The Global Pandemic of the Telenovela
Stefan Ruiz is a photographer who enjoys intimate access to the world of telenovelas.
Stefan Ruiz is a photographer who enjoys intimate access to the world of telenovelas. These photos are only a tiny fraction of the work he has shot over the last few years. Says Ruiz, "It's very difficult to get access to telenovela sets because they want to control their image. They film really fast and, unlike American soap operas, there is a clear beginning and end so they don't want outsiders to spoil it for their loyal viewers. This bedroom is part of the Telenovela Institute's set, which is located right next to the professional lot where all the big shows are shot. It has other rooms that you'd find in a house or apartment, but the bedroom is the most important because that's where the romance takes place.
In the summer of 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian television industry was in a profound transition—it needed to find a fast and cheap way to fill the airtime that had previously been occupied by official programming. And so, one producer at Commonwealth Channel Ostankino decided to buy the transmission rights to Los Ricos También Lloran (The Rich Also Cry), a telenovela that aired toward the end of the 70s in Mexico. This Mexican soap opera, which starred Verónica Castro and Rogelio Guerra, follows the classic, stereotypical plot of the Mexican melodramas from that decade: The protagonist is a lower-class woman in love with the son of a millionaire. It’s an impossible romance given the social—and racial—distances that separate them. However, after 249 episodes, the characters overcome these and other vicissitudes to finally unite in marriage.
The telenovela was relaunched on Soviet TV under the title Bogaty Toszhe Plachut, relying on very low-cost dubbing in which the original actors’ voices were still audible under the voices of the Russian translators. The producers at Ostankino had guessed that the telenovela might be popular, but they could never have anticipated the degree of obsession and mass hysteria it would incite. The ex-Soviet countries were all soon addicted to the show. The old-fashioned hairstyles seemed not to matter to anyone: Verónica Castro’s green eyes bathed in tears became the most famous eyes in Russia. Cities were paralyzed during the hour of the soap’s broadcast and the day following the last episode of Bogaty Toszhe Plachut was a national day of mourning. It was estimated that 200 million Russians watched the finale, making it the most-watched episode in the worldwide history of television.
“These are two students at the institute. It’s the same set I shot in the previous bedroom photos but it’s been ‘upgraded.’ After a few visits, the lighting guys actually helped me get a good ambience going. On professional telenovela sets they’ll be building and taking apart rooms every day. They’ll shoot their scenes and later another crew will build a whole new set. Then they’ll rebuild the original set all over again if they need to use it for another scene.”
My relationship with telenovelas, like that of most Mexicans, is complex and contradictory: On one hand, we look down on them as trashy, and on the other we secretly watch them from the corners of our eyes, letting ourselves be entertained whether by just one or two episodes or devoting ourselves to an entire series. In my case, there is also a family connection that I don’t often admit to. My mother’s brother, Enrique Lizalde, is an actor in telenovelas, and in fact was one of the top protagonists in the first productions that Televisa made (such as El Derecho de Nacer [The Right to Be Born] in 1966). In the afternoons my mother would say, “I’m going to see your uncle,” and she would set up the ironing board in front of the television until five o’clock—telenovela prime time. The pretext of “seeing Enrique” was in fact the perfect justification for watching the program every afternoon. I remember seeing Chispita [Spark] in its entirety, as well as the first editions of Corazón Salvaje [Wild Heart] and Mundo de Juguete [Toy World]. Enrique, who still acts in telenovelas (now usually as the protagonist’s father), would appear with his classic deep voice and his ultraserious attitude, almost menacing, almost the same in every program.
Many years later, in the summer of 2001, I was traveling along the Dalmatian coast when I started a conversation on a train with a 15-year-old Bosnian girl. “Where are you from?” she asked me. On finding out that I was from Mexico, her face lit up: “My favorite actress is Jacqueline Andere!” The girl proceeded to recite a list of actors from Mexican telenovelas and TV series that would be more appropriate coming from a tortilla vendor in Colonia Doctores. “How do you know so much about Mexican telenovelas?” I asked her. “I watch them every afternoon with my girlfriends. We love them and we’re learning Spanish. What’s Coyoacán like? On TV it seems so nice.” After saying our goodbyes, she told me: “You’re very lucky to come from a country with such great artists.”
Not long after, I went to Zagreb and stayed at the house of some friends, and I noticed that one of their aunts was watching Esmeralda. There was Uncle Enrique on the screen, translated into Croatian.
“They were pretty surprised when I decided to shoot the backdrops but after seeing the photos they thought it was cool. They probably would’ve said no had I asked beforehand, but I like pictures of pictures so I just went for it. Most of the time the backgrounds aren’t composed at all—it can just be a part of a bush or a roof or anything scenic.”
The resounding success of Los Ricos También Lloran in the early 90s marked the beginning of a decade of globalization for the telenovela. This commercial success made a huge profit for television giants in Mexico, Venezuela, and Brazil, like Televisa and TVGlobo. In the case of Televisa, the sales of the rights to telenovelas shot up, reaching countries as diverse as Israel and the Philippines and producing hundreds of thousands of dollars over the decade. The telenovela industry was transformed by these events and quickly assumed a new global outlook, generating plots and contexts that were more and more exotic (dramas concerning haciendas of the 19th century, for example).
It was on that trip that I decided it was necessary to begin a project that would investigate the origin of this global obsession and the reasons why a commercial product of this sort, seemingly deeply rooted in very local Mexican dramas, had reached a level of international fanaticism. Not knowing that at the same time Nicolas Bourriaud was beginning to promote his theory of relational art, the Telenovela Institute was born, an artistic project that was part research institute, part nomadic installation, and part telenovela. The object was to establish offices of the institute in different countries where Latin-American telenovelas particularly resonated, and to generate critical debates about the reasons for such an impact through programs and other projects.
The Televisa Foundation in Mexico granted me access to their archive in Avenida Chapultepec, where there were records of a few scarce initiatives to research their own historical knowledge of the telenovela. In Mexico, one could say that the three key figures at the start of the telenovela were Emilio Azcárraga, Ernesto Alonso, and Valentín Pimstein. Emilio “el Tigre” Azcárraga, the owner of Televisa, framed the commercial plan for telenovelas in Latin America and used them to expand the global reach of Mexican television. His decision to defend the Spanish language and refusal of translation was particularly significant. Alonso and Pimstein, for their parts, helped to build the modern dramatic structure of the telenovela. Pimstein, a Chilean immigrant who established himself in Mexico, was one of the first people to use audience surveys to determine the outcomes of story arcs as they were told, going around to markets and other public spaces to collect opinions. One of his most famous phrases during that time was “If we don’t do it this way, my maid won’t understand.”
“The lady in the chair is Vanessa Guzmán. She was in a popular telenovela called Rubí. Maria Favela, who’s wearing the black pants, is huge right now. When I shot her she was also starring in Rubí, but now she’s moved on to bigger and better things like Species 4. I don’t know much about the woman with the fan except that she played a villain.”
The first city where I established the institute was Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2002, with the help of artist Tadej Pogacar, who had a gallery space called Galerja P74. Ljubljana, like most Eastern European capitals, has an urban architecture from the 19th century combined with the drab buildings of the communist era, in a ubiquitous palette of grays and light yellow-browns. The idea was to contrast those colors with a telenovela-esque interior: a Mexican modernist style in the tradition of Luis Barragán, with Mexican pinks, blues, and yellows like the Camino Real hotel. The result was a memorable one for the Slovenians, one of whom later painted his house with the same colors. Telenovelas were not entirely unknown in Ljubljana; just a few days earlier the leading actress in Esmeralda, Leticia Calderón, visited Ljubljana and was received by roughly 1,000 people at the airport (an exorbitant number given the miniscule size of the country).
A similar story occurred in Zagreb, where the institute opened its doors in the form of a tequila bar, under the name Telenovela Bar. The tables of the bar were also glass-covered showcases displaying the objects of the exposition. Immediately, the bar became an important social center. There is a Croatian magazine, called Gloria, which is dedicated almost entirely to telenovelas: Mexican actors are interviewed in their houses in Las Lomas or San Angel, the same way that Vanity Fair would interview Scarlett Johansson or Angelina Jolie. A local artist proposed that we organize a workshop on telenovelas. When we advertised it, I thought we would get ten people at the most. The day of the workshop almost 100 people came, along with reporters from the local stations. The audience was a strange blend, composed of older housewives and local conceptual artists—one of the oddest mixes I’ve ever witnessed. Nevertheless, the conversations were revelatory: The housewives were experts on the subject, and they were very used to the idea of debating the sociological aspects of telenovelas. It went to show that, in any country, soap operas offer fuel for discourse.
“This is a wind machine to make it look like the actors are outside and stuff’s blowing around. It’s on one of the most popular telenovela sets. For some of the fancier ones with larger budgets they’ll go to Acapulco and shoot outdoors.”
Since the first days of the institute’s research, I began to notice common patterns in the way each country related to telenovelas, and, at the same time, the way in which a country’s relationship to telenovelas revealed something unique about it. A Canadian researcher, Denise Bombardier, described it perfectly with her phrase “Give me a telenovela and I’ll give you a nation.” In general terms, however, telenovelas implement what the critic Tomás Lopez-Pumarejo (my principal theorist at the Institute) described as “the drama of the subconscious”: They are stories that revolve around ontological questions: “Where is my son?” or “Where is my love?”
There is a clear relationship in the way in which the telenovela soap operas explore the social tensions of a country and convert them into collective therapy. This process worked very well in countries that had recently emerged from communism, where people were casting about in a psychological search to deal with the class taboos that had dominated for so long. As a result, a drama centered on the impossibility of love because of social or economic obstacles was extremely powerful. Several studies of the time during which Los Ricos También Lloran was broadcast in Russia indicate that programs simultaneously broadcast from the US (such as Dallas and Dynasty) were popular but never generated the same level of interest, because Russians could not identify with the family problems of an oil millionaire in Texas. The higher production quality of those programs didn’t seem to matter either, and so companies like Televisa did not overly concern themselves with investments in production. It was the drama, the emotions worn on the sleeve, and in part the exotic settings that gave the telenovelas a special attraction.
“The woman sitting in the chair was a student. I shot her on the day that the class was practicing kissing in the living room. It’s pretty amazing to watch because the couples really go for it and everyone cheers them on. The other guy I don’t know much about except that the apple he’s eating is fake.”
The dramatic structure of the telenovela operates in mysterious ways, alluding to our repressed fears and desires, and sometimes creating them. The telenovelas’ power of persuasion was precisely their founding principle. Everything began in the 1930s in Chicago, when a detergent company decided to launch a radio commercial in which a mother and son passed their time talking, with the conversation always ending in the purchase or use of the detergent. Over time, the dialogues between the characters became more elaborate, to the point that the commercial reached the proportions of a program in itself, but always keeping the product as the leitmotif of the action. From this comes the term “soap opera,” referring both to the original commercial and to the overflowing melodrama of the program.
“The woman touching the dresser and guy in the living room were both acting in the Rubí series when I shot them. The lady on the couch was a student at the time—she had spent all morning practicing kissing. Even though you might think otherwise, all of these people are very cultured and with-it. They don’t produce many films in Mexico, so telenovelas are about all that’s available if you want to act.”
The degree of psychological persuasion possessed by telenovelas is well documented: Simplemente María [Simply Maria], about a servant who triumphed in life by buying a sewing machine and taking night classes, led to a massive jump in the purchase of sewing machines in Peru; in Cáceres, Spain, they put up a monument to the character. Sales of blond hair dye increase in countries where the principal actress in a telenovela is light-haired; a significant number of Russian children are named after telenovela actors or characters. In Hungary a foundation was started to aid blind people as a result of Esmeralda, the story of a beautiful blind woman.
The educational effect of the telenovelas has generated positive initiatives, such as campaigns in Africa that use the form to raise consciousness about problems like AIDS and drug addiction. However, the telenovela is ultimately a commercial product, and as such, it obeys commercial interests and not necessarily altruistic ones. In the 90s, the alliance between Televisa and the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party) led to a commercial bonanza for the production company in return for programming more soap operas with no political content during times of greater political tension in the country. As the most effective commercial vehicle ever created, the telenovela can be a great demagogic tool.
“This guy was kind of a mystery to me. All anyone would tell me is that his role was the dumb guy who everybody cheated on.”
The final stop of the Institute was Cuba, the birthplace of the Latin-American soap opera. In Cuba in the 1940s, the narrative tradition of the radio was at its richest and the format of the telenovela was quickly adopted. Also, in the early 50s, Cuba had a greater number of televisions per capita than most other countries, including the US. In 1958 the first Latin-American telenovela was launched: El Derecho de Nacer, about a white man raised by a black woman, and his search for his biological mother. The theme of racial tensions, which was accessible to the multiracial Cuban society, was quickly accepted by the rest of Latin America. El Derecho de Nacer has been rerun over the decades more than any other telenovela.
When we established the Institute’s offices in Cuba, the reaction was immediate. Television reporters came to interview us, and the next day we were famous in Old Havana. In Cuba, the telenovela is still entertainment par excellence, given the lack of variety in programming provided by the state television (the governmental channel was forever broadcasting a documentary, several hours long, called Fidel in the Congo). The absence of political criticism was evident, although from time to time broadcasts were allowed of telenovelas from other countries that included self-criticisms. One such case is that of Betty la Fea, which caused a worldwide sensation and is now remade in the United States as Ugly Betty. In one episode, Betty, who works in an office, made a comment about the economy of the country, criticizing the minister of finance. The next day, Colombian newspapers began an attack on the minister, analyzing Betty’s criticisms. The character reached the level of a national political figure.
The Institute organized roundtables with specialists, producers, actors, performances, publications, dramatic lectures, and exhibits within exhibits, as in the case of the photographs of Stefan Ruiz [some of which accompany this article], who documented the strange false reality in the telenovela studios at Televisa. Paradoxically, the Institute never opened in Mexico, even though all the material had originated there. I myself stopped the Institute, turning to other subjects, conscious of the fact that it would be a life’s work to continue traveling to ever more remote countries to study their complex reactions to television melodramas. The telenovela has also evolved, acquiring new dramatic formats and updating itself, incorporating subjects like cloning and 9/11. Uncle Enrique appears less and less on TV, and, perhaps like him, I have also partially retired from the subject.
Of course, as in the world of telenovelas, there is always the possibility of a sequel, or a remake.