Europeans and North Americans may be loath to give up their Latin American stereotypes, but the accessibility of sophisticated Mexican shows to foreign audiences may, slowly, work against the clichés says Professor Paul Julian Smith.
Most unusually Mexican television made the news in two relatively recent moments. The first was the ‘Soraya meme’. This social media sensation was taken from a sequence in María la del Barrio (‘María of the Slums’) in which a villainess engages in a bout of virtuoso overacting that includes pitching a girl with disabilities out of her wheelchair.
Soraya’s tear-stained face went viral with the mocking pseudo-subtitle ‘Cries in Spanish’. The second was the narco-novela. The Guardian wrote that two little-known Mexican politicians had loudly decried the supposed rise of this violent TV genre with its glorification of drug barons. The distinguishing features of Mexico, and more broadly Latin America, were thus identified as emotionalism and violence, implicitly contrasted with the cool rationalism of Europe and the US.
I was bemused when contacted by the Guardian journalist as he was preparing his piece. From my frequent trips to Mexico I was aware that trends in telenovela have fluctuated over the decades; and that, although recent years had brought a measure of greater realism, Cinderella-style romance was still stripped for hours over prime-time in Televisa, the dominant network. If one were to attack Mexican broadcasting, it might be more for escapism than for emotional or physical violence.
Moreover, the narco-novelascited in the Guardian piece were actually produced in the US for Spanish-speaking network Telemundo. For its part María la del barrio, the original source of the meme, was now 20 years old, and was itself a remake of an even older title Los ricos también lloran (The rich also weep). It was thus debatable how much the two examples cited in the foreign media corresponded to local trends and much less to lived experience in Mexico.
There is a strong academic argument for the defence of traditional telenovela or serial melodrama as a distinctive Latin American genre, exported around the world, and as a rare mode of television fiction made about and for women. Yet it remains the case that the heritage genre of telenovela is now showing signs of stress even in its own traditional markets. And two recent series broadcast free-to-air on Mexican TV serve as antidotes to the melodramatic clichés peddled by foreigners, whether on the internet or in the quality press.
El sexo débil (The weaker sex) starred Itatí Cantoral, the same actress who had played Soraya years before, but this time as an independent young woman who ditches her bridegroom at the altar. The premise of this relatively realist drama, exemplified by its cast of three brothers abandoned by their wives, is that in a rapidly changing modern Mexico gender stereotypes no longer apply. It is telling that the only character with a lasting relationship is gay. And the series’ title refers not to women, but to men, with its tagline reading: ‘As long as we are macho, we will be the weaker sex’.
A second example is miniseries Juan Gabriel, based on the life of Mexico’s most beloved singer-songwriter, who died suddenly (melodramatically) in the week that the last episode was broadcast. A bio-series packed with glorious songs, the show is also a hidden history of social violence in Mexico, charting the ravages of poverty and homophobia over some 50 years via the story of its initially penniless and enduringly gay subject. Unlike the foreign-made narco-novelas, these series were shown in prime-time to local audiences in their millions.
While the mass Mexican audiences for social themes may be new, the themes themselves are not. Minority public channel Canal Once has constructed over a decade a canon of quality TV via a clutch of sophisticated dramas and comedies. XY treated once more the decline of the Mexican macho, this time in the professional setting of a glossy magazine for men. Soy tu fan (I’m Your Fan) charted the complex love life of a slacker student in her upmarket Mexico City neighbourhood. And Crónica de castas (Chronicle of Castes) treated the taboo topic of race, while sketching a warm portrait of a diverse working class barrio in a less privileged part of the capital.
Most recently new streaming services have offered edgy comedies, impossible to imagine on the traditional networks. Club de Cuervos (Crows Club, globally distributed by Netflix) is a smart and funny football sitcom, dealing tangentially with themes such as feminism and homophobia once more. Run, Coyote, Run (available on the Fox Networks’ app) takes as its premise the potentially traumatic topic of people smuggling on the frontier with the USA, focusing on the lifelong friendship of a Mexican and an American. The series, which attracted the largest audiences in the country last year, is a self-described ‘border comedy in the Trump era’.
New Mexican TV production, which I study in my new book Spanish and Latin American Television Drama, thus speaks back defiantly to the Global North.
European and North American publics may well be loath to give up their Latin American stereotypes. Emotion and violence have long served for cultural othering. But the new accessibility of sophisticated Mexican shows to foreign audiences may, slowly, work against the clichés. And ‘crying in Spanish’ may no longer seem the norm.
Paul Julian Smith is Distinguished Professor in the Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures Program at the Graduate Center in City University of New York, where he teaches courses in Spanish-language media. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and, prior to joining the Graduate Center, was professor of Spanish at the University of Cambridge. Follow him on Twitter: @pauljuliansmith.