San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

How Do You Say “Soap Opera” in Spanish?

ONE Christmasback home in Oregon,I had to lie onthe couch for severaldays with a severesinus infection and,of necessity, watchsoap operas with mymother. To my amazement,many of themwere the same ones Iremember hearingabout as a child.Whether they reallywere the same, I don’tknow. What I remember,other than the harrowing headache, iswatching a series of the same willowyblondes, all with glistening red lips, and thesame square-jawed guys, all with goldchains – all hatching the same sad plots, livingthe same sad love stories, committingthe same sad adultery. When I got well, Ivowed I would never watch another soapopera again.Never say never, so they say. At thattime, I knew nothing of “Terra nostra,”“Tierra esperanza” or “El clavel y la rosa.”But let me backtrack a bit.First of all, soap operas are called novelasin Spanish. Yes, it is also the Spanishword for “novel,” as it well should be.After all, watching a story unfold day afterday is really very much like reading anovel. Moreover, many of them are aired atnight, so a lot of men watch them, too.Though there are fewer blondes andmore men with mustaches, most Spanishsoaps are, like their Gringo counterparts,maudlin, melodramatic, moronic andmonotonous. Despite this, there are somenotable differences.One is that they all have a beginningand, wonder of wonders, an end! It maytake months and months for them to reachtheir end, but, unlike the eternal nature of“All My Children,” we get to say goodbyeto them.A second difference is that many ofthem are period pieces. That is, they takeplace in another time, sometimes in anotherculture. This makes for great costumesand sets, but, of course, doesn’t make upfor saccharine scripts and poor acting.A third difference is that some of themare comedies. A couple of years ago,everyone was obsessively watching aColombian novela called “Betty la fea”(Betty the Ugly). This was followed byanother called “Pedro el escamoso”(escamoso literally means “scaly,” but ithas the idiomatic meaning of “slippery”).Despite the fact that several Costa Ricans Irespected told me that these programs werereally funny, I refused to participate. I wasnot going to waste my time.Then I just happened to tune in onenight when a Brazilian soap, dubbed inSpanish, was beginning. To my surprise,the title, “Terra nostra” (Our Land), was inItalian, and the theme song came from theItalian opera “Cavalleria rusticana.” I can’tresist anything that has to do with Italy, so Iwatched it, and, frankly, I got hooked.This brings us to the final and mostastonishing difference between Gringo andLatin soaps. Some of them are good – verygood! At least, I can testify that theBrazilian ones are good, which leaves openthe possibility that there are other qualityworks as well. Perhaps I really missed outby avoiding Ugly Betty and Slippery Pedro.Set at the end of the 19th century,“Terra nostra” was about the Italians whoimmigrated to Brazil in great numbers towork in the coffee fields. Old Italian songscomprised all of the background music,and in between scenes played old film clipsof the Brazil of that time. Not only was itextremely well done, it was also full ofinteresting history.The next novela I saw was “Tierraesperanza” (Land of Hope). It was alsoabout the Italians in Brazil, this time, theones in the city and in a later period. It wasof the same quality as “Terra nostra,” andcontained certain elements from Verdi’sopera “La Traviata” (or the French novelfrom which the opera came). Again, it wasextremely well done.Then I watched the comedy “El clavel yla rosa” (The Carnation and the Rose). Now,I am a comedy snob. I consider most ofthem just plain stupid in several languages,and I ruin them for everyone in my vicinity.I loved this one. It was set in the 1920s, butmany of the characters and elements of theplot were based on Shakespeare’s “TheTaming of the Shrew.” Shakespeare’s plots,some of which are not far from soap operathemselves, do not automatically make forexcellence, but in this case, the authors andthe director managed to capture the spirit ofShakespeare’s delightful characters. It wasyet another success.So, history, opera, Shakespeare, qualityscripts, good acting. Latin television,which doesn’t have a particularly goodtrack record in many areas, manages attimes to excel in, of all things, that whichwe call “soap opera.”The question I would ask here is why?Why do North American soaps go on foreverinstead of running like a novel? Whyare there no period pieces or comedies?Most of all, why aren’t there at least a fewof quality?If you have an idea about this, send mean e-mail at

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