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To Engage Latinos About Census, Telenovela Steps Up to Be Counted

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."

The partnership between the feds and the fabulists is strictly informal, non-contractual, noncommercial -- which is why it seems so strange in this town, and maybe in this country.

The relationship is not without self-interest. The Census Bureau is going out of its way to reach Latinos. For the first time, bilingual English-Spanish census questionnaires will be sent to about 13 million households.

For Telemundo, the bigger the count, the greater the clout of the community the network serves. Also, Nielsen bases its estimate of Hispanic households on the census. More Latinos counted by the census can translate into higher ratings and more advertising dollars for the network.

Ask around town for precedents to this, and people scratch their heads. Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, cites Yiddish radio in New York in the 1920s and 1930s, programmed to help immigrants get along in the new country.

Television and radio networks aimed at the Latino community or other minorities have always had a slightly different relationship with their audiences than mainstream American networks have. The underdogs are less bashful about taking communitarian stands -- see also Ebony and Jet magazine and countless radio stations serving an African American audience.

To that sense of community, add the hemispheric imperatives of the telenovela art form, invented in places like Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico, and imported to Miami, where "Más Sabe el Diablo" is mostly shot. From the earliest days of radio novelas, writers have been incorporating overt social messages and public-service advice. Wash your hands! Don't drink too much! Get tested for HIV!

"In this country, that's not the English-speaking tradition, but Telemundo's audience should be very used to it," said Jorge Schement, dean of the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University.

In another novela, Telemundo flew a real-life voter-registration activist from California to the set in Miami for a get-out-the-vote subplot, Browne said.

In recent years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has honored English- and Spanish-language shows that communicate health messages.

Telenovelas are especially fertile ground for popular persuasion. "Soap operas don't have the same impact in the U.S. as the telenovelas have on Latinos anywhere in the world," said Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, an associate professor at the University of Georgia who teaches a course called "Telenovelas, Culture and Society."

They also have credibility. Acosta-Alzuru closely studied a Venezuelan telenovela that featured a theme against domestic violence. That country experienced an uptick in the number of abused women reporting their husbands to police, she said.

The Census Bureau hopes Perla will have as big an impact.

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