Learning from Telenovelas

By Gabriela Soto Laveaga

Like most people, some of my fondest childhood memories are from times spent in the kitchen. Yet few recollections are as vivid as racing back from preschool to turn on the kitchen TV in time to belt out the theme song to Ana del Aire, a telenovela which first aired in 1974. I must have been four, no more than five, and while I certainly could not follow the life twists and turns of young Ana, played by Mexico’s sweetheart Angélica María, I still remember the thrill of seeing her inside a plane cabin. While I munched on a tuna sandwich, I followed her glamorous life as a flight attendant — split up into a never-satisfying, 30-minute segments. To me the drama and romance were secondary to her hip '70s outfits.

I was growing up in Los Angeles but my Mexican parents opted to speak to us only in Spanish so we mainly watched Spanish-language television, which in the 1970s was limited, it seemed, to soccer games, news, the popular variety show Siempre en Domingo, and, of course, telenovelas. I can easily measure the stages of my early childhood and adolescence through the telenovelas that filled my family’s evenings: El Derecho de Nacer, Cuna de Lobos, Rosa Salvaje

To jog my memory, I did a quick Internet search and watched the opening credits of Ana del Aire on Youtube. It is only now that I realize that air travel and, especially Mexican aviation technology (as exemplified by Aeromexico and Mexicana de Aviación, the now defunct, state-run airline), were as much characters of the telenovela as were Ana, her friends, and family. In fact the opening credits are set against the backdrop of an airport tarmac with planes landing and taking off in the busy Mexico City airport. As with most telenovelas the background social commentary about labor, gender and class served as book ends to the daily dose of love and drama.

 Ana, an independent, spirited, and employed modern woman in many ways defied traditional 1970s gender roles while remaining faithful to the values of family, friendship, and, yes, fairytale love. Not surprisingly in an era of changing gender roles, Ana del Aire’s popularity crossed national borders. According to El Telegrafo, a newspaper from Ecuador (Octuber 16, 2012), where Ana’s life was also well known, Ana’s modern haircut set off a trend and enrollments at flight attendant schools reached an all-time high.

At some point in my life, before binge-watching and digital recording, I became too busy to follow telenovela’s dramatic plotlines. Before then, however, I learned about race and class relations in El Derecho de Nacer, about the sem-terra movement in Brazil’s Rei do Gado, and about the less edifying but still Shakespearean power grabs among fictitious family dynasties. But I especially learned about Mexico through the small screen. Because for many Mexican immigrants living in the United States in the 1970s telenovelas like Ana del Aire tethered them to a familiar space and language where catchy tunes and familiar actors tried to resolve dramas contained in thirty or sixty minutes.

 

Gabriela Soto Laveaga is a Professor in Harvard's History of Science department and the author of Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of The Pill (Duke University Press, 2009)