Saturday, February 9, 2013

Telenovelas

Telenovela watching has been a part of my family’s culture since before I was born. As a child, midnight runs to the bathroom would provide me with a glimpse of grownups tightly united in front of a TV, eating platanos with salchichon or plantains with salami, watching what I would later learn to be the successful Brazilian soap opera “Doña Beija,” based on the true story of Ana Jacinta de São José, a beautiful woman who suffers tremendously due to her kidnapping and raping from an oppressive powerful business owner. Upon her return to her village, as she is poor, she is rejected by the great love of her life who is now engaged to be married to someone else. As a self-empowering reaction Bejia decides that to truly own her life she will now charge men gold just to spend a night with her. Waking up to these family bonding events made me want to stay up too, but my mother would quickly walk me to bed. These are my earliest memories of a world that would become an important aspect of my womanhood before learning the true science of myself. These influenced my mentality both positively and negatively, especially as when it came to forming my own ideas about romance and relationships. A mother who was not voracious or communicative about certain topics for a girl coming of age should know, unconsciously adopted the soaps as the voice of guidance about said topics.

My story is not unique; soap watching is an important faction of working-class and poor women.  The soaps are many house wives’ method of entertainment within their busy lifestyles, which are characterized by the oppressive forces (economic, racial, and sexual) that maintain these women in marginalized conditions. Without access to resources or the ability to make them, like many sister Earths in the Nation of God and Earth do, as they subscribe to an important lesson that empowers them to do so, and subsequently disassociates them from what tend to think of as “asking, giving and receiving” in a society dominated by materialism and mass consumption. Our 6th degree in a set of lessons called the 1-36, says “He likes the devil because the devil gives him nothing.” The devil here, as it has been defined for this particular piece, refers to the governing body of rich men, who are mostly white, and control more than 90% of the world’s resources. The devil also means anyone in a position of authority, where although their freedom is limited by the amount of power allotted by the real top dogs, still can decide and influence the path of your life (i.e. an employer). Anyone inside the Matrix has the potential of being an enemy, as Morpheus's character so eloquently portrayed this idea. In this society what we get is never truly what we should get because it is not designed so that people can live in true equality. “Gives nothing” simply means that whatever Ethnic and poor people get (taxes, insurance wages) is truly nothing because these are the scraps not needed by the rich that barely allows one to survive. Most of the times, we are paying and subsidizing the services and renovation our community receives. Even working class businesses struggle to maintain themselves as the money that circulates is from the poor people themselves. These are literally economically controlled spaces, the devil knows exactly how much he is giving in, where opportunities of advancement don’t really exist. Everything is predetermined by the system that chooses who and for what reasons a person gets something.  Our people know that they are poor, they try to fight and use the system to their advantage, but they do not have true solutions for freedom. The illusion of Capitalism blinds them. I cannot help but think of Elijah Muhammad and Rigoberta Menchu who realized that religion played a key component in this blindness, which is an issue we will come to later. Once we realize that inside or outside the illusion what we get is never truly what we deserve because what we do is what we should be doing, then true freedom from the internal capitalist in us will seize. Why do we need to receive some sort of award or recognition for what we do? This is a feeding of the ego to think of themselves being worthy of recognition. We are but a part of the whole and should always see that we are fulfilling a role in it. We must live our lives being simply who we are and naturally expressing our talents with our people. The real Zion is filled with a humble pride of who we are and what we do, and we just naturally keep on doing it. However, this is not where we are yet.

Most women live captured in this material illusion and resort to escapist activities for a feeling of a made up self-satisfaction. For the working mother and the stay-at-home mom, a main vice becomes telenovela watching. Just like men engage in Domino games while drinking, these women rely on the fictional love stories portrayed on screen. Most soaps provide plot schemes so women could fill their afternoons, evenings with sentimental meaning, as well as form a rigid schedule that provide them with the control that’s profoundly missing. The archetype soap contains the classic Cinderella story. The girl heroine who suffers and goes through harsh adversity, but in the midst of it all, overcomes the challenges and is able to live happily with the man (who usually is from a higher economic background) she has suffered for, but loved unconditionally. Both main characters are portrayed as pure beings that have not been tampered with emotionally, mentally, and physically. Their spirits are kid-like and have a hard time understanding devilishment. Through all the hells presented, for the female specially, as the story is told through her, they are able to come out of it right because it is the unbreakable love she feels for the male character that allows their principles to show and prove themselves as triumphant.

Understanding the background of the motivation and engagement in soap watching can lead one into looking at the other side of the coin, the actual soap itself. Soaps have been popularly dismissed as frivolous entertainment, containing no caliber of acting, with overused recycled plots, exaggeratedly reflecting the ideas of the dominant class upon the ignorant poor, therefore, making the soaps partly responsible for the continual mental oppression of original poor women. However, in this piece, I will propose that the topic of Love, arguably the most written about in human history, should continue to be explored and exposed through the arts, as a way to evoke awareness within women. Women should therefore, use Latin American soaps (Mexican), as this is the focus of my piece, for self-empowerment  and raising awareness by truly analyzing its themes and issues. They should become thinkers of their surroundings, while getting the emotional dose that soaps provide. It is not bad to enjoy a great cry or to sympathize with the issues of the characters, but women have to know why they are watching the soap and what they are learning from them, as a way to better their own lives.


While the points of frivolous entertainment judged by the quality of actors (those who are not able to make it to the more serious realms of their career-movies and successful prime time TV shows) are relevant to American TV, it is not the case for Latin American actors. In Mexico the most experienced and successful actors star in Telenovelas.  Containing one of the most reputed and largest Cine/Film enterprises, where even actors from other parts of Latin America (Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Dominican Republic) come to work, the Film Industry in Mexico is literally the Latin American version of Hollywood. Therefore, when critics or American actors judge and criticize Latin American television and film, they need to truly know what they are talking about. In regards to the latter points made about the psychological components of novelas and their responsibility in the maintaining the oppressive state of original women, a couple of ideas should be explored.

"Nobody seems to think much about the colored people and the Chinese and Puerto Ricans and Japanese that watch TV and buy the things they advertise. All these races want to see some of their own people represented in the shows -- I mean, besides the big stars. I know I'd feel better to see some kids of all races dancing and acting on shows…”-Miles Davis, Interview with Alex Haley

Most of Latin America follows a pattern and framework of TV and movie making that mimics those of the First World (American-European). American TV has had a systematic history of racism, out of which rise the practice of stereotyping original people on film. Most major portrayals and best stories on film have been those that humanize aspects and people of the white society, usually through the main hero, heroine, as we see in Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai, The Scarlett Letter, Pretty Woman, Sense and Sensibility, and The Bourne Trilogy among others. While stories like the ones mentioned might reflect some truth in that some white people can truly be exceptions to the rule of their nature to be weak and wicked, as well as the fact that almost all make it to the realm of Oscar nominations, our people continue to struggle for an accurate and organic representation of who we are, as well as gaining a space in Hollywood that can make it more representative of the people that truly make up the United States. It wasn’t until the Silent Movie Era that so-called African Americans were contracted to work in films and for a long time they maintained meaningless roles. In 1939 that the first African American, named Hattie McDaniel won for Best Supporting Actress, but for playing the stereotypical role of the Mammy in ‘Gone With the Wind.’ McDaniel was not allowed to go to the premier of the movie on the basis of her race. When you look at the list for Latin Americans, which is much more smaller in the actor categories, in 1950 the first Latin American (Puerto Rican) actor Jose Ferrer won for Best Actor in a Leading Role, a category which no other so-called Latino has won since Ferrer and has had no nominees since 1964. These are just examples of the lengthy struggle for proper portrayal and recognition Hollywood has failed to give our people. Furthermore, throughout the 1830s, the practice of black face was popular in film. White actors painted their faces black, and later black actors, resembling exaggerated and comedic cartoon-like versions of the racial, cultural, linguistic perspective of the so-called African-American. The effect these images had on the people was a continual lowering of their esteem, individually and collectively, as well as a false understanding of the true history of the African-American spirit.  No matter how many arguments are made about the motives for this type of film making, the truth remains that this has been one of the most racist atrocities portrayed on the screen about a people.




The exhibition of Mexicans in Westerns also leaves a lot to say as well. In the “classic” Western Rio Bravo, the two Mexican characters are Carlos and Consuelo Robante. Carlos is literally a coon, stupid, lacking common sense, hotel keeper, that is always available to serve the reputable white cowboys. Consuelo is portrayed as an attractive woman, extremely jealous and overprotective of her man to the point of giving him a black eye on suspicion of infidelity.  When watching the movie, one can easily identify the comedy relief. Racist and stereotypical images of Mexicans have also reached the animation sector. Warner Brothers’ famous cartoon of Speedy Gonzales and Slowpoke Rodriguez our people are represented as dark Brown mice. A mouse is a literally a smaller rat. Usually when the word rat has been used to describe a person, it means someone “who is deemed to be despicable or contemptible.”  The animal itself is a lowly scavenger that lives the lowest of conditions and spends its time looking for food in the dirtiest places on the planet (sewers, garbage disposals, etc) and is ridden with diseases. This insatiable need for food is constantly replicated through Speedy’s and Slowpoke’s character when the former is always trying to steal cheese and the latter always has the munchies. We can also see the references made to the “Latin-Lover” condition films have given the so-called Latino male, upon their inability to truly understand sexuality and ethnicity. We are simply just too hot and exotic to control our sexual urges and needs. It is why Speedy has a hard time being with just one woman. When running, Speedy also needs to invoke his innate power by yelling “Arriba, Arriba, Andale, Andale!” as if he was engaging in a spiritual ritual of his Mexican ancestors. You are left thinking that they should have drawn him eating a hot pepper. There were episodes of this cartoon which also contained a spoken Spanish that was not truly Spanish. The cartoon was literally speaking jibberish. Speedy’s cousin, Slowpoke Rodgriguez is a lazy; weed smoking, always hungry Mexican. Perhaps one the most interesting characteristics is that slowpoke packs a gun. My nigga is gangsta and protects his reputation as the slowest mouse in Mexico through his alliance, as well underestimated nature. I wonder since Slowpoke is a weed head, that Speedy might be high off coke, maybe this is why he is so fast. So here we have two extremes exemplified and shown as part of a conditioning about our perceptions of the Mexican people. Mexicans are bold and strong natured, as well as laid back, but the white man’s inability or ability to understand our people, results in this racist, mocking cartoon.



The monopoly that is Disney is not far behind with their share of racist cartoons. “Oliver and Company” has a character called Tito, a rodent-like dog, truly resembling the Chihuahua. Tito not only is imprudent, loud and obnoxious, but he is definitely an urban “Latin-Lover” as he romances Georgetta and other ladies that come his way. He is also thugged out and into gang-like activities. In one part of the cartoon he yells “gang war” as a way to instigate a fight. Hygiene is not his strong suits, as Georgetta tries to refine him and he refuses by running away. Perhaps this macho can’t stand when women tell him what to do. That’s when its time to hit the road for my man Tito. And when he leaves the ladies cannot forget him, as they’ve been turned out by his way of loving (wink-wink). They can dance salsa, cook. Literally, Georgetta found her soul.  Need I say more about this craziness? What is truly dangerous is the subliminal psychological impact this has on the youth watching. These are the first images they see about who they are. The television empire …

The world powers have always set the example for frameworks of societal culture.  Embedded in this are the ideas of race and class, one where the European and American standard serve as model for looks and ways that everyone aspires to be.  This manifestation of the white mind permeates within cinema as well; Latin American TV networks copy the American model. We have our version of Dancing with the Stars and American Idol. In the case of the Telenovelas, we tend to see an over inclination towards the cultural customs and ideas of the Colonial Spaniards in regards to class, race, religion, gender and sexuality.  Not too far from the actual elite’s reality the housing, furniture, clothing, and behavior patterns of the characters uphold a strong connection to Europe, as well as North America.  In virtually all telenovelas, usually the main male character is sent abroad (i.e. Rodrigo from Destilando Amor studies in London at the University of Cambridge, Andres in Corazon Salvaje leaves his colonial plantation to study throughout Europe, Alejandro in El Manantial is sent away by his mother to study in Spain, and in Mañana es para Siempre Eduardo studies at Harvard University) to receive Westernized schooling. The connection to the old and new empires is a reality vividly present in the soaps.  In the book, Race and Ethnicity in Latin America by Peter Wade, there are various points which detail the idea of the Spanish colonial legacy’s glorification as the basis for racial development in Latin America, thoroughly developed in the soaps I’ve seen.  On page 29 Wade notes,

"Chance (1978) and Morner (1967) see a relatively open society in which race had a declining role to play as mestizaje made racial identifications more indeterminate. Jaramillo Uribe (1968), Carroll (1991), and McCaa (1984) give a greater role to people's ideas about racial ancestry and identity." 

Historically, in Spanish speaking Latin America (maybe with exception of Uruguay) there is no such thing as an upper white elite. What one finds is a system based on class privilege where the “colors” vary.  In Mexico, due to the rapid mixing that occurred, a sociedad de castas developed and mestizaje racially defined this region. This was a big problem with the Spaniards who wanted to maintain “racial purity” because they also had been mixed. In the book The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720, Professor Cope states,  

“The history of miscegenation in Mexico antedates the conquest. Loyal Indian allies provided the conquistadores with mistresses...the continual sexual imbalance of the Spanish population ensured a high level of miscegenation.  The crown did not object to Spanish-Indian unions if they were legitimized by marriage...As a result, the children of the earliest colonials were frequently biological mestizos (14).

 Many of the unions, however, were illegitimate and criollos were much more worried about maintaining the riches within their group.  What developed, as identified by Wade, was a claim to whiteness via one’s ancestry. Racial ideas and issues were rooted in the tracing back to a people, Spaniards, the “developers" of this new nation. This meant that you could be an original person belonging to any of the racial castas, but if you had social relationships with members closely related to the criollos, or had some sort of wealth; you could claim an ancestry to Spain.  In addition, after U.S. imperialist measures in the lower Americas, where the English white man, not a half original, has a strong hold over the people’s mental, physical, and spiritual identity, the original elite established solid relationships with the United States.  Therefore, in most nations an original/Black elite worked in alliance with the first world to secure their riches and domination over the other original people of their respective countries. The people in between, depending on how the concept of separation is internalized by the people, react different to this system. A perfect example is in Guatemala, where the ladino is defined by one who has given up their Indigenous or African ways and assimilated to a Spanish mentality implanted upon colonization. The ladino does this via religion; ways of dressing, by not speaking a Quiche based tongue.  A ladino can be an Indian or a person of mixed blood, a mestizo. Therefore, oppression is manifested upon an internal colonialism (culturally dominated by the example left by the Spaniards) that is controlled and guided by the global imperialism of the American and English white man. Telenovelas, in this case, reflect that idea which dominates the racial ideology of Latin America still to this day.  



In Corazon Salvaje, the story of Juan del Diablo, the illegitimate first born of Francisco Alcazar, a wealthy landowner of sugar cane fields. It is obvious that Juan’s character is a racial mix between an already half original father, with an Indian mother, although not overtly stated, but Juan’s proudness and kinship to his indigenous people points to this idea. Also, the first two letters, AL, of the last name point to Moorish origins. There were many Juan’s in Mexico’s colonial era.  On page 16 of Cope’s book, he writes “Juan de Zumarraga, the first archbishop of Mexico, described them as ‘orphaned boys, sons of Spanish men and Indian women’ who wondered through the countryside, ignorant of the law and Christianity and reduced to eating ‘raw meat.’” As described, Juan is an orphan who grows up among the sailors, pirates, and homeless of the coast. He develops without indoctrination into Hispanic institutions and does not abide by the law.  He finds the customs of the Spaniards absurd and wrong.  In a conversation with  his future wife, he tells her “The truth is...these customs of yours...it’s alright they’ve made you this way, that’s how you’ve grown up filled so many wrong ideas.”  A big portion of the story focuses on Juan’s neglected status with no last name that can provide him an honorable reputation.  There is actual historical relevance to his story. Part of Copes’s data focuses on the importance of last names and he finds that last names were much more important among the elite Spaniards than the plebeians. The only time people from within the castas actually adopted last names were when forced to make contact with Hispanic institutions, whether it was for a Catholic marriage, baptism, labor, and funeral records. Very much like in Cope’s findings, a last name becomes very important to Juan only when he falls in love. He is also bitter because he’s known his origin all throughout his life; his mentor and father figure Noel Manceda tells him. One of his motives for attaining his last name is that he’s grown up jealous of his brother Andres who has enjoyed the privileges he was denied, but also rightfully his. More importantly, to Juan a last name entails providing more appropriately for his people and making his pirate and bootlegging liquor business legitimate, as well as marrying Monica de Altamira, a countess with a pure and righteous heart, whom he slowly falls in love with because like him, she shares a vision of equality and fairness for poor people.  This is when a last name became important to him. Simultaneously, he becomes a part of the Spanish upper class society.  Truly reflecting those times, through his contraband, and the reputable networks he is able to make throughout the years, Juan amasses insurmountable riches. Racially, Juan can now claim Spanish ancestry, which is shown in the novela.





The concept of last names as a designation of high rank in society is also shown in my favorite novela of all time: Destilando Amor.  The story of Rodrigo Montalvo, the grandson of a powerful landowner and founder of the Tequila Industry in Mexico, and Gaviota, a jimadora, a farmer of Agave plants, who fall in love.  Rodrigo’s grandmother, Dona Pilar, drawing from her Hispanic upbringing equates last names as the “greatest references a person can carry with them.”  As previously discussed, the upper class in Latin America used their last names as one of the features that differentiated them from the indigenous and African poor masses. While working in the Montalvo Corporation with a different name, for fear of rejection for being Gaviota, Dona Pilar, asks her what branch of the “Villareal” family she was from. Unable to give her a clear answer, Gaviota decides to make her fake name legal in case questions were asked again. Doña Pilar’s ideas about last names are contested within the latter half of the soap, when her granddaughter Sofia, marries Francisco De la Vega, illegitimate son of a De la Vega, who was given the family’s last name, but was never officially recognized by the father.  Throughout his life Francisco used his last name as a token to feed off and latch unto friends of high society, as well as for romancing rich women. Sofia meets Francisco while visiting her sister-in-law at her apartment. He pretended like he had his own apartment there, although he was living and being supported by his friend. It is then he takes his opportunity and romances Sofia, until he proposes matrimony. She accepts and he becomes the newly assigned administrator of the Montalvo hacienda.  Eventually, his real reason for marrying Sofia (money) is learned when Isadora (who has an affair with him and ends up pregnant with his child) and Francisco try to use the child to claim the family inheritance. Upon learning of Francisco’s true background, Dona Pilar understands the hard lesson on the real worth of a person. It is then when she starts to understand that her other grand daughter’s boyfriend, Elvis, is a much more valuable person although he comes from a poor family and is a black man of African ancestry. 

To be continued....next Racial Perspectives in Telenovelas



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