Is she Kenyan or Mexican? That's the question fuelling an international tug-of-war over Lupita Nyong'o's success of late.
America loves her, BuzzFeed really loves her, almost everyone besides haterade-guzzling Nigerian singer Dencia loves her. And most recently, People magazine loved her a whole lot by naming her their "Most Beautiful person" of 2014:
Put simply, the world is hopping on Lupita's bandwagon, and that's probably a good thing. But like Biggie said, "mo' money, mo' problems," and success is not without its consequences.
A unique dilemma has arisen for the actress. María Ximena Plaza explores it in a fascinating piece for Africa Is a Country titled "Lupita Nyong'o and the Mexicans," which draws from various observations to address a deceptively simple question: Whom does Lupita's success "belong" to?
This topic requires some explanation. Nyong'o is a global citizen, having been born in Mexico City, raised in Kenya, flown back to Mexico to learn Spanish as a teenager then enrolled in university and grad school in the U.S. According to Plaza, the actress identifies as "Mexi-Kenyan."
But things got a bit complicated the day of the 2014 Oscars, when a reporter asked Nyong'o, "How much does the Oscar belong to Mexico?" The actress humorously replied, "It all belongs to me," and gracefully changed the subject. But it was too late — the stage was set for a surprisingly involved exchange of "Kenya versus Mexico" claim staking and collective butt-hurtness.
How it went down: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta drew first blood, affirming his nation's entitlement to Nyong'o before she even won. "I join millions of Kenyans and worldwide fans to congratulate and support Lupita Nyong'o as she confronts one of the biggest nights in her career so far," he wrote in a statement.
Kisumu county Governor Jack Ranguma added: "This is a win for Kenya and for Africa as well."
Following her victory, both Kenyatta and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted their pride-filled congratulations:
Image Credit: SDP Noticias
News reports in both countries highlighted her as "a symbol of national pride." Neither acknowledged the other as a possible site for her allegiance.
Yet according to Plaza, some Mexican outlets also took umbrage with what they saw as Nyongo's' refusal to "share" her award with her birth country: "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," wrote SDP Noticias.
Commenters agreed with these sentiments, even going so far as to claim Nyong'o "bought a misguided view of Mexico as racist to blacks or people of African descent."
And that's when shit got real: "It is curious that a country deeply racist such as Mexico claims Lupita's award," tweeted Mexican blogger and journalist Alberto Buitre.
Shots fired. Blogger Victor Hernández added: "[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."
Thus began a quickly escalating debate about racism in Mexican society. This topic has been discussed extensively in the past, with special emphasis on the skin-color divide between wealthier Mexicans, whose lighter "complexion betrays an allegiance to the Spanish who conquered the Aztec empire," and the darker-skinned who overwhelmingly constitute the "peasantry and working classes."
It's a taboo subject of discussion, claims CNN contributor Ruben Navarrete, yet one that "hides in plain view."
"It's no exaggeration," Navarrete writes, "to say that ... the best, highest-paying, most important jobs often seem to go to those who, in addition to having the best education and the strongest connections, have the lightest skin."
Oh, the irony. How interesting that a country with such a deeply ingrained tradition of racism now has politicians and media outlets staking claims to a dark-skinned black actress. Of course, this is not to say it wouldn't happen the same way everywhere else. The practice of exceptionalizing "successful" or "palatable" minorities in racially unequal nations — like the United States, for instance — is hardly uncommon.
But call it hypocrisy, political convenience or a genuine attempt to incorporate blacks into a more inclusive definition of Mexican identity, whatever it is, it fails to address the real problem: Lupita's success is no more than a surface triumph if the country's institutional racism remains unaltered.
Nyong'o is an entertainer, so this goes doubly true for Mexican media. Jerry Ph puts it best in TV Notas: "Now Televisa will hire her for one of its shows?" he asks. "Her role would probably be as a maid or a nanny of a blond rich. Though it hurts, this is the truth."
There's clearly a lot of work to be done on this front. The under-representation and devaluation of dark-skinned actresses is a problem almost everywhere, so once more, this is not unique to Mexico. But if Mexican politicians and media are putting this much emphasis on claiming Nyong'o as their own, one would hope they're putting just as much effort into expanding their modes of representation to incorporate more dark-skinned women.
The obvious should go without saying, but no matter what, this victory belongs to Nyong'o and whomever she chooses to share it with. "I'm Kenyan and Mexican at the same time," she says. End of story.