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?”
Telenovelas explore a country’s social tensions and convert them into collective therapy. This process worked well in countries that had recently emerged from communism, where people were casting about in a psychological search to deal with the long-dominating class taboos. As a result, a drama centered on the impossibility of love because of social or economic obstacles was extremely powerful. U.S. programs Dallas and Dynasty were broadcast in Russia at the same time as Los Ricos También Lloran, but they never generated quite the same level of interest, because Russians could not identify with the problems of an oil millionaire in Texas. The higher production quality of those programs seemed immaterial, so telenovela producers focused on the story. It was the drama, the emotions worn on the sleeve, that gave telenovelas a special attraction.
The telenovela’s power of persuasion is well-documented: Simplemente María (Simply Maria), about a servant who triumphed in life by buying a sewing machine and taking night classes, led to a massive jump in the purchase of sewing machines in Peru; in Cáceres, Spain, they put up a monument to the character. Sales of blond hair dye increase in countries where the principal actress in a telenovela is light-haired; a significant number of Russian children are named after telenovela actors or characters. In Hungary a foundation was started to aid blind people as a result of Esmeralda, the story of a beautiful blind woman.
Telenovelas have helped generate other positive initiatives, such as campaigns in Africa that use the form to raise consciousness about AIDS and drug addiction. The telenovela is ultimately a commercial product, however, and as such, it obeys commercial—not altruistic—interests. For decades, the alliance between Mexican television giant Televisa and the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party led to a bonanza for the production company in return for programming more soap operas with no political content during times of political tension. As the most effective commercial vehicle ever created, the telenovela can be a great demagogic tool.
The final stop of the institute was Cuba, the birthplace of the Latin American soap opera. In Cuba in the 1940s, the narrative tradition of the radio was at its richest and the format of the telenovela was quickly adopted. Also, in the early ’50s, Cuba had more televisions per capita than other Latin American countries, rivaling the United States. In 1948 the radio predecessor of the first Latin American telenovela was launched: El Derecho de Nacer, about a white man raised by a black woman, and his search for his biological mother. The theme of racial tensions—of particular interest to the multiracial Cuban society—was quickly accepted by the rest of Latin America. El Derecho de Nacer has been remade as a film and several times as a telenovela.
The reaction to the Cuban institute was immediate. Television reporters interviewed us, and the next day we were famous in Old Havana. In Cuba, the telenovela is still entertainment par excellence, in part because of the limited state television programming. The absence of political criticism was evident, although from time to time broadcasts were allowed of telenovelas that criticized other governments. One was the Colombian show Betty la Fea, which caused a worldwide sensation and has been remade in the United States as Ugly Betty. In one episode, Betty, who works in an office, commented about the country’s economy and criticized the finance minister. The next day, Colombian newspapers began an attack on the minister, analyzing Betty’s criticisms. The character reached the level of a national political figure.
The institute organized roundtables, performances, publications, dramatic lectures, and exhibits within exhibits, as in the case of the photographs of Stefan Ruiz (some of which accompany this article), who documented the strange false reality in the telenovela studios at Televisa.
Eventually, I closed the institute doors to pursue other interests, conscious of the fact that it would be a life’s work to continue traveling to ever more remote countries to study their complex reactions to television melodramas. The telenovela has also evolved, acquiring new dramatic formats and updating itself, incorporating subjects like cloning and 9/11.
Of course, as in the world of telenovelas, there is always the possibility of a sequel, or a remake.
This article was translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. Excerpted from Vice(Vol. 15, #6); www.viceland.com.