Is there racism in telenovelas?

I WAS RAISED watching Spanish language soaps and as a little girl I wondered why all the stars looked more like my mother and sister, light-skin, freckles and blond by birth, not Clairol, than my oldest sister and me, wooly black hair and African and indigenous features. As the children of a black father and a light skin mother, we lived diversity in our home. It was never lost on my precocious child mind that girls who looked like me or my big sis were never the leading lady. When I tuned into English language TV shows, the lack of diversity in programming was just as bad, which may explain why I wanted to change my name to Sandy Rodgers. (Read more on that tragic and hilarious episode of my life in my book.)

But I remember that my mother - who spoke very little English -- made the entire family watch the groundbreaking miniseries "Roots." I'm not so sure if mom realized the impact that the show would have on us, her tribe of multi colored children, but I will always thank her for turning me on to the saga of Kunta Kinte. As much fun as some of the kids in my grade school made of Kunta and Kizzy, I was able to feel a little bigger because I witnessed perseverance, bravery and beauty in black people on TV. These characters left an indelible mark on my very young soul.

Fast forward to 2011, and the situation is pretty much still the same. Arturo Arias-Polo's column in today's El Miami Herald eloquently raises the question of whether the invisibility of black Latinos in telenovelas translates to racism. (Read article after the jump.)

To me that question has long been answered, and it's a huge sí señor, sin duda! The bigger and more important question is, what are Telemundo and Univision going to do about it. There is a lot of hope now on Univision since the appointment of Cesar Conde, a US born-and-raised Peruano. Conde may have the looks of a soap star himself with his European good looks, but Peru has one of the largest and prolific Afro Latino communities in all South America, so if he knows his native country's history, he might want to challenge the status quo and shake things up and the behemoth network. I have hope in Conde. But he might need a little push. More of us writers raising the question. The audience demanding diversity in the programming? And perhaps, even  getting the FCC involved?  

Revista Viernes
Is there racism in the telenovelas?
By Arturo Arias-Polo |
El Miami Herald (March 4, 2011)
translated from Spanish by NiLP

Eva Luna, Aurora, The heirs of the Monte and the rest of the telenovelasthat the major Hispanic networks in the country broadcast are not only matched by their tricky plots and predictable happy endings: none has among its main characters actors of color. This is not surprising given the history of the genre.

I remember 30 years ago the director of dramatic programming on Cuban television showed me a letter where a viewer complained that blacks were never chosen for the leading couple of the soap operas that were produced on the island.

Without giving me time to reflect, the official put on his desk the list of actors of color employed by the company and, to my amazement, he admitted that there were few and they exceeded the required age to star in romantic stories.

By that time, Susana Perez sighs tore through the screen with her green eyes and the public still had not recovered from the abrupt departure, through the Mariel boatlift, of actor Evelio Taillacq, a handsome man who filled the requirements of the plot coined by the telenovela tradition --- he was white, blond and handsome.

Meanwhile, filmmaker Humberto Solas was determined to make the public believe that Daisy Granados, chosen to star in his version of the novelCecilia Valdés, a romance between a mulatto and a native set in the nineteenth century, complied to the strict racial canon described by its author, Cirilo Villaverde. Fortunately, years ago the director Sergio Giral did not have to disguise Miguel Benavides or Alina Sánchez  as slaves for his film The Other Francisco, whose plot was set in colonial Cuba. "If blacks have as much representation in sport and music, how is it so difficult to find a young black couple for a soap opera?" asked one bureaucrat.

I do not know if the situation has changed Cuba, but the fact is that in recent decades a group of white leading men "exported" from Cuba to the Mexican broadcaster Televisa --- César Evora, Francisco Gattorno and Mario Cimarro --- appear in the international telenovela with the same frequency as William Levy, a coveted golden boy taken from the Cuban community in Miami.

But the absence of black stars in soap operas is not unique to Televisa, where, incidentally, it seems that to be successful one has to have white skin and light eyes. In Brazil, a country with a large black population, it is difficult to find an ebony leading hero leading the soap operas produced there annually.  In fact, many would argue that Thais Araujo, the protagonist of Xica da Silva (1996) was the first Afro-Brazilian given the lead role in a soap opera of their own country. The case of Puerto Rican actor Pedro Telemaco is another exception.

"Concessions are made to the Mexicans living in the U.S. because they are the main consumers of soap operas," said an acting teacher from Miami who requested anonymity because it is a sensitive issue. "They do not support an accent that is not theirs, nor do they like to see blacks heading a love story."

The funny thing is that in Miami, a crossroads where it is assumed that there are many colorful players and where every day there are moretelenovelas with local talent, the producers prefer not to risk changing this recipe.

"It would be interesting to make a modern version of Cecilia Valdés with William Levy and a beautiful mulatto Dominican," said a senior executive who in turn also requested anonymity. "It must be that it is not yet time for violating certain standards established by the industry." Although denying any discrimination in the casting,he admitted that in his years working in television soap operas, he could not remember any black stars.

From the rise of the radio novela, fairy tales became the main source of inspiration for the soaps, a multibillion dollar industry that has managed to reinvent those blue-blooded characters and the obligatory happy ending with the arrival of the prince, who is also blue.

The heroes of today the same can be maids, women entrepreneurs, farmers, executives of multinational firms. Whatever. As long as they are white and their story ends with the triumph of love, the success of the telenovela will be assured. Would anyone dare to change this formula?


  1. YES, Ms./Mrs. Guzman,
    There is WIDE spread racism in the novelas, and it's past time that this was changed, by those piel oscuros (dark-skinned) and black latinos who have the voices to do so.
    If Brasil and Venezuela can present black protagonistas, then what's the hold up with the other latin American countries? Part of the reason that 'Globo' is such as 'success' is because of their diversity, which it seems networks like 'Telemundo, Univision, and Telefutura' could care less about.
    I'm willing to raise my voice with yours, just let me know where and when to get started?