Lupita Nyong’o and the Mexicans
María Ximena Plaza | April 22nd, 2014


“How much does the Oscar belong to Mexico?” a reporter asked actress Lupita Nyong’o the day after the 2014 Academy Awards. Her answer “It all belongs to me.” A few months earlier, when “12 Years a Slave” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, she was more diplomatic. She explained that she was born in Mexico, that her family moved back Kenya when she was merely one years old and that she returned to Mexico at 16 to learn Spanish. “Of course I have this special place for Mexico in my heart. It was my birthplace.” Pushed to identify with either country, she joked: “I’m a Mexi-Kenyan”:

But if anything, at least in what passes for the Mexican online sphere, attempts to claim Lupita’s win for Mexico (here’s a list of other Mexican Oscar winners), was quickly displaced by a more pressing debate:  Why should Lupita owe the golden statue to Mexico, a country with such high levels of racism?

During the Oscars, both the presidents of Mexico and Kenya ran to tweet about Lupita’s win (see the tweets here and here). In both countries, this was followed by a great number of news reports that highlighted Lupita as a symbol of national pride. But online debate on the topic took a turn the day after the Oscars, when Lupita echoed what she said in Toronto: that she “had seen the fight over her nationality. I am Kenyan and Mexican at the same time.”

Online news portal noted: “After winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Lupita Nyong’o, who earlier reportedly had expressed her pride of being Mexican-born, chose to not share this recognition with the Mexicans.” You can read those stories about her statement here and here. Subsequently, several users commented on these stories, taking the rejection personal.  Some became defensive, suggesting Lupita bought a misguided view of Mexico as racist to blacks or people of African descent. Jose, a reader of wrote in:  “In Mexico we are too racist for her to even say hi to us.” And another, Beto, wrote in “We did not know anything about her. Nobody was paying attention to her, let alone how racist we are in Mexico” You can read the full thread of comments (in Spanish) here and here.

But not everyone bought this line.

Renown Mexican blogger and journalist Alberto Buitre tweeted “It is curious that a country deeply racist such as Mexico claims Lupita’s award”. (See the tweet in Spanish here). In, Victor Hernández asked: what does she owe to Mexico? Nothing. Come On. Televisa (the Mexican private channel) would never have given her a leading role in a soap opera. In the racist Mexican television industry those roles are reserved to white actresses or blondes. (The full post here) In this same line of thought, Jerry Ph wrote on Tv Notas:

Lupita’s triumph is only hers. Now Televisa will hire her for one of its shows? Her role would probably be as a maid or a nanny of a blond rich. Though it hurts, this is the truth.

Televisa is the largest broadcasting company in Mexico and also exports soap operas to other countries in the region. Research shows that most Mexican soap operas present perpetuate racial stereotypes, regardless of the target market.

Mainstream media coverage about Lupita can give us some hints about racism in Mexico. So, for example, in late February Nyongo’o told the Black Women in Hollywood Awards that as a teenager she often dreamed about having a lighter skin color, but when she saw the South Sudanese model Alek Wek, Lupita accepted the diversity in beauty standards.   The newspaper El Pionero published the following news summary “The Oscar winner revealed that she would love to be a White woman”. El Pionero emphasized this was her “present wish”, despite the fact that Lupita made clear this was a past hope. One can only wonder what was behind the mistake behind the news summary?

Prior to the Oscars, the Sunday magazine of El Universal, one of Mexico’s largest newspapers, featured a profile of Lupita. The journalist, Mario Szekely, wrote that “she gave the impression of being an African panther ready to jump on its prey at any moment.”

But some news outlets and its readers were honest about the racism surrounding Lupita across online discussions. The news site Alto Nivel reported that what was “ugly” about the Oscars night was the “terrible and racist comments in social media related to the triumph of the actress. Unforgivable.”

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María Ximena Plaza

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16 thoughts on “Lupita Nyong’o and the Mexicans

  1. Maybe a country as “deeply racist” as Mexico needs to recognize Lupita’s achievement as well as Kenya. I have traveled to Mexico and I happen to love the place. (I am Black American) I am now traveling in Kenya and I find as much if not more racism in Kenya. An example a friend and I were talking about some of my experiences in Nairobi he said this “When we see you, you’re just a black like us, so we don’t care about you.” There is work to be done everywhere.

  2. Maria, I don’t really agree with your statement that her win was widely covered in the media. On the day after media here in Mexico focused in my opinion mostly on the two male, ‘white’ winners. Lupita was given the attention any female winner would have received, being Mexican or not. Actually, I was quite surprised that Mexico did not claim her victory more for itself. Anyway, this only underlines your main point that Mexico is, and so are its Central American neighbors, a deeply racist country.

  3. Thanks everyone for your insightful comments and I agree with most of you. The idea of the post is not to rank which country is the most racist in Latin America or worldwide. Instead my aim was to report how Mexican media covered Lupita’s award and how people expressed their views about the recognition throughout different Mexican online media outlets.

  4. Well, she has a wrong perception of Mexico> she can ask to the family of Johnny laboriel. Benito Juarez he was a African- Mexican president. So, she can stick the award at the end of her colon.

    • I do not agree. I’m an African American who speaks Spanish. I work here in the U.S. with Mexican Nationals on a daily basis. I’ve been in this particular line of work for many years, and have had contact with literally thousands of Mexican people. The vast majority (about 90%) had something rude to say in Spanish about my skin color, or my African features right off the bat. I’ve been called a Monkey etc.They felt safe doing so, because they assumed I didn’t speak Spanish due to my race. I generally ignored the insults, but made it clear that I was fluent in Spanish via conversation with them. Some were obviously embarrassed by being outed as bigots, and promptly left, possibly expecting anger or bad treatment from me. Others used more caution, and switched to more slang terms (code speak) to attempt to not be caught again.
      I found it interesting and ironic that I have supported immigrants rights for my entire adult life, only to experience prejudice from a group of immigrants. The entire world is screwed up in this particular way. No race is innocent of it, or safe from it. Terrible.

      • “I work here in the U.S. ” You sir, live in Usa, not in MEXICO, with mexican people, so your arguments are invalid. Generally, mexican people that lives in usa thinks they are the best of the best just because they earn dollars, dont compare us with those scum bags

  5. One must point out that Mexico was the first country to official dismiss “race” as a qualification for citizenship (1818, Chilpacingo Constitution) and our second president (Vicente Guerrero) was the son of a slave and immensely proud of his Afro-Mexican heritage, as were many of the 19th century’s political and cultural elites. Afro-Mexicans were only a small minority in this country (slavery never having been a major economic factor, and Mexico having been the first nation to officially abolish it… 1828), and marriage across “racial” lines being the rule, rather than the exception, Afro-Mexicans all but disappeared as a distinct ethnicity by the start of the 20th century. While there are a few small rural communities that are still Afro-Mexican, most Afro-Mexicans in the 21st century are the descendants of more recent immigration from the Caribbean… or, surprisingly enough, Kenya (there is a small, but thriving, Kenyan community in Toleca). Often the prejudice is not against blacks, per se, but against Jamaicans and Cubans (who Afrodescendent Mexicans are often assumed to be). This is not to deny that there is prejudice towards darker skinned Mexicans, but that it is a mistake to discuss Mexican “racial” attitudes based on cultural assumptions of other societies, especially those like the United States and the English-speaking world, where “race” was defined by DNA, not self-identity, and where “race” played a much more prominent role in history.

  6. Mexico always does this. If you spit on Mexican soil and achieve something, they steal…I mean…claim it as their own. Example: the claim that the Mambo is Mexican because Cuban Perez Prado made it popular while living there.

  7. Yeah there’s a little of racism in Mexico, but there’s even more racism here in the usa don’t act like you’re prefect, pointing fingers at others. First make sure your hands are clean before you start talking crap about other people or other countries.

    • If you are Mestizo like the majority of Mexicans, thgern I doubt you have experienced racism. Being Mestizo in Mexico=Being white in the USA. Of course you will say there is only a little racism since you are not the one being affected.

  8. Did my have a high level racist? When? Where? You talk like you know every person in this country. Isnt North america the place where black people were slaves? The editor in this article must be joking…

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