Tacos. Tequila. Telenovelas. Nairobi Embraces Its Mexican Soul.

On New Year’s Eve, as people around the world celebrated with a kiss or a glass of champagne, some partygoers in Nairobi celebrated a different way: with 12 grapes, one for each month of the year, as the clock ticked down to midnight. This Mexican tradition, which dates back to the Spanish colonial period and is said to bring good luck, arrived in Nairobi on the crest of a cultural wave that is taking over Kenya’s trendiest corners. Mexican culture is everywhere: on restaurant menus, in dance clubs, on television.

Although the number of actual Mexicans in Nairobi is small — about 200 people, according to embassy estimates — and they don’t have a defined neighborhood, their influence on the city’s cultural life is hard to miss (and that’s not even including Lupita Nyong’o, the daughter of Kenyans who was born in Mexico City). Nairobians can drink tequila and dance to Mexican-Kenyan fusion music at Blend Lounge on a Saturday night, then worship with Mexican Catholic priests at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish the next morning. Decent Mexican food is notoriously hard to find throughout Africa, but in Nairobi, hungry travelers don’t even have to leave the airport: at Java House, East Africa’s answer to Starbucks, they can feast on quesadillas, guacamole, and even huevos rancheros.

The first Mexicans came to Kenya in the late 40s, as Catholic missionaries. Here’s how their influence spread.

The fusion of Mexican and Kenyan cultures began in the 1980s, as Latin American telenovelas, mostly from Mexico, took over Kenyan airwaves. The rights for these soap operas were cheaper to buy than those for United States shows, so networks snatched them up. Today, business is still booming: Caroline Mbindyo-Koroso, a CEO and executive producer of African Voices Dubbing Company, says the company started out in early 2015 with two employees dubbing soap operas. Now it’s the biggest dubbing company in East Africa, with 15 recording booths and four dedicated mixing stations.

Ms. Mbindyo-Koroso says soap operas are so popular because they’re aspirational: a pretty, downtrodden hero or heroine overcomes daunting odds — an evil stepmother, a bespectacled business tycoon — to achieve greatness. Most Mexican telenovelas in Kenya currently air in English, but Ms. Mbindyo-Koroso thinks there would be even more potential if they were dubbed into local languages. There are more than 120 million Swahili speakers in Africa, she notes.

Born in Veracruz, Mexico, Edgar Manuel Vargas Gallegos, 28, had always idolized the Mexicans who had worked in Kenya as missionaries. After seminary school, but before his ordination, Mr. Gallegos followed their footsteps, intending to spread the Gospel.

Instead Mr. Gallegos fell in love with genge, Nairobi’s home-grown genre that combines traditional hip-hop beats with rap lyrics in Kiswahili and Sheng. With telenovelas popular, he reasoned: why couldn’t Mexican-Kenyan fusion be the next big thing in music, too? Mr. Gallegos ditched the priesthood and adopted the stage name “Romantico” to pursue a life in rap.

Ms. Chandra and her husband, Yash Krishna, lived in the United States for several years, including in California, before finally returning home to Nairobi. They missed the food they had fallen in love with abroad.

“We couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t any really good, authentic Mexican food here,” said Ms. Chandra. “It’s really similar to Kenyan food, in terms of ingredients: corn, avocados, beans. We said, ‘it should work really well with the Kenyan palate.’”More on Africa

Spira Cornel, the head chef at Fonda NBO, honed his skills with many different global cuisines but had never even tasted Mexican food before. “From day one, it was a blast for us as chefs. Mexican and Kenyan recipes use the same ingredients, but it’s a very different platform and techniques.”

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