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A Spanish Soap Opera Cleans Up in L.A.

It’s 9 p.m. in Los Angeles, the start of the quietest hour of the day. Pale blue light flickers in half a million homes tuned to the same nightly soap opera, and loyal viewers are dying of suspense that spans the generations.

“La Madrastra,” the Stepmother, a Spanish-language telenovela on Univision’s KMEX, is nearing its dramatic finale and the big questions remain unanswered.

Who killed Patricia?

Will Esteban ever get out of jail?

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Will Maria’s children find out the truth about her?

Maria Diaz, 78, is in her favorite spot on the comfy living room couch, 8 feet from the 30-year-old Zenith console that still works like it’s brand new.

Her daughter Sofia, 49, is nearby, and Sofia’s daughter Jennifer, 16, and Jennifer’s grandfather Horacio, 80, all of them badly hooked.

“If I miss it, I call my sister Gloria to see what happened,” says Sofia, an accountant who grew up in this modest little house on 30th Street east of Main.

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If she doesn’t watch at her nearby home with her husband, she’s here, watching with her parents and often her daughter.

“There’s an Armenian woman I work with who doesn’t speak a word of Spanish,” says Sofia, “and she says she watches every episode.”

If true, it’s a landmark moment in the evolution of the polyglot city.

In all her decades of TV viewing, Maria Diaz says, she can only remember one show -- “Amor Real” -- as good as “La Madrastra.” Mrs. Diaz is not alone in this assessment.

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The most-watched prime-time TV show in Los Angeles last week was “La Madrastra,” same as it has been for weeks.

The second, third, fourth and fifth most-watched TV shows?

“La Madrastra,” “La Madrastra,” “La Madrastra” and “La Madrastra.”

While it swept the top five spots, another Univision soap -- “Apuesta por un Amor” -- nabbed four of the top 10. The only English-language show to crack the list was the MTV Video Music Awards.

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“La Madrastra,” set in Mexico and a big hit there as well, also topped the charts in New York City for the month of July, even though Spanish-language households make up only 23.9% of the Big Apple market.

The Los Angeles popularity of the Stepmother is not surprising, given the huge Latino population. It also gets a boost from the fact that it’s competing against summer reruns on English-language television, says analyst Tony Stanol of La Agencia De Orci.

There’s actually a trend among “Hispanic yuppies, for lack of a better handle,” to drop Spanish television in favor of English-speaking shows, Stanol says.

“But when it comes to the telenovela, if a mother or grandmother” is watching, other family members often find a spot on the couch, too. This explains why the ads during “Madrastra” run from Target to Kentucky Fried Chicken to Advil to Miller Lite.

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“There’s a lot of men who are hooked,” says Martha Arevalo, a Univision publicist. “They won’t admit it, but they are.”

Arevalo said KMEX-TV fields calls from people wondering if there’s any way they can catch missed episodes.

“They’ll say, ‘I’m going on vacation and don’t want to miss it. What should I do?’ ”

You should call Sofia.

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As I watched Wednesday night’s episode with her, she and her family demonstrated an amazing skill for explaining the entire history of the yearlong serial to me without missing a word of what was being said by their beloved and hated “Madrastra” characters.

“That’s Maria, who was in prison for over 20 years,” Sofia says.

Mrs. Diaz crochets a blue hat while watching the heart-pounding drama. She makes booties, too, as well as other clothing for her 16 grandchildren, deftly working the yarn and needles without taking her eyes off “Madrastra.”

On a podium against the wall is a statue of the Virgin Mother holding baby Jesus, and nearby sits Mr. Diaz. Horacio is retired from a company that made mannequins, and he’s not what you’d call chatty. But the Cozumel native, who brought his family north 40 years ago, never misses an episode.

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“La Madrastra” is “an interesting story,” he says, and the story is this: Maria and her husband, Esteban, vacationed in Aruba with four other couples more than 20 years ago. At the hotel, Maria stumbled upon one of the wives just after she’d been shot dead and picked up the murder weapon as hotel security arrived on the scene.

Maria was wrongly convicted and thrown into jail. Meanwhile, her husband suspected she really was the killer and told the children she was dead.

Released early for good behavior, Maria talked her husband into pretending he had just met and fallen in love with her. She wanted to get married again so she could be with her children, who came to know her as their stepmother.

So what should Maria do now? Keep her past a secret and enjoy the love of her family or try to find the real killer?

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The show has already run its course in Mexico, so all the Diaz family has to do is check in with relatives and get the scoop. But they wouldn’t dare ruin the suspense.

“We don’t want to know,” Sofia says, saying the relatives wouldn’t tell them anyway. “They say just watch and enjoy.”

“Ayyyyy!” Mrs. Diaz shrieks as Demetrio, one of the husbands from the trip to Aruba, goes into his wife’s makeup kit, curls his eyelashes, paints his fingernails and puts on the red high heels believed to have been worn by the killer.

“He’s gay!” says Jennifer.

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Mr. Diaz is glued to the set.

“We never, ever, thought it would be a guy,” Sofia says, even though Maria’s husband, Esteban, is now doing time for the murder, wrongly accused as was his wife.

Sofia and her family had hoped the killer was Aunt Alba, a spiteful witch who hated Maria, the heroine of a show that is -- in the Diaz family’s eyes -- all about family love and undying loyalty.

Now that we know who the true killer is, will he go to jail?

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Will Esteban be released?

Will Maria’s kidnapped children -- don’t ask, I don’t have enough space to explain -- be harmed?

Sofia checks her watch at quarter to 10.

“I just want to know how much enjoyment I have left,” she says.

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Don’t miss the two-hour finale Monday night.

Half of L.A. -- and then some -- will be watching.

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez


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