Recently, Univision host of the “Al Punto” show, Jorge Ramos, sat down to interview Star Wars: The Force Awakens actors Oscar Isaac and Lupita Nyong’o about their roles in the hit movie. Both actors identify as Latin but feedback on the interview suggested that anti-blackness in the Latin@ communities is still alive and well and aimed specifically at afro-descendant Latin@s.
Perhaps the most disturbing feedback on the interview came from commenters on Facebook from Ramos’ page. Both actors gave the full interview in Spanish. Nyong’o is a Mexican-Kenyan actress and Isaac is a Guatelaman American actor and musician. But, the feedback from commenters suggested that Nyong’o wasn’t Latin enough while none questioned Ramos’ or Isaac’s identities.
To get a clearer understanding of what happened in the interview, I spoke with Alysia Mann Carey, a PhD student at the University of Chicago who studies violence against afro-descendant Latin@s primarily in Brazil.
Jenn Jackson: What exactly are Lupita, Oscar and Jorge Ramos saying about her race, ethnicity, and nationality in the interview?
Alysia Mann Carey: Ramos asks “How does a girl from Mexico City [una chica de Mexico de Kenia] by way of Kenya and a Cuban from Guatemala [Un Cubano de Guatemala] get to Star Wars? How was this long path?”
Isaac responds, “So, you can’t know how things happened to arrive at this point/moment. But I am at a point where it is hard to process what is happening. I feel like this is the moment before a tsunami, this phenomenon that is Star Wars.
Then, Ramos turns to Nyong’o and asks: “Now you Lupita. How did you arrive at Star Wars?”
Nyong’o replies: “Also, for me it is hard to process. It just that I feel blessed to have this opportunity. I watched Star Wars when I was a young girl and I loved it. And so now I can’t believe that I am now in the Star Wars Saga.”
AMC: Nyong’o and Isaac do not seem to be speaking directly to their race/ethnicity/nationality. Instead, Ramos brings it up in the way that he formulates the question.
JJ: What are some of the good comments below the interview? what are some of the bad comments?
AMC: One thing that stood out to me was: “Lupita es Mexicana por accidente no por que tenga Origen Latino como Lo dice el señor Jorge Ramos. Ella es Africana. Oscar si es de Origen Latino.” This states that “Lupita is Mexican by accident and not because she has Latin origins, as Mr. Jorge Ramos says. She is African. Oscar is of Latin Origin.”
AMC: Another comment added: “Lupita Nyong’o no es de origen Latino. Es de origen Africano pero nacida en Mexico solamente porque sus padres alli trabajaban cuando la Madre de ella dio a luz. That’s it!!!” This says, “Lupita Nyong’o is not of Latin origin. She is of African origin but born in Mexico only because her parents worked there when her mom gave birth. That’s It!”
AMC: Two commenters summed it up pretty well:
“Si Lupita fuera Rubia y de ojos azules ahi estubieran reclamandola como Mexicana! Como es posible que sea el 2015 y tengamos la mente tan cerrada? Y la verdad no me sorprende en lo absoluto, nuestro hermoso continente Americano es un gran arco iris de colores pero lamentablemente lo unico que casi se ve en la tele es blanco, claro! Eso tambien se debe a que nuestras razas de color casi estan marginalizadas y no tienen las mismas oportunidades.”
This says: “If Lupita was blonde with blue eyes, you all would claim her as Mexican. How is it in 2015, we still have minds so closed. And the truth is it doesn’t surprise me at all. Our beautiful continent America is a great rainbow of colors but unfortunately the only thing that almost always sees on TV is white, of course! That is also because our colored races are almost marginalized and do not have the same opportunities.”
AMC: Another one said, “It’s crazy how Latino people get so mad , if a black person is born in a Latino country and called them selves Latino, chill out guys being black is not a disease. your [sic] not different, we are all human beings, know your history also because Latino is mixed with black, history proves it, even if I know it will be soo hard to understand and to believe since most of the Latino are racist even with the own black people in their country.”
AMC: Another interviewer suggested that Lupita was linked to the AIDS epidemic. Lupita said: “para mi es dificil procesar, me siento muy bendecida, no puedo creer que ahorita estoy en la saga”. This means, “it is hard for me to process I feel very blessed and I cant believe that I am now in the saga.”
Bendecita in Spanish is blessed. But a commenter intentionally changed the wording. Percy Roldan said: “Lupita es una vende sida ella lo dijo.” This means: “Lupita sells AIDS, that is what she said.”
Bendecita and vende sita are pronounced the same but mean completely different things! In the way he worded this comment, it suggests that blackness is considered a disease, contamination.
JJ: In your opinion, does this interview tap into anti-Blackness in many Spanish-speaking, and Latin countries?
AMC: Yes, the comments tap in to anti-blackness in Latin America. Aside from spelling her name wrong, these comments are implying that blackness is not part of what it means to be Mexican and by extension Latino and that the two identities are mutually exclusive, so that one cannot be of African and Latin Descent. Referring to the first comment, which states that Lupita is African and Oscar is Latin, also reinforces anti-blackness-Oscar is able to be Latino while Lupita, because of her blackness is not.
JJ: How, if at all, does this relate to the recent move to recognize Afro-Mexicans?
AMC: One way that anti-blackness is manifested is by non-recognition of the 1.38 million Afro-Mexicans. For a long time (and even today), the Mestizaje identity—mixture of the Spaniard European [male] and the indigenous [woman] is strong and completely ignores the presence of African peoples in Mexico, and other parts of Latin America. Many people are still unaware that African Slaves were brought to Mexico during the colonial era and their descendants remain in these countries, though not fully included.
Earlier this month, after long struggle of Afro-Mexican activists, the Mexican government is recognizing Afro-descendants on the national population survey.
AMC: Referring back to the comment, which mentioned that Lupita was born in Mexico only because of the fact that her parents were there for work. In Mexico, like the US, if you are born within the territory, you are Mexican. However, what these comments illustrate is that Luptia is not forwarded the citizenship because of her blackness. The mestizaje ideology also contributes to the idea that there are no racial hierarchies in Latin America and everyone is the same, just Mexican, or Guatemalan, for example. But Lupita’s blackness exempted her from this “sameness” or national inclusion.
JJ: Anything else you would like to add?
Another element to the comments is the fascination of Lupita speaking Spanish. “Wow estoy sorprendida con el espanol de Lupita Nyongo. Sabe mas espanol que muchos cuyos ambos padres son de herencia hispana. Es un orgullo ver artistas de ese calibre hablar y exponer el idioma.”
This says, “Wow, I am suprised with Luptia Nyong’o’s Spanish. She knows more Spanish than most whose parents are from Hispanic heritage. It is a great pride to see artists of this caliber speaking and exhibiting the language.”
Yes, it is wonderful that there are artists speaking the language, but why the fascination with Lupita? Jorge is also speaking Spanish, so is Oscar.
One great comment was: “Me encanta que complica los estereotipos de que es un latino, Mexicano, etc. Nacida en México de desendencia Kenya.”
This means: “I love that she complicates the stereotypes of what is a Latino, a Mexican etc. Born in Mexico from Kenyan roots.”
**All translations in this interview were given by Alysia Mann Carey who is fluent in Spanish**
Photo credit: Screen Shot from Univision video