Courtesy of Ilan Stavans
I regularly hear from colleagues that telenovelas—sometimes called comedias—aren't realistic, that they're cheap melodramas showcasing Hispanic life from an embarrassing angle. But embarrassing to whom?
No other television programs are as popular in Latin America. On a single day, episodes reach millions of viewers, with a strong appeal to a middle-class audience, in particular. They're not "soap operas," as the English-speaking world knows them, but stories with a beginning and an end that, in recent decades, take on controversial topics like political repression, premarital sex, the drug culture, and religious discrimination.
They are ubiquitous today not only on prime-time television Monday through Friday and on DVD but also via social media like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Few other kinds of stories offer as diverse an introduction to contemporary life among Hispanics everywhere, including in the United States. The style is cartoonish, but so are many popular movies, plays, and novels. Yet some telenovelas are nuanced, sophisticated, and even erudite. But while they are studied by academics with an interest in mass media, scholars in Latin American studies—in a display of snobbery that indicates a tangible disconnect from what makes the region tick—dismiss them as cheesy (the term in Spanish is cursi).
It is time we all brought telenovelas into the classroom.
I know their ethos inside and out because my father, Abraham Stavans, is a star in them. In a career spanning 50 years, he has played countless roles—courteous ranchers, villainous priests, librarians—in such serials as La Sonrisa del Diablo (The Devil's Smile), Pelusita (Snugly), and Querida Enemiga (Dear Enemy). I can't begin to count the number of times that people have come up to him to say how they feel about the latest narrative development. When he is the evil father of the naïve female protagonist, they sometimes spit in his face. If he's a good guy, fans hug him. "Gracias," they say. "It is people like you who make a difference."
It's clear the audience rarely makes a distinction between character and actor. There is something primal, unprocessed about this medium. It emphasizes the tale, never the teller. There are a handful of famous telenovela authors, like Caridad Bravo Adams, sometimes referred to as the Margaret Mitchell of the genre. Her Balzac-like novel Corazón Salvaje (Wild Heart) tells the story of a set of brothers and sisters in Mexico in the early 1900s, a time of economic development and ideological effervescence. Several variations of the story have been serialized, starting in 1966, with another version in 2009. But few in the Spanish-speaking world care about authorship. What matters are the narrative twists—the more far-fetched and unexpected the better—that nevertheless evoke the spins of everyday existence.
The acting in these comedias is dull, unpolished, exaggerated. Perhaps the right adjective is mechanical. In Latin America, apart from Brazil, actors usually depend on an apuntador, a small speaker in the ear that tells the performer the next line—producing a kind of flatness to the dialogue. The effect is one of subtle delay: As one character says "¡Te amo!," another listens while also hearing the apuntador utter, "Yo también." The genre doesn't stress the director's touch either, but seeks a generic look, a basic appeal. Its raw materials are picture-perfect faces and hypersexualized physiques.
At the heart of the medium, therefore, is an unresolved contradiction: It seeks to portray ordinary life while delivering a product that is unapologetically fake. The public acknowledges the simulated, unnatural quality of what is on the TV screen while holding the telenovela as a map to reality. Is that so different from the appeal of many other genres in Hispanic culture?
Sensational though they may be, comedias tap into a long tradition of storytelling in the Americas. The genre found its footing in the 1950s in Mexico, Brazil, and Cuba. The first telenovelas were relatively simple and straightforward. Senda Prohibida (Forbidden Path), for example, which ran from 1957 to 1958, was a typical village-to-city tale about an astute provincial girl who relocates to Mexico City, where she romantically traps a married man into caring for her lavishly.
Shot at first in black and white, the early serials were structured around a set number of characters, aired once a week, and usually ran for a year. As time went on, they became more frequent (featured five times a week), more complicated, and longer running (although they never acquired the length of their American counterparts, such as All My Children, which lasted for 41 years).
The late 40s and 50s was the period in which mass entertainment took off in the Hispanic world. Mexico, in particular, became the base of a thriving movie industry, with films like Nosotros los Pobres (We the Poor), Pepe el Toro (Pepe the Bull), La Perla (The Pearl), and María Candelaria, and stars like Cantinflas, Dolores del Río, Pedro Infante, María Félix, and Jorge Negrete. Like the telenovelas, those films featured mundane themes: male courage, female abnegation, the tension between rich and poor.
But the telenovela is also closely linked to highbrow literature. In terms of narrative, its ancestors go back to the 16th- and 17th-century baroque plays of the Spanish Golden Age, also called comedias, written by Lope de Vega, Calderón de La Barca, and Tirso de Molina, which often featured melodramatic storylines and unlikely plot twists. Think of La Dama Boba (The Lady-Fool, 1613), about a pair of sisters, one intellectual and one not, in love with the same man. This fast-paced play is about a household thrown into chaos by the power of love. It could be seen as forgettable and light-hearted (the prolific Lope de Vega wrote close to 1,800 comedias) but also as a study of the role of women in society and of female identity. Such stories resonated in the Hispanic world, with its intricate history of class and race identities.
Another link is to the 19th-century serialized novels of authors like Benito Pérez Galdós ("the Spanish Charles Dickens") and his naturalist counterparts in the Americas. They offered a panoramic view of all segments of society and probed relationships in a culture that still stressed pureza de sangre (purity of blood) while also opening up to a new mestizo worldview.
In the 20th century, telenovelas have roots in two genres. The first are the romantic novels of authors like Corín Tellado (aka María del Socorro Tellado López), an Iberian author who penned more than 4,000 novels—she is in the Guinness Book of World Records—and who wrote one-dimensional romances that sold more than 400 million copies. The second are the old-time radio serials, ubiquitous in Latin American cities from the 30s on, that emphasized the tensions among ethnicities, classes, and religious affiliations.
Consider moreover: While telenovelas themselves are scorned in the curriculum, not so in the work of some of the most-noted authors and filmmakers we teach. The histrionics of the Spanish director and producer Pedro Almodóvar, his flamboyant aesthetics, would be impossible without the telenovela. Many of us teach the 1977 novel of Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter—which is about radio soaps in Peru in the 1950s. The novel shows the degree to which the creators of those programs were idols among the urban middle class in Latin America, especially among housewives.
In fact, Vargas Llosa's novel prompts an important insight into understanding the appeal of telenovelas: They erase national borders. In the novel, Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian scriptwriter who is the protagonist, makes a successful living, first in Buenos Aires, then in Lima. The listeners of his radio shows don't know him by name, but they invariably recognize something in his work. In similar fashion, though the plots of telenovelas are generally confined to a specific country, the people behind them are often from different places, from Mexico and Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, Panama, Argentina. The argument they make is the same as that in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter: Camacho's themes are transnational—and so is his language.
There are telenovelas about everything under the sun. They might be contemporary in their depiction, or else historical in nature. Regardless, they address urgent racial, religious, political, and economic issues: the desaparecidos presumed killed by the military police, abortion, gay rights, abusive leaders. Some critics say the comedias are Eurocentric because the actors tend to have Caucasian complexions—the stories may be about racial, economic, and cultural mixture, but the faces on the screen are mostly white. But among Hugo Chávez's legacies is a socialist telenovela, Teresa en Tres Estaciones, on how the lives of three women are affected by the development of a railway system. And a serial shot in Colombia delves into questions about the Liberatador Simón Bolívar.
A show called La Reina del Sur (Queen of the South) is based on a novel by the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, which revolves around a narco female ringleader of the Sinaloa crime cartel. My father acted in Rebelde (Rebel), a Mexican adaptation of an Argentinian serial about adolescent angst in the early 21st century. It had the distinction of being one of the first on a number of fronts, both exploring the atmosphere of free sexuality among the upper-class young and featuring a leading Jewish character (played by my father) in a civilization known for its anti-Semitic stereotypes.
I have heard it said that a single episode of 1979's Los Ricos También Lloran (The Rich Also Cry), among the most widely viewed Mexican telenovelas, reached an audience considerably larger than the entire international readership of Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, when it was originally published, in 1967. And that doesn't take into account the rebroadcast of the program in other places, like Turkey, Italy, China, and a number of Arab countries.
I'm equally fascinated by how telenovelesca García Márquez's novel is: incest, machismo, unwanted pregnancies, political intrigue, extramarital affairs, tragic downfalls. That's not surprising, given that the author worked as a screenwriter for Mexican movies of the 1960s. The plight of the Buendía family across several generations, the rise and fall of the coastal town Macondo in which they live, and the endless architectural mutatio could have been a serial.
Not too long ago, Telemundo, the second-largest Spanish-language network in the United States (Univisión is the largest), announced that its locally produced telenovelas would be delivered in Spanglish. The news was cause for consternation among purists who cherish Spanish, but it indicated the vitality and adaptability of the genre. The serial Una Maid en Manhattan, loosely based on the Jennifer Lopez movie Maid in Manhattan, used references unique to New York, a hybrid of Spanish and English, and, where necessary, closed captions. If not altogether satisfying, the result left some viewers exhilarated.
In short, there is no need to be embarrassed by telenovelas. The composite picture they offer is trustworthy. And popular culture has been studied in American universities for half a century, with courses on comic strips, science fiction, and Seinfeld. Perhaps scholars in Hispanic studies feel insecure in an academy that not too long ago paid scant attention to Latin America. Or could it be that the Europeanized side of the field still maintains a sharp line between the writers of Spain's Golden Age and Latin American cursi such as Caridad Bravo Adams? Personally, I'm not sure that abyss between Iberians and colonials exists anymore.
Last year my father was asked by a Japanese corporation looking to invest in Latin America to produce a short soap opera for its labor force. It wanted a mechanism whereby potential workers would be able to understand and appreciate their new culture. All my father needed was a screenplay, a TV set, a couple of cameras, and a cast of 12 to 20 actors. (And, of course, a crash course on Japanese culture.) Perhaps we could ask our students to produce a telenovela? It's not expensive.
Take this, then, as a manifesto for the creation of telenovela studies. Let's teach telenovelas, form an academic association, construct archives that are depositories of collective memory. Maybe a museum celebrating the telenovela tradition, a project that will inevitably need strong scholarly backing.