discrimination ENADIS), implementation remains elusive.

A fundamental issue is that the specific problem of racism remains invisible. Measurement instruments to assess the problem are scarce or inaccurate, while laws and public initiatives against discrimination neglect the specificity and intersectionality of racist discrimination. There is also few representation of racialized identities in the media and where it exists, it tends to be stigmatizing and perpetuates racist biases. Racial discrimination tends to be chalked up to classism but, while there is a correlation between skin color/ethnicity and income, these phenomena are distinct and require unique responses.

This denial stems from the narrative of “mestizaje” (miscegenation), a legacy of colonialism. During Spanish rule, mestizaje referred to the encounter of Indigenous, European, and African people and cultures that resulted in ethnic diversity. In the decades since, however, the term has been used to describe Latin American society and define a shared mixed or “mestizo” identity. This narrative served as a powerful tool for nation-building in the post-colonial setting. Yet mestizaje has served to obscure racial discrimination and exclusion—if everyone is mestizo, racism cannot exist since there are no different races/ethnicities. Additionally, mestizo identity still upheld Eurocentric ideals by downplaying Indigenous- and African-ness to claim proximity to whiteness, which implies a higher position in the social order.

As a result, racism remains entrenched on an institutional level and dark-skinned people do not recognize themselves as racialized despite experiencing discrimination, preventing a massive movement against racism.

The Strategy

José has devised a variety of strategies for mindset change around ethnic and racial diversity through education, data, and advocacy. RacismoMX sparks informed public discussion with a view to triggering change initiatives in communities, organizations, and public policies that bolster racialized persons’ visibility and leadership. To make the huge issue of racism more accessible, José applies his various strategies to specific issue areas like migration, workplace discrimination, and algorithmic bias for a more focused approach.

The first pillar of José’s approach is education to bring the issue to prominence and inspire action. To do this, RacismoMX starts by improving understanding of the problem through research. Generating an evidence base is critical to inform their strategies as well as guide decision-making by institutions, leaders, and citizens. To lead this work, José and his team launched the Racism Observatory for Mexico and Central America, which today gathers 15 organizations in the region and the US. One of the main methods used by the Observatory is the Racistómetro (“racism thermometer”), a social listening tool that measures racism in social media and digital outlets to demonstrate that racist attitudes and narratives exist and show how they play out in real-time.

The organization spreads this information broadly through media products, news outlets, and digital campaigns that call out racism and foster the representation of racialized persons. Their mass campaigns “Hablemos de Racismo” and “Revolución contra el algortimo”, effectively introduced the issue into the public conversation, reaching over 5M people. In total their content has been viewed by around 10 million people, through digital and analog media, and a documentary for international release is in the pipeline. RacismoMX also runs capacity building for CSOs, journalists, and the wider public for deeper learning. José envisions that racialized persons can begin to recognize their identity and acknowledge experiences of racism, in order to galvanize a movement.

To replicate its education work, Racismo MX launched the Young Antiracist Leadership Project (YALP), a network of young leaders in different sectors who can champion the movement into the future. Young leaders are trained over the course of two weeks by experts in racism, feminism, interculturality, media, education, and other topics and then incubate their own projects. They receive continuous support and engagement afterward as part of the network. This strategy has a strong potential to enable a multiplier effect, as each participant replicates impact independently and the focus on youth ensures intergenerational continuity. Additionally, YALP provides a platform to democratize the movement and give voice to the myriad experiences of racism.

Building on this momentum, José then works to institutionalize change. José engages businesses and public institutions to overhaul racist biases and discriminatory practices within and to champion the cause externally as well. His ambition is to mainstream an anti-racist perspective for creating and enforcing laws, designing policy, and making decisions within businesses. With the private sector, José’s approach starts with breaking the awkwardness around racism by addressing it diretly through conferences and training to capture attention and then providing consulting to deepen impact into their core practices. He focuses on partnering with influential, multinational companies as leverage to bring the issue to the table. Over 7,000 people have participated in these programs to date through partners like Scotiabank, Google, Nike, Coca-Cola, Walmart, Getty Images, HSBC, and MetLife. This work influenced the first Agreement of Businesses Against Racism in Mexico, with 30 companies committing to lead anti-racist activities. For example, they established a “Racialized Talent” job board as an affirmative action strategy to match persons who face racial profiling with employment opportunities, benefitting 500 people within the first year. Another successful case was working with Getty Images to change their curation of online image search results—a project was ideated and led by a YALP alumn—to overcome biases in the algorithm that associated positive searches with images of White people only and displayed stigmatizing images of non-White people.

On the public side, José and his team work to reform legal and policy frameworks and build capacity for implementation through awareness and legal precedents. RacismoMX is consulting with policymakers to reform anti-discrimination laws to enshrine racism, drawing on research from the Observatory to show how it operates differently than ethnic discrimination. Meanwhile, they are also showing judges how existing legal tools can be used to try cases of racial discrimination, assisting in judicial processes by providing evidence, testimonies, and advisory to define legal opinions. To help establish legal precedents, they have recently led highly visible strategic litigation cases invoving businesses accused of racism and racial profiling. José is already taking steps to scale out this institutional influence: several of RacismoMX’s recommendations have been adopted in resolutions by the UN General Assembly and the Interamerican Court for Human Rights, and other organizations in Latin America are replicating their legal strategies.

Given that so many Mexicans live in the US and Canada, the issue has trans-national dimentions. Therefore, José seeks to bridge these different countries into a common dialogue on race. He recently partnered with the Foreign Ministry to convene 10 grassroots anti-racism groups from the three countries to develop a joint agenda for the region, establishing the North American Alliance for Racial Equality and Justice. The agenda will be enforced through the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement.

Eventually, José seeks to amplify these collective solutions across Latin America. A key lever is involving more organizations as members of the Observatory to expand its reach and scope, as well as making RacismoMX’s resources available for peers in other countries. For instance, the Racistómetro has already been adapted by organizations in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. Growing the YALP network will enable further replication, and José envisions that it will become a source for continued innovation.

The Person

José has experienced racism all his life, in his family, at school, from employers, and in other spheres. Yet, like most Mexicans, he used to deny or diminish this reality until an encounter in 2015 forced him to confront it: during an event in South Africa, a colleague bluntly stated that “as a dark-skinned man in Mexico” José “surely experienced racism”. Surprised with the comment, José once again denied it even though he knew deep down it was true. The pain and discomfort led him on a path of self-reflection and research.

He intuited that there were many others like him, since racism against dark-skinned persons has been normalized in Mexican society through culture and institutionalized through discriminatory laws and policies. Building on his Economics degree from ITAM and an MBA from the University of Essex, José studied racism and xenophobia at UNAM, Colegio de México, and Universidad de Guadalajara. In 2018, he launched RacismoMX as a documentary film project to make the problem visible through his own journey of learning and self-discovery. Eager to start the conversation (while building publicity for the fim), he set up a website and social media channels to disseminate information. These posts quickly became viral and snowballed into massive public campaigns that drew celebrity sponsors, international partners like UNESCO, and widespread media attention, igniting a national reckoning with this long-overlooked issue.

José’s strategy and leadership approach draw on his previous entrepreneurial experience as founder of OHM, the first commercial magazine for the LGBTIQ+ community in Mexico. Thanks to this background, José understands the crucial influence of media and narratives on the social perception of diverse groups, and the power that businesses can have on creating social impact. He also learned essential communications skills that he has brought to RacismoMX’s campaigns.

Ever attuned to the social pulse, José built on the momentum to establish RacismoMX as an organization to advance more comprehensive, deeper work. RacismoMX has since been featured in leading national and international publications such as America’s Quarterly, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, ForoTV, ADN40 and El Economista. In 2021, José was selected as Global Fellow by Echoing Green for the project. He is a member of the advisory board for the Council to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination in Mexico City (COPRED).