For three consecutive weeks this summer, the Spanish-language TV network Univision has won the prime-time ratings among young adult viewers. Latin drama series called telenovelas — similar to but not the same as soap operas — are no small part of that equation.
"This time of year, Univision runs fresh new telenovelas while the other networks air old episodes from last season and cheap reality shows," NPR's Mandalit Del Barco reported recently. "Viewers are tuning in to watch popular telenovelas imported from Mexico's Televisa network."
When we announced to listeners on Alt.Latino's Facebook and Twitter pages that we'd tape a show about the culture and significance of telenovelas, we received mixed reactions. That's because telenovelas are loved by some, hated by others and undeniably ubiquitous in Latin culture. To some, they represent a passion comparable to soccer; to others, they're pure, fun Latin kitsch; and to others still, they represent the racism, classism and sexism that so often permeates Latin culture.
At Alt.Latino, we pride ourselves on looking at everyday topics in Latin culture from a fresh perspective. So we decided to invite Professor Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, from the University of Georgia, to join us as a Guest DJ. She specializes in studying telenovelas, Latin culture and society.
Listener Araceli Lopez-Arenas wrote in: "I used to be a novelera [soap opera fan] until I moved away to college. When I would visit home, my family would watch a novela and I had a completely different perspective about watching them. ... I hated them."
Like Araceli, I have a very complicated relationship with telenovelas. I grew up in Argentina, watching them with my grandma, so they have strong nostalgic value. When I think of telenovelas, I think of coming home after school, getting a plate of cookies and chocolate milk, and watching stories of love, betrayal, passion and tragedy. We'd later talk for hours about who did what, why, and how dare they.
As I grew up, I saw a more complicated picture. I realized my grandma was a lovely, strong woman with very little education (she'd only finished the second grade); my grandma, like most of the society which surrounded me, had a specific vision of sexuality and women's roles, and this vision was enforced by the novelas we watched. I saw that they promoted a childish, immature style of communication and relationships. The social mobility shown in novelas was practically impossible in my country unless pursued through a life of corruption, as is the case in much of the rest of Latin America. At a certain age, I noticed that most of the characters on the screen didn't look like a good chunk of telenovela viewers — namely, the dark-skinned, working-class masses. They don't meet a handsome millionaire and get lifted from abject poverty. They're born poor, and they stay poor.
I'm certainly not the only one with these concerns. During the protests that rocked Mexico last year, one of the many issues young people vocally opposed was the rule of Televisa and the quality of the entertainment it produces. (It is a mega-producer of novelas.)
As we discuss on this week's show, telenovelas have, at least in part, evolved past the "poor country girl meets rich city boy" themes. One of Telemundo's most popular telenovelas ever has been La Reina del Sur, about a woman from the embattled Mexican state of Sinaloa who gets involved in the drug-trafficking business. Novelas today also deal with topics like homosexuality and undocumented immigration to the U.S.
Of course, we also always have a good time on the show, and this week finds us discussing other fundamental questions, such as, "Are we really any more melodramatic than any other culture?" "Why the cheesiness?" and "Will Felix Contreras ever do el grito for us?"
Join us this week as we answer these and many other questions. And, as always, please leave your questions and concerns in the comments.