How Telenovelas Shaped My Teens And How I Viewed Race #TheYearOf40

Growing up when the only electronic entertainment we had was television there was no limits in terms of watch time for kids. Looking back I started thinking about the way telenovelas shaped my teens even before I became a teenager. For a little girl in a poor neighborhood of Santo Domingo, soap operas provided a window to a world that was so far from my reality that could only be a thing of fiction.

I particularly remember a few of the soap operas from 1989, when I was twelve years old and my view of the world started changing. As I transitioned into becoming a teenager watching the Mexican children’s telenovela Carrusel was like the last journey of my childhood where I could see other kids my age and younger living in this amazing world. There main themes of this telenovela was the difference in class and the storylines revolved around the rich and the poor.

From that same year, there were other soap operas that I remember, like the classic Brazilian telenovela Tieta, the Venezuelans La Intrusa, Paraíso and Fabiola. If it seems to you there were too many, know that these weren’t the only one. When I say that telenovelas shaped my teens and my view on race is because I spent many hours daydreaming in front of the TV despite my father’s effort to prevent us from watching.

My father had a tough job trying to make us stop watching telenovelas, since we started watching them with my grandmother and got hooked pretty quickly. I remember we had a really tiny TV with a screen that couldn’t be bigger than 11 inches and had round buttons to change the channels and to turn it on. My dad decided to remove the buttons when he left to work to make sure we wouldn’t watch. We soon figured we could use a plier to turn the TV on and change the channel.

Looking back, now as a mom, I realize many of those telenovelas weren’t appropriate for my age but back then no one was regulating that. The theme songs spoke of love making, heartbreak and passionate nights and the stories were full of macho-centered stereotypes and even abuse. I think that for Latin Americans the beauty culture and the demands for women to look their best, always makeup, perfect hair and high heels either comes from novelas or at the very least is reinforce. Something, I must say, that didn’t really impacted the way telenovelas shaped my teens as I’ve always been more of a tomboy.

Colombian actress Carmen Marina Torres played many roles. A veteran on the small screen, she was always the maid or the nanny. Like her, many other Afro-Latina actresses have always been cast on these types of roles.

Telenovelas Shaped My Teens: My View Of Race And Class

Despite all the conservative views and sexy scenes I watched in soap operas, the male privilege and the expectation of purity for women when men often cheated and were forgiven, I think the most important way in which telenovelas shaped my teens was through the lens of race. I clearly remember how the maids in most telenovelas were always Afro-Latinas and spoke a certain way to show a lower educational level and lower class level.

In the same way those dramas inspired me to dream of the handsome caballeros and deep love stories, they were discouraging when it came to aspire for those things for myself. The storyline of the poor versus the rich was always part of the theme and along with that the fact that the richer the character the whiter. Even though I have a light tone of skin and have hair similar to many of the characters, I still didn’t fit into those themes as someone who would be educated or wealthy.

Those soap operas showed me early one what was considered beautiful, good and worth it and what was not in the same way we see it in the media here in the United States, and within the telenovelas the Latino media in the US produces. As I got older, Brazilian telenovelas became my favorite because their themes had more depth and they showed so much of the beauty of the country, as opposed to Venezuelan, Mexican and then Colombian telenovelas that were mostly shot on set without showing too much of these respective countries.

In 1989, as the decade was fading and gave way to the 90s, telenovelas had done the groundwork for what was to come in terms of music with tropical rhythms, but that’s a story for a different year. For better or for worse, telenovelas shaped my teens and played a huge part in my life, even with the negative stereotypes and the racism and classism they portrayed.

Still to this day, I have mixed feelings about the way telenovelas shaped my teens because they set me up for a lot of heartbreak on the romantic side and provided relationship models that were unhealthy. They also were not very encouraging in the aspirational front, because poor people in these stories just stayed poor, except for maybe a main character that started poor but at some point would discover they were really rich somehow.

I’m glad I had opportunities and education to show me a different way, but I can’t help but think about the many childhood friends who never made it out of poverty and how those narratives had an influence in them. The past is in the past, nothing we can do there. I just hope we can really see other kinds of novelas and shows that show that all of us, as people, lead lives that are multilayered and are so much more than one thing.

Did you watch novelas growing up? How did they impact you, if at all?

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© Dania Santana ~ Embracing Diversity
Multiculturalism, Diversity & Inclusion Expert | Author | Speaker
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