First Take: Our Telenovela, Ourselves

By Omar Rincón 

Edwin Luisi and Lucelia Santos
Edwin Luisi and Lucelia Santos



that has shaped identities and enacted a multiplicity of roles for Latin Americans in their daily lives. Diverse and ambiguous ways of being and belonging to the world’s popular cultures are transmitted through its stories, characters and situations. The telenovela is, at the same time, the most important cultural industry of Latin America.

The name telenovela refers to the format; melodrama is the genre. And melodrama itself arrived early, with the French Revolution, and signi ed the entrance of the common folk into public life. The rst telenovela was El derecho de nacer (“The Right to Be Born,” a 1948 Cuban radionovela and a 1981 Mexican telenovela)—a title that evokes the right of the common folk to exist in public narratives. El derecho de nacer is a good title because it contains millions of truths; the right to be born means the right of a multitude of poor people to exist in an exclusive, classist and racist Latin America at the beginning of the 20th century.

The telenovela resorts to melodrama to state that success for people in poor and working-class communities comes from “achieving love,” obtaining “justice” in the form of an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth, and climbing out of a lower social class through marriage or destiny. And the rationale for such stories is precisely because in the popular-sector communities, success is indeed obtained in this very way.

Telenovela and melodrama are enjoyed from below, so to speak, because their plots and sentiments have an af nity with popular taste; that is why common folk enjoy them so much. Their virtue as a format and genre is that they do not insult people who enjoy telenovelas nor treat them as ignorant; indeed, in the process of watching the telenovela, the audience feels intelligent because it is understanding and enjoying what is going on. In the same fashion, the viewer does not feel guilty on account of class or taste because these stories—as Jesús Martín Barbero, the rst academic to take this hybrid cultural product seriously, has observed—deal with primary kin sociability, who is related to whom, friendships, neighborly and territorial relationships, and are told in a familiar time interval that mediates between historical time and the time of personal real life. Because of all this, the telenovela turned into Latin America’s cultural boom in the world.

As I mentioned before, melodrama signified the entrance of the common folk onto the stage. And the common folk enter with what they have: spectacle, body, oral traditions, fear, mysteries and sentimental expressiveness. Their moral logic sees the world divided into the good guys and the bad guys, a world lled with revenge and vengeance, love and hate, jealousy and complicity. More passion than reason, more emotions than rational arguments. After the French Revolution, melodrama moved from the streets to the circus, from there to popular serialized comic books (folletín), eventually to the radio, took over the movies, dominated the television and provided a symbolic system to politics. Thus, life is a melodrama, a history of love and sentiment.

The telenovela took charge of the “ignorant” and “uneducated” masses that the elite culture had cast aside. This cultural product won because it is easy to watch, comes into the home and tells stories that we like. People adopted these stories as their own because they discovered their own lives in them, with characters like them. Thus, in Latin America, we are telenovelas. And we are them because the telenovela has become our sentimental education, how we love and how we experience passion, tragedy and comedy. And we are the telenovela because it has also taken charge of our identities and our traumas; we know who we are because of these stories. The result is a continent in which our common memory is the melodrama, a struggle for recognition, a search for identity, for who we are and where we came from, and where we are going in our desire for better futures.

The pleasure of a telenovela is not found in its content, but rather—like all folk tales—the seduction is in the enjoyment of an aesthetic of repetition; thus, telenovela viewers relax, enjoy and are moved thanks to this recognized pleasure found in repeated stories like the “pure woman saves the misguided man” and acccpt that the surprise comes with how the story is told, whether the emotion is more one of sighs or tears or laughter.

The telenovela is culture not because of its content, but because it depends on recognition rather than information. We are attracted to its stories to gure out who we are, where we come from, what we dream, what we consider to be right or wrong, and, above all, what we desire from our broken communities that totter on the edge of modernity. Because of this, telenovelas function as a sort of aesthetic of the populace, at a center of struggle among the social classes and between the sexes, as a theoretical framework for daily life, a mechanism through which to express collective desire and also to re ect on the great problems and challenges of the common folk: irresponsible paternity, daily sexual harassment, destiny as the inevitable determinant of the future, masculine passivity, female force, the diverse and not always legal ways to reach success. Thus, in the telenovela, we can see what we are becoming and where we are going as a collective community and as a culture.

The telenovela is, as Martín-Barbero explains, the daily stage for the most secret perversions of the social arena and, at the same time, of collective imaginaries in which people recognize themselves and are represented as those who have the right to desire and hope. And their desires and hopes are few: “ who doesn’t have a story to tell is dead” (to have stories to tell) and “a poor person is one without love” (a sentimental model of life). Yet these basic desires stimulate lively questioning and reveal cultural connections. It’s a hybrid and mixed model, however, since the very same tales celebrate the premodern values of Family, God, Tradition and Order and moral control of bodies and violence ... combined with the modern themes of democracy, rights and social justice....and spiced with techno-perceptive and counterculture codes of urban life and consumerism. Every type of morality all mixed together in one cultural production.

The stories told in telenovelas are close to the necessities and expectation of the comon folk because they are produced in aesthetic modes recognizable to them since the producers are taking their tastes into account; they are fashioned from the perspective of emotion and with emotion that is the primary expression of being human; they present worlds in which love, justice and social mobility—the great emblems of modernity—are possible. What is important is the way the story is told: it brings back oral expression as the basis for cultural communication and makes sense primarily from its text, rather than subtexts and silences. The manner of telling these stories follows the logic of “and” and “then” and “as a result.” There was once a good, beautiful, but misguided woman..”and” one day she met a man... and “then” they fell in love and “because of this” she decided to turn her life arund... and “thus....”

Television is conservative and morally restorative. Telenovelas are even more so. When a story is converted into a telenovela and is successful, it is because the society is already “disposed” to having this story become public. Thus, Brazilians keep exploring the telenovela for what it means to be Brazilian: re ecting on religiosity, African roots and way of being, Brazil’s complex set of identities, its American dream ...and only a few take on daily problems and the suffering of the present. Thus, Argentines ask themselves about their “interior enigma,” their collective psychiatric quest, what it means to be a person within the society, and only a few give in to tales of pure love and success. Thus, Televisa keeps on telling its stories anchored in the myth of Mexican-ness: motherland, family and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Thus, we Colombians begin recognizing that we used to be Caribbean (Caballo Viejo, 1988 and Escalona, 1991), that we used to be rural (Café, 1994), then make the shift to being urban with an appearance of modernity (Betty la fea,1999) and, now, that we form part of the narco culture (Escobar el patrón del mal, 2012).

The telenovela is a means of enjoying a known pleasure, but also helps to understand what torments/delights each society, to describe collective morality and to understand the politics of our time. In this way, the telenovela has become a voice of popular public opinion in Latin America. Simplemente María (1969) freed women and made them economically independent; La esclava Isaura (1976) emphasized the colonial and racist ways that we citizens made possible; Los ricos también lloran (1979) showed the miseries of those who had fortune and power; Por estas calles (1992) told of the decadence of the political establishment in Venezuela and how it was hoped that a messiah would come to save this abandoned people; Café con aroma de mujer (1994) recounted how Colombia ceased to be a rural country and became a republic of cities in which appearances dominated (Betty la fea, 1999); another telenovela presented the narco as a tale of social mobility (El Cartel, 2008); Montecristo (2006) put the issue of human rights and of forced disappearances back into the spotlight in Argentine politics; Los archivos del Cardenal (2011) is a Chilean series that recounts the efforts of the Vicarate of Solidarity during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990); Avenida Brasil (2012) foretold the crisis of corruption that is now enveloping Latin America... Thus, in Latin America the telenovela has been used as a platform from which to think about ourselves in public and through a narrative device to gure out who we are and how we have come to be the people we are.

Obviously, in the nal analysis, the world view of telenovelas is regressive, conservative and premodern because the happy ending implies that the woman loses her autonomy to nd happiness through the love of a man; in this way, only the behavior of individuals or a class is questioned, but not the operating political system or the dominant model of society; and it is con rmed that nothing should happen outside patriotism, the family, God and the control of bodies in the context of the heterosexual model.

But then also, the telenovela has become a reference point in politics, given that in the 20th century, Uribe in Colombia, Correa in Ecuador, Chávez in Venezuela, Evo in Bolivia, Cristina in Argentina, Peña Nieto in México, Dilma Rousseff in Brasil have all governed in telenovela style. It is the logic of the telenovela that best allows us to explain the state of politics in our time because our presidents are galanes—a kind of narcissistic leading man— who seek to rescue their beloved but misguided subjects using the terms of emotions and morality. In each case, the president’s proposal is a loving one and his/her behavior that of galanes/celebrities. It’s not a matter of public’s all about love in Latin America!

The telenovela in the 20th century is more productive, industrial and daring than ever before. Its narrative framework is speed: emotion is non-stop; its ethics are those of the market, so the individual entrepreneur and consumption are what is needed to get ahead; its passion is to celebrate hate and perversion and the Ma a-like ways of revenge; its point of reference for reality is money and the happiness it can buy. The telenovela will keep on being popular because it plays with the emotions and views life from the vantage point of desire; the stories make us feel and dream and they relax us into a passive idleness. The telenovela shows us, over and over again, that to be universal, one must not lose the framework of local identity nor the viewpoint of the common folk; the poor of this world still struggle for recognition; the popular sectors ask again and again who we are, where we come from and the where we are going. Don’t miss the next episode because it’s going to be super-good!

Omar Rincón is a Colombian journalist, academic and essayist who writes frequently about media and culture. He is an associate professor and director of the Master's Program in Journalism at the Universidad de los Andes (Colombia). He is a media analyst for the Bogotá daily El Tiempo. He is also a communications consultant for the Fundación Friedrich Ebert.