When my family lived in Spain, I frequently heard radionovelas (the Spanish equivalent of radio soap operas here in America) playing in the background. My mother and our maid Carmen would often do the ironing while they were on.
While we lived in Spain, I was bilingual. (Actually, trilingual–the school I went to was run by French nuns, so some of the classes were taught in French.) My mother was so worried we would never learn to read English properly that she began using phonetics to teach us to read at a very early age.
After we returned permanently to the United States, when I was about six years old, I totally lost my Spanish. Though both my parents were fluent–my dad because his family was from Puerto Rico; my mom because she learned the language after moving to Spain–I refused to speak Spanish after the move. The reason? I wanted to speak whatever language my friends were speaking. In Spain, it was Spanish. In America, it was English.
Even after taking Spanish for many years in school, I still never regained the fluency I had as a child. My sister moved back to Spain to go to school and became fluent again, leaving me as the only person in my immediate family who couldn’t speak Spanish.
My mom and I loved watching American soaps. One day when I came home from school, I found her watching a telenovela.
She said, “Why don’t you watch this with me? Maybe it will help you improve your Spanish.”
I’ll never forget that telenovela. It was Venezuelan and it was called “Cuando se Quiere ser Feliz” (translates roughly to: When One Wants to be Happy). It was also in black and white, even though American television by this time had almost entirely gone over to color.
The reason my mother started watching it was because one of the characters was a Gypsy from Sevilla, where we had lived. The show featured two young romantic couples who over the course of the story switch partners. The main story, though, was about the racial and class divide between the Gypsy girl and her two prospective lovers. (I could not find a photo from the actual series–the picture above is one of the stars, and one of Venezuela’s most famous leading men in their telenovelas, Eduardo Serrano.)
It’s not that these themes didn’t exist on American TV at all (the soap opera One Life to Live did a story about a light-skinned Black woman who passed for white, for instance), but I had never seen them done in quite this way. Class and race were presented as a serious social barrier. While most telenovelas have the standard happily-ever-after of romance novels (like an actual novel, they eventually end, unlike American soap operas, which can go on for decades), there was an honesty rarely found on American TV.
This is why when I see or read people giving condescending and dismissive commentary on telenovelas, I get really mad.
Are they all great? No. Some are very problematic. Like American soaps, some tend to romanticize rape, for instance. Nor are they always perfect when it comes to portraying racial issues. Many have been criticized for focusing mostly on white characters, in spite of the racial diversity of most Latin American countries. The Brazilian telenovela La Esclava Isaura (The Slave Isaura), which was insanely popular all over the world, is about a light-skinned slave who is seen as tragic because she looks white. Both her lovers are white men. Although the main theme is abolitionism, the dark-skinned slaves are supporting players in their own story while it focuses mainly on the white and light-skinned characters.
(La Esclava Isaura is notable for one other reason–it kills off the hero mid-way through the story. As an American soap watcher, I waited for him to pop up alive through the rest of the show. He never did.)
Sometimes the melodrama is so over-the-top it’s hilarious. My favorite example is from a show called Cuna de Lobos (Den of Wolves) which features a villainess who wears an eye patch. During an argument with the son she blamed for the loss of her eye, she rips off the eye patch–only to reveal another patch covering the eye. There’s a Venezuelan show whose name I can’t recall now that features the male and female villains in a shoot-out that echoes the ending of Double Indemnity, with the two crawling to each other for a last embrace before they die. (This was broadcast in the States during the World Cup, and the commentators on Univision even mentioned it while covering one of the games.)
Telenovelas also can be very fatalistic in tone and sometimes strain credibility when it comes to coincidence. In a show called La Venganza (The Revenge) a poor girl runs away to Mexico City–which had a population of about 20 million at the time–and the first house where she applies for a job just happens to belong to her long-lost father.
But during the Golden Age of telenovelas (which lasted a long time, from the 1960s to the early 2000s) there were many quality dramas that touched on important social issues, as well as told heartfelt love stories.
American would probably be surprised at the quality of some of the productions once they went over to color. Many were shot on location, giving some an almost cinematic feel.
The greatest thing about telenovelas to me is their limited run. Unlike American soaps, which can have a few good months or years creatively and then flat-out suck for years on end, telenovelas, if they’re good, end before they can become bad, and if they’re bad, they’re over in a few short months. Telenovelas also use many of the same actors from show to show, creating something akin to a repertory company.
There is also no stigma in Latin America when it comes to men watching telenovelas. They are broadcast during the day, but also during what we consider prime time in the evening. Some shows are made specifically to appeal to the male audience (i.e. crime and action dramas) but men often watch the romantic telenovelas, too. (My brother-in-law, who was Venezuelan, would watch them with me when I visited my sister.)
One of the most famous classic telenovelas–and realize that they are often remade, not only during different time periods, but in different Latin American countries–is El Derecho de Nacer (The Right to be Born). The story of a sheltered upper-class girl with a dictatorial father, she finds herself pregnant by a cad who marries someone else. Hidden in the country by her father until she gives birth, he pays a servant to kill the child after it’s born. The girl’s maid persuades him to give the child to her instead and she disappears with him. For years, the bereft birth mother searches for her child. He grows up with his foster mother and becomes a doctor. As an adult, he is eventually reunited with his birth mother–and his now-contrite grandfather, who welcomes him into the family with open arms.
The story originated in Cuba as a radionovela, but the most famous incarnation is the 1981 Mexican version produced by Ernesto Alonso. An actor who appeared in several Luis Buñuel films during the Epica de Oro (Golden Age of Mexican Cinema), Alonso became known as “El Señor Telenovela” (Mr. Telenovela). While the story is strongly anti-abortion (it’s framed by the grown son trying to persuade one of his students not to have an abortion by telling her the story of his birth) it spends a lot of time promoting birth control and family planning. This was totally deliberate, as Alonso often included social issues he believed were important in his telenovelas. It also touches on toxic machismo and how it oppresses women.
This basic story–a young girl, usually upper-class, seduced, abandoned and pregnant, only to lose her child in some fashion–appears again and again in telenovelas. Other popular themes, besides this and romances that cross boundaries such as class and race, are family melodramas, crime stories, and historical dramas (including those set during important political events).
Corazon Salvaje (Savage Heart) based on the historical novels by Caridad Bravo Adams (many of her books have been adapted into telenovelas) has been remade at least four times for TV. The 1993 version was enormously popular. The romantic story echoes Wuthering Heights, as if the Isabella character were the heroine. Senda de Gloria (Path of Glory) chronicles the political upheavals in Mexico from the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1916 through 1939, through the eyes of one family.
There are even some with religious themes–one early telenovela my mother (my JEWISH mother, by the way) loved in particular was about San Martin de Porres, a biracial lay monk who became famous in Peru for his talent as a healer and work with the poor. Another example is Milagro de Vivir (Miracle of Life) which dramatizes the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe in flashbacks as one of the main characters researches the event.
The influence of the telenovela on American TV has been very gradual and is becoming more noticeable in recent years. There was an attempt back in the late 80s-90s to make telenovela-style programming for American audiences. The Mexican telenovela Tu O Nadie (You or Nobody–one of my personal favorites) was remade for American TV, but it and a few other early remakes never clicked with American audiences. American soap operas, starting with the now-defunct Port Charles, tried to emulate telenovela-style storytelling by featuring story arcs that ended after a few months, rather than years, with varying amounts of success.
The most successful impact of telenovelas is in prime-time programming. A telenovela that became a world-wide sensation, Yo Soy Betty la Fea (I am Betty, the Ugly One) was remade for American TV as Ugly Betty. Originating in Columbia, several versions of Betty la Fea were made in other Latin American countries and beyond.
The American version of Ugly Betty, starring America Ferrara, was co-produced by actress Salma Hayek, who herself became an overnight sensation in Mexico at the age of 23 when she starred in the telenovela Teresa. She abandoned her telenovela career to take her chances in Hollywood (which was seen as madness in her home country). Clearly, she did not forget her roots when she helped bring Ugly Betty to American screens.
Yo Soy Betty la Fea is the story of a very intelligent and well-educated young woman who doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of conventional beauty. She ends up as a secretary in the fashion industry because her looks have hindered her from finding something in her own field. She suffers prejudice because of her appearance but also gains respect because of her business acumen. Her boss Armando pretends to be in love with her to assure that she will stay with the company. While pretending he loves her, he genuinely falls for her. When she finds out about his rouse, she leaves, but later returns when the company needs her. In the interim, she has a makeover and turns out to be quite beautiful. She reconciles with Armando and they marry.
The American version is different. For one thing, there is never a romance between Betty and her boss Daniel, and Betty never has a radical makeover. She becomes more fashionable, but she’s always still Betty. To gratify the Betty/Daniel “shippers” there is a final scene where it is implied they may get together one day.
Ugly Betty paid tribute to its telenovela roots by having a telenovela playing on Betty’s TV now and again. It featured a racially and LGBT diverse cast, which is still fairly unusual for American network TV.
Jane the Virgin, starring Gina Rodriguez and based on the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen, is currently running on the CW and, like Ugly Betty, is a critical success. The story of a young woman who vows to remain a virgin until marriage but is erroneously artificially inseminated during a gynecological exam, its somewhat bizarre premise is the anchor for a warm family drama. Also like Ugly Betty (and like many telenovelas) it successfully blends drama, melodrama, comedy, pathos, and even a bit of social commentary.
I would argue that the rise of “anthology” television series, such as American Horror Story, True Detective, and Fargo, is partly inspired by the success of telenovelas. American Horror Story has also compiled a repertory-style group of actors who appear in the show season after season.
Even though Ugly Betty affectionately tweaked telenovelas (as did the comedy 30 Rock when Salma Hayek guest-starred) I hope that its success, and that of Jane the Virgin, will make people think twice before turning their noses up at the format.
Oh, and did watching them improve my Spanish?
I understand more, but as for speaking and reading/writing Spanish, not so much. But I’m still trying.