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Mexico Guru

Short-Lived Soaps Create Eternal Fans

Telenovelas, or Mexican soaps, are a great way to practice your Spanish and to indulge in some good ole fashioned south-of-the-border stereotypes. Rosa the maid, her hair in fat braids, wears huarache sandals and peasant tops---outfits that would horrify most modern Mexican maids, no matter how humble or provincial. Carlo the rich and ruthless businessman cheats regularly on his wife, the venerable dona Conchita, matriarch... and plastic surgeon’s dream client. Characters like these are paraded through the tele on a daily, or rather nightly, basis. Most Latino soaps show in the evening, when the hoi polloi has finished a hard day’s labor.

Telenovelas are wildly popular throughout Latin America, and nowhere more than Mexico. Perhaps the country’s least fortunate citizens love seeing rich people squirm despite their sequins and privileged status; the middle class eats up the irony while keeping an eye on the latest fashion trends and hairstyles. The really fine thing about the Mexican soaps is that unlike their U.S. counterparts like Days of Our Lives and All My Children, they aren’t eternal. Running between three and six months, soaps can indulge a script writer’s most outlandish whims.

You don’t have to be traveling in Mexico to enjoy the buzz. Satellite TV and cable television bring the drama to today’s viewers, getting them in the mood for upcoming trips to Mexico.

Precursor to The Devil Wears Prada, the popular Betty La Fea (“Ugly Betty”) was filmed in Colombia between 1999 and 2001. Smart but gawky and, well, ugly, Betty worked in the fashion industry. With unattractive bangs and big glasses, she proved a counterpoint to the fashion industry icons and a role model for average to plain women that made up the bulk of the audience. Mexican TV later adapted the format with La Fea Más Bella (“The Most Beautiful Ugly Girl”).

Telemundo produced the original Betty La Fea. Owned by NBC, this industry giant produces mountains of soaps seen by viewers throughout the United States. Televisa produces the popular adaptation of the Colombian hit; it’s based in Miami. TV Azteca is the other major network, with enough testosterone and estrogen to keep their clients delightfully horrified.

---Jane Onstott