Lupita Nyong’o and the Mexicans

The actress Lupita Nyong'o was born in Mexico, who wanted to claim her Oscar win. But why should she owe the Oscar to Mexico, a country with such high levels of racism?

Lupita Nyong'o at San Diego Comic Con. Image credit Gage Skidmore via Flickr

“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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