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Errant Telenovelas

The death-dealing powers of state TV

An opening pan over an enormous estate tells us that we are in for a story of obscene wealth. We cut to the hand of a woman dressed in crimson silk, in a gesture that seems almost like a response to that pan, caressing a photograph of three men in suits. In a mirror we see reflected the older of the three, dressing himself with assurance: “¿Contenta con la familia que engañaste?” (“Happy with the family you’ve deceived?”). He has just learned the woman’s “secret” (whatever that may be, since we ourselves do not know yet), though it is only in now offering his threats—“¡Voy a cambiar el testamento!” (“I’m going to change the will!”)—that the target of his remarks shifts her head, revealing a standalone eyepatch made of the very same silk as her outfit.

She is Catalina Creel (María Rubio) of the 1986–1987 series Cuna de lobos (Cradle of Wolves), one of the great “antagonists” in Mexican telenovelas, and her husband Don Carlos (Raúl Meraz) is threatening divorce. Upon his departure from the scene the camera’s anxious movements intensify, again following Catalina’s hand as she pulls out a vial of poison from a drawer: now apparently alone, she says to herself, “No me dejas otra alternativa, Carlos: eres tú o yo” (“You leave me no other alternative, Carlos: it’s either you or me”).

This peculiar space of reflections—mirrored fabrics, mirrored gestures—suggests that, despite these seemingly hackneyed lines, we cannot quite be in the realm of parody. Instead, we are in the realm of a popular national genre in full command of itself.

The Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis observed that the characters in telenovelas do not dialogue with each other: they tell gossip about themselves. In the same sense they do not monologue either. In Cuna de lobos, Catalina will often confess her machinations to a moving camera, revealing not just a Brechtian complicity between actor and apparatus but also a feeling that the secrets of all the show’s characters are coming to them secondhand. And their words were coming to them from outside, specifically through an electronic earpiece (apuntador), whose invention has been variably attributed to either Alberto Noya Reyes or Roberto Cañedo, and thanks to which Mexican telenovelas arrived at both their breakneck production schedules and their style: those moments of the real spilling out of fast deployments of continually retold stories.

These shows were a central piece of the Televisa network’s (colonial, racializing, neoliberal) propaganda machine. Emilio Azcárranga Milmo, Televisa’s CEO from 1972–1997, could be remarkably forthcoming about the network’s close relation to the then-ruling PRI party and, later, the network’s enthusiasm for that ideologically protean party’s brutal and cartoonish enforcer of neoliberalism, interests of the Global North, and the private sacking of state assets: the president from 1988–1994, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. It is common to refer to Azcárranga Milmo as “a soldier of the PRI and of the president,” following a widely reproduced supposed self-attribution (though accounts of the date and exact wording differ significantly). In another famous statement in 1993, toward the end of Salinas’s presidency, Azcárranga Milmo described Mexico as characterized by a permanently “jodido” (“fucked”) “modest class,” to whom TV’s obligation is to provide distraction from an irreparable future.

We cannot quite be in the realm of parody. Instead, we are in the realm of a popular national genre in full command of itself.

Unlike U.S. soap operas, which can run for decades, Latin American telenovelas typically tell a contained story over the course of about a year, but which can be continually reprised within the same shifting world of a national medium and its stock actors. Thus, the propaganda ambitions of a private network like Televisa are designed to survive social vicissitudes in the form of recurring fairy tales. The main conceit of certain Cinderella telenovelas produced by Televisa’s Valentín Pimstein, like the María trilogy starring pop singer Thalía, which aired from 1993–1996, was the drama of how the incongruity of seeing a white woman in poverty, whose “innocence” is coded by her being named “María,” will be resolved by her marriage into a wealthy white family. The model goes as far back as Pimstein’s María Isabel in 1966, though of course its roots are much deeper. In any case María Mercedes (1992) remakes the Cinderella Rina (1977); Marimar (1994) remakes La venganza (1977) on a beach; and María la del barrio (1995–1996) remakes the internationally popular Los ricos también lloran (The Rich Also Cry, 1979).

Relying on this fairy-tale model, Televisa presented hierarchy as natural: the sources of all value in these telenovelas rosas were those estates in wealthy areas of Mexico City like Las Lomas and Pedregal (whose denizens had long co-opted the iconography of the Mexican Revolution and the country’s brief history of social democratic ambitions in the form of the PRI). The endless sacrifice of impoverished women would ultimately pay off, so long as they were white. The natural order would be restored, with those envious or embittered “antagonists” to that order thoroughly dispatched. It was the world outside the screen—any threat to hierarchy as such, and especially any assertion of rights by Mexico’s indigenous peoples—that was made to seem “unnatural.”

Supposedly we live in different times. Despite the view prevalent among the U.S. bourgeoisie and its international proxies that “prestige television” is all the contemporary fiction TV worth remarking on, telenovelas remain enormously popular in the Global South. And yet, among telenovela fans and experts in Mexico, I’ve never met anyone who thought that the current, “opened-up” novelas in 4K and 8K held anything like the intrigue of those acartonado (“cardboard,” referring to both sets and acting) series of the 1980s and 1990s. Gone are those days when 80 percent of Mexico’s TV viewers could be paralyzed by the finale of Cuna de lobos, or when one of its actors (Humberto Elizondo) could be detained by customs at the airport in Tijuana for interrogation about how the show would conclude.

Two decades have passed since Monsiváis observed how U.S.-style reality shows in Latin America had corralled those melodramatic powers previously associated with telenovelas. A quarter-century has passed since some famous figures of the Mexican left (journalists Epigmenio Ibarra, Carlos Payán, and Hernán Vera) attempted to overhaul the telenovela format in the form of “realist” shows like Nada personal and Mirada de mujer on Televisa’s then-new competitor, TV Azteca, whose themes ranged from political corruption to finding love in late middle age. Nearly four decades have passed since Televisa’s “golden age,” marked by shows like Cuna de lobos, which—while never breaking with the network’s racial whitewashing of Mexican society—displayed a modernist self-consciousness (dramatic moments always seemed like already spectated-upon scenes, while minor characters reacted as incredulous eyewitnesses to absurdity) rooted in its creators’ background in theater.

Mexico’s current progressive president has declared an end to neoliberalism, which has at least meant that there exists a wide, popular sense that a single ideology prevailed from the mid-1980s, across Mexico’s “democratic opening” in 2000, to the recent presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto. Peña Nieto’s sleek veneer and marriage to telenovela actress Angélica Rivera (known as “La Gaviota” in 2007’s Destilando amor) led to comparisons with Televisa melodramas well before his presidency collapsed in scandals, corruption, and covers-up of state crimes. Telenovela presidencies are not only for domestic consumption: a 2014 cover of Time was devoted to a vacantly grinning Peña Nieto and his neoliberal “reforms” (including privatizing public oil, energy, and water assets) under the title “Saving Mexico.” Later that same year members of his administration would be allegedly involved in covering up the true story behind the disappearance of forty-three students in Iguala, Guerrero, with a load of falsehoods from the attorney general’s office (fueled by statements allegedly made under torture) that Televisa obediently parroted.

Today Salinas and Peña Nieto (as well as the likewise brutal but hardly made-for-TV Felipe Calderón of the right-wing PAN party, architect of Mexico’s calamitous U.S.-backed “War on Drugs”) all live in Spain, seemingly afraid of prosecution in Mexico. Do they belong to the past? Televisa’s continuing importance as an agent of propaganda suggests that those televisual models honed during the heyday of neoliberalism in Mexico will be endlessly adaptable.

But Televisa is indeed a shadow of its former self: its once-dominant share of popular attention and ratings was long diluted before its recent merger with U.S.-based Univision. On the surface, its history of propaganda-via-fiction would seem to live on primarily as sardonic, backward-looking memes—like the exigent, pistol-wielding Soraya Montenegro (Itatí Cantoral) from María la del barrio (1995–1996), originally a foil for Thalía’s titular working-class María. Soraya’s infamously overacted presumptions of class superiority maintain some level of niche resonance, a trans-cultural fascination with high camp that has persisted even in the age of prestige television. Take Netflix’s use of Soraya some years ago in promoting Orange is the New Black (part of a strategy of rehashing old Televisa characters to promote Netflix in Latin America that also saw Chilindrina from the 1973–1980 comedy El Chavo del 8 rendered as the precursor of Eleven in Stranger Things).

No matter how far Mexican society is from any given telenovela’s original airdate—and no matter whether its resurrection has taken the form of remakes, memes, reruns on Televisa’s “Las estrellas” channel, or streaming on platforms like ViX and Blim—its reception will typically be mediated by the history of who has handled the powers of the state, especially over matters of life and death. It is thus impossible to understand the popularity of either pistol-wielding Soraya or poison-wielding Catalina Creel without understanding the appeal of imagining to what narcissistic extremes the thinking of ordinary managers of one’s welfare might go. 

Like many people who are willing to talk about telenovelas, including other gringos, my connection to them has to do with a distant sound (“What’s being watched in the next room?”) and a woman of an older generation whom I regard as family. During the period in which I was living in Tlalpan, Mexico City, with my Mexican mother-in-law before her sudden passing in September 2018, the distant sound was the supposedly Moroccan chords marking commercial breaks in what my wife and I have since identified as a cable rebroadcast of the Telemundo-produced program El clon, a 2010 remake of the Brazilian O clone, about love between cultures in Morocco and Miami. In our minds, thanks to El clon, there was something that those months sounded like. It was always at a distance, much like when we were shaken by news of her death while we were away from Mexico City, in a different state.

The celebrated Chihuahua-born Chicana documentarian Lourdes Portillo, who plowed Mexican telenovelas of the early 1990s in recounting the drama surrounding her Uncle Oscar’s death in her 1994 film The Devil Never Sleeps, recalled to me her own early experiences: not of watching a telenovela but rather of listening to a radionovela version of Wuthering Heights (Cumbres Borrascosas) with her grandmother in Chihuahua. (Mexican telenovelas have their origins in listening, specifically in Cuban radionovelas of the 1940s, most notably El derecho de nacer by Félix B. Caignet.) The telenovela scholar Raquel G. Viguri told me that her connection to telenovelas arose from watching them with older female members of her family. And the Oaxacan curator and cultural manager, Gregorio “Goyo” Desgarennes, grew up watching telenovelas, but also recalls rewatching the 1993 version of Televisa’s period melodrama Corazón salvaje on ViX with his mother—there have been four versions of this televisual “immortal story” since 1966—and he mentioned the specific impact on him of hearing Countess Aimée’s (Ana Colchero) advice to her sister Countess Mónica (Edith González) that she should be more honest about her desires: “We feel the same things about men, only I express them, and you hide them.”

The emphatically private worlds of telenovelas are never as far from politics as they might seem. For example, Lourdes Portillo’s The Devil Never Sleeps is a film firmly rooted in the year of its release, 1994—the end of Salinas’s presidential administration—and Portillo briefly compares the mysteries surrounding her Uncle Oscar’s death by gunfire in Chihuahua (officially ruled a suicide) to the assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana earlier that same year. Portillo’s use of clips from three different telenovelas—two from Televisa that aired in 1993, Más allá del puente and Los parientes pobres, as well as a significant earlier one from Brazil’s Globo, Roque Santeiro (1985–1986)—is fascinating. The whitened Mexico of the Televisa telenovelas stands in striking contrast not only with the mestizo life in Chihuahua that Portillo profiles but also with the Afro-descendent Brazilians featured in the clip from Roque Santeiro. (The communications scholars Jesús Martín-Barbero and Germán Rey Beltrán associated Mexico with “traditional” telenovelas and Brazil with “modern” ones. Even those “vanguardista” Mexican telenovelas like Cuna de lobos, to which I will soon return, manifested the avant-garde within the tradition.)

Though Portillo told me that she was never very familiar with telenovelas until they became her prime metaphor for approaching her Uncle Oscar’s death, it is striking how liberally she seems to borrow the rhetoric of Pimstein-style telenovelas rosas in framing her family drama. The film effectively invites us to ask whether Oscar’s second wife Ofelia is a María or a Soraya (or rather, their earlier protagonist-antagonist equivalents), categories it ultimately undermines, as any truths about Ofelia and Uncle Oscar start to appear unreachable. Such borrowing obviously anticipates by three decades not only the current vogue for out-of-context uses of Soraya’s image in social media but also similar uses of Teresa (three Televisa versions since 1959) and Rubí (four Televisa versions since 1963) as commentaries on everyday situations in memes and on TikTok, where Teresa and Rubí become the meme-sharers’ surrogates for projecting envy in others, or measuring standards for their own qualities (“I’m more evil than Teresa!”).

Beyond its anticipating these contemporary economies for collating personal stories in The Devil Never Sleeps, Portillo’s work also insists on an ambivalence about melodramatizing history: on both its vivid-making powers (as in her own Columbus on Trial, 1992) and its horrors (as in the extreme falsifications of the newspaper El Norte regarding femicides in Ciudad Juárez, in her Señorita Extraviada, 2001, thus showing how scapegoating melodramatic villains can further systematic impunity and let real culprits go free).

The other great film and video artist whose work has engaged both the history of Mexican melodrama and screens-within-screens is Ximena Cuevas. Her criticisms of corporate television in Mexico have been trenchant: from her noted 2001 appearance on the frivolous TV Azteca talk show mbola, where she turned her own camera onto the ones filming her (“I want to find one person out there who has a life of their own”) to her 2003 masterwork Cinépolis: La capital del cine, and its redeployment of the flippant announcement of the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq on Televisa’s version of Big Brother.

One of Cuevas’s best works on melodrama, a 1995 video codirected with performance artist Jesusa Rodríguez called ctimas del pecado neoliberal (Victims of Neoliberal Sin), arose from a cabaret written by Carlos Monsiváis at the end of Salinas’s presidency. Alluding to Emilio Fernández’s 1951 film ctimas del pecado, each part of the video links a different episode in then-recent Mexican politics to a different classic melodrama. The assassination of Colosio becomes Campeón sin corona (Champion without a Crown, directed by Alejandro Galindo in 1946). The 1994 assassination of Salinas’s brother-in-law José Francisco Ruiz Massieu (for which Salinas’s brother Raúl was blamed, imprisoned for ten years, and then officially exonerated) becomes Una familia de tantas (A Family Like Any Other, directed by Galindo in 1949). Throughout, Salinas is hilariously played by Rodríguez, who had by then made the president something of a stock character in her performance art. Accordingly, Salinas’s bald, mustachioed face has itself become metonymous for political corruption in Mexico, right up to Rodríguez’s recent reprisal of the role in promoting President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) August 2021 plebiscite on whether to investigate and prosecute former presidents. (Rodríguez is now a prominent member of AMLO’s Morena Party, which until 2021 she represented in the Mexican Senate.)

No me dejas otra alternativa, Carlos: eres tú o yo.”

But the most brilliant stroke of Cuevas and Rodríguez’s video is to root the entire Salinas presidency in the ultimate melodrama: the Passion Play. Framed by the opening of Nosotros los pobres (We the Poor, directed by Ismael Rodríguez in 1948), Salinas is shown asleep, dreaming himself as Christ bearing the cross in Mexico City’s Zócalo, as we come to hear the Salinas administration’s 1989 promotional anthem, sung by Televisa stars like Verónica Castro (star of Pimstein’s Los ricos también lloran and Rosa salvaje): “Poverty: let’s get rid of it with alacrity. / Development is what you see.” The idea that Salinas would have seen himself as eternally wounded, eternally sacrificed, would have been only reinforced in 1995, the year of Cuevas and Rodríguez’s video, when he undertook a hunger strike to protest his brother’s arrest (a moment of intra-PRI conflict when the mediator between Salinas and then-Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo was none other than Televisa CEO Azcárraga Milmo).

Curiously, from the point of view of gender representations in classic Mexican melodrama, what “feminizes” Salinas in ctimas del pecado neoliberal is not his being played by Jesusa Rodríguez but rather his self-conception of sacrificing everything for development: a role that Emilio Fernández’s melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s typically assigned to women. It is as though, at the end of Fernández’s o Escondido (1948), María Félix’s schoolteacher character had not died while listening to the president’s (implicitly: conservative PRI-ista Miguel Alemán’s) epistolary words of gratitude for her efforts in development in rural Mexico, but rather that she had woken up from slumber to find herself and the president magically, or horrifically, fused into one.

Just one year after Víctimas del pecado neoliberal, there appeared in Ibarra, Payán, and Vera’s political corruption-themed “realist” telenovela Nada personal (1996) a kind of sequel to the dialogue between sisters in Corazón salvaje. Once again a character played by Ana Colchero advises her sister, this time on the occasion of her first menstrual period: “Welcome to the Aztec matriarchy.” In the following episode we see latex masks of Carlos Salinas’s likeness being sold in the street. Thus in telenovelas declarations of open avowal of Aztec matriarchy and open derision of Salinas were made in just nearly the same gesture.

Two figures in Mexican mass culture emerge from the 1990s as symbols of the death-dealing powers of the state under neoliberalism—the ostensibly masculine figure of Carlos Salinas and the ostensibly feminine figure of Soraya in María la del barrio. This takes us straight to some classic anthropological debates about “Mexicanidad.” In his 2005 book, Death and the Idea of Mexico, Chilean-Mexican anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz both rejects Octavio Paz’s romanticization of the death cult in Mexico (in The Labyrinth of Solitude) and understands the dangers of leaving that rejection as overly abstract: what is needed is a genealogy of death as a “national totem” in relation to the formation of the modern state. “The management of death, and indeed the ability to kill, are cornerstones of state sovereignty, and in America the modern state was born under an apocalyptic sign: the holocaust of the sixteenth century.” Lomnitz thus begins his history with the disregard of indigenous life and mass death that was integral to the Spanish Conquest of the Americas and its plunder. The colonial state was “built on” that devastation.

Lomnitz’s book also discusses the origins of the baroque expression of the cult of the dead—including the sugar skull, or calavera—in New Spain in forms of exchange, particularly as they involve souls according to the then-reinvigorated Catholic belief in purgatory. The account continues with Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain (1810–1821) and nineteenth-century contestations of who can kill and who can manage the dead: questions registered during the consolidation of state authority in the Porfiriato (1876–1911) by lithographer José Guadalupe Posada and his calaveras, most famously in feminine form as La Catrina. A similar contestation over the management of death occurs during and following the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), as well as when the post-revolutionary muralists like Diego Rivera appropriate the Posada calavera as an image of egalitarianism. Finally, during the period of neoliberalism that roughly begins with the 1982 peso crisis and the gutting of state welfare assets at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank, the calavera becomes a central resource of political cartoonists in the progressive newspaper La Jornada, as well as the weekly magazine Proceso, for capturing impoverishment, privatization, and the grind of waiting for payday.

Salinas’s administration was perhaps at the time of the publication of Lomnitz’s book too recent for the anthropologist to have entertained the ex-president’s face as symbolic of death-dealing under neoliberalism. The first time I saw a latex Salinas mask was in 2017 at Día de Muertos in San Agustín Etla, Oaxaca, in a procession mocking both political and religious authority (“la Muerteada”). If people in the United States know anything about Salinas, it is that he and his brother Raúl, when they were three and five, respectively, fired a .22-caliber rifle at their twelve-year-old housekeeper Manuela, killing her. (The event was dramatized as an introduction to Salinas’s villainy in the second season of Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico.)

Salinas also cynically reappropriated the rhetoric of exactly those life-giving political forces that he was destroying. In a 1991 meeting for campesino leaders at the presidential residence to sign a document that would lead to the counter-reform of the Mexican Constitution’s Article 27—the reversal of the agrarian reform for which Emiliano Zapata had fought and died, and thus the privatization of publicly held communal lands or ejidos—Salinas not only convened the meeting before a portrait of Zapata and invited some of his descendants but also copied Zapata’s supposed words at the promulgation of the 1911 land reform manifesto Plan of Ayala: “Let those who are not afraid come and sign.” (In learning of the document’s contents, several campesino leaders left the room. The counter-reform of Article 27—preparation for the implementation of NAFTA—was a prime motive of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas on January 1, 1994, to which Salinas’s military response was swift and brutal, with nearly three hundred people dead by the time of ceasefire eleven days later.)

Other, pre-neoliberal presidents associated with the U.S.-backed Dirty War against the left are also metonymic for death in Mexico, specifically Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (responsible for the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre) and the recently deceased Luis Echeverría (responsible for the 1971 Halconazo massacre, as well as Tlatelolco during his time as Díaz Ordaz’s secretary of the interior). Like Salinas in Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico and Crime Diaries: The Candidate (about the assassination of Colosio), these presidents have also had their representations as “true crime” or “political thriller” TV villains, in Amazon’s An Unknown Enemy, focused on the DFS intelligence agency. (All of these series have also arrived at their own ways of scapegoating melodramatic villains.)

But it is impossible to imagine masks of Díaz Ordaz or Echeverría, if one could find them, having anything like the preponderance or staying power as that of Salinas, nearly three decades after he left office. By 1996 they provided the foundation of Museo Salinas, artist Vicente Razo’s readymade mask-lined bathroom “museum.” Today Salinas masks remain all too easy to find; I bought mine at a Party City in Coapa, Mexico City, in 2019. Only the great death-dealer of late 1980s and 1990s neoliberalism has had his face turned into a regularly circulating commodity.

Which, perversely, brings us back to telenovelas and their own kind of contemporary circulation. For example, despite their current use on social media to comment on any ordinary situation, memes of Soraya in María la del barrio are highly specific invocations of necessity, questions of life and death.

We can leave to one side the obvious exceptions of Soraya’s “Cries in Spanish” memes and its variations. Much more interesting are those memes of pistol-wielding Soraya demanding, “Vacúname!” (“Vaccinate me!”), “Vacuna a mis papás!” (“Vaccinate my parents!”), or a quick resolution to the familiar bureaucracy in Mexico involved in receiving an academic degree after devoting years to fulfilling its requirements: “Titúlame!” So far, very reasonable demands. But, if we go beyond the pistol-wielding memes, their concern with questions of life and death still form a consistent kind with those where Soraya is a manager dictating the workday and workweek. Thus, we have the Soraya “lunes” memes: “Ya es lunes!!! A trabajar marginales!!” (“It’s Monday!!! Back to work, marginales!!”, employing Soraya’s disparaging and classist term for Thalía’s María); “Ya casi es lunes, a trabajar malditos jornaleros” (“It’s almost Monday, back to work damned day laborers.”)

The Soraya-as-manager memes then form a consistent kind with those in which she becomes a surrogate for the meme-sharer’s classism and racism (using pejoratives like nacos and indios). A wider attention to María la del barrio raises the question of how much is being divulged in these slurs, since Soraya’s violence essentially consists of the repudiation of origins, namely of her indigenous-coded mother Calixta (Silvia Caos), at first only known to her as the nanny who raised her, whom she viciously belittles and eventually kills.

Those memes, then, form a consistent kind with reproductions of the scene for which Soraya is best known, her jealously screaming “¡Maldita lisiada!” (“Damn cripple!”) at the sight of Alicia (Yuliana Peniche), who uses a wheelchair, being kissed by Soraya’s former lover Nandito (Osvaldo Benavides). The desire to repeat that scene, manifested throughout much of Latin America, is exceptional. The Colombian film scholar Andrés Ardila told me that years ago he belonged to a modern dance company in Bogotá, Yo reinaré, that had a choreography, “La maldita lisiada reloaded and so on,” created by Yosef Alvarado, that aimed to repeat that scene seventy times. The broadly telenovela-themed exhibition Melodrama, held at the Mexico City art gallery Unión in 2020, included La gritona (The Scream), Anais Vasconcelos’s painting of Soraya, not exactly at the moment of her scream, but rather of her exaggerated gasp upon finding Alicia and Nandito kissing. Itatí Cantoral appears to have relaxed into demands that she continually recreate the scene, a request that was central to the Orange is the New Black promo but that also plays a role in her reencounter with Yuliana Peniche’s Alicia via a therapist’s mediation in a mostly unbearable Televisa-produced late night show in 2018.

Soraya is, then, yet another absolute manager of questions of life and death. Her assumption of the capacity to decide who lives, who dies, who is “marginal,” who is a “maldita lisiada,” manifests something close to the jouissance of absolute permissiveness. Which is also unendurable and isolating, hence Soraya’s visible pathos (without which her widespread popularity is impossible to understand). And this raises the question of how much context is being presupposed in Soraya memes, such as the pistol-wielding ones. Are we to remember that in the original scene, moments after brandishing the pistol, she falls to her death from a window? Or are we to remember that later in the series she comes back to life (the show could not go on without a great antagonist, as Cantoral said in a 2007 interview), only to die again in a fire? The dialectical play between desperation and invincibility—much like Carlos Salinas’s dream of himself as Christ bearing the cross in Víctimas del pecado neoliberal—can be dizzying.

Some comparisons I have been tempted to make between Mexican melodramas of post-revolutionary developmentalism (like María Félix in o Escondido exclaiming, of an infant orphaned by a smallpox epidemic in rural Coahuila, “This child is Mexico!”) and of neoliberalism (like of course everything I have said about Soraya, and her exclamation of “maldita lisiada”) risk falling into the obvious category errors of comparing protagonists with antagonists, rural melodramas with urban ones. And an over-emphasis on Soraya also risks obscuring equally interesting figures that preceded María la del barrio, going all the way back to Silvia Derbez as Nora in the very first Mexican telenovela, Senda prohibida, produced by Colgate-Palmolive in 1958 for Televisa’s predecessor Telesistema Mexicano. So much for the telenovela’s origins. And yet if we want to understand its avant-garde, we have to turn to Catalina Creel in Cuna de lobos (1986–1987).

Cuna de lobos is everything one could want in a telenovela: beginning with its moody orchestral music over opening credits of wolves in a snowy landscape, including a poignant image of a mother wolf licking her young. In wild contrast with Pimstein’s telenovelas rosas (and especially the María trilogy’s opening credits of Thalía’s bad approximations at salsa music), no emotion is being presented falsely here: the series is the perfection of every strange mood it purports to communicate. Its creators, writer Carlos Olmos and director-producer Carlos Téllez, take seriousness to its ironic and self-conscious limits in a way that, in U.S. television, I know only from Norman Lear’s 1976–1977 Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, starring Louise Lasser—except that, unlike with Lear’s series’s relation to U.S. soap operas, Cuna de lobos was not taken as a spoof of its format but rather as the Mexican telenovela’s apex.

The extremities of María Rubio’s performance as Catalina Creel are difficult to compare with those significant narcissistic wealthy parents of U.S. prime-time soaps, like Joan Collins’s Alexis in Dynasty or Larry Hagman’s J.R. in Dallas, not only because her narcissism is more consistently executed but also because it is the absolute basis of all narrative movement in Cuna de lobos. Catalina will kill anyone by any manner available (poison, strangulation, electrocution in a pool) so long as it means protecting herself and her pampered son Alejandro Larios (Alejandro Camacho) and extolling vengeance on her guilt-ridden and emasculated stepson José Carlos (Gonzalo Vega), as well as “virtuous,” exploited, lower middle-class Leonora (Diana Bracho). Reading and projecting iterative patterns of murder in series is essential both to following the plot of Cuna de lobos and to understanding the show’s world as entirely constituted by such patterns.

José Carlos’s guilt comes from having taken out his stepmother’s eye in a top-spinning accident as a child. This was the wild plot element that Carlos Olmos adapted from Bette Davis’s performance in the 1968 British Hammer film The Anniversary, as a mother who disembowels her son’s independence because of a similar accident with a BB gun, with Olmos only slightly camouflaging the source by shifting the eyepatch from right to left. Cuna de lobos is in many respects a radicalization of The Anniversary: while Bette Davis’s eyepatches only partially matched her outfits, the correspondences in Cuna de lobos are perfect, always of the same fabric (carried out by costume designer Cecilia García Molinero). The abandonment of this radical sartorial consistency was one of the many profound disappointments in Televisa’s 2019 remake of Cuna de lobos, with Paz Vega as Catalina.

“It’s the extremes that wake you up.”

But the genius behind the original Cuna de lobos’s innovations on The Anniversary (spoilers ahead) is to make the mother’s story false: her eye is perfectly healthy. Only well into the series do we learn that this was the “secret” whose discovery occasioned Catalina’s murdering her husband in the first episode, that José Carlos’s guilt is groundless. But in a way we had to know this all along, in that when Catalina finally removes her eyepatch the person we see is the actress María Rubio (whom we knew likely had both her eyes—yet another one of the series’s Brechtian declarations). Catalina’s eyepatch is thus the great MacGuffin of Mexican telenovelas: an item whose traumatic force—making the world of the series turn round—comes about not despite but precisely because of its absolute meaninglessness. The eyepatch has no sense apart from being an absolute imposition: perhaps much like how telenovela actors might have reacted to lines read to them in their ears from an apuntador.

One point that comes up in Claudia Fernández and Andrew Paxman’s biography of Televisa CEO Azcárraga Milmo is that sometime in 1987 people began imagining Catalina Creel as president of Mexico. (They specifically mention walls painted “Catalina Creel para presidente” in the city of Nezahualcóyotl, in the State of Mexico.) Popular demand for change in Mexico following the 1982 peso crisis and the PRI’s mismanagement of Mexico City’s catastrophic 1985 earthquake would ultimately coalesce around the progressive candidacy of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. Salinas’s 1988 victory over Cárdenas is widely recognized as fraudulent, owing to a computer “system collapse” (“se cayó el sistema”) that, when “fixed,” brought Salinas out ahead.

But in a sense one cannot hope for Catalina to bring about order and change, since her very character depends upon meaninglessness imposition: a kind of fraudulence. Thus, anyone hoping for Catalina Creel as president had their wishes fulfilled in spades—paradoxically, as unwanted imposition—in the form of Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

I think that some similar paradoxes or kinds of self-defeat characterize my interest, as a gringo, in Mexican telenovelas. For those Mexicans like Raquel G. Viguri who have devoted their lives to the study of telenovelas, their original, “natural” relations to the format were relations to broadcasts coming from without, at specific moments of Mexican history, almost like impositions in need of interpretation. That is not a relation I can simply recreate for myself out of my present-day curiosity and its own dangers of colonialism. I have no way of interpreting myself into those kinds of everydayness that I have entirely missed, even if that fantasy drives my viewing and writing.

But it is also hard to imagine how melodrama could ever stop being one of the most typical resources for describing those different modes of the “everyday” across history. And that need not be understood as a constraint. In an essay on Carlos Monsiváis, his English translator John Kraniauskas says, “Insofar as it is always a genre that mobilizes emotion, melodrama is always potentially subversive, refusing containment.” Or as Lourdes Portillo put it to me regarding both the powers and dangers of melodrama: “It’s the extremes that wake you up.”

And it is only in vigilant listening that melodrama’s gossip can be heard as a real—material—exchange of words.


For their help in preparing this essay, the author wishes to thank Andrés Ardila, Juan Manuel Aurrecoechea, José María Bernal, Alí Cotero, Marcela Cuevas Ríos, Ximena Cuevas, Gregorio “Goyo” Desgarennes, Roberto López Flores, Eduardo Makoszay, Carlos Oliva Mendoza, Lourdes Portillo, Michael Ramos Araizaga, Ce Rangel, Bruno Varela, and Raquel G. Viguri.