Aug 31, 2008


Todotnv is one of my favorite telenovela blogs. Today there's a  post about how easy it is to blame telenovelas for all sorts of things. This post, of course, brings about the eternal controversy of whether media reflect reality, or reality is influenced by media content.

In Latin America, where telenovelas were born, we also blame telenovelas in a variety of ways...even if we watch them religiously. But, last week President Hugo Chávez attacked telenovelas in his weekly speech to the nation (he also attacked the Internet):
"Be careful with those capitalist telenovelas: they poison (...) They have an ideological intention: to destroy a child's potential, to induce the youth to a life that is plastic, and to induce them to violence, prostitution and a loss of values."

Here's the video:

President Chávez seems to have forgotten that the origin of telenovelas can be found in the feulleton literature (Dumas, Balzac, etc.), and that the cradle of telenovelas is Cuba. He seems to have forgotten also that his own network  TVES purchases and produces telenovelas.

These and other arguments were aptly expressed by Venezuelan telenovela writers in an article in daily El Universal on August 26:

Leonardo Padrón: Telenovelas Cosita Rica and Ciudad Bendita "were entirely Venezuelan. They constitute  400 hours of television that speak of the people who habit Caricuao or La Bombilla in Petare and how fragile are their living conditions, those hours aren't about the natives of Texas or Arizona.  "In my telenovelas, I've spoken about domestic violence, teen pregnancy and irresponsible fatherhood. Tell me how is it that I'm inculcating there capitalist values!"

Pilar Romero: "A telenovela is a love story. The only one that had a different slant, but wasn't 'capitalist' at all, was POR ESTAS CALLES. The rest are love stories with a moralizing intention. Evil is punished and good is rewarded."

Martín Hahn: "I've never thought about writing a telenovela that is capitalist or socialist. I only think of writing an entertaining telenovela with a positive message. The struggle to keep families together, forgiveness, reconciliation and personal betterment are the themes I like to touch on my telenovelas."

Benilde Avila: "I don't understand why Chávez said that. He must not watch telenovelas. It's a contradiction to say that telenovelas are poison when TVEs, his social television network, produces and broadcast them."

Personally, I'm quite surprised about this attack on telenovelas by President Chávez. Up until now he has been a shrewd communicator who knows how to respect and use the Venezuelan people's popular culture tastes and consumption. At times, he has even use that knowledge to manipulate Venezuelans. To attack telenovelas with empty arguments in a country in which people consume on a daily basis the same number of telenovelas as meals is a foolish mistake. 

We can criticize many things about telenovelas. But, we can also say positive things about them regarding the health messages they can transmit, etc. And, we'll never know for sure if Hugo Chávez would be president if there hadn't been a telenovela called Por Estas Calles

Aug 24, 2008


According to media scholar Jesús Martín-Barbero, melodramatic genres such as the Argentinean tango, the Mexican ranchera and, most of all, telenovelas, perform a crucial role in Latin America’s everyday life (1993). “The melodrama is much of what we are—fatalists, inclined to machismo, superstitious—and what we dream of becoming—stealing the identities of others, nostalgia, righteous anger” (p. 225).

I add the bolero to this list of melodramatic genres. All of them--telenovelas, tangos, boleros and rancheras--represent not only different geographic sides of this cultural region we call Latin America, but they are also cultural expressions of one of the most interesting (and without easy translation to other languages) verbs: despechar.

The United States is the culture of "moving on" and "shaking off" a heartbreak and/or unrequited love. In contrast, in Latin America we have the tendency of not moving on until we have wallowed in our sadness for a good while. That is "despecho." And there's no better company for a good "despecho" than a bolero, tango or ranchera (alcohol is also frequently involved). Telenovelas are underpinned also by the principle/process of despecho. They are, as Cabrujas said, "the spectacle of emotions." But, they are also emotions turned into spectacle. Through telenovelas, audiences can live over and over again the cycle of falling in love, rupture and despecho in a way that may seem somewhat operatic or over the top, but that nevertheless generates identification. Even if we are surprised by that identification. 

Following are three videos I frequently use in class to explain/illustrate the relationship between boleros, tangos, rancheras and telenovelas. All of them are about a loss: lost love, lost time, lost moments. All of them are within melodrama, the most universal of codes.

José Feliciano sings bolero "Amor Gitano" in which he tells the woman he saw walking with another man:
"Take this knife and open my veins. I want to bleed until death. I don't want life if it means that you belong to someone else. Because without you, life is worthless."

Penélope Cruz dubbs Estrella Morente in the  Pedro Almodóvar film "Volver". It's a Spanish-style version of  tango "Volver":
"I'm scared of encountering the past that comes to confront my life. I'm scared of the nights populated with memories that are like chains in my dreams" 


And, finally, the most stereotypical despecho of all: Vicente Fernández sings ranchera "Volver, Volver" in a bar, drinking tequila. 

"We left each other a while ago, but now is my moment to lose. You were right, I'm listening to my heart, and I'm dying to come back."

Aug 11, 2008


I've been pretty occupied in conferences this past month. First, I attended IAMCR in Stockholm where I presented three papers: 1, 2, 3. And last week I presented one paper at AEJMC (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication) in Chicago.

My paper at the Cultural and Critical Studies Division focused on the inclusion of socio-cultural issues in telenovelas. I used one of my case studies: telenovela Cosita Rica and centered on four of the diverse socio-cultural themes that were present in this telenovela: obsession with beauty, machismo, teen pregnancy and children who live in the streets. (Other topics present in Cosita Rica's storylines were: religion and faith, addictions, unemployment, crime, Venezuela's socio-economic contrasts and Venezuelans' survival strategies).

In this paper, I placed the production, representation, reception and regulation of these four topics vis a vis the Venezuelan context. As an example, here are the slides for the issue of teen pregnancy:

Knowing the author's intention and his use of specific strategies, such as the inclusion of humor, to incite reflection, I analyzed how the audience enjoyed the storylines, but often did not read the message the author intended. In the case of the obsession with beauty and machismo, these are now naturalized as "normal" commonsensical ideas. In the presentation I also highlighted how this case study illustrates the articulations between production, representation, consumption, regulation and identity, suggesting the workings and nature of the links between media, culture and society.

With this conference presentation, the conference "season" comes to an end, and the beginning of the new academic year is just around the corner.

Aug 5, 2008


 Doña Bárbara premiered last night in  Telemundo. I write these lines after watching only the first episode. My purpose isn't to analyze the telenovela. Instead, I want to reflect on the distance between what Walter Lippmann called “the pictures in our heads” and what's outside our heads. 

Like many Venezuelans, I grew up reading Rómulo Gallegos. His novels are an essential ingredient of any school curriculum. This is why there's a picture in my head of  “myDoña Bárbara. She's not María Félix or Marina Baura.

She's “my” "devoradora de hombres", the one I built in my mind throughout the many readings of Doña Bárbara I've done in different stages of my life. 

There's always distance between "the pictures in our head," when these come from reading a book, and the image we see on a movie or tv screen. There's always negotiation between these images, until we either accept or reject the on-screen one. 

Last night I had trouble reconciling “myDoña Bárbara and Doña Bárbara/Edith González. I should mention that she only appeared in the last 10 minutes, but I acknowledge thatI had difficulty accepting her. This isn't a reflection on González's talent or the way the character is written. It's a product of the strength of that picture I have in my head which doesn't match González physique and Mexican accent. It's also the consequence of the unavoidable conflation between my Venezuelan identity an my reading of this audiovisual text that is written and produced using the so-called "international" telenovela codes, where we're never told the particular country where action takes place, even though the Arauca River is an important element.  I'm sure that I'm not an isolated case. Probably, many Venezuelans will experience the same difficulties, while viewers from other nations won't have this problem. 

Interestingly enough, I walked seamlessly the distance between  “mySantos Luzardo and Santos Luzardo/Christian Meier. Maybe because the emblematic character is her, not him. The relationship between "the pictures in our head" and the outside world is complex. It's also a fascinating facet of media consumption: the relationship between identity and media reception.   

I will continue watching Doña Bárbara while I observe myself as I negotiate the distance between "the pictures in my head" and the ones I see on the television screen.