|By Elena Shore, New America Media
SAN FRANCISCO–As Congress debates the future of illegal immigration, many Latinos are glued to the day-to-day dramas of undocumented immigrants that unfold on Spanish TV. They connect to telenovelas (soap operas) made in the United States that depict the conflicting and sometimes unsavory lives of undocumented immigrants.
Telemundo’s new novela, Tierra de Pasiones (Land of Passions), centers on two families who own rival wineries. Tierra touches on the difficulties of life as an undocumented immigrant and the abuses farmworkers suffer, including violence against women. As the show progresses, the two protagonists Valeria San Román (Gabriela Spanic) and Francisco Contreras (Saúl Lisazo) become advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrants working in their families’ vineyards.
Socorro Hernández, who was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and lives in Daly City, south of San Francisco, watches the novela every night, and likes the show for its drama and intrigue.
But Hernández says it also sends an important message about immigrants’ rights. “I love the show because it takes place in the countryside and it has a message about bosses who abuse their workers,” she says, “while the main character defends them and supports them.”
This is one of the first times popular media has portrayed the lives of farm workers, a community that has long been invisible, according to Rose Castillo Guilbault, author of the new book “Farmworker’s Daughter: Growing Up Mexican in America.”
The farm worker story is very old, says Guilbault. It goes back to the days of the Bracero Program (1942-1964), a U.S.-Mexico program that brought thousands of Mexican farm workers to the United States to work for three-month periods. Workers have waited over 40 years to be repaid the 10 percent of their salaries originally retained by the Mexican government.
Their stories remain absent from popular culture, Guilbault says. “You read about the politics of it but you never hear about farm workers as people,” she says.
These telenovelas also incorporate hot issues in the lives of the undocumented into the plot lines, educating their audiences.
“El Alma Herida” (The Wounded Soul), tells two parallel stories about family members who get separated when they try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. During the time “El Alma Herida” was being filmed, President Bush gave his 2004 State of the Union address about the need for a legal guest worker program. The telenovela integrated the speech into the novela’s plotline, says Telemundo spokesperson Elizabeth Sanjenis. “The characters in the show were watching the speech on TV,” she says, “and they explained it in layman’s terms.”
Other novelas warn of the way illegal immigrants can be conned: “Prisionera” (Prisoner) is about an illegal immigrant who gets fooled by the legal system; and in “Ley del Silencio” (Law of Silence), a woman offers to marry an illegal immigrant for money.
These shows reflect a new wave of Spanish-language serials being produced for a U.S. audience and shot in the United States. Tierra de Pasiones is filmed on a set in Homestead, Fla., where producers built a small vineyard.
In order to compete with Univision, the top-ranked Spanish-language broadcaster in the United States, Telemundo has produced all original novelas since August, 2004, says Sanjenis. Univision buys its soaps from Mexican broadcaster Televisa.
“Our novelas speak to, reflect, inspire and empower Latinos in the U.S.,” Sanjenis says. Other novelas, she says, are produced for local markets in Latin America. For example, Venezuelan-produced novelas are produced for Venezuelans, she says.
The results so far have been positive. Telemundo has seen eight months of continuous growth since April 2005, says Sanjenis.
Graciela Martinez, director of Proyecto Campesino (Farm Labor Program) in Visalia, Calif., a project of the American Friends’ Service Committee, warns, however, that novelas don’t present a realistic picture of life as a farm worker.
“Novelas are really Hollywoodized,” she says. “They have a tendency to overdramatize and be tearjerkers.”
Some of the abuse portrayed in novelas reflects the reality of immigrants’ experiences. But the danger of novelas that dramatize these abuses, says Martinez, is that they often make people feel like victims. “It may create awareness but it also creates bad feelings,” she says. “We don’t want people to look at us as victims.”