Latin Lovers

South-of-the-border soap operas captivate millions worldwide

| September/October 2002


During the Islamic festival of Ramadan a few years ago, some mosques in the west African nation of Ivory Coast decided to push up the traditional sundown prayer time. 'This thoughtful gesture,' reported the UNESCO Courier, 'saved thousands of the faithful from a painful dilemma-whether to do their religious duty or [watch] the latest episode of Marimar, a Mexican TV melodrama which has turned the whole country into addicts of telenovelas.'

An overwrought blend of fairy tale, Greek tragedy, Bollywood movie, and the 18th-century sentimental novel, Latin American telenovelas-Spanish for soap operas-have gone global over the past decade, interrupting siestas in Spain; making household names out of Latino actors in Estonia, Cyprus, and the Philippines; and, according to urban legend, rupturing sewage pipelines in Moscow when too many viewers flushed their toilets during a commercial break.

Unlike American soap operas, which in industry-speak are 'eternal,' telenovelas are finite series with a beginning, middle, and end-topping out at around 200 episodes. Viewed in prime time in many countries (generally six days a week), telenovelas attract a much broader audience across age and gender lines and are held in higher esteem than U.S. daytime soaps.

Still, there's crossover appeal. Witness Mexican actress Salma Hayek, who landed in Hollywood after starring in several telenovelas, and 1970s TV heartthrob Erik Estrada, who after a dubious stint on the Psychic Friends Network revived his struggling career in 1993 by starring in Dos Mujeres, Un Camino ('Two Women, One Direction'), one of the biggest telenovelas ever.

Although the past several years have seen the emergence of a new wave of gritty urban telenovelas, the most popular series are still, at heart, fairy tales that revolve around fantasies of social mobility and true love. The popular Los Ricos También Lloran-which roughly translated means 'Rich People Cry Too'-has a Cinderella-through-a-fun-house-mirror plot that captures the flamboyant melodrama of the genre: Poor girl meets and marries rich boy, but their happily-ever-after ending is delayed for years by a series of obstacles, particularly the ensuing romance between their adopted daughter and the long-lost son they gave away in the heat of an argument. Improbable though it sounds, Los Ricos También Lloran became a worldwide hit.

You can blame modern society for the universal appeal of telenovelas, says University of Monterrey professor Omar Hernandez in the online magazine Salon (Feb. 28, 2000). Hernandez, who recently completed a dissertation on the subject (a sure sign telenovelas have come of age), speculates that human beings overwhelmed by the modern world's 'excess of rationality . . . look to telenovelas to balance things out with a much-needed dose of excess melodrama.'

Shaazka Beyerle in Europe, a current affairs and cultural magazine published by the European Union (July/Aug. 2001), points to the eternal themes-good over evil, love conquers all, happily ever after-as a much-needed collective fantasy that allows viewers, especially those in developing countries, where telenovelas are more popular than French serials ('too intellectual') and American soap operas ('too sophisticated'), to escape the hardships of daily living.

Telenovela viewers can dare to dream, write Araceli Ortiz de Urbina and Asbel Lopez in the Courier (May 1999), because they 'live through the sufferings and misfortunes of the characters and develop a real sense of complicity with them.' Consider Ligaya Magbanua, a Manila waitress, who says she got hooked on Marimar because she identifies with the lead heroine: 'She's poor like us. Her house was burned down. They mistreated her. They degraded her. She's almost Filipina.'

Like American fans of gossip mags and talk shows that chronicle every failed romance, professional misstep, and public tantrum undertaken by celebrities, viewers of telenovelas can bathe in the comforting rush that comes from realizing 'Hey, they're just like us.'

Discuss the telenovela phenomenon in the TV forum at Café Utne: cafe.utne.com