By Sylvia Sellers-García
You are not going to believe the telenovela I’ve been watching—I’m sitting here at home on Boston’s North Shore but streaming it from Guatemala. The historical plot is supposed to take place around 1800. I’d say it’s more of a horror/suspense telenovela than the usual family drama, though there’s plenty of drama. It begins with a man named Don Cayetano Díaz opening the shutters of his windows in Guatemala City and finding, on the sill, a pair of severed breasts! I know—shocking. Just to make it extra creepy, they are placed on a lily pad. ??? So of course this kicks off a long investigation—the police get involved, more body parts are found (ears and hands!), and lots of people go to jail.
The show is fun, but like most good telenovelas, it’s totally unrealistic. For example, one of the main characters—an eminent surgeon absurdly named “Narciso Esparragosa”—is the head of surgery at the hospital but he’s also a convicted stalker. And the writers add a twist halfway through, so that instead of being about homicide the case focuses on corpse mutilation. Right—someone is digging up women’s bodies and cutting them to pieces. But despite all the implausibility, the suspense is very effective, and even as a historian, I find myself learning a lot about Guatemala in 1800. For example, who knew that so many people suffered from dropsy?
I read somewhere that the telenovela is based on a real criminal case from that era, though that hardly seems possible! Anyway, I'm hooked on the show and recommend it. It’s called The Woman in the Window: A Tale of Mystery in Several Parts. Not quite as snappy as your usual telenovela title, I know, but the writers clearly struggle with the limits of their genre.
Hope to see you in the spring of 2018 when I’ll be the Central American Visiting Scholar at DRCLAS! (Oh, yes, in this era of fake news, I guess I ought to admit that the telenovela is one I've been streaming in my mind as I examine this totally weird—but real—episode of colonial history).
Sylvia Sellers-García, an associate professor of history at Boston College, is the 2017-18 Central American Scholar at DRCLAS. She is also the author of Imagining Histories of Colonial Latin America (UNM, Fall 2017) and Distance and Documents at the Spanish Periphery (Stanford, 2013).