When I left college in Caracas, back in the mid seventies, I took a shot at TV writing and in no time went straight into the "telenovela" business for almost twenty years.
A telenovela is a soap opera—an installment novel for television or other modern media.
Though sneered at by the intelligentsia as something unworthy of a true writer's talent, it was a better paid job than journalism. The minute I made my decision, I counted on this high-brow kind of intellectual contempt. But what I could never forsee was what the 21th century's globalization held in store for a story-telling genre born in the cigar factories of Cuba at the end of the 19th century.
The roots of the telenovela reach back to the end of the 19th century, when Cuba was still a Spanish colony. The cigar-makers' guilds achieved a major improvement in working conditions for thousands of men and women by creating a new job, the "lector de tabaco": a worker with reading skills who, from a platform in the factory, read novels in installments to his workmates during the long, tedious hours of rolling and shaping tobacco leaves.
Nearly all the books were Spanish translations of European social realist novels: Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo; as well as the writings of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas, father and son. And so, according to those who have traced this history, Latin America's taste for novels in installments was forged.
With the coming of the radio age, melodrama in installments defined the form and content of a genre that quickly spread through Latin America. These tales soon became known as "culebrones" ("radio serpents"), an allusion to their habit of extending themselves indefinitely if they captured a big audience. Once television came on the scene it was only a matter of time until the "radio novel" expanded into the visual realm. Thus the "telenovela" was born.
Now it has become part of the global marketplace, viewed by an audience of more than 400 million—not only in Central and South America, but more than 2 billion people across continents, cultures and vastly dissimilar language zones.
For related observations on Cuba, see "Tragedy of the Malecon: Is Cuba 'Domestic' Politics?" by Michael Munger.
Naturally enough, this global phenomenon began with exiles from the Cuban Revolution. Starting in 1959, many Cuban producers, directors, actors and scriptwriters fled to Venezuela, Argentina or Mexico. There, they turned the rustic, homegrown Latin American television business into a powerhouse exporter of telenovelas.
A feuilleton refers to the part of a newspaper devoted to light fiction, general entertainment, etc., including installment fiction.
Just as the novel in installments—the "feuilleton,"—became the mass-culture genre of the urbanization boom that followed the industrial revolution in 19th-century Europe, the telenovela would become the entertainment form that portrays the tensions of the accelerated, chaotic urbanization without life betterment that marked Latin America throughout the 20th century.
Almost all telenovelas recount the twists and turns in the lives of a mother and child in the big city and of their right to a big inheritance that has been usurped from them. So, at the end of the day, the great obsession of the telenovela tale is how to rise out of poverty.
The sudden reversal of a heroine's economic circumstances is the most frequently used plot device. It is also the one that members of the Latin American intellectual elite most commonly ridicule.
Yet that narrative technique may be the key to the telenovela's success, not only in Latin America, but in the former socialist republics of Eastern Europe. Or in Indonesia, where Mexican, Colombian, Brazilian or Venezuelan "serpent tales" have been the rage for decades. The theme of women's social mobility in societies where institutions are weak, or struggling to gain strength, resounds through this classic telenovela plotline.
Strikingly, the telenovela only rarely tells the tale of how a family business is founded and becomes prosperous. The family fortune is already there when the story begins. The soap opera limits itself to narrating how someone recoups a stolen inheritance. Invariably, that someone is a woman.
The focus on legacies underscores the central role of the rights of succession in nearly all of Latin America, where it is seen both in fiction and in real life as the way to get rich. Perhaps because of that, the question asked in the most successful telenovelas isn't, "Who shot the woman?," but, "Who is the woman's real father?" Of equal importance: "Will she able to prove it?"
The share of the region's women-headed households that live beneath the so-called poverty line is enormous. The telenovela's obsession with tracking down a father—of the protagonist and/or of her abandoned child—in this context, takes on considerable significance.
With suggestive frequency, the telenovela begins by telling how a woman is deprived of her worldly assets. She is then condemned by the scriptwriters to live in the most extreme poverty until a sudden twist of redemptive fate restores her to her rightful place.
Bernard Kliksberg, an Inter-American Development Bank economist and an expert on poverty in Latin America, cites figures from the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program and his own institution to conclude that in Latin America, as in the rest of the world, poverty "bears a woman's face."
As a rule, the telenovela depicts women and their place in a society plagued by poverty and social discrimination in ways that are false and misleading, hence extremely appealing.
Likewise, many telenovelas seem to bring the genre up to date by using humor or by delving into situations that more accurately reflect Latin American reality. But these attempts only reinforce false, though comforting, ideas concerning capital formation, the distribution of wealth and the rule of law.
It's hard not to notice that the dynamic of poverty and the defenselessness of excluded people repeat themselves, with amazing similarity, in societies that lie far from Latin America. These are societies in which an institutional fragility resembling that of the Latin American countries, along with very similar "gender inequities," weigh heavily on women and children.
These similarities would explain how the Mexico's "The Rich Also Cry" (1979) became such an enormous hit in the former Soviet Union, or how the Turkish and Indonesian viewing publics became addicted to "Ugly Betty" (2000), a Colombian production.
A heroine's ups and downs frequently see her placed in a courtroom—with some frequency, in jail as well. The installments in which the girl is brought before a judge are the ones that allow us to capture the cultural empathy with which audiences from such different countries around the world greet the telenovela.
The girl is not only a single mother. She is illiterate and suffers other obvious disadvantages in the labor market. And she has to confront another hazard: a degraded and corrupt judicial system.
It is no accident that no entertainment genre comparable to the Anglo-Saxon "courtroom drama" has made its mark in Latin America. This kind of story must be founded in a reality that doesn't exist in the majority of Latin American countries: an independent, reliable and functional judicial system.
Absent that, parentage—a social cement far older than civil matrimony—becomes the foundation for other values and anti-values, and for other tales and myths, almost all of them originating in an archaic, tribal past.
Though they may resonate in the megalopolis, the survival of these values and stories reveals the failed outcome of history that is Latin America. The clan, virginity, shamanism, sorcery, provincialism, political strongmen and crimes of honor are essential elements of the telenovela's narrative scope. In the telenovela, the always-tardy administration of justice eventually must play the part of the king's authority in the fairytale. It intervenes, when the rating numbers can't fall any lower, to bestow the grace of sudden riches and restore an "order" that has been disarranged.
For many scholars, it is this device—not the romantic component of its story line—with which the telenovela becomes a fantasy aimed at making up for the realities of society.
It has been said the that the telenovela embodies the populist myth of the providential, benefactor state. It may be closer to the truth to say that the populist state is only one of the metaphors of the telenovela—not the other way around.
If the telenovela manages to more or less depict the kind of problem which troubles the narrative's society of origin, the "solutions" that it offers are as false as the redistributive heaven that populism promises.
Seen in this light, it comes as no surprise that the telenovela portrays the world and its laws in ways instantly recognizable across vast distances, and equally wide gaps of history, religion and language, to societies where resentment and dislocation run just as strong as in Latin America.
With the language barrier fallen to dubbing technology, TV viewers in Romania, Belarus or Indonesia feel right at home with the story-telling devices and the patriarchal values that rule these tales of star-crossed lovers, of social discrimination and of sudden and risky rise in status that the telenovela brings into their homes.
* Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. He wrote his last telenovela in 1992. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.
For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.