Mexico’s Strangest Export: “Soaps”

By Catherine Lancaster
(From the Ojo Archives)

telenovelas mexicanas


We all know that Mexico has been striving to export as much as possible to improve its economy and its international participation in the world markets. What nobody expected is that one success story in the exporting effort would be ... soap operas!

Although I find soaps (telenovelas) -from any country- excruciatingly boring with their slow pace, eternal closeups and unlikely stories, watching them can be helpful. For language practice, for instance.

Unfortunately, not everywhere people will learn Spanish with the Mexican soaps, since most of them are dubbed into the language of the country. Exceptions are Spanish speaking countries and the US, where they are transmitted by Spanish language channels. “Mexicans have a way with soaps, and there are lots of addicts in the US,” said Alan Duncan, a production executive for ABC’s General Hospital.

When a Mexican diplomat traveled to Beijing a while back, a band welcomed him not with the Mexican national anthem but with the theme from the soap Rosa Salvaje, or Wild Rose, a very popular telenovela broadcasted in Mexico two or three years ago. A high officer from the Brazilian government recently made time to meet a visiting Mexican soap star. In Spain, merchants adjusted store hours to avoid conflict with the broadcast of another Mexican soap.

Last year, a Mexican telenovela was number one in South Korea, and struck such a chord there that many viewers thought the program was produced in Seoul. In lstanbul, Turkey, a Mexican friend of mine turned up her telly in her hotel room and gazed upon the opening credits of Los ricos también lloran (The Rich Also Cry), which was the top-rated program in Turkey while it was on the air.

Mexican soap makers say they owe their success to a wealth of off-screen inspiration. One known telenovela director says that in Mexico emotions and actions tend toward dramatic extremes, and the soap opera is a reflection of reality, not a distortion of it.

Mexicans may in general love telenovelas, but it was Televisa, the company that has produced the most spectacular, in far away locations that had never been chosen before. The company built its own factory to produce makeup so durable that it would hold under the frequent tears of the characters or the extreme heat in tropical locations. The studio’s special effects are wonderful, although their choice of background music can sometimes be irritating.

A great deal of the success story of the telenovelas crystallized during the past decade, along with Mexico’s economic depression. Sociologists claim that soaps allowed Mexicans to focus on someone else’s problems and forget their own. Thus, Rosa Salvaje, the story of a street vendor who ascends into high society, reached a record of 80% of Mexican television viewers.

Certain conventions of telenovelas differ from those in of US soap operas. The daily, hour-long Mexican soaps are transmitted at night, rather than in the day. And unlike American soaps, which can go on for decades, telenovelas usually are wrapped up in five months. Thus, the standard telenovela story-line—the romantic first encounter, followed by the heart-rending breakup and heart-warming reconciliation—is compressed into a veritable dramatic whirlwind.

To meet the enormous demand for soaps, Televisa has developed production shortcuts that make it unnecessary for stars to memorize scripts, or even read them. Actors are equipped with electronic receivers that pick up dialogue read by an offstage prompter. This demands extraordinary acting skills from the actors. For instance, if someone is unable to cry on cue, his or her acting credibility diminishes enormously and it is considered a cardinal sin, unforgiven by directors of telenovelas. The cauldron of passions, always on the verge of bubbling over, translates into lots of money for Mexico in the export world.


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