Ever since actress Lupita Nyong'o first exploded all over the media, many interviewers and fans alike have stumbled and fretted over how to pronounce her last name. (Go here for a wonderful lesson from Nyong'o herself). But for some of us, it was her first name that sounded an alarm in a frequency audible only to Latinos. Lupita? We know, of course, that she is identified as Kenyan, but some of us whispered, is she, you know, secretly Mexican? A Latina incognito?
As for the question of her first name, the answer is simple. She was named after Mexico's Virgin of Guadalupe, Lupita for short, because that's where she was born. Her parents lived there in exile. But, beyond her first name, she is Kenyan through and through. Still, she has said she feels close ties to her birthplace, where she returned for about a year as a teen. Plus, she still carries a Mexican passport continues to appreciate a mean taco or three. So, since she claims Mexican culture, do Latinos get to claim her as one of our own? One could easily answer no. She is Kenyan, punto. But I think there's something to be said for counting her as de las nuestras, one of ours.
Wanting to claim someone as part of your ethnic or racial group may seem like a strange exercise, more than a little self-involved and even downright narcissistic. But it is a compulsion born of a desire to see oneself reflected in media and popular culture. Like it or not, that's what sets many of our expectations about what's beautiful, what's desirable, what's "normal." And not seeing yourself conveys a message that you are none of these things.
This practice of tuning into a Latin signal through the white noise of news and entertainment coverage is an old practice. For an earlier generation, it was the thrill of realizing bombshell Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino. For another, it was hearing Ricky Ricardo's rapid-fire Cuban Spanish on national TV in I Love Lucy. And for yet another it was the thrill of learning that Yankee slugger Bernie Williams was actually Bernabé Williams Figueroa Jr.
Claiming a public figure lets us highlight important aspects of that person that cannot be immediately discerned by looking at their name, their face or hearing them speak. One association we believe is self-evident, thanks to the long history of the "one-drop rule" in the U.S., is Blackness, though projects like (1)ne Drop ask us to rethink that category's supposed obviousness. But Latinos – and other non-white, non-black categories — notoriously confound. And one common response to being hidden in plain sight is the now clichéd listicle "20 celebrities you didn't know were Latino/Arab/Asian."
The people who show up on the Latino version of these lists — Snooki, Ryan Lochte, Christy Turlington, Oscar Isaac, Michelle Forbes, Lynda Carter — don't have Spanish names or looks that match what people expect of Latinos.
While some see these lists as badges to add to the ethnic pride sash, for others these lists are obsessive and absurd tallies that only make sense if you are stuck in a permanent loop of Dave Chapelle's "racial draft" skit.
When comedian Louis C.K. started speaking publicly about his Mexican roots a few years ago (like in this radio appearance), it was revealing on several levels. It allowed the Latino team to claim the hottest comic in the country. It also gave many a way to identify with him through the common immigrant experiences he talked about – learning a new language, dealing with a "funny" name, learning to fit in. Reading interviews like this one in Rolling Stone, where he gives a nuanced account of his relationship to his Mexican parentage and upbringing, shed new light on several of his routines, connecting those experiences with his insider/outsider view and unmasking of white privilege. It's easy now to see the immigrant's marvel and outrage in this routine about his daughters complaining about bubble-gum flavored medicine. But does all this suddenly make C.K. less "white"? Not at all.
The best part about "claiming" Louis C.K. or Lupita Nyong'o as part of the Latino extended family is how sharing their stories helps us better understand and explain ourselves. It helps Latinos better connect with one another. Sharing how we ended up with our names, our manner of speech and our view of the world makes us dynamic, fully human and more than just a label.
So, as far as I'm concerned, Lupita is my prima (cousin) from the Kenyan side of the family.
Bienvenida, Lupita. Welcome home.