As the World Turns On Its TV

Ever caught that cheesy Mexican soap down the dial? Chances are it’s an international hit.

In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian television industry needed to find a fast and cheap way to fill the airtime that had been previously occupied by official programming. So Commonwealth Channel Ostankino bought the transmission rights to Los Ricos También Lloran (The Rich Also Cry), a telenovela that had aired in the late ’70s in Mexico. This soap opera follows the stereotypical plot of the Mexican melodramas from that decade: The protagonist is a lower-class woman in love with the son of a millionaire. It’s an impossible romance given the social—and racial—distances that separate them. However, after 249 episodes, the characters overcome these and other vicissitudes to finally unite in marriage.

The telenovela was relaunched on Soviet TV under the title Bogaty Tozhe Plachut. The producers at Ostankino could not have anticipated the degree of obsession it would incite. The ex-Soviet countries were soon addicted to the show. The low-cost dubbing and dated hairstyles seemed not to matter to anyone: Verónica Castro’s gorgeous greens awash in tears became the most famous eyes in Russia. Some 200 million Russians tuned in for the last episode of Bogaty Tozhe Plachut, making it the most-watched episode in television history.

The resounding success of Los Ricos También Lloran marked the beginning of a decade of globalization for the telenovela, which drew audiences from Venezuela and Brazil to Israel and the Philippines. Intrigued by this global phenomenon, I created the Telenovela Institute—equal parts research institute and nomadic installation. With the help of artists, sociologists, and anthropologists in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the United States, the institute intended to analyze the phenomenon of Latin American telenovelas and generate critical debate.

We set up shop in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2002. The leading actress in the telenovela Esmeralda, Leticia Calderón, had recently visited Ljubljana and was received at the airport by a crowd of 1,000, an exorbitant number given the size of the country. Ljubljana has a drab urban palette of grays and light yellow-browns. The institute’s interior was a deliberate contrast, done in a Mexican modernist style with pinks, blues, and yellows like the Camino Real hotel.

In Zagreb, Croatia, the institute opened its doors in the form of a tequila bar under the name Telenovela Bar. The tables inside were glass-covered showcases displaying the objects of the exposition. Immediately, the bar became an important social center. Our telenovela workshop—to our surprise—drew nearly 100 people, along with local reporters. The audience was a strange blend of older homemakers and local conceptual artists, but the conversations were revelatory: The homemakers—experts in their own right—were quite comfortable debating the sociological aspects of telenovelas. Our informal experiment revealed that, in any country, soap operas offer fuel for discourse.

I noticed patterns in the way each country related to telenovelas, and, at the same time, the way in which a country’s relationship to telenovelas revealed something unique about it. To paraphrase Canadian researcher Denise Bombardier, give me a telenovela and I’ll give you a nation. In general terms, however, telenovelas plumb what the critic Tomás López-Pumarejo called “the drama of the subconscious.” They are stories that revolve around such ontological questions as “Where is my son?” or “Where is my love?”

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