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Telenovelas: The Latin obsession

Picture 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 girl’s 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 America’s answer to the English language soap opera, and are produced in almost every Spanish speaking country.

The word “telenovela” is a combination of the words “tele,” which is short for “television” and “novela,” which means “novel” or “narrative.”

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 set cast.

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 for fame.

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 telenovela’s popularity. Many women live vicariously through their show’s 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 view.

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 racial stereotypes.

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 623-0365





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