Latin Lovers

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

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
(‘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
-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
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

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