Sunday, June 29, 2008

When Luis Alberto met Mariana Villareal - The Slavic Invasion by Mexican Soap Operas

The other night, as a girlfriend of mine and I were wrapping up a girl's night out in Central Park, I couldn't help but check the time on my watch with 2 min intervals desperately trying to make it in time for nine p.m. No... Not what you think! There was no prince charming waiting impatiently by CVS for a goodnight kiss... It was even tackier than that, trust me. Can I really admit it? OK, let's try: I didn't want to miss my daily doze of a horrible, cheesy Russian soap opera on one of the cable channels - crazy or what??? Never been much of a housewife, or quite frankly have NEVER been a housewife (not yet, anyway) and not big on romantic novels either, so what's this all about? Nostalgia - that's it!

Years ago, when I was still a little girl, Russian TV aired the very 1st Latin American soap opera which became an instant sensation across the Soviet Union. You may find it unbelievable but this is actually true - in 1996, President Boris Yeltsin decided to broadcast a popular Brazilian soap on election day in an effort to keep voters away from the polls!

And as for American soaps - do any of you remember the endless saga by the name of "Santa Barbara"? The show was a huge hit in Russia, being the first American program to air there after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Being the first soap opera of "insane" length and complicated twists (Latin American soap operas aired earlier were generally not longer than 200 series), the very name of it became the local ironical denominative of soap operas and, even more so, of long stories about personal love filled with all sorts of madly entangled interpersonal twists.

Who would've thought that foreign telenovelas would have made such an incredible impact on such a huge, vastly populated nation, and in fact the entire Soviet block. But trust me, it's actually true - even as a little kid, I remember the entire capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, and later Moscow after we moved there, being completely taken by the lives and dramas of all of the characters of these soap operas.

I just came across an article about Russians finding their utter heroes in Mexican soaps, which was written and published in The NY Times in 1994. Here's an excerpt:

"In her gala opening performance at the Rossiya concert hall, Victoria Ruffo did not dance. Or sing. Or tell jokes. For two hours, against a giant backdrop of billowing sequined white tulle, the Mexican star of Russia's favorite soap opera, "Simply Maria," sat in an armchair on stage.

With the help of an interpreter, Ms. Ruffo chatted in Spanish with a bubbly Russian master of ceremonies and at the end, she answered a few questions from an audience of more than 2,000.

Russians are addicted to television soap operas, particularly to Mexican soap operas like "Simply Maria." When communication workers went on strike last month and the show starring Ms. Ruffo did not air, the protest calls were so ferocious that the Government quickly acceded to the strikers' demands."

Crazy, isn't it? Not in the slightest bit exaggerated either, I can tell you this from my personal experience - people were SO hooked on these nonsensical addictions, it was basically the only real entertainment and stress relief for our people back then.

And by the way, these soap operas were a million times bigger in Russia than in their countries of origin:

"I had never heard of Victoria Ruffo before," explained Zarina Martinez Borresen, the cultural attache at the Mexican Embassy in the mid 90's. "The show doesn't have the same success at home as it does here."

I remember my grandparents, who really were very bright and busy and all the rest of it, don't get me wrong, discussing the details of every episode as though Maria's problems had really been their own. "Did you see how Juan Carlos looked at her when she told him about the baby?", "Do you think Maria is going to stay with Victor or go back to Juan Carlos?", etc. No kidding, I'm dead serious!

Missing an episode was the biggest small tragedy in every family back then - even the husbands who initially criticized and laughed at their sentimental Soviet wives became addicted to it little by little. "Forget the soccer, 'The Rich Cry, Too' (Los Ricos Tambien Lloran) is on television!" It was that intense.

But unfortunately (or rather - fortunately) the undying enthusiasm wore off with time as we became more open and exposed to some of the more intellectually stimulating forms of Western art, television, entertainment, etc. It is in our blood though - even now.

Sometimes my friends and I laugh about it, we still remember some of the crazy plots and names of characters - it's quite nostalgic of us, if you think about it, and may seem a bit "retarded" to others, but it really was a part of that whole political "collapse" - and perhaps in many ways, it helped to make that transition a little more bearable and slightly less "shocking"?

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