The Latin obsession
this: a stunning young peasant girl meets and falls hopelessly
in love with a handsome boy from one of the wealthiest families
in the country.
The young man, smitten by the girls beautiful heart
and character, immediately ends his relationship with his
rich, spoilt girlfriend and begins a whirlwind romance with
the newly found love of his life.
His family deems the destitute girl unworthy and pressures
the young man to end this ill-conceived relationship, and
the spurned, furious and ultimately evil ex-girlfriend is
determined to have her revenge.
Sounds interesting? This storyline is a popular plot to
the Latin American obsession, the telenovela,
and millions of viewers around the world are hopelessly
hooked on this phenomenon.
Telenovelas are Latin Americas answer to the English
language soap opera, and are produced in almost every Spanish
The word telenovela is a combination of the
words tele, which is short for television
and novela, which means novel or
While the telenovela is similar to the soap opera, there
are some fundamental differences. The major distinction
is that while soap operas are designed to run indefinitely
and can last for years with numerous characters, plots and
story arcs, the average telenovela runs for about six to
eight months, has one major story arc and usually has a
Argentina, Mexico, and Venezuela are leading producers of
telenovelas, exporting to various other Latin American countries.
The concept is so successful that the market has expanded
and many of the mini-series are being dubbed into other
languages and distributed as far away as Asia and Europe.
One series has become so successful that it has been selected
by an American network to be tailored to the English-speaking
market and broadcast.
There are four basic categories of telenovelas. The most
popular is the romantic telenovela, many of which feature
the Cinderella-type plot previously described.
This category bears the most resemblance to the soap opera
and garners the highest demand.
Also popular is the period telenovela, set in the 18th or
19th century with themes such as war and revolution.
The teen telenovela is a burgeoning phenomenon, featuring
the lives of high school students and the issues most pertinent
in the coming-of-age years.
The telenovela even has a subset that branches into the
exceedingly popular genre of reality television. The musical
telenovela, in the vein of shows such as American Idol and
Star Search, features up-and-coming musicians in their quest
Telenovelas are designed to appeal to the working class
and are wildly popular. Many people organise their lives
and schedules around their favourite programme and in certain
neighbourhoods the streets are empty when a popular show
is programmed to air.
Theories abound as to the cause of the telenovelas
popularity. Many women live vicariously through their shows
heroine, envisioning themselves as the beautiful young woman
who finally finds true love in the form of Prince Charming,
or the powerful matriarch, covered with priceless jewels,
who is able to control everything and everyone.
For fans of the musical telenovela, watching an ordinary
individual achieve star status may be a depiction of their
own dream to one day conquer the music business.
Devoting time and attention to a telenovela is a way of
escaping real life for an hour or two.
It is possible to become so emotionally invested in a programme
that the characters become almost like family members, and
viewers become very interested in the outcome of their stories.
The Internet contributes a great deal to the popularity
of the telenovela. Most programmes have their own online
communities complete with summaries, story spoilers, and
message boards, and many sites report hundreds of hits
on a daily basis.
Loyal devotees flock to their favourite Web sites to discuss
characters and story lines and to offer their opinions on
everything from fashion to morals and ethics.
These communities bring countless people together, and many
friendships are formed.
There are raging debates as well, as many fans of differing
opinions square off to vociferously argue their points of
However, the telenovela industry has come under fire. Even
though most Latin American countries are melting pots of
many creeds and races, telenovela stars are invariably blonde,
fair-skinned and blue-eyed.
Usually if an ethnic person is featured, the
actor portrays someone of a lower class. This has raised
numerous complaints from many different members of society,
who state that the telenovela is a false representation
of the Latin American community.
Many argue that whitewashing these shows stifles
the cultural identity of Latin America and perpetuates age-old
Nevertheless, attempts are being made to change the norm
and some producers are actively making an effort to employ
people of varying ethnic backgrounds, and to portray them
in a more positive light.
Many are of the view that accurate and adequate ethnic representation
is a step toward changing archaic societal views.
The telenovela is an integral part of Latin American culture.
For many it is a staple in entertainment, and it gives an
opportunity for each country to showcase its local talent.
For more information about the Spanish As the First Foreign
Language (SAFFL) initiative, please contact the Secretariat
for the Implementation of Spanish (a division of the Ministry
of Trade and Industry) at 624-8329/627-9513 or fax us at