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date: 02 April 2020

Mexican Telenovelas

Summary and Keywords

Telenovelas have a very recent history, yet from their impact and pervasiveness it would seem that they have always been part of the Mexican culture. Telenovelas did not make their appearance until the late 1950s, when televisions entered the Latin American market. This market explosion, however, was prefigured in radio-novelas (radio soap operas) and folletines (pamphletlike novels) from several decades before. Thus, telenovelas inherited the structure of the melodrama from both visual and aural media and fused them into one incredibly powerful medium of popular cultural representation. Since their development, telenovelas have had an important impact on people’s daily life, as they dramatically portray such controversial issues as illegitimate children, misplaced identity, the burden of social conventions, amorous rejection, and the ever-productive notion of forbidden desires, sexual and otherwise. Telenovelas and, more recently, narco-novelas, have been, and are, excellent vehicles for differing cultural and political embodiments, both in terms of hegemonizing constructs and resistance-filled agency within the country’s historical development. Moreover, telenovelas express the ongoing reconfiguration of social identities, hegemonic constraints, and popular culture in Latin America today.

Keywords: melodrama, cultural politics, narco-novelas, popular culture, media, television, Televisa, Television Azteca

Origins and Development of the Mexican Telenovela

Telenovelas reach well beyond its national or even continental American borders. The joke that traversed the Arab world for a while in the late 1990s went something like this: The man returns home after a long day at work. The wife responds to him in classical Arabic, to which he says, what, you are speaking Mexican now? Telenovelas had become the rage in Egypt and throughout the Arab-speaking world. The distribution to each Arab country presented a linguistic nightmare that was solved quite efficiently: all telenovelas were dubbed in classical Arabic.

This small anecdote makes readily apparent the importance of telenovelas, not only as a local cultural product but also as a transnational one. This global incident marks a perfect contrast to the early reaction to the lead actress, Silvia Derbez, of the first telenovela. Sendas Prohibidas, the country’s first telenovela, aired in June 1958 and was produced by the media company Telesistema Mexico, which in 1973 would become part of the media conglomerate Televisa (Televison Via Satellite). The plot, taken from a previously successful radio soap opera, focused on the rags-to-riches story of a gorgeous rural upstart who as a secretary proceeds to seduce her boss and pull him away from his faithful wife and loving marriage. Of course, by the end of the telenovela, the secretary repents and apologizes for her immoral behavior. However, this is not before Silvia Derbez was met every day with harassing attacks from fans who punished her for her character’s behavior as she exited the studio.

Since then, media production is more than ever a crossroads of local and global interaction. Yet, within this cultural problematic, what García-Canclini1 refers to as a process of reconversion, incredibly vibrant and provocative identities are reworked and represented. This is particularly true, and readily apparent, in the world of telenovelas. Telenovelas, including the contemporary narco-novelas, are excellent vehicles for differing cultural and political embodiments, both in terms of hegemonizing constructs and resistance-filled agency within the historical constructs of the Mexican nation-state. Telenovelas express the ongoing reconfiguration of social identities, hegemonic constraints, and popular culture in Latin America today.

Telenovelas have a very recent history, yet from their impact they seem to always have been part of Latin American culture. Telenovelas did not make their appearance in Mexico until the late 1950s, when televisions entered the Latin American market. This market explosion, however, was prefigured in radio-novelas (radio soap operas) and folletines (pamphletlike novels) from several decades before. Thus, telenovelas inherited the structure of the melodrama from both visual and aural media and fused them into one incredibly powerful medium of popular cultural representation.

Since their development, telenovelas have had an important impact on people’s daily lives, as they dramatically portray such controversial issues as illegitimate children, misplaced identity, the burden of social conventions, amorous rejection, and the ever-productive notion of forbidden desires, sexual and otherwise. Telenovelas may be classified into several genres such as working-class melodrama, historical romance, mystery suspense/thriller, teen drama, romantic comedies, and most recently, narco-novelas, to name the most salient. It is a testament to the telenovelas’ success that many of the plot lines are reused or rebroadcast in different countries after being adapted to their national language/dialect variation and cultural reconfiguration.

This transcultural element is only heightened by the incredible export success of telenovelas throughout the Americas, particularly in the United States, and all over the world, including places like Egypt and Russia. This global interaction has led some theorists, like Jesús Martín-Barbero, to argue that melodrama might be the most successful and culturally authentic revolution to ever affect the continent since the 1960s.

Telenovelas are indebted to earlier radio and folletín-like melodramatic forms, perhaps more to the latter in content and the former in stylistic structure. Initial telenovelas production also went hand in hand with Mexico’s golden film age (1930–1960), before the film industry shifted to produce (or sell out) to what many consider to be a B-film market. However, and not coincidentally, one could argue that telenovela and film production went hand in-hand until the end of the 20th century. The country’s film industry’s initial shift to more violent and drug-inspired content in the 1970s would be mimicked by telenovelas in the 2000s, La reina del sur, being one of the most emblematic in this shift to narco-novelas (see discussion of La reina del sur below).

From the start, telenovela’s inspiration in daily events of people’s life marks not only greater popular participation in media representation but also more realistic interpretation of the country’s realidad nacional (national reality), that is, a greater democratization of the media of sorts. However, this broadening of melodramatic possibilities has been met with harsh judgment from academics, intellectuals, and film critics. Telenovelas are seen as having abandoned the higher cultural ground because they look to entertain and to be commercially viable by representing more day-to-day characters and reality. In this manner, narco-novelas continue to suffer the stereotypical critique posed by intellectual and the cultural elite that their content is devoid of value and little less than a kind of violent “opium of the people.”

Telenovelas continue to be of the romantic kind, setting up suspenseful, even comical, situations that defined the tragedy of love gone bad or the melodramatic destiny of star-struck lovers. These romantic melodramas also seem to reflect the national ethos that was expounded by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s (PRI’s) overwhelming control of political power, mimicking a love relationship gone wrong. The comparison here expresses the people as the victim, nostalgically wishing for their amorous counterpart to reappear into the scene in a more egalitarian manner than was ever really the case.

Also in this period, during the 1970s, the large telenovela production company, Televisa, came into greater control of the production and distribution of telenovelas. For many the development of this media conglomerate marked the transition into a media-controlled political hegemony for the country, where media control and popular culture went hand in hand in terms of refueling (and limiting) the country’s political imagination. Certainly, telenovelas very much contributed to the financial success of the large Mexican media conglomerates.

Telesistema Mexicano produced the first telenovelas in 1958, including Sendas Prohibidas, Gutierritos (which would be re-done in 1966), and Más Allá de la Angustia. The new conglomerate of Televisa (which Telesistema Mexicano would merge with) would produce most of the iconic telenovelas that would not only achieve national recognition but would greatly influence the telenovelas market in other Latin American countries, like Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. Not until 1993 did the multimedia conglomerate, Azteca TV (owned by Grupo Salinas), provide some competition. Only in 2016 did a third media company, Imagen Television, enter the competitive foray. For many, telenovelas are partly to blame for the cultural apathy within Mexican society. Others argue the contrary, that precisely in these repressed melodramatic expressions do deep-seated feelings of resentment and lack of agency acquire an actual outlet and become successfully expressed in a daily fashion. Either way, telenovelas have become the staple of television, and in doing so, they have very much catapulted the successes of the three biggest multimedia conglomerates of the country: Telesistema Mexicano, Televisa, and TV Azteca. The issues raised and represented within telenovelas hit a core of Mexican identity and continue to be a vehicle for many of the nation’s population, especially for those with less access to political power and intellectual elite resources.

The Stronghold of Romantic Telenovelas: Los Ricos También Lloran

The fact that telenovelas focus on love, forbidden and impossible, allows their economical emotional structure and powerful facades to find an easy emotional connection with the audience. These characteristics have allowed telenovelas to remain a melodramatic mainstay for more than half a century. And in that regard, the romantic comedy was by far, at least until the early part of the 21st century, the most successful telenovela genre.

For example, when Mexicans fell in love with Veronica Castro’s downtrodden character in Los ricos tambien lloran (1979–1980), they were undoubtedly mirroring their own sense of desolation. Like the female protagonist played by Castro, they knew that their status did not reflect who they really were. They were the real owners of the house (just like Castro’s character) and the rightful inheritors of an ancient civilization. Both character and nation might be downtrodden, but that is not the end of the story; rather, hope and desire is.

Los Ricos Tambien Lloran, is an excellent example of the structure and powerful hold that telenovelas would have on the popular imagination. The love that grows between the poor woman and the rich man allows her to reclaim her rightful place in society and, in the eyes of all, a rightful place that belongs to her by birth but that has been viciously denied her. Meanwhile, not only does she achieve her sense of self through her being rightfully recognized, but the man also achieves wholeness and a shared organic happiness that he otherwise would forgo.

This simple forbidden love affair of contrasting bodies serves to enshrine the desire of/for the forbidden other. This transgressive desire as a motor for self-fulfillment also manages to critique a pervasive market economy, key during the turbulent economic time of the 1980s. This melodramatic structure of the telenovela seems, on the surface, to entitle the privileged, yet it served to expose the hollowness of elite behavior and thereby reinforce the commoner’s revenge.

The poor may be desirous of the rich other, but similarly, the rich cannot be complete without the consent of the oppressed. Wealth is not about making as much money as you possibly can, as the traditional logic of capital would have it, but rather accruing as much emotional worth and love as you humanly are able, and in that fashion reflecting the true Mexican character. At the same time, this idea supports the primary role of marriage and family in Mexico’s cultural make-up.

The title of the telenovela already expresses this haunting specter of the market: The rich also cry. The telenovela unites the romantic and financial realms of national life. In this way, it predicts not that the struggle against the odds is futile but rather that joining those odds will not truly liberate you from life’s conundrum. Only by coming to terms with your origins will you have a sense of self, which only then can be expressed in the form of external or physical love.

At the same time, these sentiments are fueling constant desires that have as their ultimate purpose to continue desiring, endlessly. Undoubtedly, desire is exactly what telenovelas do best. They provide an endless mirror image to reflect the national self as it is redefined by a new form of modern capital that no longer destroys racial and class differences but rather looks to engage and be fulfilled by it.

Veronica Castro’s dark, small, voluptuous body was no longer to be simply conquered but rather inhabited from the inside out and used to ponder the national shortcomings that the nation must confront. Perhaps, this is what the telenovela was about, understanding the new forms of acquiring modernity through wealth and capital that came into place in the 1980s. In that manner, the telenovela chronicled a new period that allowed Mexicans to out themselves as being extremely class conscious and avid consumers, even of telenovelas.

The Emergence of Narco-Novelas

The romantic-comedy telenovelas shared their popularity by the end of the 20th century with the emergence of the first drug-themed narco-novelas. Narco-novelas gained popularity in the 2000s, with their own style, producers, directors, actors, and screenwriters. Narco-novela artists have also been significantly and consistently ostracized by the national elite and cultural intellectuals, who have criticized narco-novelas for their populist appeal: glorification of drug-related behavior and violence. Narco-novelas are an important part of the telenovela market and are particularly influential along the border between the United States and Mexico, powerfully affecting a Latino cultural market in the United States today.

Narco-novelas reflect a distinct regional, northern culture, particularly of the border states, but including states as far away as Sinaloa, which further explains their dual border appeal. This hybrid and dangerously seductive identification largely explains their success among other regions in the country and Mexican migrants in the United States.

Most narco-novelas elaborate a story contained within the larger violent context of the drug trade and migration, and they incorporate both a violent Mafia ethos and the martial arts. They almost always present a patriarchal power structure (even when the head of the drug cartel is a woman), with beautiful women parading themselves as sexual objects. They also exploit the typical telenovela melodramatic structure of excessive sentiment, musical cues for the development of the plot, and a moral metanarrative of local good versus global evil.

Importantly, in keeping with good melodrama, these narco-novelas immediately set up an alternative moral structure to the officializing discourse of the nation. For example, the state and its representatives, that is, politicians, law enforcement, bureaucrats, and soldiers, are seldom portrayed as the good guys; the heroes are either Lone Ranger types or misunderstood, repentant drug dealers. This alternative reading of the drug war has made narco-drama particularly difficult for the state and the elite to tolerate, but it has further secured its success as a more popular reading of national life.

Narco-novelas are the visual end product of a long process of cultural revalorization, particularly in terms of translocal identity. Along with the production of these films, are other cultural elements, like narco-corridos (songs which are central to many of the films and played by hundreds of bands including the renowned Los Tigres del Norte and Los Tucanes), fashions (exotic-leather boots, worked [piteada] belts, and silk shirts, and values (a brutally violent code of honor) share the narco-sensibility (Paredes, 1958).

The illegal or subversive elements in these telenovelas concerning the drug trade (as well as their ambiguous representation of official and cultural authority) are essential to the public’s fascination with them and their success. Unlike narco-corridos, neither official nor private venues have been able to ban these telenovelas, even when the hostility toward them can be intense.

The narco-novela portrays narcos (drug dealers) as ambivalent subjects who, although involved in the illegal drug trade, maintain strong social and personal commitments to their local communities, family members, and friends. At the same time, they are a regional expression of the northern frontier, they represent the broader picture of the migrant condition as well as that of the impact of the drug trade on the migrant communities. In many ways, narco-culture maintains an inherent relationship with its Colombian counterparts, the continent’s initial drug producers and the group from which Mexican cartels clearly learned their trade (and bested it). As Colombian writer Laura Restrepo argues (2004), one of the ways that Colombia managed to free itself somewhat from the drug trade was by exporting it to Mexico.

Colombia’s Influence on the Narco-Novela Market

Another important element in this ambiguous state-melodrama relationship is the role of Colombia’s drug enterprise in the education of Mexican cartels and in the latter’s representation in melodrama. It is not surprising to find a collaborative relationship in terms of media production, including for example, the telenovela hit Pasión de gavilanes (2003–2004). This telenovela, although it is set in Colombia with Colombian actors, uses the Mexican version of cumbias and rancheras as the musical backdrop.

The Colombian connection thus links the earliest influences of narco-representation and the telenovela genre to the rest of the Spanish-speaking American continent. In many ways, even with the very specific narco theme, Mexico has not lost its cultural influence on the rest of the continent and is, in many respects, determining the material to be discussed and highlighted.

Most probably, the development of several regional centers of sophisticated drug marketing and export (as opposed to mere local production) marked Colombia’s violent expansion into Mexico and the Caribbean to export drugs to the United States. Soon after, however, before this particular Colombian model of strong family-run cartels coupled with extreme violence and severe codes of honor—all pointing to a dangerous and fast lifestyle—became the model for the Mexican drug industry. Mexicans, unlike their Caribbean counterparts, stopped being mere intermediaries between the two markets and claimed a stake in drug production and trade, independent of the Colombian cartels.

This shift demanded a serious reworking of more traditional and established forms of social relationships and even of the national ethos. Drug production in Mexico ended the dependency on Andean drug production. This meant several things, including the growth of contestatory agrarian politics among northern rural peasants, who were ready to connect to one of the most troublesome legacies of the PRI’s redistribution of Mexico’s revolution. These northern transformations were part of the region’s historical heritage of opposition to the official (and hypocritical) trade monopoly proclaimed by the central government in Mexico City.

At the same time, these newly founded cartels and drug lords also had at least a century-long history of outlaw and criminal behavior to fall back on, as the murders of young women in Juárez and Chihuahua in the early part of the 21st century clearly attest. For Astorga,2 the image of the narco goes back all the way to the 1920s, when Mexicans were already trading illegally across the border to support not only themselves but also whole communities that were being left out of the state’s redistributional practices. Thus, the more lucrative (and dangerous) drug trade introduced by Colombian cartels only imported a more dramatic content to an already burgeoning network of informal entrepreneurs and well-intentioned laborer and Lone Ranger types in the area.

These shifts in the local communities’ social relationships also reworked the more traditional representation of Mexicans as a peaceful and quiet people (or even stupid or lazy, as is expressed in racist U.S. caricatures) to a population more violent and prone to gang activity as well as involved in criminal behavior (including illegal border crossing).3 This shift was coupled with an urban, xenophobic discourse in the United States and with U.S. anti-immigration policy. Therefore, the development and success of narcos in widely acclaimed narco-novelas may have been a way of producing an image of illegality in a much more ambiguous and nuanced form than that imposed by both Mexico’s official discourse and that of the historically violent and overpowering colonizer of the north, the United States.

The 2010 hit La Reina Del Sur exemplifies some of the most important markers expressed in the shift to narco-novelas. By the 2010s, narco-novelas continued to gain popularity, with this telenovela serving to bolster the paradigmatic shift that put the drug trade at the center of the melodramatic production. Even more so as a transnational production between Mexican and (North) American artists, it further emphasized the global impact of narco-novelas from their very inception.

La Reina Del Sur: Narco-Novelas from the South

La Reina del Sur’s plot revolves around the life of Teresa Mendoza. Teresa is a young woman from Culiacán who must leave the country when her drug-trafficking companion el güero Dávila, is killed. Her second companion, the Galician Santiago Fisterra, is also killed in a drug-boat bust, which this time lands Teresa in jail for a couple of years. Her cell mate, Patricia, a pampered daughter of a Spanish tycoon, is the one who reintroduces her to the drug trade when they both are free and provides for her newfound status as drug queen of southern Spain, thus the novel’s title.

Patricia dies without seeing her love for Teresa returned, and we are left wondering whether Teresa’s inability to love Patricia is less a problem of sexual preference than of the impossibility of love under the trying conditions on the Mexican nation-state. In the end, Teresa returns to Culiacán to settle old debts and sets up the dénouement of the telenovela as well as the stage for her enigmatic departure from the public spotlight. Perhaps starting at the end will help elucidate the reigning success of narco-novelas today.

One of the major elements that Teresa Mendoza’s character contends with is exile, just like hundreds of thousands of Mexican migrants in the north and in Europe. Exile and immigration is one of the hidden tropes of the representation of these narco-drama narratives. For Teresa, the immediate and most visible exile is geographical, having to leave her home, which in this case, more than Mexico, is Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, and all that she has known or that has been dear to her. In exile, as is always the case, regional identification grows, as do longings for something she never had, a larger national identification that was never present while she was living in Mexico.

Only in Spain is she referred to as Mexican, and la mejicana becomes one of her nicknames and identity. Along with this new national identity comes broader cultural and social significations, including the meaning of other national cultural objects like tequila, rancheras, corridos, and her regional dialect of “Mexican” words, as elements that remind her of who she is. Perhaps more important is the new status that her national identity provides her within the transnational hierarchy of the drug trade, because in many ways she is now seen as inheritor of the American “prestige,” attached to Colombians’ and Mexicans’ knowledge of the drug trade controlling one of the greatest drug markets—the United States. Teresa Mendoza’s fleeing Mexico, her companionship with foreigners such as her Galician lover, a Russian Mafia lord, and even her lesbian friend and business partner all mark an outsider status that, through the nostalgia of exile, serve to buttress her Mexican identity.

The national exile and transnational element are in many ways secondary, or rather, a more explicit rendering of the subtle exile that she, and all norteños (and migrants) by extension, carry in their hearts. Teresa Mendoza’s character reconnects with the essentializing nature of exile and to express the universal element of narco-culture: historically specific human beings caught in violent frameworks not of their making and through it all trying to regain or maintain the most basic human dignity and pride.

It is these complexities that Teresa embodies most vividly and that her soliloquies speak to. Her struggle is a universal struggle for love and recognition, but clearly embodied within the context of a norteño migrant culture of fierce social competition, rejection, and overarching patriarchy. Within this regional expression, Teresa’s words echo in the hearts of Mexican people along the border who live their lives on borrowed time:

I’ll tell you—I’m so afraid, I feel so weak, so indecisive, and I burn up all my energy and my willpower, to the last ounce, in hiding the fact that I’m afraid. You can’t imagine the effort. Because I never chose this, and the corrido, somebody else wrote the words up to it. You. Patty. Them. What a pendeja huh? I don’t like life in general and mine in particular. I don’t even like the parasistic fucking tiny life that’s inside me. I’m sick with something that I refused to try to understand a long time ago, and I’m not even honest, because I won’t talk about it. I’ve lived for twelve years like this. All the time pretending and not talking.

This is the existentialist exile trope inherent in contemporary border life that Teresa expresses in these words and in her own violent life. Geographical exile is but the manifestation of the pervasive exile that narco-novelas exhibit as one of the major raisons d’être, reasons for being, throughout their narrative.

This is also how the ghost of Pedro Páramo, the protagonist of Juan Rulfo’s incredibly accomplished novel, haunts not only Teresa Mendoza but also everyone in La Reina Del Sur. What if all the characters in the novel are dead? What if they have always been dead but never knew it? This idea becomes the major breakthrough in a dream Teresa has one evening and it poignantly sets the scene for the personal drama of her life, and in a symbolic fashion for Mexico on a whole as well as the social drama of her comrades and region, which have contributed to making her who she is.

This major conundrum slowly creeps into Teresa’s subconscious to make her realize that she, along with those from her region, are actually the main characters of Juan Rulfo’s novel, that it is they, not the novel’s characters, who are caught in a nightmare of violence and death and that they are completely removed from life because they have no awareness of being so.

Representing Violence and Race in Narco-Novelas

Teresa Mendoza’s story melodramatized in La Reina Del Sur, is a poignant contribution of the narco-novelas genre to the assessment of contemporary violence. La Reina Del Sur’s violent emphasis is highlighted by the intertwined elements of race, class, and transnational identity. The narco-novela works because it fits perfectly into the rags-to-riches plot basic to melodramatic production, adding as well modern violent and race markers.

Immigrants have all looked for a way to escape a deadening violent normative existence, so in the narco-novelas, national governments and transnational institutions are the bad guys. For Teresa and her faithful bodyguard, el Pote, the government is ultimately to blame for their exile and for the impossibility for all Mexicans living a meaningful life in Mexico, especially in the exploited northern region: “It’s the government, patrona. If there wasn’t any government, or politicians, or gringos up there north of the Río Bravo, a man could live like a king there … There wouldn’t be any need for marijuana or any of that, no? … We’d live on pure tomatoes.”

Teresa’s racial and national identity is equated to that of a typical lower-class woman living on the margins of Sinaloa’s male-dominated society. Her exile to Spain serves to emphasize her alien status by adding “Mexican” as the global marker of an inferior racial and national identity. Her associations with minority Spanish nationalities, Russian, and Arabs, confirm her outsider status. This status is also confirmed by her liason with Santiago Fisterra, a man from Galicia, and her continued involvement with the drug trade. All these elements, and her brief prison stint, eventually define her as the outsider she has always felt herself to be, even while living in Mexico.

At the same time, this outsider status surrounds her with an aura of exotic foreignness, making her a prime target for claiming a Mexican identity. It is as if this figurative, racialized, and violent marker represents in Teresa all the ambivalent signifiers both rejected and desired by normative culture within a compulsive schizophrenic impulse. Teresa uses this ambivalent identity to define herself, and she navigates her struggle to achieve a level of authenticity and coherence for the character that she inhabits in the darkest and most intense moments. Not surprisingly, race significantly advances this Mexican identity in a very important way.

As in all narco-dramas the question of race in La Reina Del Sur4 is an interesting one because it highlights many of the personal frustrations of the “national question.” Unlike the Mexican (and other Central American and Andean) nation-state, which uses Indigenous icons to legitimize its identity, narco-novelas do not utilize indigenous characters. Without any significant Indian identity, narco-novela racializes itself and its national plots in a much more hybrid way, one which in many ways manages both to replicate and to reject the homogeneous production of Mexican identity. Teresa, like all narco-novela characters, is a regionalized norteño. From regional identification, in contrast to the state’s homogeneous production of Mexicanness and the rhetorical and living image of an Indian past and present, the narco-novela obtains its powerful identification.

Migration, Race and Identity: The Future of Telenovelas

Narco-novelas exemplify how regional identification becomes a strong racial marker, closely aligning itself with class, national, and status elements to serve discrete and ambiguous hierarchies of differentiation. The narco-novela develops this regional-as-racial identification, and the narco-corridos incorporate it as their own to produce different levels of regional, national, and transnational identities.

Teresa uses this same racial marker to answer questions about the meaning of her life. But this nonindigenous identity is marked at the border by U.S. law enforcement as inferior to North American identity. In this border transformation, from categorizations of Hispanic though a range of the other, less generous, epithets, all share the brown and lower-class definition purveyed by U.S. neocolonial control.

It is essential to resist racializing the characters in narco-drama as simply mestizo or Ladino, and in that way falling into the pitfalls of the romantic production of Vasconcelos’ cosmic race. Norteño identification, like that of most Latin America, is not a homogeneous blending of ancient ancestries but an unequal production of power in which certain historically racialized traditions relate to and are superimposed on each other. This particular hybrid mestizo element is emphasized by Chicana lesbian border scholars like Gloria Anzaldúa,5 Chela Sandoval,6 and Cherríe Moraga7 in their work. These scholars use it to mark difference, not homogeneity, because that is what it is used for by the state and society, despite homogenizing, hegemonic rhetoric to the contrary.

This mixed identity has had a symbolic relationship with border crossing from the colonial origins of the Americas to its most modern embodiment in Mexico’s loss of a third of its territory to the United States. But this border element is far from a recent identity or even simply a geographical marker; it is a much larger nostalgic sense of not belonging.

Narco-novelas exploit this foundational wound of hybridity in their most violent and melodramatic simplicity, and itis the subject of narco-corrido songs in their most desolate moments. Teresa revisits the same desolation of identity through corridos, tequila, and other Mexican memorabilia in recreating a new home on the soil of the original culprit in the colonial debacle, or, as Spain is referred to in official circles, la madre patria (the motherland). Teresa and all her continental compatriots must contend with this language of identity in their long struggle to recreate their identities in honest ways that escape official censors and victims’ soliloquies about pseudointimate behaviors. This process of self-discovery and self-identification unites both the racial conundrum and the struggles for human dignity, making them the content of narco-novelas and Mexican border life.

In Teresa Mendoza’s last scene, she rips up the picture of herself as a young woman that she has carried with her all her life. This picture is already ragged because she has cut out her first male partner, el gűero Dávila. Thereafter, the picture in many ways has become a constant remainder of her humble origins and the place she came from. Thus, the photograph serves as an anchor for who she was and had always been. Yet in many ways, this representational remembering, aided by the picture, marks the process of valid identification and painful living that allows Teresa to find herself (the person she has always been) and therefore to leave that person behind to become her real self. Therefore, the picture, after years of being necessarily overburdened, is no longer an aid but instead is an impediment to Teresa’s coming to terms with her own identity.

Thus, when Teresa rips the picture and gets into the SUV under the protection of the state’s agents and with the enormous respect of her Mexican compatriots, she manages to reproduce and contest her official hegemonic identification as a Mexican woman and norteña all at once. She no longer needs the picture because she has become a unified person by being who she is.

Her trials and travails, like that of many Mexicans, have not ended, but they will continued based on a different nature, another type of melodrama and corrido to be written in different ways. This legacy of agency and liberation, however limited or coerced by the violent signs of the times, inspires and assures narco-novela audiences, even if it can be experienced only in the most alcoholic of silences and moments of private contemplation. As the narco-novelas express, these stories are and will be our own corridos, but never to be sung by us or in our own words.

The pervasive role that telenovelas would play in Mexican national life would have been hard to predict in the 1950s. Since their origins, telenovelas have closely related to the nation-state’s struggles. At some points, telenovelas have echoed the country’s travails, while at others they have pushed the limits of public exchange on sensitive political issues of class, race and/or violence.

Likewise, it is hard to predict what the future might hold for telenovelas, although there is no doubt that they are solidly engrained in the public imagination of all Mexicans in the early 21st century. For better or worse, depending on one’s assessment of telenovela’s cultural contribution, they are an essential part of national popular culture. No other medium has the popular impact than telenovelas do or combine the collaboration of music, actors, and visual culture in a such a powerful way.

Ultimately, telenovelas will continue to populate the popular cultural pantheon, at least, for several decades to come. Their long historical impact on the cultural make-up of the nation is impossible to deny, and telenovelas, along with oil and people, are among the three biggest Mexican exports.

As with other media like the radio, 8-tracks, VHS, CDs, and film, telenovela will most likely evolved accordingly both in terms of technology and content. Certainly, telenovelas will continue to escape the officializing radar of government and academic censorship, and in doing so allow many to express a range of emotions and sentiments that are typically ridiculed and vilified by the nation’s most politically powerful and intellectual elite.

Discussion of the Literature

Surprisingly, the amount of academic or critical literature on telenovelas, despite their pervasive presence over the last 60 years in popular cultural life, is rather scant. Some of the first articles that focus on telenovelas appeared in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the earliest ones was a joint article by Gutierrez and Schement focusing on the impact of telenovelas on the United States, and then several contributions by Jorge Gonzalez assessing telenovela’s contribution to popular culture.

But Jesús Martin Barbero’s canonical text, De Los Medios a Las Mediaciones, published in 1998, opened a whole new area of focus on telenovelas. Martin-Barbero’s work on melodrama allowed a whole generation to rethink the political power and hegemonic implication of melodrama. Instead of assuming that melodrama was a second-class type of art, it allowed scholars to view melodrama in its own right. This caused scholars to consider the contributions of popular culture through melodrama, and the role that academics and intellectuals play in policing these cultural boundaries as well.

Only in the 2000s have a significant number of publications interested in telenovelas in general, and Mexican telenovelas in particular, become available. These contributions emphasize differing aspects of telenovelas, including their relationship to literature,8 comparison with other telenovelas in the continent,9 as well as, the continuing relationship of it as an object of export.10 Prime among them is Ilan Stavans’ encyclopedic text on telenovelas.

After these initial contributions in the 2000s, a number of scholarly works have highlighted the important contributions and relationships among telenovelas. Some of these articles emphasize the issues of popular culture, global flows, immigrations, identity, and the power of the hegemonic media industry. However, actual studies of narco-novelas themselves are still lacking in comparison to the existing richer oeuvre developed on narco-films and narco-literature.

Primary Sources (Title and Year of Most Important Telenovelas)

Barata de Primavera (1975)Find this resource:

Cuna de lobos (1986)Find this resource:

Dos Mujeres, un Camino (1993)Find this resource:

El derecho de nacer (1981)Find this resource:

Esmeralda (1997)Find this resource:

Gutierritos (1958, 1966)Find this resource:

Los Ricos Tambien Lloran (1979)Find this resource:

Mas Alla de la Angustia (1958)Find this resource:

Mirada de Mujer (1997)Find this resource:

Miramar (1994)Find this resource:

Rosa Salvaje (1987)Find this resource:

Rubi (2004)Find this resource:

Sendas Prohibidas (1958)Find this resource:

Further Reading

Acosta-Alzuru, Carolina. “Beauty Queens, Machistas and Street Children: The Production and Reception of Sociocultural Issues in Telenovelas.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 13.2 (2010): 185–203.Find this resource:

Benavides, O. Hugo. Drugs, Thugs, and Divas: Telenovelas and Narco-Dramas in Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Costa, Cristiane. Eu compro essa mulher: Romance e consume nas telenovelas brasileiras e mexicanas. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Jorge Zahar Editor, 2000.Find this resource:

Estill, Adriana. “The Mexican Telenovela and Its Foundational Fictions.” In Latin American Literature and Mass Media. Edited by Edmundo Paz-Soldán and Debra A. Castillo, 169–193. New York: Garland, 2001.Find this resource:

Gómez, Rodrigo, Toby Miller, and André Dorcé. “Converging from the South: Mexican Television in the United States.” In Contemporary Latina/o Media: Production, Circulation and Politics. Edited by Arlene Dávila and Yeidy Rivero, 44‒61. New York: New York University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

González, Jorge A. “The Cofraternity of (Un)finishable Emotions: Constructing Mexican Telenovelas.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 11 (1992): 59–93.Find this resource:

Gutierrez, Felix F., and Jorge Reina Schement. “Spanish International Network: The Flow of Television from Mexico to the United States.” Communication Research 11.2 (1984): 241–258.Find this resource:

Lopez-Pumarejo, Tomás. “The Webnovela and Immigrants in the United States.” American Journal of Business 27.1 (2012): 40–57.Find this resource:

Martín-Barbero, Jesús. De los Medios a las Mediaciones: Comunicación, Cultura y Hegemonía. Bogota, Columbia: Convenio Andres Bellos, 1998.Find this resource:

Mato, Daniel. “The Transnationalization of the Telenovela Industry, Territorial References, and the Production of Markets and Representations of Transnational Identities.” Television and New Media 6.4 (2005): 423‒444.Find this resource:

Pearson, Rosalind C. “Fact or Fiction? Narrative and Reality in the Mexican Telenovela.” Television & New Media 6.4 (2005): 400–406.Find this resource:

Podalsky, Laura. “Los Globalizados También Lloran: Mexican Telenovelas and the Geographical Imagination.” In Contemporary Latin American Cultural Studies. Edited by Stephen Hart and Richard Young, 151–166. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Stavans, Ilan, ed. Telenovelas. Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2010.Find this resource:


(1.) García-Canclini, Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005, 1992).

(2.) Astorga, El siglo de las drogas: Del Porfiriato al nuevo milenio (Mexico City: Delbolsillo, 2013, 1995).

(3.) Vanderwood, Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

(4.) Telenovela: La reina del sur, 2011, episode 44, Telemundo (in conjunction with Antena 3 and RTI Producción) producer.

(5.) Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1990, 1987).

(6.) Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

(7.) Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (Chicago: South End Press, 1983).

(8.) Adriana Estill, “The Mexican Telenovela and Its Foundational Fictions,” in Latin American Literature and Mass Media, eds. Edmundo Paz-Soldán and Debra A. Castillo (New York: Garland, 2001), 169–193.

(9.) Cristiane Costa, Eu compro essa mulher: Romance e consume nas telenovelas brasileiras e mexicanas, ed. Jorge Zahar (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2000).

(10.) O. Hugo Benavides, Drugs, Thugs, and Divas: Telenovelas and Narco-Dramas in Latin America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008).