Some Mexican families gravitate around soap operas, famously known as telenovelas.
The entire household knew they couldn’t distract grandma because it was her telenovela’s grand finale; she could not miss it. If any of her children dared to interrupt the grand finale, it felt as though they were committing a capital sin.
Telenovelas are iconic for Mexicans; even foreigners acknowledged it had helped them to learn Spanish. It gave a sense of immersion in Mexican traditions and an understanding of the Mexican lifestyle.
Telenovelas are everywhere, Colombia, Turkey, China, but recently with the stay-at-home orders, Mexican telenovelas’ viewership emerged. According to the New York Times, ratings for the Mexican network Televisa– one of the largest media companies in México and entire Latin America– increased twice as much in México from May to June.
With the surge of the Black Lives Matter protests and the spark of conversations in Mexico on colorism, race, and representation, telenovelas have been in the public eye.
Televenolas usually have predictable plots and happy endings. So why are they problematic? What is the formula that keeps entire Mexican households glued to the television?
Berenice Vazquez, a Marketing and Advertising professor at the Autonomous University of Juarez City (UACJ), said in an interview that this happens because the media creates stereotypes in what is lacking in the culture itself.
“Public figures, entertainment, politics define what is “perfection,” which creates idealization,” said Vázquez. “[In the media] stereotypes are created in what is lacking in the culture itself. You have a country where 90% are dark-skinned, dark-haired; what will sell is the opposite.”
Furthermore, Vázquez theorized that this idealization goes back to the colonization of México.
“Prehispanic cultures represented the Spaniard as a God because they were something they did not see before in their communities.”
A clear example of what Vazquez laid out is María Isabel, a soap opera about an “Indigenous” woman who raises her wealthy friend’s orphaned daughter. The child eventually finds out the truth and abandons María Isabel to go live with her grandfather.
The original version premiered in 1966 with Silvia Derbez, mother of the famous Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez, and became a total hit. While the storyline covers the representation of a hardworking mother and building self-love, the actress’s origin is conflicted.
Silvia Derbez is well-known for her legacy, talent, and beauty. However, Derbez played the role of María Isabel, an Indigenous woman, when she was of French descent. In recent days that could have caused a scandal for the lack of proper representation. That was just the tip of the iceberg.
Two years later, Silvia Pinal, another white woman, played the role of María Isabel. Pinal portrayed the role in a movie that was an adaptation of the soap opera.
Neither version of María Isabel spoke an Indigenous dialect.
Derbez and Pinal, known for being part of Mexican cinema’s golden age, celebrated for their “successful” career and beauty. But neither actress represented how most Mexicans look, much less the Black and Indigenous communities from Southern Mexico. Yet, these two characters set the ball rolling for the twisted and unrealistic Eurocentric beauty standards of Mexico.
Fast forward to 1997, Adela Noriega portrayed María Isabel, following the same set of characteristics and costume. At 12, she started her career as a model and appeared in several musical productions in the 1980s. Like the two prior figures who portrayed María Isabel, she is a light-skinned Mexican woman with no Indigenous background.
While I vividly remember watching Noriega’s version with my grandmother. She never missed an episode of her telenovelas, and she resembled these actresses: light-skinned, light-eyed and blonde. I acknowledge that my grandmother put a burden on my mom.
My mom didn’t inherit my grandmother’s skin color or facial qualities. She looked like my grandfather, who was a short, dark-complexioned man from the state of Zacatecas. Everyone in my family would always call my mom “Negrita” or would say in a joking manner that she looked like the titular character of La India María, a person who appeared in several Mexican movies and was known for her exaggerated accent and for being “ignorant.”
As Vazquez described, the problem is that society created uniform standards of beauty and ugliness. Through the media, they said that every Mexican woman should resemble a woman who has European qualities: white, tall, blonde, and slim.
“People ‘fall in love with these [actors, actresses] figures… As human beings, the way our brain works when we see these figures tends to work in the mental, physical aspect of saying, ‘I don’t look like that. They are perfect, and I should look like them’,” Vazquéz added.
As a result, my mom always strove to look like these Telenovela actresses. She would buy Concha Nácar, a whitening cream, or treatments that would burn her skin if worn in the daylight, to make her freckles disappear and look fairer. It shows the power of the media and assigning one racial group as the Mexican standard of beauty.
In 2020, Televisa, Mexico’s Federal Telecommunications Institute (IFT) declared Televisa, a network that has produced and distributed hundreds of soap operas, had “substantial power in paid television” and that its competitors have not counterbalanced its “positioning.”
The media giant even created a Youtube channel with over 15 million subscribers and over nine billion views dedicated exclusively for Mexican telenovelas to enter the digital world and reach larger audiences.
When a network has such power to shape the narrative on how certain groups should look, it opens the door to discrimination because they dictate what is acceptable or “normal.” That’s why when you tell people in Mexico about the existence of Black communities, they look amused or deny the existence of them, or when doing so, they associate these groups with poverty.
In telenovelas, the way to escape poverty was to marry a rich man who looked down on the heroine and then became a hero because she showed him the real meaning of love.
As much as drama and romance entertain, it also promotes the idea that a woman cannot be anybody without a man. It leads to Latinx or Mexican moms asking uncomfortable questions like: “y el novio pa’ cuándo?” When will you get a boyfriend?
Growing up watching María Isabel directly affected how I perceived specific standards of beauty and it impacted how I recognized the existence of Indigenous, Black groups. It was a common practice to avoid braids when going to school out of the mere fear of being called “India” because telenovelas taught that those who have more European qualities are above those who wear traditional attires and braid their hair.
In 2019, because of these stubborn stereotypes, Yalitza Aparicio faced backlash after she received an Oscar nomination for the role of Cleo in Roma. Actors and actresses questioned her ethnic and artistic background and downplayed her abilities. Telenovela actor Sergio Goyri was one of them, and in a viral video, he spouted anti-Indigenous insults toward Aparicio’s performance.
These subtle details of attire and skin color were always associated with poverty. The distorted soap operas like María Isabel caused a ripple effect that led to the rejection of Indigenous and Black communities in Mexico. These storylines taught the Mexican public to seek a way to get out of these groups, to change the way they look, to reject their heritage to look desirable, and finally live a happy life.
‘‘As a child, I couldn’t relate to the people I saw on movie screens; the actors and actresses were nothing like the people I knew, and their stories centered on worlds far away from my own,’’ Aparicio wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times.
Vazquez described the controversy around Yalitza Aparicio as a “cultural shock” because of years of erasure and the lack of representation of Indigenous communities in the Mexican media.
Contrary to what María Isabel’s telenovelas showed, Indigenous people, do not come in only one shade and dress just like everyone else. Just as Aparicio’s character Cleo demonstrated, a woman doesn’t need a man and can raise a child independently.
While my mom’s story is no different from the rest of the darker-skinned or mestizo Mexican population, racism is a prevalent issue in Mexico. It is easier to demand change when more people share their experiences and embrace the skin where they were born in.
It’s time for telenovelas to hire Indigenous and Black people to accurately portray their stories because they are very much a part of Mexican history, and shape storylines where women do not need men to succeed.