Elaborately tangled romance, character-driven drama and shocking reveals have defined the content gracing Latin American television screens for over half a century. Telenovelas have as much influence and popularity as they do plot twists, and they are a long-standing staple of Latinx culture.
Telenovelas are a distinctive type of soap opera that are, for the most part, produced in Latin and South American countries. Compared to English-spoken soap operas from the United States, telenovelas generally run for fewer seasons, thus causing the drama to be more condensed. Romance, betrayal, and other dramatic themes are at the heart of almost all telenovelas, captivating viewers worldwide.
To dive into how telenovelas reached where they are today, one must go back to Mexico in the 1930s. A radio production of The Three Musketeers was broadcast nationwide, and its 15-minute episodes gained a modest fanbase. From then on, “radionovelas” became increasingly popular, mainly targeting the working class. However, they didn’t gain much traction until around 1941. In the midst of WWII, Mexico entered a golden age of radionovelas. These radio segments especially appealed to women and men working in factory-like jobs. The public excitedly anticipated and listened to every twist and turn, and it didn’t take long for them to become a regular part of day-to-day Mexican life.
But the golden age of radio was short-lived. In the early 1950s, the mainstream production of a new form of entertainment changed everything. Televisions began to pop up in households around the world. Thereafter, radionovelas experienced a sort of electronic metamorphosis, evolving into the telenovelas of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
By the 1970s, telenovelas had grown to be a touchstone of Latinx culture, and for many people, a part of daily life. Because of that massive audience, the messages contained in telenovelas carried a lot of importance.
Between the late ‘50s and early ‘70s, Mexico’s population had almost doubled and was increasing at nearly 3.5 percent per year. Due mainly to a lack of birth control, women in Mexico during 1975 gave birth to an average of six children each.
Overpopulation posed an impending threat to Mexico as a whole, looming over both rural and metropolitan areas. However, telenovelas became a key player in reducing this rapid population growth.
“Acompáñame” was a program broadcast from 1977 to 1978, and its story aimed to educate the public about contraceptives and other forms of family planning. The telenovela follows a young married couple struggling with the economic and mental hardship of raising multiple children. The wife is distraught to discover that she’s pregnant again, and the couple desperately tries to find a solution. Unsure of what to do, the pair visits a medical clinic to confront a doctor about their predicament. The doctor explains that family planning could alleviate their stress and then explains several different means and benefits of birth control. For many viewers at the time (especially for Mexico’s Catholic population), birth control was either an unfamiliar or highly stigmatized concept.
This new encouragement of birth control successfully broke boundaries and reached viewers in Mexico. During only 12 months of the 1977 telenovela’s air-time, an additional 32.5 percent of women in Mexico began using birth control for the first time and the sale of contraceptives rose by 23%.
Telenovelas preserve the history of Latin American countries and inspire social and political change. And while they’re a fundamental part of Latinx culture, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that telenovelas reached an international audience.
“María la del Barrio” is a 1995 Mexican telenovela that’s the final installment in a massively popular trilogy. Its release shattered records as it became the most globally widespread telenovela. The telenovela spread across TV screens on multiple continents and was broadcast in over 180 other countries. This marked a turning point in the history of telenovelas, helping the industry be valued higher than ever before.
Telenovelas remain a central part of Latinx culture. Their evolution through the decades has contributed to positive social change and the strengthening of communities. All signs point to the same conclusion: telenovelas are here to stay.