By Edith McClintock
I like my entertainment soapy—romance, drama, intrigue!—as does much of the world. I figure this is a good thing. It’s easier to connect with people, easier to find amusement, easier to translate between cultures. Certainly easier to survive three months living with a Georgian family, especially when 90 percent of the time we had no common language beyond charades.
And I did survive, thanks largely to telenovelas: campy, silly and melodramatic. Where the women wear more make-up than a South Beach drag queen on Halloween. Where a man’s jaw is always clenched, his fists ready for a fight. Where furrowed brows and tears speak louder than words, and I FEEL the pain.
Unlike their American soap opera cousins that run for years, telenovelas average around six months and play nightly on primetime, which makes them highly profitable and exportable to new and growing audiences the world over.
In Georgia, we watched telenovelas every evening on a small television above the kitchen table. True, I could barely communicate with the women gathered around the table. Nor could I understand most of the words on the television, although I’d catch snippets of random Spanish in the background thanks to atrocious dubbing.
But I could stare at the smoldering Alejandro, a man I understood without words. A man who didn’t like the restriction of shirts, or chest hair, but if he absolutely must cover his magnificent, rippling torso for a dinner party with his no-doubt-evil mama, only white linen or pink/turquoise silk would touch his perfectly bronzed skin. And, por supuesto, buttoning said shirt was never an option.
I understood Alejandro completely. No matter how many times he swept his pregnant, teary wife, Maria José, into his arms for a passionate kiss, I knew the truth. She did too, which explained her many tears. But until poor Alejandro moved out of his mother’s house (and killed his jealous stepfather, who needed to tone down his atrocious highlights) he would never find happiness.
I left Georgia before Sortilegio (Love Spell) ended, but I felt sure it had a happy ending (they always do) and Alejandro would live happily-ever-after with his true love, José.
Turns out the real plot, which I just looked up on Wikipedia, was way more convoluted than anything I dreamt-up, but still, the series ended with Alejandro happily married to his wife, Maria José. Disappointing.
As for Alejandro, the star of Sortilegio? In the real world his name is William Levy, a Cuban American from Miami, my hometown, and like his character, he too finds shirts restrictive. It is hot.
I obviously should have been watching telenovelas while I lived in Miami, where many are now filmed, although most are produced in Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia. My Spanish would certainly be better, and I could have bonded with my many Miami friends who watch telenovelas strictly “with their mothers.” Never on their own.
And I would have known about this massive international star from my hometown, a man who was ubiquitous when I returned to the U.S.—on Dancing with the Stars, dating J.Lo, being sued for sexual relations with a woman. Shocking.
And despite what Miami friends claim, it’s not just abuelas tuning in to telenovelas each night. They’ve long since taken over the world—in the U.S. twice as many people now watch telenovelas as soap operas, with more than half of them between the ages of 18 and 49.
And while most telenovelas have a romantic struggle as the main plot point, in more recent years they’ve introduced topical issues such as corruption, racism, and domestic violence, or social messaging such as portraying gay characters and relationships in a positive light.
So yes, I had to move to Georgia to catch-up on telenovelas (and William Levy), and it’s also true I haven’t watched any since (although I do seem to know a lot about William Levy), but I still like my entertainment soapy.
And no matter how much my brother may want to dispute this, my current favorite, Game of Thrones, is nothing more than an expensively produced telenovela with a fantasy twist. That said, I’d like Game of Thrones even more if the women took off their shirts a bit less, the men a LOT more. And they should consider adding William Levy to the cast.
Watch the opening to Sortilegio below (you must) and prepare to be amazed/alarmed when Maria José gets knocked around in the opening frame and immediately transitions to making-out/dancing with Alejandro. The music! The drama! Who needs words? Although perhaps there is still some work to be done around social messaging.