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Drugs, Thugs, and Divas

Drugs, Thugs, and Divas
Telenovelas and Narco-Dramas in Latin America

The first comprehensive analysis of South American telenovelas and Mexican narco-dramas and their role in shaping popular culture throughout the Americas and beyond.

January 2008
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245 pages | 6 x 9 |

Soap opera speaks a universal language, presenting characters and plots that resonate far beyond the culture that creates them. Latin American soap operas—telenovelas—have found enthusiastic audiences throughout the Americas and Europe, as well as in Egypt, Russia, and China, while Mexican narco-dramas have become highly popular among Latinos in the United States. In this first comprehensive analysis of telenovelas and narco-dramas, Hugo Benavides assesses the dynamic role of melodrama in creating meaningful cultural images to explain why these genres have become so successful while more elite cultural productions are declining in popularity.

Benavides offers close readings of the Colombian telenovelas Betty la fea (along with its Mexican and U.S. reincarnations La fea más bella and Ugly Betty), Adrián está de visita, and Pasión de gavilanes; the Brazilian historical telenovela Xica; and a variety of Mexican narco-drama films. Situating these melodramas within concrete historical developments in Latin America, he shows how telenovelas and narco-dramas serve to unite peoples of various countries and provide a voice of rebellion against often-oppressive governmental systems. Indeed, Benavides concludes that as one of the most effective and lucrative industries in Latin America, telenovelas and narco-dramas play a key role in the ongoing reconfiguration of social identities and popular culture.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Melodrama as Ambiguous Signifier: Latin American Telenovelas and Narco-Dramas
  • Part I
  • 2. Seeing Xica and the Melodramatic Unveiling of Colonial Desire
  • 3. Producing the Global West through Latin Tales of Seduction and Envy
  • 4. Karen's Seduction: The Racial Politics of Appropriate Dinner Guests
  • 5. A Mother's Wrath and the Complex Disjuncturing of Class
  • Part II
  • 6. Being Narco: The Evolution of a Continental Sensibility
  • 7. Saintly Figures and Icons: The Migration of a Continental Dream
  • 8. La Reina del Sur: Gender, Racial, and National Contestations of Regional Identity
  • 9. Sex, Drugs, and Cumbia: The Hybrid Nature of Culture
  • 10. Conclusion: The Postcolonial Politics of Melodrama
  • Postscript: Ugly Betty
  • References
  • Index

O. Hugo Benavides is Associate Professor of Anthropology, Latin American and Latino Studies, and International Political Economy and Development at Fordham University in New York City, where he directs the M.A. program in Humanities and Sciences.


Vine a Comala porque me dijeron que acá vivía mi padre. Híjole. Los personajes de aquella historia estaban todos muertos, y no lo sabían.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte, La reina del sur

As a result of the postmodern turn, Latin America is more than ever a crossroads of local and global interaction. Many times it is difficult, or even impossible or irrelevant, to differentiate the local from the global. Yet, within this cultural problematic, what García-Canclini (1992) refers to as a process of reconversion, incredibly vibrant and provocative identities are reworked and represented throughout the American continent. It is also within this postmodern framework of hybridity and reconversion that multiple hegemonic constraints and ideologies of resistance are being represented through popular media such as soap operas (telenovelas) and film. Therefore, one of my objectives in this book is to assess the dynamic role of melodrama, particularly Mexican narco-dramas and South American telenovelas, in the ongoing reconfiguration of social identities, hegemonic constraints, and popular culture in Latin America today. My main concern is to place the contributions of the melodrama within the historical events that determined many of its cultural and political embodiments, both in terms of hegemonizing constructs and resistance-filled agency.

Telenovelas have a very recent history in the Americas, yet from their impact it would seem that they have been always part of Latin American culture. Telenovelas did not make their appearance in South America until the early 1960s, when television entered the Latin American market. This market explosion, however, was prefigured in radio-novelas (radio soap operas) and folletines (pamphletlike novels) from several decades before. Thus telenovelas inherited the structure of the melodrama from both of these visual and aural media and fused them into one incredibly powerful medium of Latin American popular cultural representation.

Since their development, telenovelas have had an important impact on people's daily life, as they dramatically portray such controversial issues as illegitimate children, misplaced identity, the burden of social conventions, amorous rejection, and the ever-productive notion of forbidden desires, sexual and otherwise. It is a testament to the telenovela's success that many of the plot lines are reused or that a telenovela will be rebroadcast in different countries after being adapted to their national language and cultural configuration. This transnational element is only heightened by the incredible export success of telenovelas throughout the Americas (including the United States)and all over the world. Latin American telenovelas have been exported, with extraordinary cultural implications, to Egypt, Russia, and China, as well as throughout Europe (Rowe and Schelling 1992). This global interaction has led some Latin American theorists (Martín-Barbero 1987) to argue that melodrama might be the most successful and culturally authentic revolution affecting the continent since the 1960s, and not only, or even mainly, the Marxist-inspired revolutions that have left thousands, if not millions, of people dead or committed to the struggle.

Similarly, the narco-drama is indebted to earlier radio and folletín-like melodramatic forms, perhaps more to the latter in content and the former in stylistic structure. Narco-dramas have also been enriched by almost two decades of telenovela production (approximately from the 1950s to the 1970s) that in many ways provided for a visual model of what a film-length version could look like. In many ways the narco-drama is a combination of the telenovela and films from Mexico's golden age (1930-1960), producing (or selling out to) what many consider to be a B-film market. However, and not coincidentally, this shift to more violent and drug-inspired content for Mexican films marks not only greater popular participation in film making but also more realistic interpretation of the country's realidad nacional (national reality), that is, a greater democratization of the media of sorts. It is quite interesting and telling that this broadening of melodramatic possibilities has been met with harsh judgment from academics, intellectuals, and film critics.

Narco-dramas today control Mexico's film market and are particularly influential along the border between the United States and Mexico, powerfully affecting a Latino cultural market created by Mexicans and other Latin Americans living in the United States. Narco-drama films originated in the 1970s, with their own style, their own set of producers, directors, actors, and screenwriters. Not unlike porn film crews, narco-drama artists have been significantly and consistently ostracized by their colleagues and intellectuals, who have criticized them for their populist appeal and their glorification of drug-related behavior and violence. To a degree, narco-dramas reflect a distinct regional, north Mexican culture, particularly of the border states, but including states as far away as Sinaloa, which further explains their dual border/hybrid appeal. It is this hybrid identification that largely explains their success among Latinos in the United States.

Methodological Conundrums

As are all works of cultural analysis, the assessment of the political role of the melodrama in contemporary Latin American culture is mammoth in scope. Because of the breadth of Latin American melodramatic production, I have limited this analysis to smaller regional and stylistic variants of the genre. More than an encyclopedic or even historical work, I envision this book as a long-overdue theoretical engagement with the postmodern tropes elaborated within melodrama over the last four decades. The book's contribution, I hope, will be an assessment of the ambiguous legacies and significations present in these melodramatic forms—the same ones that explain their popular success during a period that saw the decline of other state-led and elite intellectual projects.

This book is also intimately related to my research into the nature of Latin American hegemony and political domination. I strongly believe that melodrama is as important as all of Latin America's other political projects, state or otherwise, including the more explicit forms of historical production (Benavides 2004) and discourses of sentiment (Benavides 2006). Thus the book shares with my previous ones a desire to understand Latin America's form of political domination within the most subtle elements of cultural production and livelihood. Contrary to most academic analysts, I would maintain that the greatest political decisions are being made, every minute of every day, with little input from official or educational discourse, even without much conscious awareness, but, rather, with a sincere desire just to survive another day.

Thus this book is my own form of political survival, that is, my personal contribution to seeing another day, one in which I (and those around me) may imagine ourselves immersed in less-coercive political relationships (Foucault 1991) but also one in which I too must work out the conundrums of my daily life. It is this approach that enables me to connect my academic work to who I am or become every day: a Latin American in exile with dynamically productive cultural ideals and historical nostalgia.

This connection determined the methodological approach of this book in relation to my previous work. Although I carried out fieldwork for this endeavor, I have been working on this book and its themes my whole life. Just as were history and national sentiment, melodrama was a profoundly important part of my existence in New York City as an Ecuadorian child who did not see Ecuador before the age of twelve, and it helped me make sense of an otherwise nonsensical familial and globalized world.

More concretely, the research for this book took me to over fifteen cities in Mexico and Brazil during a sabbatical year. In all of these cities I decided against the traditional research methods of structured interviews, note taking, and analysis. Instead, I kept, almost religiously, a fierce participant observation and textual analysis. Paradoxically, these anthropological methods allow me to sustain a relatively objective assessment of the different melodramatic elements I wished to analyze, affording me also a greater sense of freedom to explore them at my leisure.

I spoke with both intellectuals and scholarly colleagues, as well as with other cultural practitioners such as artists, students, and service professionals, just to mention a few. I carried out archival research, seeking out reference material and other bibliographical work to balance my understanding of Latin American melodrama and the societies that produce it. I also watched innumerable telenovelas and narco-dramas besides those I was already familiar with from watching them almost daily for over two decades. My main concern was less cultural investigation, in the limited sense of definition and categorization, than understanding the cultural parameters in South America and Mexico that most enabled melodrama to take on these specific forms, to achieve national and international success, and, most of all, to provide a sense of belonging and hope to a continent that almost never has one.

Latin American Telenovelas: The Political Power of Melodramatic Resignification

The power of telenovelas in propagating meaningful cultural images is rapidly becoming a concern of scholarly debate. Rather than seeing Latin American soap operas as a lower form of cultural production, scholars are assessing their effect as demonstrated in ambiguously (and economically) meaningful images throughout the Americas, and even worldwide (see Kuhn 1987 and Santos 2001 for related analyses). The popularity of the Colombian soap opera Betty la fea (Ugly Betty) (adapted in 2006 for Mexico as La fea más bella [The prettiest ugly one] and in the United States as Ugly Betty; see Postscript) highlights the telenovela's role as a tool of local and global cultural resignification (see García-Canclini 1992). Telenovelas manage this resignification by using several power effects, the most obvious of them being entertainment.

The fact that telenovelas are able to provide emotional relief to a continent burdened by enormous socioeconomic and material hardships is not devoid of importance. Therefore, it is not surprising that millions of Latin Americans sit in front of their (and others') television sets to escape the conundrums of daily existence for at least a couple of hours each day.

We must not minimize the importance of entertainment, even if it only allows human beings to cope with what are, many times, insurmountable socioeconomic odds. This coping mechanism, coupled with the commodification of cultural images for export, has supported several delineations of the telenovela as a recent example of Marx's "opium of the people." However, it is clear from recent social theory and media studies, as well as from a less superficial reading of the telenovelas themselves, that such an analysis begs the question more than addresses it (Martín-Barbero 1987); that is, the power effects (see Foucault 1990) of telenovelas are taken for granted without really understanding why they have such wide continental and even international appeal. Moreover, the specific power effects that these telenovelas have on different groups of consumers are left unexamined, within both those groups' societies and those of their Latin American counterparts.

Just as melodrama's enormous ability to entertain should not be underemphasized, neither should its economic power. Along with tourism and remittances, the telenovela is the continent's most lucrative legal industry. The genre's ambiguous position in terms of its clever use of the world market through the articulation of cultural differences within that market is clearly a result of contemporary globalization (see Hall 1997a, 1997b). What allows oppressed national communities to herald a medium as economically successful as telenovela production is its "otherized" position in the modern global order. Telenovelas exoticize these communities to create a media image that is then reprocessed for export, making the people's marginality the key element in the telenovela's production.

This cultural reconfiguration allows Brazilian, Colombian, Mexican, and others' soap operas to become hot commodities in the United States and throughout the Americas. It is this same process of cultural resignification that makes U.S. soap operas similarly popular throughout the West Indies (see Miller 1990).

But if U.S. and other First World media images, particularly end-of-the-world and disaster films, hold such a central place in the daily consumption of the Americas, it makes sense that "other" American images would also be avidly consumed. It is within this continental reconfiguration of consumption that the process of cultural resignification takes place. The process of reconversion does not discount the colossal commodification that is taking place, but, rather, highlights its powerful effects beyond the realities of national media borders.

It is this powerful process of cultural commodification and reconfiguration that has made even the original national groups lose their economic monopoly on telenovela production. The traditional soap operas produced by mighty media empires in Venezuela, Argentina, and Mexico are now rivaled by similar enterprises in Colombia and Brazil. Even within national borders, competing media corporations have been able to destabilize others with the success or failure of one telenovela, as was the case for El Globo, which had to restructure its soap opera production because of the enormous success afforded by the telenovela Xica (see Chap. 2). A similar "democratic" process took place when Colombian and Peruvian media enterprises began producing their own soap operas for export, particularly after older programs such as Escalona and Betty la fea met with so much success.

Partly due to this regional competition, I have chosen to analyze Betty la fea, Adrián está de visita (Adrián is visiting), Pasión de gavilanes (The passion of the sparrow hawk) (all from Colombia) and Xica (Brazil) for this book. In many ways, all highlight the hegemonic power of democratic repositioning in Latin American cultural production and its productive tension within a globalized Western identity and/or a Western identification in general (see Chap. 3).

Colonial Legacies

Telenovelas provoke questions regarding two main historical elements: the colonial legacy of the continent; and, most interesting, the postcolonial transformation of the past (see Stoler 2002, 1996). However, within both of these elements a smaller yet more central question arises: How are colonial desires constituted within the legacy of both colonialism and postcolonial transformation. In this regard it is important to note that by "colonial legacies" I am referring to a cultural and economic experience of colonialism that lasted several centuries in the Americas (in some nations until the twentieth century)and its paradigmatic role in the emergence of the Latin American nation-state: it was out of this colonial experience that most of South and Central America "liberated" itself. But it is the fact that this liberation seems to have occurred exclusively within the political sphere (and even that is questionable—see Galeano 1973) that allows (or demands) a contemporary interpretation of the colonial past, that is, the interpretation of the colonial legacy.

Perhaps Quijano (1993) is most accurate in his assessment of the colonial legacy as a coloniality of power, thus avoiding the political/cultural dichotomy that has limited most other analyses (e.g., Cueva 1988; Ribeiro 1988, 1972). I would add the need to talk about legacy and coloniality in the plural to avoid the limited descriptions of these discourses in the past and to provide a closer approximation to the ambiguity of "lived-in" reality (see Williams 1977). It is this same ambiguity that is highlighted by the constitution (and constitutive nature) of what may be called "colonial desire." The phrase "colonial desire" as I use it throughout this book expresses a particular kind of longing, even a nostalgia, that is defined both by its characteristic failure (i.e., not being as good as something else in racial and/or cultural terms) and by the constant comparisons to the "other" (i.e., that which is not me/us and that I/we would want to be). It is this political process, exemplified in the corrosive power of envy, that locks both the colonizer (secretly wanting what is projected onto the darker, enslaved bodies: lust, emotional freedom, less "civilizing" constraints, etc.) and the colonized (striving for political and economic freedom while being injected with markers of cultural inferiority) into a bitter struggle that, although initiated five centuries ago, continues to fuel the interaction of people locally and globally.

Furthermore, the first element, colonial memory, is defined specifically in terms of the second: the contemporary representation in both historical and popular discourse of the colonial period. How do we represent and remember the colonial past? And perhaps a better question is How is the colonial past embodied in its representation itself?

The second element links the colonial past and its cultural/social legacy. How "past" is the colonial past? What are the main elements that tie or connect us to this past and that form part of the colonial legacy? And, ultimately, what are those colonial elements that, albeit transformed, infuse our contemporary postcolonial identity? As we are reminded by Stuart Hall (1993: 448), there is never a simple return to or a recovery of the past but, rather, a reappropriation of it through our present. The past is always an approximation afforded by the "technologies and identities of the present" (Hall 1993: 448). These two elements—colonial legacies and their postcolonial transformations—are central to the telenovela's success and make this melodramatic historical representation, as are all successful historical representations, particularly significant.

African American Representation, Continentally Speaking

Within a larger theoretical context, telenovelas are also a good vehicle through which to discuss some of the current debates on popular culture as expressed by Stuart Hall in terms of ethnic cultural production and Jesús Martín-Barbero with respect to melodramatic representation and mass hegemonic media devices. One of the most successful elements in two telenovelas is the representation of the black experience in a more rounded manner than is typical in Latin American melodramatic and popular venues. Without a doubt, one of the most controversial aspects of the telenovela is its representation of the Afro-American (continentally speaking) subject and its refusal to present the black experience as perfect and nonproblematic.

In this regard, the telenovela refuses to represent what Hanif Kureishi refers to as "cheering fictions" in which the oppressed are described as "sexually stabilized, self-contained, and monolithic," in other words, not human (Kureishi in Hall 1993: 449). In this sense, all characters express a myriad of ambiguous positions without needing to define themselves as either good or bad. For example, in one telenovela Xica prefers her "white" lover to her long-suffering (and enslaved) mother, while in another Adrián is able to seduce a black go-go dancer and use her to obtain information about her rich white male lover (who happens to be Adrián's father). Linda Williams (2004, 2001) provides quite an insightful analysis of this phenomenon in her work on black images in U.S. melodrama. Her scholarship focuses on the complex political articulation that melodrama expresses, particularly when it comes to racial identity. I highlight her work because, along with Martín-Barbero's, she emphasizes the subtle contribution of melodrama to the racialized social context that produces them.

The problematic portrayal of black characters in the telenovela Xica as not only racially but also culturally distinct in terms of religious practices (e.g., belief in African Orixás), linguistic dialects (use of slang and "low-class" speech), cultural celebrations (e.g., distinct wedding ceremonies), sexual mores (e.g., presence of not only rape and abuse but also lust for the white other) has made the genre a target of criticism for putting forward a biased and racist representation of the slave and former slave population. However, following Baldwin's (1984) critique of Wright's Native Son as a form of essentializing fiction and Kureishi's (1985) assessment of ethnic representations, these telenovelas seems to struggle to represent in a historically and culturally convincing manner the social persona not only of the black but also of the white/European population, particularly the latter's envy of the slaves' greater sexual freedom. As Kureishi (1985: 14) notes, this is not the easiest of undertakings in "politically correct" times, when the writer is seen as "a public relations officer, as a hired liar": "If there is to be a serious attempt to understand [Latin America] today, with its mix of races and colours, its hysteria and despair, then, writing about it has to be complex. It can't apologize or idealize. It can't sentimentalize and it can't represent only one group as having a monopoly on virtue."

Following this lead, it would seem that telenovelas "know what [they are] doing, as the[y] cross those frontiers between gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class" (Hall 1993: 449). Thus we must be careful in assessing their critical value. It is not a question of arguing about whether they are good or bad or even a realistic contemporary representation of the colonial past. It is not even a question of arguing the value or worth of soap operas in general. Rather, critical assessment should emphasize the value of the representation itself, the cultural implications, power effects, social and political ramifications, of the melodramatic representation afforded by the soap opera. As Stuart Hall (1993: 448) says in his public conversation with Salman Rushdie of new black cinema in Britain, it is not about defining something as good; rather, it is a question of how these new examples open avenues of critical discourse and challenge the traditional subjects and regimes of representation. This, I believe, is where the telenovela's and the narco-drama's contributions need to be assessed, how they open new spaces in the regime of popular cultural representation, even when the genres are still heavily embedded (how could they not be?) in the political and cultural constraints of their melodramatic medium—what Linda Williams (2001: 8) refers to as "melodrama's almost incalculable influence on American attitudes towards race."

Melodramatic Theory and Latin America: The Influence of Jesús Martín-Barbero

Martín-Barbero (1987), among others (see Brooks 2005; Gledhill 1987, 1991), has explored the history and role of melodrama in the production of popular culture in Latin America. For Martín-Barbero this particular mode of representation in Latin America was created in opposition to that of the established theater, which helped express and maintain the views of the elite class and the educated bourgeoisie. In contrast to the theater, melodrama made very little use of dialogue. Instead, it relied on the overdramatization of scenes through use of the body and the repetitive use of music as a mood stimulus. In this process, the characters' emphasis was less on their full development as people than on their use as symbolic embodiments of ethical values such as good versus evil (see Brooks 2005).

These historical characteristics of the melodrama—overdramatization, emphasis on emotion rather than logic, use of music to mark key relationships, characters as symbols of ethical values—are still the key elements of telenovelas throughout the Americas and therefore are also part of all these telenovelas' cultural and historical representation as well. What is also interesting is the underlying and reified opposition between the media of high art, such as the theater's reliance on intellectual logic and verbal agility, and the media of popular culture, such as telenovelas' emphasis on emotions and "overacting." This dichotomy is maintained in the description of telenovelas as bad or low cultural expressions, for example, as bobonovelas (dumb soap operas), or in the explanation given when something illogical happens only because it is a telenovela.

This discriminatory stance, however, is not unanimous. In recent years there has been a significant appeal from established writers to value and credit the work of soap opera artists. Instrumental in this regard have been the tributes and writing prizes given to soap opera writers like Corín Tellado, including a well-publicized interview by the established Peruvian writer and former presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa. Even Colombia's Nobel laureate, Gabriel García Márquez, has made public a wish to write a soap opera because of its far greater popular appeal than any other form of writing in Latin America (Rowe and Schelling 1992).

Notwithstanding this recent tolerance, the members of the elite seem to have been less concerned with a channel or outlet for their emotions than with a manner of expressing the education of the emotions as a marker of "higher" civilization. This repressive element is essential, since, for many, the bourgeoisie is indicated by its control of emotions and its need to separate sentiment from social setting, thus internalizing emotions and re-creating them as "private schemes" (Martín-Barbero 1987: 125). This opposition between the public display and the repression of emotion in elite cultural representations is, for Martín-Barbero, key to the production of hegemonic devices in the consumption of melodramatic portraits. It is the ambivalent role of the emotions as explicit or implicit vehicles of representation that allows the mass production and consumption of "popular" culture. Telenovelas and narco-dramas allow a form of "emotional democracy" that nurtures their popularity and at the same time reifies the social distance between "real art" (which is what the elite consumes) and the melodrama as the main form of popular entertainment (Martín-Barbero 1987).

According to Martín-Barbero (1987), this hegemonic structure is also related to the preference given in the melodrama to two forms of imagery: familial relationships, and social excess. These are an integral part of all Latin American telenovelas. They move the plot from a moment of not knowing to one of knowing again, of gaining and establishing one's true identity once the moral judgment at the end of the melodrama is expressed. Plot development is typically exemplified by things that happen to family members (e.g., lost children and family members, confused paternity, lost inheritances) or situations in which family members find themselves (e.g., marriage, sibling relationships, engagements) that are not what they seem or are supposed to be. The melodrama becomes an exercise in seeing beyond appearances, going past how things should be, to seeing what they actually are. Through this recourse the melodrama appeals to the public's sense of life's contradictions and follies, especially for the less economically well off, who know firsthand of social and emotional hardship. In this manner, the melodrama uses family imagery to "understand and express the complexity and opacity that the new social relations embody" (Martín-Barbero 1987: 131).

The second element is recourse to the rhetoric of excess. To quote Martín-Barbero, who succinctly outlines this particular approach (1987: 131; emphasis mine), "Everything in the melodrama tends to excess. From an initial scene that exaggerates the visual and musical contrasts to a dramatic structure and form of acting that demand a constant effect of emotions and a response of laughs, tears, sweat, and chills from the public at all times. Judged as degrading and excessive by a cultivated sensibility, this excess contains a victory over repression and a particular economy of order that emphasizes bourgeois notions of saving and safeguarding." It is, ultimately, through its critique of, and latent attacks on, the safeguarding of sexual and social mores that the telenovela most convincingly provides a new assessment of the colonial legacies and desires that permeate contemporary Latin America. As I argue throughout the book, these melodramatic representations are about offering the Latin American social body a realistic sense of redemption and revelation. It is precisely through these often contrived images that the audience is able to understand itself and its social surroundings in a much more dynamic fashion.

For Linda Williams (2001) melodrama provides a wonderful example of the cultural resurgence of media images being reused. She uses the metaphor of a "leaping fish" to describe the intricate, slippery content that melodrama uses to embody its powerful reworking of national cultural assumptions. It is this insight that allows both Williams and Gledhill (1987) to argue for "a general study of melodrama as a broadly important cultural mode" (in L. Williams 2001: 17). It is this medium of excess (as normative visual pleasure) that best expresses the "entertainment needs of a modern, rationalist, democratic, capitalist, industrial, and now post-industrial society seeking moral legibility under new conditions of moral ambiguity" (L. Williams 2001: 23). Ultimately, what new historical melodramas about the West reflect is that the genre is more about reinscribing and constituting a lost past of victimization when one has been the conqueror (L. Williams 2001).

In many ways, Gledhill (2003, 1991, 1987) foregrounds several of these arguments in her studies of melodrama. She recognizes the resistance to bourgeois norms that pervades the parody of emotions and sentiments throughout the form. She also rightly highlights the power of late-nineteenth-century productions of popular culture that were developed as melodramatic vignettes. For Gledhill, as for Brooks (2005), melodrama signifies a new secular order that looks to incorporate notions of the sacred and the power of social control within contemporary characteristics of the individual and a modern moral order of socially reconstituted under a (post)modern democratic façade.

Between Two Golden Ages in Mexico: Cinema, Culture, and Social Transformation

This book also engages with a melodramatic production particular to Mexican cinema, the narco-drama, since its beginnings in the 1970s to the present, especially in terms of its relationship to the greater transformation of Mexican and Latin American politics and culture (see Medrano Platas 1999; Rodríguez Cruz 2000; Trelles Plazaola 1991). From 1970 to 1995, Mexican cinema hit a supposed creative lull that distanced it from its earlier golden age (1930-1960) and from the most recent rich cinematic explosion in the late 1990s. It is interesting to note that, during this supposed period of cinematic "crisis," other cultural expressions such as music, literature, social theory, essay writing, and sports, particularly soccer, found some of their highest national expressions. It is also telling that in this period was laid the social groundwork that would serve to destabilize Mexico's one-party rule, ending in the PRI's (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, Institutional Revolutionary Party) being deposed after almost eighty years. My research assesses the relationship between cinematic production and the sociopolitical and cultural transformations that both influenced and were influenced by it.

Mexico in general and Mexican cinema in particular have had an enormous influence on the rest of Latin America. Mexican movies visually represent an American Third World country which has been seen as stronger and more vibrant than the rest of its Latin American counterparts (Agrasánchez 2001). This symbolic strength has been expressed in Mexico's ability, with however many disappointing results, to challenge U.S. imperialism and stand up to that country's overwhelming cultural influence. Mexican cinema's golden age was central in this enterprise, offering an alternative way of life to that presented in Hollywood's Tinseltown expressions even when it was being fueled by similar economic resources (see Fein 2002). Despite, or perhaps because of, the heterogeneous U.S. backing of Mexico's golden age, these movies were able to provide a cinematic vision which was also closer to the cultural and racial realities of Latin America.

This film boom produced actors such as Dolores del Río (Ramón 1997), Anthony Quinn, and Rita Hayworth who also succeeded in the U.S. film industry. However, it also enabled a large group of Mexican artists, such as María Félix, Pedro Armendáriz (García 1997), Jorge Negrete (Serna 1993), Cantinflas, and Pedro Infante, who represented different film genres and were honored at international film festivals and glittered in film houses throughout the Americas. This golden age was not to be revisited until recently, though, with the success of such films as El crimen del Padre Amaro (Father Amaro's crime), Amores perros (Love's a bitch), Lucía, Lucía, and Y tu mamá también (And your mother, too).

The period in between (1970-1995), which is the object of my research, saw the development of a B-movie industry that, abandoning the higher cultural ground, looked to entertain and to be commercially viable by representing more day-to-day Mexican characters and reality. Several other genres besides narco-drama arose during this period, including sex comedies (películas picantes/picarescas), romantic melodramas, and even a wrestling film series about El Santo (The saint), a strutting urban hero and defender of the poor. The romantic melodramas were close to the content of the telenovela and have been blamed for the decline of the early golden age. Nosotros los pobres (We the poor) has been hailed as the precursor of this genre (de la Peza 1998). This and other movies integrated many of the melodramatic elements of the telenovela into a concise two (or fewer) hours of film and many times even managed to transform them into musicals, letting the songs carry much of the tragic/dramatic story.

In many ways, Pedro Infante was one of the most emblematic figures in this transition between early golden age cinema and the production of romantic melodramas and musicals. Perhaps the intense melodrama of his life, including his tragic death, contributed not only to his early film success but also to the continued fascination of the Mexican, and Latin American, public with his life (see Rubenstein 2002).

The sex comedies are another melodramatic variant, with specific gender-related scenarios. Most of these films are structured around two or more male friends who somehow manage to get involved in and escape one thorny situation after another while surrounding themselves with gorgeous women in all states of undress. The beautiful women stand out in these movies precisely because most of the leading men, well-known comedians, are relatively unattractive and fully clothed. The film La india María is an interesting reversal of this patriarchal melodramatic structure in which María (like her male counterparts) is the unattractive and foolish character but is able to survive difficult situations and somehow always surround herself with good-looking men.


In many ways, narco-drama can be seen as falling between these other melodramatic film genres. Most narco-films elaborate a story contained within the larger context of the drug trade and incorporate both a violent Mafia ethos and the martial arts. They almost always present a patriarchal power structure and beautiful women parading themselves as sexual objects and exploit a melodramatic structure of excessive sentiment, musical cues for the development of the plot, and a moral metanarrative of local good versus global evil.

It is quite important to remember that, in keeping with good melodrama, these films immediately set up an alternative moral structure to the officializing discourse of the nation. For example, the state and its representatives, that is, politicians, law enforcement, bureaucrats, and soldiers, are seldom portrayed as the good guys; the heroes are either Lone Ranger types or misunderstood, repentant drug dealers. This alternative reading of the drug war has made narco-drama particularly difficult for the state and the elite to tolerate but has further secured its success as a more realistic reading of life in Latin America.

Narco-drama is the visual end product of a long process of cultural revalorization in Mexico, particularly in terms of translocal identity. Along with the production of these films there are other cultural elements, like narco-corridos (songs which are central to many of the films and played by hundreds of bands including the renowned Los Tigres del Norte and Los Tucanes), fashions (exotic-leather boots, worked [piteada] belts, and silk shirts), and values (a brutally violent code of honor) that share the narco-sensibility (see Astorga 2003, 1996, 1995; see also A. González 2004; Paredes 1958). The films portray narcos (drug dealers) as ambivalent subjects who, although involved in the illegal drug trade, maintain strong social and personal commitments to their local communities, family members, and friends. At the same time, these films contain a high level of regional specificity and interaction. As they are a regional expression of Mexico's northern frontier, they represent the broader picture of the migrant condition as well as that of the impact of the drug trade on the migrant communities. In many ways, narco-culture maintains an inherent relationship with its Colombian counterparts, the continent's initial drug producers and the group from which Mexican cartels clearly learned their trade (and bested). As Colombian writer Laura Restrepo argues (2004), one of the ways that Colombia managed to free itself a bit from the drug trade was by exporting it to Mexico.

Colombia's Participation

The illegal or subversive elements in these films concerning the drug trade (as well as their ambiguous representation of official and cultural authority) are essential to the public's fascination with them and their success. Unlike narco-corridos, neither official nor private venues have been able to ban these films even when the hostility toward them is intense. Another important element in this ambiguous state-cinema relationship is the role of Colombia and that nation's drug enterprise in the education of Mexican cartels and in the latter's representation in melodrama. It is not surprising to find a collaborative relationship in terms of media and film production, including the telenovela hit Pasión de gavilanes (see Chap. 5). This telenovela, although supposedly taking place in Colombia with Colombian actors, uses the Mexican version of cumbias and rancheras as the musical backdrop.

The Colombian connection thus links the earliest influences of narco-representation and the geographically specific Mexican film genre to the rest of the Spanish-speaking American continent. In many ways, even with the very specific thematic of narco-dramas, Mexico has not lost its cultural influence on the rest of the continent and is, in many respects, determining the material to be discussed and highlighted.

Colombia's participation as one of the earliest centers of the drug trade (probably along with Peru), however, marks a distinct form of social interaction that expresses a more symbiotic exchange of cultural materials. It was most probably the development of several regional centers of sophisticated drug marketing (as opposed to mere production) that marked Colombia's violent expansion into Mexico and the Caribbean in order to export drugs to the United States (Cajas 2004). These elements, along with the serious crisis of the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru guerrilla insurgencies in Peru, marked Colombia's divergent evolution and speedy dominance of drug production and trade on the continent, and arguably even worldwide.

It would not be long, however, before this particular model of strong family-run cartels coupled with extreme violence and severe codes of honor, all pointing to a dangerous and fast lifestyle, became the model for the Mexican drug industry. Mexicans, particularly in the northern states from where the drug is introduced into the U.S. market, unlike their Caribbean counterparts, stopped being mere intermediaries between the two markets and claimed a stake in drug production and trade, independent of the Colombian cartels.

This shift, in many ways, demanded a serious reworking of more traditional and established forms of social relationships and even of the national ethos. Drug production in Mexico was able to cut off the dependency on Andean drug production. This meant several things, including the growth of contestatory agrarian politics among northern rural peasants, who were ready to connect to one of the most troublesome legacies of the PRI's redistribution of Mexico's revolution. These northern transformations were part of the region's continuous historical heritage of opposition to the official (and hypocritical) one proclaimed by the central government in Mexico City (Vanderwood 2004).

At the same time, these newly founded Mexican cartels and drug lords also had at least a century-long history of outlaw and criminal behavior to fall back on, as the murders of young women in Juárez and Chihuahua in the early part of the twenty-first century clearly attest. For Astorga (1995) the image of the Mexican narco goes back all the way to the 1920s, when Mexicans were already trading illegally across the border to support not only themselves but whole communities that were being left out of the state's redistributional practices. Thus the more lucrative (and dangerous) drug trade introduced by Colombian cartels only imported a more dramatic content to an already burgeoning network of informal entrepreneurs and well-intentioned laborer/Lone Ranger types in the area.

These shifts in the social relationship also reworked the more traditional representation of Mexicans as a peaceful and quiet people (or even stupid or lazy, as is expressed in U.S. caricatures) to a population more violent and prone to gang activity as well as involved in illegal and criminal behavior (such as border crossing) (Vanderwood 2004). This shift has been encouraged if not created by an urban, xenophobic discourse in the United States and anti-immigration policy. One must wonder, therefore, if the development and success of narcos in widely popular films is a way of producing an image of illegality in a much more ambiguous and nuanced form than that imposed by both Mexico's official discourse and that of the historically violent and overpowering colonizer of the north.

Cultural Hybridity

Along with these new social markers and shifting relationships, hybridity in all its cultural variations takes on much greater significance. Prime among these variations are cultural border crossings (what Anzaldúa [1987] refers to as the "borderlands," symbolically speaking) and musical hybridity, particularly but not exclusively the cumbia. In general, Mexican bands like Café Tacuba, Molotov, Maldita Vecindad and South American bands such as Fabulosos Cadillacs, Bacilos, Los Amigos Invisibles, and Aterciopelados all play a contemporary form of hybrid music that mixes a wide range of Latin rhythms from rock and punk to rancheras and boleros. However, the musical transformation of Colombian cumbia to Mexican is most probably somewhat independent of this shift, marking it as a particular type of transnational reconfiguration of a cultural musical identity.

Cumbias, themselves a mixture of Spanish and Andean rhythms, are a long-standing tradition in the northern Andes, although they have always been recognized as Colombia's national musical genre. In the 1970s, this musical rhythm was introduced into the Mexican market, where it went through a transformation into a totally different genre, Mexican cumbia. As they had done previously with salsa, Mexicans took the original cumbia lyrics and shifted the genre's musical structure to one faster and leveled with pointed stops.

At the same time that Mexicans adapted cumbia to different musical instruments and band styles, a new dance version also developed, different from the Colombian cumbia dance.

This musical hybridization not only relates to but also marks the form of narco-sensibility made possible by the Colombian drug trade and its new melodramatic, form, a form that no longer offered the official discourse and hegemonizing sentiments as the norm of decency in these motion pictures.I argue that these sociocultural transformations, cultural hybridity, and cinematic evolution influenced each other, that the supposed creative lull in Mexican cinema might have provided an organic way for the population to represent itself on the screen, as it was doing with music (in the infamous narco-corridos and the appropriation of cumbia) and literature (with major continental figures like Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, but also Elena Poniatowska and Laura Esquivel). After all, it was also during this troubled period—1970-1990—that large-scale government corruption, increased drug trading, greater social upheaval, and the growing pauperization of the population marked a new era of cultural emergence for Mexico as well as for the rest of Latin America (see Monsiváis 2000, 1997).

Postmodernity in Latin America

To a significant degree, the last three decades of the twentieth century were marked by the continent's return to pseudo-democratic forms of government, a reworking of neoliberal models of economic development, and a profound desire to come to terms with brutal military dictatorships and the aftermath of their overthrow (see Guillermoprieto (2004); Sábato 1998). It was in this dynamic context of political and social movements, artistic ventures (including a vibrant Latino rock movement), and state-led economic experiments that melodrama developed and reigned. And that, for some scholars, marked a new postmodern form of identification for the Americas (Yudice, Franco, and Flores 1992). Left behind were more traditional forms of representation such as peasant movements and workers' unions, and personal identity became resignified as a form of contestatory politics (see Escobar and Álvarez 1987).

Indians, women, environmental workers, and homosexuals (to mention the most salient) became the central agents of social change and redefined the traditional identities of workers and peasants in powerful ways and beyond their initial national parameters. Internal migration and the stronger pull to the north (i.e., to the United States) were also an important element of resignification, making any understanding of popular movements and cultural production obsolete unless they were seen in a transnational, even global, context. The more developed and established nations of Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela (which, along with Mexico, had always been the countries with the greatest cultural and economic clout on the continent) were no longer capable of supporting their populations, which generated a large influx of their citizens to the United States and Europe. This only intensified the migration started decades before by smaller nations like Puerto Rico, Ecuador, and Panama.

This is the context in which the melodrama developed. It soon became one of the most successful forms of cultural representation throughout Latin America. This does not imply that melodrama is the only, or even an authentic, form for expressing Latin America culture; it is simply one of the most successful. This is important, as it clearly is a waste of time (and energy) to wonder about authentic representational traditions, since almost always the ones we choose will lose the popular support of those they are supposed to represent. Rather, it seems important to assess the varying success of popular representations instead of arguing about their authenticity from a particular, officializing standpoint.

Similar to Anderson's (1991) notion of styles of imagined communities as the most salient question in terms of the nation, it might be important to understand why some forms of representation become more viable than others, and what the mechanisms are that enable these particular cultural representations. There is no doubt that telenovelas and narco-dramas, mediated as they are by a transnational media market of local and global consumption, have succeeded where many other loftier—and less-lofty—ventures have failed to give voice to unequal and biased groups. Therefore, we must ask about the different voices and agents being articulated and frustrated within these two forms of melodramatic development. How do these two melodramatic genres define and integrate the cultural markers they are trying to represent? How are they contained by these markers, and how do they make money from them? These and many other essential questions about the role that melodrama has played in Latin America's postmodern existence pervade my research.

The production of melodrama in Latin America today is big business and earns big money. This is possible only because culture is already part of the essential melodramatic representational structure.

Chapter Overview

The book is divided into two parts: the first addresses melodramatic production in one Brazilian and three Colombian telenovelas; the second addresses the cultural politics of the narco-drama. Chapter 2 concentrates on the 1998 production Xica. While Brazil is one of the first centers of telenovela production (alongside Venezuela and Argentina), it has also produced by far the most provocative and challenging telenovelas in terms of sexual explicitness. This powerful telenovela is based on the historical figure Xica da Silva, a slave during the eighteenth-century diamond boom in Brazil. She managed to seduce a top official and through this romantic liaison to gain freedom for her and her children and became the most powerful woman in the region. The multiple issues of colonial desire and race, particularly among those of African and European descent, makes Xica an invaluable source for exploring the postcolonial transformation of the continent.

Chapter 3 assesses the powerful social effects of the telenovela's melodramatic representation in the transnational reworking and transformation of Latin American identity. Once again I will engage Xica to analyze the role of envy as a postcolonial tool of social leveling. I also use the breakthrough Colombian telenovela Betty la fea, which boosted Colombia's contribution in the Latin America telenovela market, to asses the role of seduction in the constitution of both postcolonial identity and consumer markets. For this endeavor, I use the work of two postcolonial thinkers, Frantz Fanon and James Baldwin, to better contextualize the different postcolonial discourses successfully used in these telenovelas' globalizing ventures.

Chapters 4 and 5 both assess two other hit Colombian telenovelas that address problematics of class, gender, and race. Both telenovelas, Adrián está de visita and Pasión de gavilanes, explore problems of personal and political identity. The former presents a provocative reworking of the Hollywood film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner with an Afro-Colombian man not only as main character but also as the plot catalyst. Pasión de gavilanes' plot offers a complex rendering of the interclass marriages of three brothers to three sisters, which enables the role of the sisters' mother as both cultural victim and victimizer. In many respects, both of these productions are emblematic as much for what they do as for what they choose to hide or silence, even as they develop a subtle and successful rearticulation of transnational and transracial identities.

The next four chapters are concerned with the narco-drama. Chapter 6 traces the historical evolution of narco-character and narco-sensibility, particularly as it has been outlined by Mexican scholars such as Luis Astorga, Roger Bartra, and Carlos Monsiváis, to name a few. The chapter assesses both the historical evolution of a narco-melodramatic representation and the national undertones that such a representation has elicited.

Chapter 7 concentrates on migration, border crossing, and the production of two icons, Juan Soldado and Jesús Malverde. Both of these figures, canonized by their popular appeal albeit not by the Catholic Church, are intermixed with the fluid movement of people and identities at the Mexican/Latin American-U.S. border. I use both of these folk saints to assess and interrogate the discourses of migration, transnational identity, and vulnerability, which mark all border crossings, metaphorical or not.

Chapter 8 marks another significant variation of transnational and gender identification. La reina del sur, a novel written by the Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte, became an international best seller narrating the story of a female drug trafficker from the Mexican state of Sinaloa who worked in southern Spain. The author spent several months in Sinaloa interviewing a wide variety of individuals, which lends the novel cultural conviction. The book's popularity was enhanced when one of the most popular bands, Los Tigres del Norte, composed an infamous narco-corrido to raise to the status of myth the life and times of the main protagonist, Teresa Mendoza. I explore both the central role of a female and her conscious crossing of Mexico's borders, along with the enormous resentment and mixed emotions with which Sinaloans have met these cultural representations.

Finally, Chapter 9 and the conclusion (Chap. 10) synthesize many of the elements elaborated in the book. Chapter 9 in particular looks to understand the hybrid nature of narco-dramas as objects of both fascination and psychoanalytic reflection. What is it about sexual desire, the drug culture, and cumbia music that resonates so powerfully with a border(ing) culture and a larger border (i.e., Latino) population in the United States? And ultimately, what does this new postcolonial and postmodern form of Latin American identification say about the specific production of culture in the Americas today, and the role of melodrama in affecting and being affected by these same cultural productions and representational endeavors? This is a particularly haunting question that is not lost on conservative academics in the United States today (see Huntington 2004).

The Chapter 10 assesses many of the same issues for both the narco-drama and the telenovela, synthesizing many of their central discourses. Three of the most important issues addressed in this chapter are transnational identity and globalization, the politics of postcolonial melodramatic representation, and perhaps most important, the daily struggle to earn a living in Latin America today. I explore how these elements intertwine to make one of the most tragic places in the world also one of the most exotic and provocative. I examine the central role of melodrama in bridging the gap between tragedy and pleasure and the transgressively constitutive nature of desire in reaffirming a viable postcolonial identity. The central question I reflect on is how one makes personal assets out of global tragedies and then not only represents them as pleasurable and fun but also exports them to earn social capital and economic gain. Melodrama thus constitutes (or not) a new way of being and seeing postcolonial Latin America in its reconfiguration from a modern to a postmodern identity.


“Drugs, Thugs, and Divas offers a truly original contribution to studies of Latin American popular culture. The book treats two genres whose popularity is growing exponentially within and outside of Latin America, and its extended, nuanced investigation of narco-dramas, in particular, makes it a truly cutting-edge study.”
Ruby Tapia, Assistant Professor of Comparative Studies, Ohio State University