Telenovela Casts the Census Bureau in a Subplot

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In just a matter of months, lovely, dark-eyed Perla Beltrán has suffered the usual trials of a telenovela babe -- pole-dancing in a dive bar, falling in love with a hunky gangster, learning of said gangster's untimely (bang! bang!) death minutes after delivering his baby, giving the infant boy up for adoption, getting him back from adoption, helping a new boyfriend elude police . . .

Whew.

On Wednesday night, in her popular Spanish-language soap opera, Perla's luck will change. Working at her father's outdoor empanada stand, she'll seize a chance to turn her life around. In a plot twist almost as surprising as the local crime boss falling in love with a transgendered prostitute, Perla's shot at personal salvation will come courtesy of an unusual hero: the U.S. Census Bureau.

Perla -- a secondary character in Telemundo's top telenovela, "Más Sabe el Diablo" ("The Devil Knows Best") -- is going to get a job recruiting folks from her New York City neighborhood to participate in the 2010 Census so Latinos won't be undercounted, as they have been in the past.

Whether any hot census-worker passion will ensue remains to be seen. That could set the bureaucrats to blushing over at Census headquarters in Suitland. But at a time when Census officials and Latino leaders worry that some people might be afraid to share personal information with the government -- especially if they or their relatives are not in the country legally -- the bureau is glad for all the help it can get.

"Más Sabe el Diablo" airs weeknights at 8 and is seen by about 1 million people a night, according to Telemundo. (English subtitles are available via closed captioning.)

What is Telemundo up to? Does its experimental census subplot have something to do with subliminal advertising, product placement, ratings?

The answer is sort of, but not exactly. What it's really about is a mash-up of a familiar tradition in Latin American media behavior with the needs of a sophisticated modern gringo public-service campaign.

Top suits from Census and Telemundo sat down in a conference room in Washington the other day to talk about it. They were joined by Perla herself -- the Dominican-born actress Michelle Vargas, who wore red rose-shaped bows on her black high heels.

"There's an anti-immigrant movement in this country," said Don Browne, president of Telemundo. "It perpetuates fear and misunderstanding. This is what we're attacking."

"Our current guess is that although the census has been mentioned in popular media before, it's never been woven into the story as fully as will happen in this case," said Robert Groves, director of the Census Bureau.

"Perla is a strong woman" who wants to succeed, Vargas said. She will learn that participating in the census "is private. . . . It's easy and it's very important," Vargas added -- words so perfectly on message that a delighted bureau spokeswoman called Vargas one of "our best spokespersons."


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