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‘Dissident’ Soaps Put Mirror to Mexico

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maria Ines de San Millan was the picture of a happy Mexican matron. Married to a prominent lawyer for 27 years, she had three attractive children and a tasteful home with two maids. Life was good--or so she thought.

But one day, she discovered that her husband had been having an affair with a younger woman for two years. As Maria Ines wept and despaired, her husband delivered the final blow: He was moving out.

So far, so typical. But Maria Ines picked herself up and rebuilt her life, even defying her family to date a man 20 years her junior.

She didn’t do it alone. Millions of Mexicans urged her on each night, following her saga on one of the country’s hottest soap operas. The popular Maria Ines became a symbol of independence in a “macho” culture--and gave her husband the heave-ho when he eventually tried to return.

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“You’re the only one in this house who doesn’t have a bedroom,” she informed him coldly.

You’ve come a long way, baby. Not just Mexican women--but the soap opera genre that is Latin America’s favorite form of entertainment.

In a radical departure, soap operas are turning away from Cinderella stories and toward real-life issues, tackling corruption and drug traffickers, sexism and sadists (the latter being the U.S. Border Patrol).

As such, the new soap operas, or telenovelas, have become an influential sounding board for Latin American countries embarking on a new era of democracy and social change.

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“The telenovela is the only thing that concentrates millions of Latin Americans in front of the television,” said Epigmenio Ibarra, producer of the soap with the Maria Ines story line, “Mirada de Mujer” (“A Woman’s Glance”).

“If you want to say something to Latin America, the best vehicle is the telenovela.”

Soap operas have been a prime-time sensation in Latin America for decades. And their audiences would make Hollywood drool. In Mexico, about half of all viewers are generally glued to telenovelas on the two main channels during prime time; in Brazil, a top telenovela can draw 60% of the audience. In comparison, in the United States, where most viewers have a wider variety of channels, most prime-time shows draw less than 20%.

And the soaps--each one generally lasts less than a year--are highly influential. In the late 1960s, for example, one popular Mexican telenovela featured an Indian maid who married her wealthy urbanite boss. Hundreds of peasant girls promptly flocked to the cities.

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But for all their influence and audience, telenovelas were long looked down on as poor women’s fare, spinning predictable, three-hankie melodramas full of rags-to-riches fantasies.

No more.

Telenovelas Tackle Once-Taboo Subjects

These days, a new generation of writers is using the telenovela the way Thomas Paine used the pamphlet. With authoritarian governments crumbling around Latin America, television has become freer than ever before. When it comes to tackling once-taboo subjects--from political corruption to AIDS--telenovelas are on the cutting edge.

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“Television used to be seen as a hole in which to escape from reality,” Ibarra said. “Now there are too many things you can’t cover up. . . . And the government can no longer tell the television what to program.”

Ibarra is one of the most prominent--and unusual--producers of the new “dissident” telenovelas. The burly, twinkle-eyed journalist spent a decade covering wars in Central America. He was a cameraman with a cause, a leftist who reportedly even served as a go-between for the Mexican government and Zapatista rebels in the southern state of Chiapas.

But Mexican journalism proved too tame for his tastes. When a new network offered him the chance to produce a telenovela, Ibarra jumped. The result was last year’s “Nada Personal” (“Nothing Personal”), a groundbreaking soap opera loosely based on the political assassinations that rocked Mexico in 1994.

For the first time, Mexican viewers were treated to a savage fictional portrayal of their leaders, depicted as corrupt killers and drug dealers. Peppered with references to actual news events, the soap was half Walter Cronkite, half “Melrose Place.”

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It was the start of a new era in Mexican television.

“The new role of telenovelas is to reflect, with a serious commitment, the reality of Mexico,” said Ruben Galindo, 35, who produced another of the new-wave soaps. “Each telenovela is an essay that tries to show why we Mexicans are the way we are.”

That new realism was obvious in Galindo’s recent soap “Al Norte del Corazon” (“North of the Heart”), a sympathetic tale of illegal immigrants that included the real-life saga of a Mexican inmate on Texas’ death row.

Another telenovela, “Demasiado Corazon” (“Too Much Heart”), tackles the growing problems of drug trafficking and drug abuse.

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Soap Opera Said to Have Aided Overthrow

Mexico is just the latest country in Latin America to witness the rise of the “nouveau novelas.” One of the earliest examples of the genre, Venezuela’s “Por Estas Calles” (“Through These Streets”), was so influential that it helped bring down President Carlos Andres Perez in 1993, according to analysts. The soap mirrored the alleged corruption in his administration and helped prompt street protests.

Brazil has had a series of telenovelas that focused on political issues. A recent soap about land reform, “Rei do Gado” (“Cattle King”), mixed reality with fiction so thoroughly that when its good-hearted senator died, real-life members of Congress appeared on the soap to read eulogies.

And Colombians have been mesmerized by soaps about political corruption and changing social mores. A recent hit, “Geminis,” focused on a bisexual man who gave his wife AIDS--hot stuff in a conservative Roman Catholic country.

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Colombian scriptwriter Bernardo Romero, who helped write “Geminis,” said the new soap operas began to appear almost a decade ago, when telenovelas were facing a serious challenge from U.S. series such as “Miami Vice.”

“We understood that the genre was tired,” Romero said. “We had reached a point where there was too much repetition.”

There was another factor behind the new soaps: political freedom. The end of authoritarian rule meant that television could explore uncharted waters.

In Mexico, television had been dominated for decades by Televisa, a network closely tied to the longtime ruling party. Televisa is the Spanish-speaking world’s biggest media conglomerate.

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But for years, the company’s telenovelas were as restrained as its hail-to-the-chief newscasts. Corruption was a taboo theme. Heroines couldn’t drink or smoke.

“We wrote with fear,” recalled Fernanda Villeli, a 76-year-old writer regarded as the founder of the telenovela in Mexico.

Change came with the arrival in 1993 of TV Azteca, created as part of a sweeping privatization of government assets. As a new network, Azteca had little to lose and could afford to experiment, analysts say. It has aired the new-style telenovelas such as “A Woman’s Glance.”

The network began to grow just as Mexico’s 70-year-old one-party system was crumbling, amid an economic crisis, political assassinations and the rise of rebel groups.

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“Many themes weren’t permitted in the past because of the lack of political openness,” said Jose Carlos Lozano, a professor of communications at Monterrey Tech, a leading university.

“Today, it’s more difficult to prohibit or to pressure the electronic media to avoid strong political themes.”

Heroine of Program Breaks the Mold

The most popular of the new soaps is Azteca’s “A Woman’s Glance,” which reflects the difficulties of a mother who seeks to shed her role in a conservative, male-dominated society. The heroine breaks the mold in everything from her feminism to her everywoman figure.

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“A few years ago, producers would say they weren’t interested in a 50-year-old protagonist. The protagonist had to be 20 and pretty. ‘A Woman’s Glance’ shows that the public now wants different content,” said Romero, who caused an uproar in Colombia with an earlier version of the soap.

The actress who plays Maria Ines, Angelica Aragon, has been invited to speak at conferences on the role of women. Her character has been analyzed by psychologists on radio and TV programs.

Critics also recognize her influence. Just as “Murphy Brown” raised a ruckus among some Americans with its portrayal of single motherhood, Maria Ines’ behavior was attacked by a civic group in northern Mexico, which charged that the soap helped “pervert Mexican hearts and justify infidelity.”

The complaint, by the National Confederation of Institution Directors, touched off a controversy that culminated in a debate in the city of Monterrey in September between critics and supporters of the soap.

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The critics appeared to lose the day. They were bombarded with angry letters, their threat to launch a boycott was quickly dropped, and they even received death threats from fans of Maria Ines. “Why is it that male infidelity--unavoidable in 90% of telenovelas--has never been seen as a bad example for viewers, but when an intelligent divorced woman gets involved with an intelligent young man, all the alarm bells go off?” demanded Rosaura Barahona, a columnist for the Monterrey daily El Norte.

The success of the Azteca telenovelas has surprised Televisa, which has stuck to traditional plots.

The network not only is facing new competition, it also has lost credibility among some viewers as the country’s authoritarian political system crumbles.

“The people identify Televisa with the government,” said Miguel Sabido, who studies soap-opera themes for the network. Viewers, he said, are starting to vote with their remotes.

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Some Say Viewers Still Prefer Fantasy

Still, there is much life left in the traditional telenovelas, with their weeping heroines and heaving bosoms. While Mexico’s new-wave soaps have been popular, only “A Woman’s Glance” has consistently matched the blockbuster levels of a Televisa telenovela. And some industry experts are convinced that viewers in an increasingly violent country still prefer fantasy.

Certainly, Televisa’s formula has been a smash success around the world. Its telenovelas are now broadcast in 124 countries, generating $150 million in sales outside Mexico. From Russia to China, from Italy to Bahrain, people ponder the same mysteries: Will Mariana find her child? Will Marimar reunite with Sergio?

But even Televisa is beginning to experiment with more realism in its telenovelas, addressing such issues as family violence. Sabido is writing a soap opera about the bloody government crackdown on student protesters in 1968. Telenovelas, he said, can be a powerful tool to guide the public on troubling social issues.

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“The telenovela is much more important than the newspaper” in a country where few people read dailies, he noted. “With all the upheaval and insecurity in the Third World . . . the television has become a kind of wise grandfather that indicates what’s good and bad.”


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