Unpacking the Unexpected Cultural Love Affair Between Mexico and Nairobi

Teaching Tortilla Making Fonda NBO BeLatina
Photo Credit IG @fondanbo_

Authentic cultural exchanges and appreciation has created a bedrock for the relationship between Nairobi, Kenya and Mexico to blossom. Today, Nairobi has a growing number of Mexican restaurants, Mexican telenovelas, and music that mixes Spanish languages over Kenyan Afro Beats.

Nairobi Mexico Food Fonda NBO BeLatina
Photo Credit IG @fondanbo_

It is no secret that Mexican food is a beloved cuisine by many in the United States. Historically, most of what we call the West Coast today (California, Nevada, Utah, most of New Mexico and Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming) was Mexican territory before the signing of The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, less than 200 years ago. Close in land proximity and having a deeply intertwined history — of war, land grabs and exchanges, and immigration — has paved the way for Mexican cuisine and Mexican fusion cuisine (Tex-Mex) to become a food staple in the United States

But immigration has also brought Mexican cuisine to Nairobi and used the similarities between the two cultures to introduce Mexican food to Kenya’s residents in Nairobi.

Salisha Chandra and her husband previously lived in California and fell in love with the Mexican food they often ate there before moving to Nairobi. Upon living in Nairobi for a while they found that their new home in Nairobi didn’t offer the Mexican cuisine they had come to love while living in the United States; so, they decided to open a Mexican restaurant. After taking trips around Mexico to learn the ways in which Mexican food differs across regions in Mexico, speaking with Mexican chefs about the use and sourcing of ingredients, and working with local Kenyan farmers and cheesemakers to ensure the freshest quality of ingredients, the couple opened the first authentic Mexican restaurant in Nairobi in 2017, Fonda NBO (the airport code for Nairobi’s international airport). This intentional work and research has led the restaurant to be listed as the fifth Top 10 Best Restaurants to Eat at in Nairobi.  

Mexican and African relations started many years ago during the stealing and selling of people from Africa. Author, researcher and former Dodge Professor of History and African American Studies at Princeton University, Colin A. Palmer, found that approximately 200,000 enslaved African people were brought to Mexico. “In the sixteenth century, New Spain — as Mexico was then called — probably had more enslaved Africans than any other colony in the Western Hemisphere.” For over 300 years, African people were living, building, and contributing to what we now know as Mexican culture. Thus, it is not entirely surprising that Mexican and Kenyan food use similar ingredients; however, the ways in which they are prepared vary. Simple things like tortillas versus chapattis show that the regions separated by oceans and continents have a connection in many ways.

In addition to Mexican food, Mexican artistic culture has also reached Nairobi through telenovelas and music.

No stranger to telenovelas — or the less glamorous sounding English translation, soap operas – Nairobi imported several Spanish speaking telenovelas during the 90’s and early 2000’s. Four of the eleven soaps that rocked Nairobi are from Spanish speaking countries, and of those four three are directly from Mexico. Among these imported stories includes Mexican telenovela classics like Rosa Salvaje, starring Verónica Castro; and Los Ricos También Lloran. Additionally, the international hit Tú o Nadie was popular on Nairobi airwaves with its high drama, plot twist filled storyline, and forbidden love.  

Caroline Mbindyo-Koroso is the CEO of African Voices Dubbing Company, a company that dubs imported telenovelas for Kenyan audiences. According to her personal Linkedin Page, “Established in 2015, [African Voices Dubbing Company is] a production company specializing in the translation and dubbing (versioning/translating) of content from English to African languages and dialects. African Voices versions over 100 hours of content a month in Luganda, Mozambique Portuguese, African English, African French, Swahili, Yoruba and other languages.” She believes that if more Mexican telenovelas were dubbed in local languages (currently they are dubbed in English), they would rise in popularity even more.

Mexican Mariachi music has reached the shores of Japan with the founding of Samurai Mariachi, a Japanese Mariachi band that performs the traditional Mexican music around the globe. Now it’s reaching the Nairobi and rising in popularity in as well. However, it is Mexican-born priesthood dropout Edgar Manuel Vargas Gallegos who is helping usher in the musical blend of Mexican-Kenyan via genge who is causing a stir on the music scene.

Genge is a musical genre that originated in Nairobi, Kenya in the 1990’s by artist like Nonini and P Unit . Much like the American born genre rap and hip-hop as a genre Genge mixes rap, Kenyan afrobeats, and lyrics about life for a style that is truly Nairobi born. Edgar Manuel Vargas Gallegos — who goes by Romantico Dembow on Twitter — is contributing to this genre as a multilingual rapper. Following the structure that reggae en Español became reggaeton, Vargas Gallegos is rapping over genge beats and melodies in Spanish and local Kenya dialects. He has already performed on one of Kenya’s very popular Comedy shows, The Churchill Show, and has been featured in various online outlets. A quick YouTube search shows Vargas Gallegos collaborating with other Kenyan Genge artists, being introduced to local culture by Nairobi residents, and on a Nairobi YouTube series called Fixed Match.

Mexico Nairobi Love Affair BeLatina
Photo Credit IG @Romantico&Samaki Mkuu

Edgar Manuel Vargas Gallegos was born in Veracruz, Mexico and planned on becoming a priest doing missionary work in Kenya. However, his love for music was always there. Reaching a crossroad, Vargas Gallegos decided to leave his priesthood studies and pursue music. Since making this decision he has become a secular aspiring genge artist full-time in Kenya. In an interview he participated in for DailyNation, Vargas Gallegos says that he hopes to one day make a gospel song and open a children’s home but right now he is focused on his genge career.

Respectful and intentional cultural collaborations and learning to demonstrate that appropriation is not necessary, and that appreciation can be achieved through truly learning before engaging in a culture. The Kenyan appreciation and infusion of Mexican culture has been happening for decades across food, music, and television programming. Seeing how authentic cultural exchanges and appreciation has created a bedrock for the relationship between Nairobi, Kenya and Mexico to blossom is refreshing in several ways. Perhaps Mexico has a Kenyan appreciation that we will soon discover. Next time you get a craving for Mexican food perhaps search for some Kenyan food and see how the cuisines are similar and different. After all, one of the best ways to attain appreciation and learn about different cultures is best done through food.