I wrote the introduction to the Home Viewer’s Guide for Destinos, a soap-opera-like series designed to teach Spanish. (The WGBH Educational Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.)


The soap opera—la telenovela—is a very logical choice for a Spanish-teaching program. Not only is the episode-by-episode structure very similar in each program, but the stories and subject matter offer many opportunities to present insights into other societies while keeping viewers interested.
    The telenovela, however, is not exactly a soap opera. Rather, it’s a type of super-miniseries of about 160 hour-long episodes. The telenovela, unlike its American cousin, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Moreover, truth and justice prevail, and the good guys win. The triumph of virtue may be the telenovela’s main appeal, but for many viewers it may simply be reassuring to know that there there are people who have bigger problems than they do.
    The telenovela grew out of the radionovela, and if you would like to know more about that form, read Mario Vargas Llosa’s amusing novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. If you’d like to see what a telenovela looks like, tune in any weekday evening to your local Spanish-language channel.


Telenovelas are made all over Latin America, but the most prolific producers are in Argentina, Venezuela, and Mexico. The field is dominated by Televisa, a giant Mexican company that has schools on its premises for actors and writers—and even has its own makeup factory. (The actors in telenovelas require makeup strong enough to resist large quantities of tears.)
   Televisa develops programs twice as quickly as any American company. One trick: they fit the actors with electronic earpieces that feed them the dialogue, which cuts down on rehearsal time and reduces the number of errors during shooting.

    Most telenovelas are set in the present. Their plots tend to involve someone going from rags to riches while facing many crises that require a broad range of emotions. Variations on the genre include telenovelas históricas, which follow the life of a famous person, and telenovelas de época, which resemble modern ones but take place during another era. (The Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s—remember Pancho Villa?—is the most popular period.)
    The formidable Televisa exports its telenovelas to more than fifty countries, most of them not Spanish-speaking. The popularity of their series is legendary. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, when the president of Mexico landed in Beijing, China, a few years ago, the band failed to greet him with the Mexican national anthem. Instead, they played the theme song from the telenovela Rosa salvaje (Wild Rose).


This was written for one of the many Spanish textbooks I worked on. I don’t remember which one because they are all pretty much identical. This is partly because publishing houses outsource these books. For this reason, the various texts are often written by the same people. (I have worked on as many as three companies’ Spanish textbooks in the course of a year.) It is also because the basic approach to teaching Spanish has not changed in many decades.
    It is no surprise that approximately 99% of those students who take Spanish as a second language never learn to speak it and cannot read much beyond the superficial level that is required to pass tests imposed by the government to demonstrate that they have learned the language. (Under the No School Left Unpunished Act, the number who fail even to pass the tests will no doubt rise.)
    Cultural information has become a large part of both textbooks and Teacher Guides—in part to entertain, and in part because of political pressures by ethnic groups to insure that their national heritage is included. This has tended to shift the focus even further away from language study.
The patio is more typical of the city than of the small town. In the city, walls extend right to the property limits. There are no front lawns or back yards, but the patio allows for gardens. And because the patio is at the center of the building, most of the rooms have windows onto this attractive open space—which also functions as a kind of outdoor living room.
    The patio was the invention of people who lived in warm climates. The central well of space traps cool night air and holds it during the day. (Thick walls enhance the effect.) The shade of the walls reduces the amount of direct sunlight, and extended roofs (often over second- or third-floor balconies) are angled to offer more protection from the high summer sun and to allow in the lower and more welcome winter sun. The Arabs introduced the patio to southern Spain, but Spanish colonists did not bring them to Mexico. Patios already existed in some Toltec and Aztec buildings.
    From the street, the patio is reached through a passageway, the zaguán (from the Arabic word for portico), that is often big enough to allow a coach to pass through. There are large wooden doors at the street end of this passage, and a grilled gate of wood or iron often stands at the other end. The kitchen and servants’ quarters may have a separate patio.

Copyright © 2004  William Dyckes