Memory and Form in the Latin American Soap Opera | Soap Opera | Latin America

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Memory and Form in the Latin American Soap Opera
Jesús Martín-Barbero
Translated by Marina Elias (In: R.C. Allen, To be Continued: Soap Operas Around the Wold, Routledge, London, 1995)
« (…) the public's complicity with the genre is in part due to the soap opera's permeability to the transformations of modern life. Of course, the modernization of customs is disguised by perennial values and strait-jacketed by multiple rituals. Changes make their appearance sheltered ideologically by their links to the myth of progress and development. However, what is important is that a certain kind of soap opera has made room for itself: a soap opera in which social hierarchies lose their rigidity and in which the social fabric of loyalties and submissions is more complex. The distances between the poor and the rich, men and women, adults and young people are both exposed and turned topsy-turvy by the introduction of mediations and movements which show the other side of the tangled web of humiliations and revenges. Even in the "lowest" social sectors, the struggle for survival is shown to be also a struggle to be someone, for neither dignity nor opportunism, are found on only one side. »

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Both in and outside of Latin America, the soap opera has met with enormous success among television viewers. It is a genre which has catalyzed the development of the Latin American television industry, and, at the same time "crossbred" new audiovisual technologies with the narrative anachronisms that form an integral part of the cultural life of the peoples of that continent. The soap opera is first of all an industrial event. One example is Roque Santeiro, a soap opera whose production mobilized 800 people. Its script occupied two playwrights, a scriptwriter, and a researcher, and an average 10 hours of editing work and was required per 50-minute episode (Marquez de Melo 1989). TV-Globo, the Brazilian network which produced it, has set up the "Casa de Creación Janette Clair," which is at once a dramaturgical laboratory, a center for audience research, and a training school for script- writers. With a total production of 100 episodes and an average of 300 minutes of fiction per week – the equivalent of more than two full-length feature films – the total cost of a soap opera is between US$1-1.5 million. This places the approximate cost per episode at US$10,000-15,000. In 1985, TV-Globo invested US$500 million, made a profit of around US$120 million, and exported soap operas to 130 countries. That same year, Mexico's Televisa made a profit of around US$150 million. However, industrial development, the pillar of the business, cannot alone account for the soap opera's drawing power.
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In order to better understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to locate the soap opera within the field of transformations which make it possible for the urban masses to appropriate modernity without abandoning their oral culture. The soap opera thus proves to be the expression of a "secondary orality" (W. Ong) in which the long length of primitive stories is blended with the fragmentation of images propounded by film, advertising, and television. The connection of the soap opera to oral culture allows it to "exploit" the universe of legends, scary stories, and tales of mystery, which have traveled from the countryside to the cities (cities which have become ruralized at the same time as these nations have become urbanized) in the form of Brazilian cordel literature, Mexican corridos, or Colombian vallenatos.1 [276] Within these genres, melodrama is at work. Melodrama is the reason that the moving force behind the plot is always the ignorance of an identity, be it the child's ignorance of his parent's identity, one sibling of another's, or a mother of her child's. It is present in the struggle against evil spells and outward appearances, against that which hides and disguises, a struggle to be recognized by others. Might this not be the secret connection between melodrama and the cultural history of the Latin American "sub"-continent? Could this not be the reason that among all popular genres, no other – neither adventure stories nor even comedies – has been able
These are forms of folk-song which recount a story and previously served the function of communicating information ahout events. In addition to being sung or recited, the cordel literature and the corrido were also sold in public places in pamphlet form (thus, the name of the Brazilian form, for the pamphlets were strung from a cordel, or cord). The vallenato, in addition to heing a recital of events, is dance music (Trans. N.).
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4 to attain a development comparable in reach and intensity to that of the melodrama? In Latin America, whether it be the form of tango or bolero2. Mexican cinema, or soap opera, the melodrama speaks of a primordial sociality, whose metaphor continues to be the thick, censored plot of the tightly woven fabric of family relationships. In spite of its devaluation by the economy and politics, this sociality lives on culturally, and from its locus, the people, by "melodramatizing" everything, take their own form of revenge on the abstraction imposed by cultural dispossession and the commercialization of life.
Melodrama and newspaper serials in the radio and cinema

Originating in the middle of the nineteenth century, the newspaper serial brought the melodrama from the theater to the press. Thus, it expanded the reading public and inaugurated a new relationship between popular readers and writing: that established by a story written in episodes and series. The "open structure" of a tale written day-by-day, carried out according to a plan, but open to the influence of its readers' reactions, propitiated the (con)fusion of fiction and life. It endowed the newspaper serial with a permeability to contemporary life that continues to constitute one of the key elements in today's soap opera, both in its configuration as a genre and in its widespread success. In Latin America, the newspaper serial was the place where the osmosis between urban writing and oral stories took place. Beginning in 1870, Eduardo Gutiérrez published Juan Moreira and Hormiga negra (Black Ant) in instalments in the newspaper La patria argentina. These serialized gaucho2

A bolero is a slow, romantic ballad (Trans. N.).
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novels, which fused the rural and the urban, constituted keys to the national imaginary. Their characters were taken not only from the verses of the payadores (traveling minstrels), which circulated in loose-leaf pamphlets and gazettes but also from judicial archives. The result was the configuration of a new dramatic universe, of a "frontier world" in which the changes introduced by modernization in turn of the century Latin America were expressed (Rivera 1982: 9). But even more than in the press, the real development of the serial in Latin America took place in radio. Regarded almost with disdain by leading figures [277] of literate culture, from its beginnings radio incorporated the oral world of songs and legends. Melodrama came to the radio through two intermediaries: the circus in Argentina and reading aloud to groups in tobacco factories in Cuba. The criollo circus was the result of bringing together circus ring and theatrical stage, acrobatics and dramatic representation under the same tent. It was here that the tradition of the newspaper serials based on gaucho myths and the comic stage of traveling comedians merged. This comic stage is where the origin of the radio soap is to be found. In Argentina, companies of radio actors toured the provinces presenting the same dramas they had performed on the radio so that people could "see what they listened to!" It was for precisely this reason that radio soaps were called "radio theater" in that country. From the end of the nineteenth century on, tobacco factories in Cuba provided the setting for the reading out loud of books on politics and of serialized stories, genres which contributed themes and forms to the serialized radio play. Fernando Ortiz (l973) has outlined key features of this practice which, originating in convents and European prisons, was introduced in the work- shops of El Arsenal in Havana where the prisoners worked rolling cigars and cigarettes.
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6 From the jails, it spread to the tobacco factories of Azcárate and Partagas. Beginning in 1936, the reader and the radio existed side by side in the tobacco factories until the radio finally took the place of readings. This radio incorporated popular forms of listening into sound expressivity and added a corporal dimension to the narration of the radio soaps. In addition, it introduced the exploration of the stories' sensory effects – tones and rhythms – which incorporated popular ways of listening to stories into the language of the radio. The genre of the radio soap opera inaugurated by El derecho de nacer (The Right to be Born) would be the great intermediary step between the substratum of the European serialized novel and the soap opera. This latter genre incorporates, in addition, the Latin American tradition of scary stories and songs with the world of the advice column. The cinema also inherited the melodrama which, in its Hollywood version, worked out the visual grammar the television soap opera was to draw on. Whether it was in order to adopt it or to combat it – from Griffith to King Vidor, Douglas Sirk, or Elia Kazan – the cinema reinvented the melodrama, once again transforming it into a popular show which mobilized the great masses.
When the spectator cheered or booed, it was not to express his judgment of the quality of the performance, but rather to demonstrate his identification with the fate of the heroes he saw on the screen. Without judging them, he made his own the adventures of characters endowed with a kind of reality which transcended the idea of performance. (García Riera 1974: 16)

This is the same kind of identification which now underlies the passion inspired by the soap opera. [278]
For the Latin American public did not perceive the cinema as a specifically artistic or cultural phenomenon. The real
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7 reason for its success was its relation to life. This public saw the cinema as an opportunity to experiment: to adopt new habits and to see cultural codes – iterated (and dramatized with the voices that they would have liked) have and to hear –. They did not go to the movies to dream; they went) learn. (Monsiváis 1980: 16)

Cinema which was largely melodramatic, like that of Mexico, played a ritual role in the formation of popular urban experience and culture. According o Carlos Monsiváis, this took place through three devices which shape the structure of the television melodrama. One is theatricalization, that is, the staging and legitimization of gestures, peculiarities of speech, and sentimental paradigms. Another is degradation, which identifies the popular as "lower class," characterizing it as "filial love, laziness, sentimentality, the programmed humiliation of women, religious fanaticism and a fetishist aspect for private property" (Monsiváis 1976: 86). The last is modernization: myths are brought up to date, and access is given to new ways of speaking. The soap opera learned from the movies to use the melodrama to articulate any subject, no matter what it was: the connection of the national spic with private dramas, the displaying of eroticism under the pretext of condemning incest, the tearful dilution of tragic impulses, and the depoliticization of the contradictions of daily life.
The genre and its forms in television

The site of osmosis between memory and form, the soap opera bears witness to the long experience of the market in converting the business of culture into a negotiation between the logic of the system of production – standardization and profitability – and the dynamics of cultural heterogeneity. To understand the soap opera, it is necessary to
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8 take its plural identity into account. This plurality must be understood not only in terms of the difference introduced by the diversity of the conditions of production in different countries,3 but also in terms of the variations of the genre itself. There are two extremely different and widely recognized "variations" as well as different versions of these two "models." The first model, based on the Cuban radio soap (Bermúdez 1979), has given form to a serious genre, in which heartrending, tragic suffering predominates. This format depicts exclusively primordial feelings and passions, excluding all ambiguity or complexity from the dramatic space. That is to say, references to places and times are blurred or neutralized. In 1968, the Brazilian soap opera Beto Rockefeller initiated the construction of another model. This model, without completely breaking with the melodramatic one, incorporates a realism which permits the "situating of the narrative in [279] everyday life" (Pignatari 1984: 60), as well as within a specifically national reality. The first model constitutes the secret of the success of the Mexican soap opera from Los ricos también lloran (The Rich Aiso Weep) to Cuna de lobos (Cradle of Wolves) as well as of the Venezuelan soap opera from Lucecita to Cristal. The second model has earned recognition for the Brazilian soap opera, from La Esclava Isaura (Isaura, the Slave) to Roque Santeiro, and for the Colombian, from Pero sigo siendo el Rey (But I am Still King) to Caballo Viejo (Old Horse).

Concerning this point see the following: R. Ortiz, S. H. Borelli, and I. Ortiz Ramos, Telenovela: história e produção (Sao Paulo: Brasiliense, 1989); M. Coccato, "Apuntes para una historia de la telenovela venezolana," Videoforum (1-3) (Caracas, 1979); I. González, Las vetas del encanto: por los veneros de la producción mexicana de telenovelas, mimeograph (Colima, Mexico, 1990).
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In the first model, the central conflicts have to do with kinship. The structure of social roles is crudely Manichean and the characters are purely signs. But in the Mexican soap opera, this simplicity of characterization is adorned with a baroque density of mise-en-scene, and a sophistication of wardrobe and make-up. In recent years, the modernization of the staging and the quickening of the visual rhythm have been added to the above elements. The Venezuelan soap opera, on the other hand, translates its schematicism into scenographic and visual austerity, carrying primary orality to an extreme. We find out what is happening in the story not because of what the characters do, but rather because of what they say and tell each other. This dramatic elementality and narrative austerity, expertly wielded, have met with enormous success and commanded great loyalty from viewers. In the second model, the rigidity of models and ritualizations is perforated by imaginaries of class and territory, of sex and age. At the same time, the expressive possibilities opened up by film, advertising, and videos are explored. The characters are liberated from the weight of destiny. No longer solely great symbols, they come closer to the routines of everyday life and the ambiguities of history, to the speech patterns and customs of different regions. In the Brazilian soap opera, the reference to different areas of the country, to moments in its history and industrial transformation is depicted through a story which utilizes two different concepts of time. The sweeping time frame of the newspaper serial – in which the history of various generations unfolds – is connected with the fragmented visual discourse of advertising (Mattelart and Mattelart 1987). In the Colombian soap opera, the references to the nation are shot through with an ironic vein which incorporates a national tradition of the satiric literature of manners. In this way, it becomes possible to make fun of melodrama and to revisit the rewww.mediaciones.net

10 gions of the country as a recognizable and shared dimension of national plurality. The Latin American soap opera is varied in its narrative methods, dramatic material, and visual scripts. Nevertheless, it owes a great part of its success – at least in terms of the Latin American public – to its capacity to make an archaic narrative the repository for propositions to modernize some dimensions of life. The evolution and diversification of the genre has gradually introduced new themes and perspectives. It is true that the limits of the universe represented in the soap opera are strongly defined by the absence of social conflicts whose appearance would threaten the dramatic schema. Still, [280] despite this, the public's complicity with the genre is in part due to the soap opera's permeability to the transformations of modern life. Of course, the modernization of customs is disguised by perennial values and strait-jacketed by multiple rituals. Changes make their appearance sheltered ideologically by their links to the myth of progress and development. However, what is important is that a certain kind of soap opera has made room for itself: a soap opera in which social hierarchies lose their rigidity and in which the social fabric of loyalties and submissions is more complex. The distances between the poor and the rich, men and women, adults and young people are both exposed and turned topsy-turvy by the introduction of mediations and movements which show the other side of the tangled web of humiliations and revenges. Even in the "lowest" social sectors, the struggle for survival is shown to be also a struggle to be someone, for neither dignity nor opportunism, are found on only one side. New social actors and professions have been appearing, widening the horizons of the "soap operaizable." They are new in so far as they are seen as life-worlds that are present in the story not to serve a function in the inevitable unfoldMemory and Form in the Latin American Soap Opera

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ing of the plot, but as figures which unveil new forms of social relations, of cultural breaches, and moral conflicts. Finally, these indicators of modernity, which in many cases form part of the mechanisms of construction of the credibility of a story – and of the renovation required by the business – tell us something else. They indicate how it is that the identities present in the soap opera are not purely a deceptive nostalgia but rather a dimension of living and dreaming with which Latin Americans construct their present. Laden with heavy narrative schemas and complicitous, deceptive ideological inertia, soap operas form part of the recreational devices of the Latin American imaginary. The formation of this imaginary points to the strategic place the image-producing industries occupy today in the construction of identity. It indicates as well the marketplace's long experience in condensing knowledge that both shapes human aspirations and social demands and makes them motives of profit. This experience permits the cultural industry to use the repetitive structure of the serial to capture the ritualized dimensions of everyday life.
The soap opera in the national and transnational audiovisual space

What has made soap operas into a strategic enclave for the Latin American audiovisual production is their weight in the television market as well as the role that they play in the production and reproduction of the images Latin American peoples make of themselves, and by which others recognize them. This fact makes it indispensable to analyze the different meanings of the soap opera on the national, regional, and transnational plane, as well as its importance within these planes.

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12 [281] Not only in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela – the principal exporting countries – but also in Argentina, Colombia, Chile, and Peru, the soap opera is a determining factor in the "national capacity for television" (Portales 1987: 8). It influences the extension and consolidation of television production, the industrialization of its processes, the modernization of its infrastructure – technical and financial – and the specialization of its resources: scriptwriters, directors, cameramen, sound engineers, lighting technicians, designers, and editors. Soap opera production has meant, in turn, a certain appropriation of the genre by each country, that is, its nationalization. On the one hand, it is true that the soap opera implies rigid stereotypes in its dramatic outline and strong conditioning elements in its visual grammar, as required and reinforced by the logic of a market with increasingly transnational tendencies. It is also true, however, that each individual country has made the soap opera into a special place for the cross-breeding between television and other cultural fields: theater, cinema, and literature. In many countries, production began by importing scripts, in the same way that scripts for radio soaps used to be imported from Cuba or Argentina. In the beginning, the dependence on the radio format was strong, especially because of the transfer of radio script-writers to television and because of the conception of the image as the mere illustration of a "spoken drama." However, this dependence was gradually broken in the process of the industrialization of television and of the production teams' "conquest" of the medium, that is, their appropriation of its expressive qualities. It was then that the soap opera became a conflictive terrain of cultural redefinition. In countries like Brazil, highly esteemed theatrical actors, film directors, and prestigious left-wing writers were incorporated into the production of soap operas. However, in other countries, television in
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general and the soap opera in particular were rejected by managers and workers in legitimate culture as the most dangerous of traps and the most degrading of professional fields. In all Latin American countries, however, the crisis in cinema and politics has driven many artists, writers, and actors into television and the soap opera. In spite of the commercial controls on the genre, these artists are introducing themes and styles into the soap opera which deal with dimensions of national life and culture. The development of the soap opera and its role in the development of television in an appreciable number of Latin American countries is tied to its capacity to displace North American television series from prime-time spaces, a phenomenon that is linked to cultural and commercial reasons. The fact that the soap operas moved from the "housewives" time slot, in the middle of the day, to prime-time family hours, was because television viewers discovered something in the soap operas which North American serials, despite their visual attractiveness and narrative skill, did not offer: a complicity with certain markers of cultural identity like those pointed out previously. However, in the Latin American television industry, the soap opera's legitimization by its occupation of the "noblest" time slots in daily [282] programming also meant taking the step to audience management (Mattelart 1989: 77 ff.); that is to say, not only in terms of its quantitative measurement, but also in terms of sounding its demands and changing tastes. These processes imply transformations which go beyond and remodel the soap opera's nation-specific dimension. Two different but intimately connected dynamics are involved: one which pushes for Latin American integration, and another which mobilizes the world market. Within the Latin American space, the soap opera uses to its advantage the long process of massive, popular identification that was
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14 put into motion in the 1940s and 1950s by the Mexican and Argentinean cinema, and by the tango, the ranchera, and the bolero. It is a process of sentimental integration of the different Latin American countries – a standardization of ways of feeling and expressing, of gestures and sounds, dance rhythms, and narrative cadences – made possible by the cultural industries of radio and cinema. The soap opera and the logic of its production and consumption are a landmark in the development of this dynamic of integration. That is to say, they are the place where the references and motives of Latin American integration – the countries in their national plurality and cultural diversity – are influenced by the dynamic of transnational globalization of the world market. The internationalization of the soap opera thus responds to the movement of activation and recognition of that which is specifically Latin American in a television genre which began by exporting national hits. Contradictorily, this internationalization also responds to the movement of progressive neutralization of the characteristics of Latin American-ness in a genre which the logic of the world market must convert into transnational from the time of its production. Brazil was the pioneer. TV-Globo internationalized the soap opera by exporting its hits to Portugal beginning in 1975, and swept away geographical and political borders when it introduced its soap operas in Spain, Denmark, England, and Japan. La Esclava lsaura (lsaura the Slave) was declared the best television program of the last ten years in Poland and was seen by 450 million television viewers in the People's Republic of China. Meanwhile, Televisa de México concentrated first on Latin American and Hispanic audiences in the United States. Beginning in the middle of the 1980s, it restructured its international commercialization strategy, making its presence felt in Europe and North Africa with such enormous hits as Los ricos también lloran
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(The Rich Also Weep) which are broadcast from Italy to present-day Russia. In recent years, the reordering of European national television systems, the privatization and expansion of channels, and the introduction of cable and satellite dishes have increased programming hours, opening the market to the internationalization of Venezuelan, Argentinean, Colombian, and Peruvian soap operas. However, production for a global market implies the generalization of narrative models and the thinning out of cultural characteristics. Certainly, Televisa and TV-Globo's entrance into the world audiovisual [283] market shows the level of development that has been attained by Latin American television businesses. It also signifies, in some measure, the opening of cracks in the hegemony of the United States and in the division between North and South America, that is, between countries considered to be producers and those considered to be exclusively consumers. It signifies as well, however, the tendency for Latin American audiovisual businesses to mold the image of their people in terms of audiences which are more and more undifferentiated, the tendency to dissolve cultural difference into cheap and profitable exo-ticism.

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References

Bermúdez, M. (1979) "La radionovela: una semiósis entre el pecado y la redención," Videoforum 2. García Riera, E. (1974) El cine y su público, Mexico: FCE. Marques de Melo, J. (1989) Produção e exportaçao da ficção brasileira: caso da TV Globo, São Paulo: UNESCO. Mattelart, M. (1989) L' internationale publicitaire, Paris: La Découverte. Mattelart, M. and Mattelart, A. (1987) Le carnaval des images: la fiction bresilienne, Paris: La Documentation Française. Monsiváis, C. (1976) "Notas sobre la cultura mexicana en el siglo XX," in Historia general de México, 4 vols (Mexico), vol. 4. –– (1980) "Cultura urbana y creación cultural," Casa de las Américas 116 (86). Ong, W. J. (1987) Oralidad y escritura, México: FCE. Ortiz, F. (1973) Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y del azucar, Barcelona: Ariel. Pignatari, D. (1984) Signagem da television, São Paulo: Brasiliense. Portales, D. (1987) La dificultad de innovar: Un estudio sobre las empresas de televisión en América Latina, Santiago: ILET. Rivera, J. B. (1982) El folletín, Buenos Aires: CEDAL. [284]

Memory and Form in the Latin American Soap Opera

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