Novela culture, highly spectated
amongst Latinos residing in the United States and in Latin America becomes
a prototypical representation of Latinization. Telenovelas work as a performative
text in the construction of racial, national and ethnic identity.
Novelas create a second reality, fluctuating between the documentation
as real and the real as mere stereotypical representation. The screen
creates a Latino world residing within a larger nation of oppression and
dominance. This genre places the Latina as viewed other, making these
images representative of what she wishes to become in order to define
the self as ethnic and racial. Through a historical analysis of telenovelas,
I will discuss the evolution of the genre in terms of political and social
paradigms, which define and stagnate notions of fluid identity amongst
Latinos. Therefore making the telenovela function as a carnivalesque experience,
asking the spectator to implicate herself in the parade of masked identities.
Personal fanaticism with novelas
There is something about telenovelas that reminds me of my childhood and
totally captures my interest, it is probably because I was not allowed
to watch novelas (like we call them in Puerto Rico) at home, they were
totally prohibited to me, "novelas only are for stupid girls and
they wake up malice in young virgins!" that was my parents argument
towards the issue, "NO!" was the answer to all of my begins.
I did everything possible to evade this obstacle, and like me, my girlfriends
from the catholic school I went for life were totally into the novela's
culture too. I wanted to go to school every morning just to listen to
what happen the night before in "Quinceanera", that was my favorite
novela and as long as I can remember It was the one that introduced me
to the novela's magical and addictive world. The story was about two best
friends who are planning their respective birthday party to celebrate
the Fifteen years, What can be more important when you are fourteen than
to think how do you want your party to be? It is so popular in Latin American
countries .The fifteen's birthday marks your debut in the adult world,
you are not seen as a girl anymore, you become a "senorita".
Both of the characters from "Quincceanera" protagonized by Adela
Noriega and Thalia, better known now like "The queen of Mexican novelas",
went to the same school and they belong to different social classes. The
rich one got pregnant and the poor one happened to be raped. Obviously,
the plot was fulfilled with their first love illusions and juvenile struggles.
The truth of the matter is that I watched it because I was totally in
love with the life style the protagonists had. I wanted a cute boyfriend
like they had, I wished many times to be Beatriz (protagonized by Thalia)
and own a car by that age, be pretty and popular and being able to do
whatever, "whenever, wherever".
It is very interesting how when you are a fourteen year old born Puerto
Rican and because you watch "Quinceanera" among other novelas
from the moment like "Tanairi" (Von Marie Mendez), Coralito
(Zully Diaz) and "Munecos de papel"(various) suddenly you start
to look for similarities between you and the protagonist, you make decisions
for her, talk like her (even if she has a remarkable Mexican accent),
you start dressing up like her, believe in the consciousness that someday
you would meet her and become friends and even think in the possibility
of having a child one day in the future and name it after her
There was a fantastic feeling after watching a novela, and specially to
me, it made me feel like a champion whenever I was able to watch them,
I t was like to win a battle, one just can't get enough. It is a very
feminine thing although men are not excluded to become part of the novela's
culture; actually the novela ritual involves the whole family.
By 7:00pm everybody in Puerto Rico was at home and while having dinner,
every television was hooked to Betty La Fea, that was what the MEDIAFAX
investigation reveled in the programming for Summer 2001. Loosing one
episode or not being able to record it turns into a terrible catharsis
that can easily destroy your day, after all, novelas become part of your
WHAT IS A NOVELA?
Novelas are long narrations of stories that are presented every day on
television for a season and for a massive audience. It is divided into
chapters or episodes .In every episode novelas allows people to identify
themselves with certain emotions and situations lived by the protagonists,
provoking in the individual certain personal relations with in the novela
text. "In telenovelas the receptor is not a passive decodifier of
the message from the emiser, it is a subject producing feelings that responds
to the pluralistic forms of social relation and the class conflictive
in a fixed but ever changing space".
ORIGINS OF THE NOVELA
The birth of Novelas are directly linked to the "decimonomic melodrama",
which first appeared in 1790 in England and France and was viewed as a
new form of "melodrama" that selected only the most resonate
features from the popular tradition of oral culture rather than the written.
This new type of narration was very similar to the "Comedia Lacrimosa"
(larmoyante) from the XVIII century, however; it precede from a collective
memory narrative that talked about romances, English gothic novels and
finally included also terror stories. In addition a cultural manifestation
preceding from the scenic popular memory like for example the circus,
theatre and street feasts was added to this "melodrama"; this
is how the popular massive culture appeared into the discussion of this
new manifestation as novela.
The story is going to be inevitable under the power of the recognition
which is translated into the eternal battle of the good always prevailing
against evil. For this to happen, there are four vital characters present
throughout the whole novela; the character of the victim, the villain,
the hero and the clown. This characters interact and perform the action
exaggerating the performance of gestures and speech and creating the "melodrama".
Characters with different class and social backgrounds, accidents, affairs,
secrets and a rupture of social values and morals are introduced to the
scenario. Inevitable, these scenarios will add suspense and mystery to
the story, people will identify their personal lives with the artistic
manifestations .This historical moment beginning in the XX century introduced
the novela among other styles like cinematography, radio and eventually
the television. This is how the typical telenovela that we all know in
Latin America was born.
The way novelas operate and
work directly with the individual is by having an open structure that
facilitates the process of being actualized. The capacity of duration
makes the observers get inside the narrative that mix the reality and
the imagination, by compromising the fanatic to watch each episode. Giving
the observers enough information to get interested, creates suspense.
At the same time the information provided is full of interrogants and
mysteries that are going to obligate the spectator once again to stay
toned to the drama. The story ascents gradually until it gets to the climax
and then it finish with a resolution of all the situations that the characters
confronted throughout the global narrative. The novelas belong to the
'repertoire' and the "archive" performative 'memoire'. To the
'repertoire' because even if novelas are not live, they give the sense
they are by going on air daily, and they are part of the 'archive' too
because their structure is divided in chapters, they are written, there
is evidence recorded.
LATIN AMERICAN NOVELAS
The Latin American novelas endeavors to give an example of Latino lifestyles
back home. When we discuss novelas it is inevitable to avoid the thematics
of ritual, spectacle, excess, tragedy, glamour and even carnival and catharsis,
elements that are present in this productions and give them life. It is
also pivotal also to emphasize the powerful vehicle of mass communication
that the novela definitely is becoming. The structures of the episodes
of the novelas use a very expressive language that at the same time breaks
with the traditional theatrical doctrines. They select a variety of rich
language that it is also familiar to the spectator. Screen writers and
actors focus on description and 'personification' of words.
Excess in novelas is a theatrical element necessary to the fruition of
As long as the observers is given the opportunity, novelas can turn into
an intense interaction between the actors and spectator. Novelas remind
you of how simple you have lived and how much there is to accomplish in
the emotional scenario of life. Novelas discuss the waste of life and
desire is yet to be quenched. Passions are illuminated and suffering dominates
in theme, it reminds me of Opera. Is it not the Opera, the personified
spectacle,that embraces you and brings one on stage? Is it not the Opera
the genre that works with emotions until they hurt inside? I can think
of novelas in an operatic way. "Opera is very suited to avant-garde
interpretations: everything is possible, the stage is a blank canvas,
the technical means are there
The operatic performance can divide
into two spectacles in a curious but quite enjoyable fashion: the spectacle
itself an its parody" .
The whole experience of the exaggeration in acting, movements, and (again)
gestures and speech has the power to work deeply within the observer.
Is the impossibility, precisely what brings in the catharsis in novelas.
Everybody has a secret, that is complicating the mains structure of the
global plot. Spectators can feel the catharsis through out the music,
a look, word and also in the previews for the novela. Novelas and Operas
cannot be evaded. Either you like them or hate them, they are either marvelous
or trash, but there is no "in between", no liminal spaces .Why?
Is it because what they represent is too confining and dramatic to create
other spaces of representation?
THE MARKETING OF LATINOS IN NOVELAS
It is evident that Novelas
speak for different Latino ethnic groups. Novelas represent, in many ways,
the "legitimate" Latino community that the world wants to know
in conjunction to the image that is being sold. Novelas homogenize a hererogeneneous
people. We are not equally one.The fact that Latinos speak Spanish does
not mean that we all live life the same. We don't eat the same, some words
mean different things, our physical features may vary from region to region,
our accents are different, our political and sociocultural platform may
be totally different and the way we have embraced the different stages
of conquest, colonization and Independency may be at odds. Sometimes,
there is just so little that unifies us, as a community. There are many
boundaries and barriers within countries and communities.
Novelas are built on this premise. They endeavor to convince Latinos and
mainstream society that novelas are Latinidad. According to Arlene Davila,ethnic
marketing "regulate and mediate its ethnics- the immigrants, the
alien, the raced and the underclass-into their respective places within
U.S.racial and ethnic hierarchies, creating in the process myths of peoplehood
for these populations".
Novelas create another world,
they build a carnival within.They build a second reality, outside the
official realm, it is a complex system of meaning existing alongside and
in opposition , this is impossible to ignore as well.
The non Latinos may believe that what happens in novelas is normal and
common in realities or so the reality of the countries in which they are
produced. Novelas construct a bridge between the spectator and the characters.
They bring one into the screen. I have seen people speaking (literally)
to the characters through the screen. "No, don't do that! or Get
out of there, please look turn around!", those phrases sound so familiar
to me when I am part of the ritual of a novela in a house.
The carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people,people live within
it; they become key elements in the resolution of the story. They are
pivotal in the development of the whole melodrama. Sometimes, some fanatics
are not even able to disconnect themselves from the novela and they give
examples to solve their friend's situations similar to the way the protagonist
of the novela acted or solved her life. When Maria Ines in 'Mirada de
Mujer' told her ex-husband that she did not want to have anything to do
with him anymore, and she got over him, this is the advice a spectator
give a friend in need ("If it worked for Maria Ines, why it would
not work for you too!").
People embody the issues that novelas represent. They embrace their characters
and they bring their lives into their own lives; it is very common to
hear the students at the University of Puerto Rico chatting about novelas,
"Oh, I have to watch la novela today, because Rosalinda is getting
married" or "I don't want to miss today's episode because he
will know that she's been cheating on him"
Why the emotions, the catharsis, the collective hysteria, the drama the
stress, and tension, surrounding a television program? I have to bring
back the issue of the exportation of novelas and the image people are
buying as an ideological framed identity that does not necessarily capture
The novelas as a cultural force are constantly creating a projection of
new models and different ways and forms of historical comprehension. Sometimes
these specific ways and forms contribute to the loss of history in the
contemporary postmodern time. Novelas play a central role in bringing
to life many figures of the common, normative and routine in social development.
But they do it in a special way, again through exaggeration, spectacle
and catharsis. Now more than ever the novelas are bringing issues related
to the class struggles, las novelas belong to the mass culture.
Many of the ideas about history are played out in a very powerful way
in the context of a serious melodrama. Some conventions of the narrative
are part of the various forms for which gender is most of the time derided.
The routine revival of characters that were presumed dead, money struggles,
race issues, the ongoing breakups of relationships, the revelations that
some characters were switched at birth and also the product of mysterious
love affairs, etc., encourage a persistent reexamination of conventional
assumptions and knowledge about family and society. In the process these
elements offer a sense that the past is truly important, but this past
is not always simple and clean.
Novelas offer multiple manifestations of history that are simultaneously
much more public and popular than purely historical, it really gets to
the point where it is more individual and idiosyncratic than anything
else. Novelas have transformed somehow the forms in which people recognize
and position themselves in relation to the definitions of identity and
Novelas play a central role in the comprehension of cultural and social
development, the history of a determined nation (Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela,
or Colombia) becomes a never ending process where in transcendental events
and community are implicated in a political, social and cultural heritage,
and it is working simultaneously with the global and local perspectives.
These mechanisms interact within the individuals and the entire Latino
community. People get into the drama of a Novela like if they where part
of it, they embody it and they embrace it. I am still specially fascinated
by the intent to homogenize the Latino group. And the ambivalence that
surround the connotations and repercussions of the Legitimate Latino and
the discourse of authenticity.
In the last years novelas have
been taking a transcendental and dramatic change. The typical love stories
are now very dense and politically full narrations. In a brief overview
of novelas from Latin America that are currently appearing in TV around
the world, I found that novelas are turning into a powerful source of
criticism toward many political and social issues, especially novelas
that are made in Brazil and Colombia. An example of this Is "Xica
the Silva" who clearly exposes the gender and race issues by having
the first black protagonist in a novela and addressing the historical
events related to slavery, colonization and conquest of Brazil by the
Portuguese. The plot of the novela goes is like follows.
The Commendatory of Tijuco (diamond mining town) Brazil is the most important
authority. Xica grew up in his house because she was his daughter even
if he refused to accept her because she was product of an affair. She
is black She lived there until the moment that he decides to sell her
to a whore house in town. Xica tried to escape from this disgrace and
she decided desperately to rob the diamonds that The commentator was saving
for the king. The king's army arrives the very next day, and when the
loot turns up missing, the Commentator is led in chains and all his family
is dispossessed and thrown out into the streets without anything. The
commentator's son swears revenge. While this is happening Xica and the
rest of the slaves are sold to another master. This time he was the Sergeant
Major a man that only wanted her to satisfy his lust. Later, another Commentator
arrives in the town. He falls in love with Xica and bought her from the
Sergeant. This is the beginning of a love story between a crafty slave
woman and a nobleman.
Another novela, also from Brazil which is addressing political and social
issues is "Terra Nostra". Terra nostra is about two young lovers
who meet in the transatlantic voyage from Italy to Brazil, searching for
a better future working in coffee plantations in Brazil. During the voyage
both of her parents died because of the plague that breaks out on board
ship, as she recovers from the terrible loss she gets consoled by her
new love, until he is infected with the plague too and dies. This novela
is one of the most expensive ever produced. The stenography used to recreate
the ship on the first chapter cost over one million dollars. Money plays
a role, because people prefer quality productions.
In the case of Colombia we can find that it is also advanced in the discussion
of these matters. We have the comedy/novela "Pedro el Escamoso"
that frames the gender issues of the gay world. Pedro is attracted only
to man; they believe he is gay, but the truth is that he likes women.
This is the first time that a Latin-American novela alludes to homosexuality.
I mean, there is always a typical "florecita" in every novela.
They are the hairdressers, or the best friends of the protagonists. The
gay issue always performs a secondary role in a novela, and generally
the drama does not revolves around that issue. Another example is "Betty
la fea", which addresses the situation of an honest but ugly young
girl, again this is the first time a novela has a protagonist that is
not attractive to the public. There are unattractive woman in novelas,
usually they get second roles, but the protagonist, as a RULE has to be
pretty. Eventually, Betty undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes pretty.
The most important thing here is that finally novelas are breaking the
mold. They are escaping from the traditional and typical realms and are
getting to evolve into more realistic situations. Unfortunately, Mexico,
with Televisa still recycle the same stories again and again, "Sonadoras","
Amigas y Rivales", "Agujetas de Color de Rosa", "Primer
Amor", they are almost the same, they even have the same actors and
actresses playing the protagonists, gallants and villains.
The exception is"Mirada de mujer", a story of a woman in her
fifties that after her husband leaves her for a younger woman, takes her
life in her hands, and fights against the conventionalism and patriarchal
ancestry that exists in Mexico. The Machismo was present through the whole
novela; she even was machista until she begins an affair with a younger
man.Topics like Aids decease, breast cancer,abortion, racism and rape
were introduced to the melodrama.
Even though Mirada de Mujer with Mexican super actress Angelica Aragon
broke the traditionalism in novelas, was not embraced by the Mexican community
as a novela like Maria la del Barrio, Mari mar and Maria Mercedes with
Thalia. People are used to the typical drama.
A very interesting thing is happening to Venezuela and the productions
of novelas. They used to be precursors and leaders of the novela market
too, and now it seems they are suffering a crisis. I remember the decade
of the drama divas from Venezuela, such as Katherine Fullop, Alba Roversi,
Gigi Zancheta, Jeanette Rodriguez and the masterpieces, La Traidora, Rubi,
Mi amada Beatriz, La dama de Rosa and many more
is focused more now into beauty pageants than novelas. For the last decade
Venezuela has won the Miss Universe Pageant three times. The "beauty
culture" is a dramatic issue in Venezuela.
I wanted to talk about novelas because I felt that Arlene Davila in her
book Latinos Inc. does not give them the importance they certainly have
when we are addressing Latin-American culture manifestations that increasingly
support an image of fixed identity and nationalism. Novelas are part of
the definitions of latinidad in media and entertainment. It really comes
to life in the homes of thousands of Latin-American homes in the United
To me, it was not hard to find information about telenovelas, there are
hundreds of texts, even magazines about them and sites on the Internet
about this phenomenon, but
I have to say that the information that appeared were technically out
of context and not critical at all. I don't think that the majority of
the ordinary people who watch novelas see them as a strong vehicle that
try to (somehow) represent identity.
But the identification with novelas go further than the margins of the
countries; people identify with novelas because their characters are allowed
to behave as they want against the diverse situations they confront. Viewers
identify themselves with the melodrama because being a Latino is not necessary
to fall in love, get crazy, have an affair, kill or being a villain. With
this I mean that people all fall in love, go through problems, suffering,
get married, etc
the interesting thing about novelas is that the
protagonists can play the role they want. Novelas represent what people
cannot act in real life. In novelas, characters act their desires. People
do not think of novelas either as a marketing tool. Or they don't see
themselves as a market. Latinos do understand that they are a heterogenic
group. Latinos know their differences and similarities. They can define
and separate one person from one country with the other from the other
country. The people that apparently cannot do it is the Anglo Market and
society, for whom we have to be "legitimate", for whom we have
to act like a homogenized and united community.
The Anglos (the others) are the ones interested in marketing our features
and characteristics among our fellow Latin American brothers and sisters.
We know exactly who we are and were we come from. "The others"
does not even know who are defining with the "word" Latino or
Hispanic. "This homogenous treatment of Hispanics also contributes
to the appeal of the family trope as a way to address gender and generational
differences simultaneously within the "totality' of the family".
Anglo clients as well as agencies for Latino marketing focus on family
values, religiosity and the tradition as a generic overview of latinidad,
when the reality is that it does not always works like that.
If it is true that novelas speak for Latino community, it is also true
that it does not carry a global message for every Latino. For us, novelas
are one of our favorite form of entertainment. People can watch their
favorite characters performing a different "drama" everyday
in a scenario, with all of the theatrical elements involved and the complexity
of the social, economical politic and cultural elements surrounding this.
In a novela you have everything, it is like a game that you know by heart
how to play and it is up to you to play it right or wrong.
The progression of the novela is going to be your timing to play, until
it ends and then after, another novela with probably the same characters
will fulfill a screen again with everyday life situations, mysteries,
emotions, exaggerations, catharsis, drama, collective hysteria, interrogates,
dreams and love, lots of love. Novelas are much more than one hour daily
for several months.
There is a lot going on behind novelas. Until what moment imagination
stops being just imagination and it start building the second reality
Bahktin talks about this on his scripts? , How is this subculture manifested
into a determined society. I understand it as that, as a second life,
as a second reality, but most of the people think of novelas as "here
and now"; an argument that to me is very weak and illogical.
The margins of latinidad and identity begin in the conceptualization of
novelas. There is a tremendous duality camouflaged between fiction and
reality that is impossible to avoid. In order to improve the empowerment
of Latin American novelas as a strong marketing and innovative educational
tool, Latin Americans must seriously start thinking about sexuality, gender,
identity, race and nationalism in a more critical way. Latinos are obligated
to learn and educate themselves about the market that they are exposed
and introduced to. Novelas are relevant in the discourse of latinidad
because of their conspicuous display of race and class hierarchies and
because their dominance in the Latin American Networks. It is truly interesting
the way novelas work with an image, with a nation and identity. They reflect
the double standard that society has for men and women in all these afore
mentioned Novelas. The women pines away for the man , while he is in love
with someone else the classic love triangle. While the villain of the
novel tugs away at the heartstring of the protagonist. She is always never
really the strong character and not socially independent as most Latin
women are today. The protagonist in Latin Novelas live in a family like
a community, which they depend on for support and advice, unlike her male
counterpart, which is self-sufficient. Though it is obvious that the role
of the genders do not truly reflect modern relationships many women sit
at home and use the acquired "facts" as a guide to real life.
Though interesting novelas are not a new invention of drama just merely
a modern interpretation of the classics (i.e. Shakespeare's Romeo and
Juliet, Othello, Midsummer Night's Dream, forbidden love, social conflict,
racial basis and physiologic turmoil all ingredients of a modern day novela.)
In closing art is merely a reflection of life open to interpretation.
1. Davila,Arlene.Latinos Inc.:The Marketing and Making of a people. Berkeley:
University of CaliforniaPress,(2001);22
2. Bakhtin,Mikhail. "The
Carnival Ambivalence" (1940).
in Social Drama"; from:"Dramas, Fields and Methaphors, Ithaca:Cornell
4. Losada,Juan. "Telenovelas:
Estructuras Narrativas y Dramaturgia"/www.ceniai.inf.cu/dpub/video/no3-5.html/
5. Barthes, Roland. The "Phamtoms
of the Opera" (1962-1980)
6. Koestembaum, Wayne."The
7. Taylor Diana, "Acts
of Transfer"(work in progress;2001)
8. Mebarak, Shakira."Whenever
Wherever" track#3, (Album Laundry Services, 2001.)
Inspired by discussions with
my Critical Race Theory colleagues Sandra Ruiz and Carla Corona
Jeniffer Rosa Lopez
Critical Race Theory
Professor Jose Munoz