Telenovela, American-Style

In the searing heat of a Southern city, the drama unfolds like another day at General Hospital: Restaurant owner Manuel, a benevolent patriarch who offers aid to new immigrants, is hiding a dark secret that binds him and his enemy, the club owner Salvador. Meanwhile, Dr. Maria Hayden, whose US-born husband left her for a sultry blonde, is considering the attentions of a handsome mechanic.

Amid a cloud of mariachi music, "Nuestro Barrio", (Spanish for "Our Neighborhood"), America's first locally produced telenovela, or Latin American soap opera, is poised to offer much more than love affairs and plot twists. As the new show debuts across the South in late January, viewers will also see a short sermon on what equity means, how to open a checking account and the ins-and-outs of American law.

Traditional Latin-American produced telenovelas often feature a "Maria," who, like some 50 percent of Latina women, is poor. "Maria" in the end assumes her rightful place in society, usually through an unexpected inheritance or marriage to a "Ricardo Rich."

"Nuestro Barrio" offers a Jeffersonian vision: Success comes from learning the game of economics, working hard, and playing to win. The dialogue, conducted in Spanglish, is a mix of Spanish and English, reflecting the language of many immigrants.

As the public-service type plotlines are a modern-day twist on the church bulletins and AM radio programs that once taught civics to newly-arrived Swedes and Poles, the new telenovela represents the economic and cultural heft of the Hispanic immigration, especially in the South and Midwest.

"[The show] is not necessarily about assimilation as much as how to be successful in this country," says Wilmington, N.C.'s Dilsey Davis, a Hollywood actress who created and directs the show. "In order to do that, you need to have financial literacy, know how to buy a home, how to go to college. What we're trying to do is get people interested in the possibility of that dream."

Yet critics say the decision by TV executives to slide such a show into the lineup is also a symbol of the rise of a second American mainstream that threatens to destroy the traditional assimilation of immigrants into America. "What [Nuestro Barrio is part of], because of the size and lack of diversity of the new immigrant flow, is the creation of an alternative mainstream, a Spanish-language mainstream," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. "The fear is that we're not going to have a common culture, but two separate societies inhabiting the same territory."

But the power of a good love triangle can transcend cultural differences. Some 2 billion people around the world watch telenovelas, which differ from soap operas in that they have a distinct beginning and end. Univision spent $105 million for licenses in 2004 to bring them into the US markets. Some telenovelas have won ratings battles in US cities during their season finales. As a result, CBS, ABC, and Fox have plans for their own versions by next summer.

In Raleigh, WB 22 general manager Neal Davis is hoping "Nuestro Barrio" will have a similar impact in North Carolina's Triangle region. The station is one of 20 across the South that will air the show. Davis views it as a way to build market share in North Carolina where together with Arizona, the Hispanic population is growing the fastest.

One problem, he says, will be measuring the audience, since Nielsen has not fully penetrated the Hispanic TV-viewing market. The show's producers, however, have devised other measurement tools to gauge viewers' response, including mall appearances of actors.

"This is a big test to see if there's an audience or not," says Mr. Davis. The story centers around the Sanchez family, a respected clan at the center of Latino social activities in a generic mid-sized US city with a burgeoning Hispanic population.

When the producers set up shop in Durham, a historic tobacco town known more for its African-American banks than TV production, at first they struggled to find experienced actors. They cast many from the theater, and who shared the travails that the show feeds on.

It is produced by Durham's Community Reinvestment Association, a social justice organization, using both private and public grants. After a year in production, it has already created a nascent actor's studio, which is drawing the attention of national casting agents.

Sociologists say that as Hispanics move into the slipstream of American culture, shows such as Nuestro Barrio are examples of community outreach to new immigrants, not for companionship, but as anchors of local economies.

Indeed, the telenovela's content and reaction highlights the conflicts and gradual acceptance for Latinos.

"To go through the effort to make a show like this and make it in the South and to have a sort of [public service] bend to it suggests that there is some expectation on the part of the host society that these immigrants, if they aren't already, will in fact be permanent parts of the community," says Toms Jimnez, a sociology professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Meanwhile, many lawmakers and immigration reformers are not looking forward to the debut of "Nuestro Barrio." They say it undermines the need to halt the flow of illegal immigrants and does not address the social costs. In North Carolina, up to 85 percent of immigrants are undocumented. "These telenovelas may well be teaching illegal aliens how to avoid detection and embed themselves in society," says Mr. Krikorian. But Ms. Davis, the director, says she hopes the show will be more communal than confrontational.

"I'm hoping that people who kind of look distantly [at Hispanic immigrants] will see that here's a father who cares for his daughter, and she wants to go to college, and they begin to see similarities," says Davis. "People are afraid to speak to each other when they can't connect, so hopefully this is a beginning."


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