Photo by Ahri Vi
I used to love novelas. My fondest memories are of those sitting next to my grandma on the bed, in front of those old-school, chunky black TVs. There, I was completely enthralled in whatever ridiculous storyline Telemundo came up with in order to entertain señoras across the US. My dad hated novelas, blaming them for my often dramatic and exaggerated nature. My grandma justified my viewing of them as a way for me to learn about “the real world,” though I don’t really think novelas are great reflections of reality. My personal favorites growing up were Dame chocolate, Doña Barbara, El clon, and El cuerpo del deseo. Though most of them included material not suited for children, I really missed the type of novelas from the early 2000s. There wasn’t such an emphasis on drug wars as there is in novelas of the 2010s and 2020s. Most of them focused on love stories, and so many scandalous situations such as forbidden love, getting with a younger man after your husband cheated on you on your anniversary, and even some sci-fi aspects like a woman being frozen for twenty years and coming back to life.
And while I look back on novelas with nostalgia, I can’t help but be critical of them as an adult. There’s an endless list of issues with novelas, but none is as glaring as its lack of diversity. Though the term Latino/Latine has become racialized, it is not a race, but rather an ethnicity. That basically means that there is no “one way” of looking Latino/Latine, yet the only people I saw as leading roles in novelas were white Latinos, or at the very least, ethnically ambiguous Latine people. I know that as a very pale, ethnically ambiguous person, I can’t really say I wasn’t represented, however it never felt right. Especially since most of the novelas I watched took place in either Mexico, Colombia, or a major US city. There should be more Afro-Latinos, Latinos with indigeneous ancestry, even Asian and SWANA Latinos in Latine media! Even when the novelas would have Afro and indigenous Latinos, they are usually of lighter complexion and/or they fall into the servant or villain roles. Another issue many have is that novelas often feel like propaganda for machismo, purity culture, and other ideals that hold up the patriarchal and racist systems in Latin America.
The female protagonist, often a white or ethnically ambiguous Latina, is always pure and a virgin who waits till marriage. If she isn’t a virgin or has sex before marriage, she will at the very least only sleep with the male protagonist who she ends up marrying by the end of the show. She’ll always have a second love interest who is infinitely better than the first one, but she’ll always choose the male protagonist because of “true love” or something like that. And we can’t forget the obligatory love rival, a woman who is the complete opposite of the protagonist. The love rival is usually darker than the protagonist (though in many cases not that much darker), promiscuous, uses her sexuality in order to get farther in her evil plans in separating the main couple of the show, and always gets her karma by the end. The love rival is often the most iconic character in the show, as they are so overdramatic in their schemes of ruining the protagonist’s life. Even if you don’t watch novelas, you know who the love rival is. The “gasp in Spanish,” meme is actually from Maria la del barrio, a 90’s novela. The woman “gasping in Spanish,” is Soraya Montenegro, who if I had to describe in one single word, it’d be “camp.” She is so extra, even for a novela villain. The only “protagonist” that comes to mind that defies these norms is the titular Teresa, who moves much more like a love rival, but even in her own show, she is framed as the bad guy.
There are more problems I could mention; the classism always portraying the protagonists as high-class people, or the main goal is to become high-class; the lack of non-stereotypical queer representation; the villainization of disabled people and people with mental illness; and the constant reboots of old novelas instead of coming up with new ideas. It’s gotten so bad that Telemundo has now resorted to getting the rights to show Turkish soap operas instead of coming up with new storylines. I actually don’t mind, because I have come to discover that Turkish soap operas are on a completely higher level of drama. However, my biggest gripe with novelas comes from a personal place. For so long, I held onto novelas as a way to connect with my Latin identity. I was a second-gen kid who could barely speak Spanish, and when I did, I would constantly get made fun of because it was horrible, even by pacho standards.
However, I relied on novelas to teach me Spanish, and while I didn’t seek this out, they were actually the way I learned how to read in Spanish. We would always lose the remote to our clunky TV, and sometimes before losing the remote, we would accidentally put the closed captioning on. We were stuck with the subtitles on the screen until we managed to find the remote. My eyes naturally gravitated towards the words and followed along as the characters spoke. Not only did this teach me how to read in Spanish, but it helped me understand the grammatical rules that I so suffered in. And yet, despite my connection to novelas, novelas never let me forget that I was an American who happened to be Latina, not a Latina Americana. I don’t think I’ll ever truly outgrow novelas. I still like dramas, drabbling in K-Dramas and J-Dramas here and there, and now I’m currently binging the Turkish drama Hercai. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with watching novelas, as they are a comfort media for me. They remind me of my childhood, and I’m pretty sure that once my grandma is no longer with us, they’ll be the reminders of our bond. However, I’ve come to realize that I can critique the media I consume and still enjoy it. I can like something and still wish it would improve. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have kids, but if I do, I hope that by the time they’re old enough to sit on the bed with me and watch novelas, they can feel truly represented.