Over the last few years, I have seen a surprising number of Mexican Soap Operas. They have aired in obvious places like Villahermosa, Mexico and here in downtown Indianapolis, but also in some rather curious locations like Kenya and India

Apparently these soaps are in such plentiful supply that they are shipped around the world as an inexpensive way to fill airtime.

But with my host family from Shepherd (and the millions of other Latin American immigrants in our country), these shows aren’t airtime fillers… They’re prime time!

Just the other night we sat up late watching the series finale of Mañana es para Siempre, and it was a family event…

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to understand what is going on in these rather ubiquitous television shows (especially when they are entirely in Spanish!).  That’s why I created this guide, to help you understand the Mexican soap operas in your next port of call!

Different Than American Soaps

I’ve called them Mexican Soap Operas, but that is a bit of a misnomer.  They are actually called “telenovelas.”

You see, American soap operas run continuously.  They go and go until their funding runs out or until the world erupts into the apocalyptic destruction of an alien takeover, whichever comes first.  For example, Guiding Light has been on since 1952 and has aired more than 15,000 episodes!  (Thanks, Google…)

Mexican telenovelas, on the other hand, are not endless.  In fact, even though they may run 90 or 100 episodes, everyone knows that, just like a novel, they will eventually come to an end.

Plotlines

A few frames from "Un Gancho al Corazon" or "A Punch in the Heart"

A few frames from "Un Gancho al Corazon" or "A Punch in the Heart"

While each telenovela is different, there are a couple of basic rules that can help you figure out what is going on if you start in the middle of a series.

First of all, with a little creative thinking, you can figure out the overall tone of a telenovela just by interpreting the title.

For example, Torment in Paradise is a bit heavier, balancing issues of loss and desire with questions of the meaning of love.  Friends and Rivals is about… friends and rivals.  I think.  A Punch in the Heart is about… um, love-boxing?

Ok, so maybe interpreting the title doesn’t help, but don’t worry.  There are a few major plot lines that show up in just about every show:

  • Simple man falls in love with a girl who in turn falls in love with a sinister stranger.
  • Jealous woman tries to break apart her ex-boyfriend and sister.
  • Manipulative mom tries to marry her daughter into money.
  • Woman is bribed to run away from her comatose lover whose baby she has in her pregnant belly, but it’s actually not his baby at all but the baby of his brother who recently died trying to protect her aunt from the evil schemes of her rich step-father, who is unaware that his company is being secretly sabotaged by the pregnant woman’s brother.

Those easy-to-remember plot lines should come in handy if you get lost.

Characters

Another thing to keep in mind about telenovelas: almost everyone is absurdly attractive.

From the dashing and chivalrous protagonist with the flowing auburn hair to the sublimely gorgeous heroine with perfect teeth, just about every character looks like they were meticulously handcrafted by some benevolent Greek deity intent on perfecting the human form.

Even the simple farmhands in a show manage to work every day without shirts on so that their chiseled bodies can glint in the sun and their thick black chest hair can sway majestically in the wind…

The only time this rule doesn’t hold is if a character is a bad guy.  In that case, they are either hideous, homely or downright evil looking.

Makes it a little easier to know what’s going on.

The television at my host home.  As far as I can tell, other than Disney, it only has Spanish channels!

The television at my host home. As far as I can tell, other than Disney, it only has Spanish channels!

Quick quiz

Ok, let’s see if you can match up the characters with their personalities.

A. Good guy

B.  Bad guy

1. The General: A dark, scary-looking man with a gravelly voice who drinks copious amounts of expensive liquors in his leather-trimmed office.

2.  Anabella: The well dressed, happy daughter of a super model with golden hair who walks into every room in slow motion.

Did you figure it out?

The Culture Behind the Shows

Even though they are often very cheesy, and even though they struggle with low production values and the inevitable descent into cliché from time to time, telenovelas, for me at least, reflect some of the coolest values in Mexican culture.

For one, everyone in telenovelas is extremely passionate about… well, everything!  Obviously, this is a major exaggeration of the culture of which they are supposedly representing, but at times, I can easily see where they get the idea.

My host family often approaches a whole range of issues with a surprising level of fiery conviction.  From my host parents insisting that I take another serving of frijoles, to the girls pleading to finish watching their favorite show, there is no lack of passion in this house.

Another cultural value reflected in telenovelas is that of loyal devotion to friends and family.  Sure, every show has inevitable betrayals here and there, but it is the steadfast boyfriend or undeterred father who shines as the hero in the end.

Finally, there is the value of love.  If we in America tend to be rather logical in our approaches to love, those in telenovelas throw themselves in head first!  Of course, this results in a whole lot more broken hearts, but a whole lot less of wondering “what if?”

It makes me ask myself.  Do I love those around me with reckless abandon?  Do I have unending dedication to the people in my life?  Do I approach life with conviction?  Hmmm…

Ok, weird… I think I just learned something from a soap opera.

————–

Well, there you have it.  A few simple guidelines to help you understand what’s going on the next time you see a Mexican telenovela in Mexico… or the U.S… Or India… Or Kenya…

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Curtis Honeycutt said... 

    Reply

    October 12th, 2009 at 1:33 pm  

    Barry, I just found a funny list of Mexican telenovelas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Mexican_telenovelas

    My favorites are:
    Al Diablo con los Guapos – “To Hell with the Handsome”
    El Vuelo del Aguila- “The Flight of the Eagle”
    La Fea Más Bella – “The Prettiest Ugly Woman”

    …and my favorite: Yo Compro Esa Mujer – “I’ll Buy That Woman”

  2. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    October 12th, 2009 at 3:38 pm  

    “their thick black chest hair can sway majestically in the wind…” ….ew…!

    I’m going to say the General = B and Anabella = A Right? Is this an interactive web site? Unless of course they came from an ironic telenovela.

    Funny thing is that I thought the whole American Idol concept had the most international cross over. I stand corrected.

  3. Jim M said... 

    Reply

    October 13th, 2009 at 10:52 pm  

    Well, now you’ve done it. Next time I am surfing, trying to find the weather channel (is it 8 or 18), and I pass by a telenovela I will undoubtedly stop, and try to see something of value…Barry, somehow I think I’m gonna have trouble seeing it through your eyes on this one. :)

  4. Jessica Shewan said... 

    Reply

    October 17th, 2009 at 10:59 am  

    Telenovelas are definitely big here in Kenya. I just took a trip outside of Nairobi with a Kenyan friend…we stayed in a house with no electricity, and the thing my friend missed most was his TV…he kept wondering what was happening with “Catalina y Sebastian.”

  5. Rob Yonan said... 

    Reply

    October 20th, 2009 at 10:11 pm  

    I missed my calling…

  6. shelli said... 

    Reply

    December 14th, 2009 at 5:36 pm  

    I have such fond memories of high school spanish… we used to watch a PBS version telenovela called “Los Destinos”. I still remember the plot about Don Fernando Castillo and “el secreto” which the characters whispered so mysteriously every time the phrase was uttered.

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