"La Vida" loca

The modern Mexican telenovela is an oversexed stew of giddy promiscuity, weird couplings, substance abuse and repressed homosexuality. Let's watch!

Published February 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Mauricio Roman is having a rough week. His parents have split up. Mom is sleeping with her young assistant. His brother is in detox, his girlfriend is mad at him for not putting out and his best friend has just come out of the closet. "I thought you were gay, too," his pal says. Now Mauricio finds himself staring at the muscular, Speedo-clad hunks at the pool.

It's all just a typical week on "La Vida en el Espejo" ("Life in the Mirror"), a prime-time soap on the Spanish-language Telemundo network.

What would Tita make of all this? My grandmother, who passed away the year the Berlin Wall came down, was a devoted fan of Mexico's notoriously overwrought yet prudish soaps, known as telenovelas. I hadn't watched one since the last time I visited her apartment more than a decade ago. I was in for a shock when I tuned in "La Vida en el Espejo" recently. These are clearly not my grandma's telenovelas.

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Poetic soccer and melodramatic telenovelas have long been Latin America's prime contributions to global pop culture. In the early 1990s, Russians' first mass infatuation as capitalist consumers, much to the horror of the nation's intelligentsia, was with a syrupy Mexican telenovela from the late 1970s, "Los Ricos Tambien Lloran" ("The Rich Also Cry"). Moscow-based Western journalists marveled at the power of this dated Mexican series to bring the Russian nation to a standstill. Warring factions in the Caucasus reportedly arranged cease-fires around the show, which had babushkas swooning over the chivalrous Latin males and Russian men worshiping the dewy-eyed star, Veronica Castro.

One of Tita's all-time favorites, "Los Ricos Tambien Lloran" was the archetype of telenovelas churned out by powerful Mexican broadcaster Televisa. It was a Cinderella tale, with Castro playing a pure-hearted maid who works for a rich family. She falls in love with the family's son, they have a child, he cheats on her, she loses the child and must fight to regain it -- you get the picture.

The purity of the long-suffering lower classes and the hope of redemption in the form of social mobility were constants in traditional Mexican telenovelas, which in turn mirrored the national government's ideology. For decades Mexico was run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called it "the perfect dictatorship." Televisa was the state's most effective agitprop vehicle.

Emilio "El Tigre" Azcarraga, the since-deceased billionaire who ran Televisa in those years, famously said that he only answered to the president of the republic, and his telenovelas reflected the nation's reality as little as his newscasts did. Characters never discussed politics or what things cost; women were portrayed as incapable of leading fulfilling lives until and unless they walked down the aisle.

Azcarraga was also fond of saying that telenovelas should distract people from the dreariness of their everyday lives, declaring that most Mexicans were fregados, or "screwed." And perhaps this explains why, despite their decidedly simple production values, telenovelas have captivated audiences in more than 100 nations. People feel screwed in much of today's world, after all. Certainly the vast majority of suddenly "freed" Russians in the early 1990s didn't feel elated -- they felt left out.

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That was then. Now Mauricio is struggling with his sexual orientation on "La Vida en el Espejo," which aired in Mexico last year on Televisa's scrappy competitor, TV Azteca. The rivalry between the two networks is mirrored in the United States, where Los Angeles-based Univision has the exclusive rights to Televisa's fare and Miami-based Telemundo gladly picks up TV Azteca's more sophisticated telenovelas.

"'La Vida' is the most realistic telenovela I have seen," Elizabeth Mendoza tells me. I've invited myself over for dinner to get the scoop from some Colombian friends who live in my building. The Mendozas have been following "La Vida" since it began last month. Incidentally, that's part of telenovelas' allure: Running for only a few months, they have a beginning, a middle and an end, making them more like long miniseries than typical U.S. soaps, which can run for decades.

Elizabeth says that the realism of "La Vida" comes through in the dialogue and in the pain the Roman family feels as a result of a parent's adultery. "We all know someone who has felt that son's rage," she says. On the screen, Mauricio's sister is calling their mother a whore. For Elizabeth, telenovelas are "parables" about life, reminding us that serious errors of moral judgment carry consequences.

Her husband, Jorge, our building's superintendent, doesn't buy it: "We watch them because they are fun, that's all." "La Vida" and "Xica" are his current favorites, along with, yes, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Being the staple of prime-time TV programming, telenovelas attract more male viewers than U.S. daytime soaps do. "Xica," Telemundo's highest-rated telenovela, features lavish sets, lots of action and a huge cast, and revolves around the story of a beautiful slave who, in the words of the network's press kit, "won her independence and much more in mid-19th century Brazil by using her feminine wiles and lovemaking prowess to induce her freedom." "Xica," you'll be glad to know, airs at 10 p.m., after most kids have gone to bed.

My grandmother would be most shocked by the fact that it was Seqora Roman, not her husband, who strayed from the marital bed with her younger male assistant. Her husband, Santiago, is a vulnerable mess, at least for a couple of episodes, until a young woman named Gabriela makes a move and they fall madly in love. Indeed, stereotypical Latin gender roles have been stood on their head throughout this show. Women initiated all five of the physical advances the week I watched (Mexican telenovelas still don't like to linger once the smooching begins) -- and that's not counting Mauricio's girlfriend's storming out because he refuses to engage in premarital sex. Sic transit machismo.

Other than the occasions when Santiago and Gabriela coo at each other over cell phones, the dialogue on "La Vida" is poignant yet crisp, often funny; the acting often -- and this is most shocking, considering the genre -- understated.

I used to play a routine with Tita when she was watching her telenovelas. Any time an actor made an entrance, I'd ask her if the character was virtuous or evil. I must have started doing this when I was about 6, but kept doing it well into junior high, refusing to take my cue from the none-too-subtle background music, because I liked hearing Tita expound authoritatively on a subject. She never hesitated in meting out her verdict. But I was always fishing, always hoping to stump her with a character done in shades of gray.

I was hoping for "La Vida" before its time, in other words. Tita could not have instantly cataloged its characters for me; they are far too nuanced. Even the adulterous Isabel doesn't come across as a total vixen. Like most people in real life, her persona is a balance of competing impulses, and you can see her wrestle with them on-screen, in an oddly dignified manner.

Watching "La Vida" with Jorge and Elizabeth Mendoza, I am also struck by what Joseph Straubhaar, a scholar of Latin American TV at the University of Texas, calls "the artificiality of the composite market," meaning the diversity of the Spanish-speaking audience in the United States. "La Vida's" Mexico City accents and slang make it as foreign to my Colombian friends as British sitcoms are to me. Jorge and Elizabeth must divine "La Vida's" peculiarly Mexican idioms. For instance, in a recent episode Santiago's friend Julio says (and this is a literal translation) that so-and-so "doesn't peel me." This is Mexican for "doesn't give me the time of day," but to a Colombian, it sounds like, well, "doesn't peel me."

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The modernity and realism that have crept into Mexican telenovelas in the past decade mirror the larger glasnost transforming Mexican society. Much as the political opposition has successfully challenged the PRI's monopoly on power, the scrappy new TV Azteca network (the privatized government-owned broadcaster) has taken on Televisa. TV Azteca, which first aired "La Vida en el Espejo," has injected a sense of real Mexican life into both its newscasts and its telenovelas.

Omar Hernandez, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas, is writing a dissertation on the telenovelas' success as an export product. He explains that the real watershed in Mexico was "Nada Personal" ("Nothing Personal"), a TV Azteca telenovela that took on the formerly taboo subject of politics in the aftermath of the political assassinations and corruption scandals that convulsed Mexico in the mid-1990s. The floodgates were then opened to a slew of other telenovelas that wove together traditional love stories with a laundry list of social ailments. Televisa's fare remains more traditional, Hernandez says, and not only when it comes to the subject matter.

"Televisa telenovelas feature framed close-ups, and characters all sit on the same side of the table for the camera's benefit," Hernandez says, "whereas on Azteca you get all sorts of weird camera shots, like maybe just a shot of someone's shoes when they talk." I'm not sure Tita would have approved.

Hernandez credits the telenovelas' universal appeal to resentment against the "excess of rationality" in modern society. In developing countries, he explains, modernization entails adopting more uniform, controlled, "professional" forms of behavior. "But human beings need more than that, so they look to telenovelas to balance things out with a much-needed dose of excess melodrama."

In Brazil, where telenovelas have long been more daring than those in Mexico, Straubhaar says a cyclical tension has developed between gritty, urban telenovelas that tackle social problems and attract a better demographic on the home front and lavish period pieces with more universal themes that fare better in the export market.

When media giants Sony and Liberty Media jointly acquired Telemundo in early 1998, they dismissed recycled Latin American telenovelas -- however hip or daring the latest might seem to Mexican audiences -- as a hopelessly outdated form of programming for the increasingly sophisticated Hispanic market in the United States. The audience for U.S. daytime soaps by that time had dropped by 83 percent.

Univision could stick to its schlock Televisa telenovelas, but the new Telemundo would deploy its parents' formidable talent to produce hip programming to attract a younger audience, the assimilated generations. (Well, sort of hip -- one of the new shows launched with much fanfare was a Spanish-language remake of "Charlie's Angels.")

But the strategy bombed. Univision captured 92 percent of the Spanish-language U.S. market. Last fall Telemundo called in the cavalry, a full lineup of proven telenovelas from down south, and a quick reversal was accomplished: Telemundo now airs four telenovelas back-to-back weekdays from 7 to 11 p.m., plus two more during daytime hours. If you get basic cable in New York City, you can watch a staggering 20 telenovelas a day.

The results of Telemundo's reversal testify to the telenovela's enduring allure: Prime-time viewership among adults ages 18 to 49 was up 122 percent in January, compared with one year earlier. Telemundo's overall rating for the month was still a relatively paltry 17 percent share of the U.S. Spanish-language market, but it may have momentum on its side. Ted Guefen, a network spokesman, says Telemundo remains committed to attracting younger viewers with some new types of shows -- he mentions an afternoon talk show hosted by a young priest and a Sunday night sitcom -- as well as to attracting the most cutting-edge telenovelas.

On the www.rinconlatino.com bulletin board (on which, interestingly enough, messages are posted in English), I chatted with Michelle Richards, a 26-year-old African-American medical recruiter in Houston who got hooked on telenovelas by accident. Channel-surfing one day, she happened upon one of the most over-the-top Mexican shows ever made, "La Usurpadora," about twin girls separated at birth. "It was like a bad car accident -- I had to keep watching," she explains via e-mail. Now she watches telenovelas to learn Spanish.

Among the phrases Richards has picked up for when business or pleasure next takes her to Spain or Latin America: "At last that shameless rascal is dying"; "You shall pay for this down the road"; and the always handy "If you don't distance yourself from my child, I am capable of anything."

Richards says she used to watch a couple of U.S. network soaps, but decided they were "unrealistic and stupid." She also couldn't stand how they drifted on endlessly, saving dramatic peaks for sweeps months. She likes the fact that telenovelas run for several months, build to a crescendo and then move on to new characters, settings and crises. Another frequent contributor to the "La Vida" forum, Rebecca, agrees. She gets annoyed that U.S. soaps feature several actors playing the same character over time, and that when characters have babies, "two years will go by and the children are now 18, but the parents are only two years older." What's more, she says, "the characters have names like Brick and Ridge."

Because of these structural differences with American soaps, a Telemundo spokeswoman asked me not even to refer to the network's telenovelas as soaps. "They are more like serialized novels, which people watch much the way people in Victorian times used to read Dickens," she insisted.

Once she put it like that, I decided I might stick around and watch for a few more weeks. Tita would like that. Besides, I'm curious -- will Mauricio tire of the closet?

By Andres Martinez

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Latin America Mexico