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Latin American Melodramas That Are Made in the U.S.A.
New Telenovelas Draw on American Culture

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 5, 2006; A01

MIAMI -- Heaving bosoms. Breathless dialogue. Betrayal. Telenovelas , the passionate melodramas of Spanish-language television, may look complicated. But the secret to writing them is simple.

Take two people who want to kiss.

Prevent them from doing so for 120 episodes.

"A telenovela is the story of an impossible love," instructor Roberto Stopello, a chief writer at the Telemundo network, told students during a recent class here on escenas de amor (love scenes). "That is the formula."

This city at the crossroads of Latin America is in the midst of a telenovela production boom -- some see it emerging as a kind of Latin Hollywood -- and Telemundo created the class last year to round out its stable of writers.

While the overheated dramas have long appealed to Hispanic audiences in the United States, telenovelas were almost always written and produced somewhere else, most often in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia or Brazil.

But in a sign of the swelling number of Spanish speakers in the United States and their growing influence on Latin American culture, television executives have brought their productions here to create dramas with closer connections to the lives of Hispanics in this country.

Over the past three years, Telemundo, the second-place Spanish network after Univision in the United States, and Venevisi?n, a major Venezuelan production company, have aimed to hook more U.S. Hispanics by writing and producing more shows here, and by depicting the realities of U.S. life, where dating and class distinctions -- the staples of many a melodrama -- adhere to different rules than in other countries, executives say. American-bred telenovelas then appear not only on TVs in the United States but also in markets across Latin America.

So far this year, seven telenovelas have been taped in Miami, according to the Miami-Dade County film office, and the city now bustles with casting calls. Actors, writers, directors and cameramen from all over the Latin world arrive in a steady stream. Classes for telenovela acting and writing -- such as the one created by Telemundo President Don Browne and led by Stopello -- hone local and international talents.

"A lot of our audience came from Mexico, they're Mexican, but their life experiences are much different" than people who haven't emigrated, Browne said. "The humor is different. The pacing is different. It was critical for us to be more relevant."

One recent telenovela , " Anita No Te Rajes " (Anita Don't Give Up), revolved around the adventures of an illegal immigrant. Characters in another were depicted commenting on President Bush's recently televised speech on immigration.

"Everyone reduces their appeal down to language -- and it's not just language," Browne said. "It's cultural relevance."

About a third of Telemundo's prime-time lineup now is taped in Miami. Venevisi?n started producing telenovelas in Miami two years ago, and is now working on its fourth, said Peter Tinoco, president of Venevisi?n Productions.

For years, many Spanish-speaking immigrants watched telenovelas out of a sense of nostalgia -- and the episodes' being made and set in Mexico or elsewhere were a source of their appeal. Many figured that would fade with time and viewers' assimilation. But now, TV executives say, a younger generation of Spanish-speaking viewers, some of them second-generation Americans, may be open to telenovelas if they take aim at U.S. life.

"It's a very simple thing," Tinoco said. "We wanted to make telenovelas that appeal to all of the Hispanics in the U.S."

The telenovela boom here has also inspired countless dreams of individual expression and stardom.

Three years ago, the CIFALC School for the Performing Arts, an offshoot of an acting school in Caracas, opened here. Now a steady stream of students gets direction in the genre well-known for its tearful face slaps.

One recent night in a class of about a dozen people, some of them with telenovela experience, students took turns enacting a tension-fraught scene in which a man and a woman see each other for the first time in 12 years. The man is a study in nonchalance; the woman trembles with remorse.

"I feel like I have something in me," said Gabriel Abdala, 35, originally from Argentina, now a plumber in the Miami area. "But it's a little harder to break in for a man than for a woman. If they have the big booboos and they can talk, they have a chance."

When Telemundo held a casting call in Miami three years ago, about 30 people showed up for a typical 25 available slots; now hundreds do.

Few people embody the new possibilities here more than Erick Hernandez, 33, whose life story has taken twists worthy of telenovela writing.

Hernandez arrived 12 years ago from Guanabo, Cuba, in a boat with his wife and 18 others, he said. After being rescued by a container ship, Hernandez found work in the gruff environs of a Miami concrete plant, where he worked for years.

Then, last year, Telemundo offered a class in telenovela writing. More than 4,000 people locally and from around the world applied. Thirty or so were accepted based on writing samples, and among them was Hernandez.

The class, now in its second run, draws people of all ages and occupations. Among this year's class are a psychologist born in Peru who had been living in Vancouver, British Columbia; a television copywriter from Argentina; a journalist from Caracas; a lawyer from Spain; and a linguist from Switzerland.

Most, however, are immigrants who had been living in the United States: a car service manager, an airport worker, a Spanish teacher.

Eight of last year's class were hired as writers by Telemundo, and at least some of this year's class hope to follow.

Hernandez has dropped the concrete work and now writes out of his home, crafting Spanish-language dialogues, occasionally tearing up when he watches the melodramas.

"It's a matter of culture," he explained when asked about the genre's emotional hooks, which sank into him just the other day as he was watching an actress. "At the end, I started crying. She got me."

Unlike productions in other countries, the cast and crew of telenovelas here often consist of a remarkably international group.

Of the crew putting together " La Viuda de Blanco " (Blanco's Widow), which is in production, the director is from Venezuela, the director of photography is from Bogota and the script supervisor is from Peru. The leading man is played by a Cuban, and the leading lady is Mexican.

The melting pot here does pose one problem: accents.

"You can't have a believable show if the mother speaks like a Cuban, the father like an Argentine and their child like a Mexican," said Elizabeth Sanjenis, a Telemundo spokeswoman.

Telemundo and other telenovela makers hire speech coaches who aim at what they call a "neutral" accent. With about two-thirds of the audience claiming Mexican heritage, however, neutral is actually something close to Mexican.

Whatever the nationalist loyalties, to the delight of producers here, the experiment in telenovela production has shown that the United States, which has long exported mainstream culture, might now be able to export this staple of Latin culture, as well.

At least some of the U.S.-produced shows have fared well in other countries. " El Cuerpo del Deseo " (Body of Desire) was produced in Miami but won high ratings in Spain and Argentina, Telemundo representatives said.

Soon, even English-speaking U.S. audiences may get a taste of telenovelas. ABC has scheduled for the fall an adaptation of " Yo Soy Betty, La Fea " (I Am Betty, the Ugly), a Colombian hit, and other networks are reportedly exploring the genre.

The question looming over the telenovela industry here, however, is whether the U.S. demand for Spanish-language dramas could wane with assimilation and English proficiency.

Citing the Spanish proficiency of third-generation Latinos, however, a Pew Hispanic Center report says, "the loss of speaking competence in Spanish in favor of English may not happen as comprehensively, rapidly and readily as some scholars suggest."

Browne said Telemundo is preparing for either possibility. From his Miami office, he notes that Cubans began arriving here en masse during the '60s. Yet the Spanish-language stations in Miami frequently beat the ratings of their English-speaking competitors.

That "should give everyone a bit of pause if they think they've figured it out," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company