Media : Cristina's Controversy : Imported talk show enrages conservatives and liberals alike in Mexico.


Eligio, who stabbed his wife 20 times with an ice pick, is on the air from the Tampico prison where he is condemned to spend three decades for murder. The 29-year-old convict explains that he is not really a violent man; he was just terribly misunderstood by his deceased wife.

But at last he has found understanding in Lorena. Dressed in a high-collared suit, dark glasses and a black wig, Lorena, 40, tells the television audience that she first agreed to meet Eligio out of curiosity, then fell in love with him.

"You are in love with a man who killed his wife with an ice pick," says the television talk show hostess. "Aren't you afraid?"

"No," Lorena says.

Hostess Cristina Saralegui prods the couple and other guests with frank questions about conjugal visits and virginity. And they answer.

Cristina, as she is known, is Spanish-language television's tabloid queen: a Cuban-American Oprah, a female Geraldo. But while shows such as theirs may be standard fare on English- and Spanish-language airwaves in the United States, this is racy stuff by Mexican television standards.

"The Cristina Show," produced by Univision in Miami, has provoked intense public debate since introducing Mexico to tabloid television last December, when it began airing nationwide.

It has prompted an outcry from conservative and religious groups who say the imported show trounces traditional Mexican values and identity.

Liberal intellectuals and artists, meanwhile, call the show trash and lament the fact that such lowbrow entertainment is the only program to break with the pablum typically offered on Mexican television by the media giant Televisa.

Pressure from religious groups prompted Televisa to move Cristina from the 4 p.m. slot, after the Mexican lunch hour, to 11 p.m, when impressionable youngsters presumably are asleep. But the criticism didn't stop.

"Adolescents and young people are most at risk with these Cristina programs," Roman Catholic Church spokesman Msgr. Genaro Alamilla Arteaga wrote recently in the Monterrey newspaper El Norte.

"The adolescent lives moments of questioning. . . . He notes the transformation of his genital organs and is in suspense. He remedies nothing with this program, but is worse, perhaps excited at hearing the experience of the homosexual, the unsatisfied wife, the impotent man.

"Poor Mexico," Alamilla wrote. "Such a mess in the hands of bandits. Yes, they are bandits, those who attack the morality of Mexicans with such insolent programs as Cristina's. . . ."

Cristina makes no apologies for tabloid television and says she deals not just with sex but with social issues. She happily acknowledges that programs such as hers may change society.

"I am bringing modernity and the way people think in big cities to Mexico. Mexico City has the same problems as New York and Miami, and they know that," Cristina said in a telephone interview.

"If Cristina is progressive," said actress and director Jesusa Rodriguez, "she demonstrates just how ignorant our society is."

Rodriguez's popular cabaret, El Habito, satirized the "The Cristina Show" with its own program, "The Cretina Show." In this camp and often crude satire, Cretina talks with the Happy Family, "the last bastion of morality in Latin America," that turns out to include a husband who is a rapist and wife-abuser, and a wife and mother-in-law who are both lesbians. The fantasy-filled ending has Cretina tied up and forced under torture to answer questions from the nightclub audience.

Unfazed by the burlesque, Cristina asserts that while the Mexican press and interest groups attack her, the public loves her show. She recently taped 15 programs in Mexico, each before a full house of 500 people. Besides "Women in Love With Assassins," her topics included "My Mother Is My Father's Slave," "Famous Mexican Wrestlers," "Bust Reduction" and "Womanizers."

Rodriguez asks in frustration: "Why is banality always so attractive?"

Cristina said she is not surprised by her popularity or by the controversy. But she said she was caught off guard by Mexican xenophobia--criticism of her as a Cuban and an import.

"I grew up on Mexican television and loved it. I tell them (Mexicans), 'We allowed our kids to grow up on your idioms and your Spanish.' They don't like the Cuban accent and the Anglo-American ideas that they say don't represent Mexican culture. You're damn right I don't. I represent Hispanic culture. I'm on in 17 countries. I don't want the show to be Mexican or Cuban," she said.

The talk show hostess is a 45-year-old Marilyn Monroe blonde, born in Cuba and raised in the United States. She has a deep voice and assertive style that clearly irritate many people in a country where the way in which something is said is often as important as the content.

Her frank subject matter grates on Mexican culture. Whatever Mexicans might do in private, they don't blab about it to the world. In many families, while it may be widely known that a man has a casa chica , or a second home with a lover, this is not spoken of openly. Incest rape is believed to be a common problem in Mexico, as in other countries, but that also is rarely discussed.

Under this ethos, politicians and public figures in Mexico still enjoy far more privacy than their counterparts in the United States.

These boundaries of discretion and silence are beginning to change. There is more public talk of sex, in opinion polls and political and cultural journals, than there used to be. But Cristina is pushing for faster change of what she calls a morally "repressive" society.

"I have been in the United States since the 1960s. Here they teach girls to say whatever they think, and that's not the same in all Latin American countries, where women are second-class citizens. In Latin America, if girls are smart they tell you to hide it or you won't find anyone to marry you," she said.

She added that television's format and commercial breaks are not conducive to Mexican formality.

"In Mexico, they have such a roundabout, polite way of eliciting a response. They say, 'If you please would be so kind as to explain to me. . . ' On TV, there's no time to talk like that, so I say, 'Why did you kill that person?' They find my way weird," she said.

It is unclear why the traditionally prudish Televisa decided to pick up "The Cristina Show," except that the company, which has monopolized private television in Mexico, is about to face competition with the sale of two government channels. "The Cristina Show" is one of Spanish-language television's top-rated shows in the United States.

Televisa, which last year purchased part of the Univision network that produces Cristina, did not answer repeated requests for information on "The Cristina Show."

Cristina argues that tabloid television can be educational as well as entertaining. She said she provides information about issues such as AIDS and breast cancer and exposes young people to real problems.

"Mexicans say they want their kids to live in a perfect society," she said in the interview. "I am the mother of three and I want the same thing for my kids, but it doesn't exist."

Even the women-who-love-murderers show, she said, dealt with an underlying moral issue--why people fall in love with evil. "I don't root for the bad guy," Cristina added.

The moral point of the show was a tad vague, however, as women in love with murderers argued that "the past is past" and that their killer boyfriends "would never do it to me."

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