Spanish-language television is dominated by cheap, mind-numbing soap operas--surely the last place Latinas would find a realistic role model.
But one has been delivered to them, in the form of character Carmen Medina, a divorced mother of two girls. Last month the raven-haired Medina led "Solo en America" into its second season on Spanish-language television network Telemundo, and from one season to the next, the ratings have nearly doubled.
"This is groundbreaking," said the show's writer and executive producer, Carlos Portugal. "At the end of the day we want a funny show with heart, but like it or not, it is a show with social commentary. It shows a Latina divorcing her husband and making it on her own."
Viewers of English-language television who tuned in to single mothers in the 1970s with "Alice" or in the 1990s with "Murphy Brown" might not find anything startling about Carmen Medina. But viewers of Spanish-language television who are systematically fed the predictable telenovelas, in which women are portrayed as victims or manipulative vixens, have greeted Medina with a knowing nod.
"The image of the woman on Spanish television is very poor. Half the women on semi-serious programs have their breasts hanging out," said Elisa Sanchez, president of MANA, a 25-year-old national Latina organization that promotes community leadership.
That's partly due to the source of the programming. Most Spanish-language networks save money by purchasing pre-made shows from Latin America, where women's rights lag behind those of their U.S. counterparts. In Chile, for example, it remains illegal for a woman to divorce her husband. So, the notion of Chilean producers investing in television shows that empower women is not exactly embraced.
"This was programming for where we're from, not from where we are," said 31-year-old Christy Haubegger, publisher of the monthly magazine Latina in New York City.
Telemundo, based in South Florida, makes only a handful of its own shows, and "Solo en America" is one of them.
When Medina, played by Laura Fabian, first appeared in front of the camera last year, she and her family had just left Caracas, Venezuela, for Philadelphia. Medina soon learned her husband was unfaithful, and she gathered the girls, collected her belongings and moved to Brooklyn to become an account executive for a public relations firm.
"That's very taboo in our culture--a Latina divorcing her husband--but she is putting a strong message to her daughters that there are things you don't tolerate from anyone, not even your husband," Portugal said.
The pilot was loosely based on scripts from the popular English-language sitcom "One Day at a Time." But there are differences in its texture that run much deeper than replacing that sitcom's dumb but lovable superintendent, Schneider, with a tool-belt-wearing fix-it guy, Garcia. Instead of a story driven by '70s sexual liberation, as "One Day at a Time" was, Medina's issues are those of a recent immigrant seeking assimilation.
Portugal said much of the distinctly Latino humor in "Solo en America" was lifted from his memories as a young Cuban immigrant in Miami in 1971. "We were going to school and learning English and watching television, and my mother got left behind," he said.
His mother insisted her children speak Spanish at home, but Portugal said they knew it had nothing to do with heritage-preserving; his mother simply didn't want to be left out of English conversations.
Portugal pitched the idea for "Solo en America" in March 1998. It was his first big break, landing him a contract for 22 additional episodes. He hired four more writers, and while the "One Day at a Time" scripts were available, they began pushing the envelope.
This season, Medina confronts the fallout from the divorce by demanding child-support payments and venturing into the social scene.
"That's also a big taboo in our culture, for a recent divorcee to start dating," Portugal said. "The girls want her to date again, but [they] want to make sure she's 'ready,' and it turns the tables on the daughter-mother relationship."
Portugal said the 34-year-old Medina will probably not be seen in bed with a male suitor, but it will be implied that she spends the night with a bachelor who is in town on business.
Confronting these nontraditional issues does not appear to be hurting business for one of the few bright spots on Telemundo's lineup. Last season, an average 137,000 households watched "Solo en America" during its two nights each week. This season, the program airs only once a week, but an average 254,000 households have tuned in to the first two shows, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The show also represents Telemundo's one major success at using scripts owned by its Sony Pictures sibling, Columbia-TriStar Television, perhaps in large part due to the injection of new material by Portugal and his team of writers. Where "Solo en America" has succeeded, Spanish-language updates of "Charlie's Angels" and "Starsky & Hutch" failed to draw viewers to the network and were abandoned.
Clearly "Solo en America" is an exception for Latinas in the United States who are hard-pressed to find an honest depiction of their lives on Spanish-language television.
"The roles of Latinas have been so narrowly portrayed on both English- and Spanish-language television that it's not so much 'Why has it taken so long for Spanish television to address these issues?' but 'Why has it taken television as a whole so long to address the issues of Latinas today?' " said Felix Sanchez, president of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.
In September, Latino rights groups lambasted television network executives at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox for unveiling a prime-time lineup devoid of Latino or black leads. Several quick fixes and late castings were shoehorned into the lineups, like the addition of African American actor Jeffrey Sams to ABC's "Wasteland" or the inclusion of several story lines involving black issues on NBC's "The West Wing."
Since "Solo en America" earned enough popularity to breeze into its second season, observers say, Telemundo can opt to be lazy and formulaic, or it can continue exploring new territory.
* "Solo en America," airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on KVEA. The network has rated it TV-PG-D (may be unsuitable for young children, with special advisories for suggestive dialogue).