Telenovelas: The 21st Century Pedagogical Tool for Primarily Spanish Speakers in the US?

Growing up in El Paso over the years has provided this writer the opportunity to observe the significance and impact telenovelas (Spanish-speaking soap operas) have on an audience. I remember my grandmother, glued to the TV from six to nine at night, watching her telenovelas. These soap operas played every day Monday through Friday. She became engrossed in the trivial and melodramatic storylines. When I would misbehave, she would scold me saying, “Look at this man [on the TV] – if you misbehave now, you will grow up and be like him – cheating in life.” At the time, I had no idea was she was talking about. Today, I realize that my grandmother and her friends, and their friends’ friends all based reality and attitudes of people off of the characters and situations in these soap operas. Did my grandmother actually believe that the characters in these soaps were actually real? I decided to research various soap operas/telenovelas, finding out if they had the same impact on other people like they had on my grandmother.

The history of telenovela reception theory is relatively new, beginning in the early 2000s.  The major study of telenovela reception theory in a borderland city began with Jonathan Spader’s study of an US-made telenovela shown to a control group in North Carolina’s Latin@ population (made up of Salvadorian, Guatemalan, and Mexican Americans). Spader explains that during the tenure of the telenovela, Nuestro Barrio, from 2006 to 2008, North Carolina saw an increase in bank inquires and account openings from their Latin@ demographic. Barrio is presumed to cause its viewers without bank accounts to react emotionally when Javier – a character in the telenovela – loses his savings in a robbery, a “reaction consistent with the dramatic relief process of change” (Spader, 64, 67). The story of Barrio follows a middle class Latino family in the US as they encounter financial obstacles. Spader investigates how this storyline impacts the audience of the Raleigh/Durham region through testing. He conducts 101 interviews with people who saw the soap opera. Using a PSM [ Propensity Scoring Meter] estimator, Spader states that the participants had more respect to both bank account use and homeownership.

Are telenovelas the new medium of education for primarily Spanish speakers in the United States? Ilan Stavans traces the history of telenovela production in his book Telenovelas. He carries the reader through the five stages of how “production producers” examine research, and create and test out characters and storylines. Stavans argues that the social relationships between the characters in these soap operas are based on real relationships in today’s world.

Heidi Nariman is one television historian who proposes the entertainment-education telenovela, and their rise in the 2000s. Nariman deconstructs the soap opera and explains how it can teach an audience about issues in Soap Operas for Social Change. She studies the pioneering director of telenovelas in Mexico – Miguel Sabido – who was the first director to produce telenovelas about health, education and finance. Nariman states: “Miguel Sabido uses 5 theoretical tenets in soap operas – communication theory, dramatic theory, archetypes/stereotypes, social learning theory and the concept of the triune brain” (Nariman 31). These five tenets are inserted to audiences during and after the soap opera through the medium of television. According to Sabido, if one uses all five tenets, a clear message will be communicated from the telenovela to the audience. Sabido wrote and directed three telenovelas in the 70s – Acompáñame, Ven Conmigo, and La Familia. Each telenovela headlines contemporary issues such as health, education and family life. Nariman concludes with statistical evidence that there is a rise of attendance in hospitals and an increase of literature receipts about higher education after the viewing of each of Sabido’s telenovelas.

According to Nariman, Sabido concluded that “television serials could do more than reinforce attitudes toward specific events and characters; they could also stimulate behavior through commercial revenues and propaganda” (Nariman 7). Sabido states that in order for an entertainment-education soap opera to be successful, “the target audience must perceive a reflection of itself and its own reality within the soap opera to learn and mold from” (Nariman 54). Therefore, by using the five theoretical tenets, one can communicate information to an audience through the soap opera.

Spader, Stavans and Nariman remark how TV can see a rise in the production of telenovelas, beginning in the 2000s. Why the increase? Telenovelas can, and have been proven to affect their audience. So was my grandmother wrong in her complicity with projecting the themes and problems of her telenovelas onto the ‘real world’ and me? Perhaps not. But one must ask, is the future of Spanish speaking television in the United States aimed at educating Spanish speakers?

Nariman, Heidi Noel. Soap Operas for Social Change: toward a Methodology for Entertainment-education Television. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993.

Spader, Jonathan, Janneke Ratcliffe, Jorge Montoya, and Peter Skillern. “The Bold and the Bankable: How the Nuestro Barrio Telenovela Reaches Latino Immigrants with Financial Education.” The Journal of Consumer Affairs 2009th ser. 43.1 (2009): 56-87.

Stavans, Ilan. Telenovelas. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood, 2010.

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4 thoughts on “Telenovelas: The 21st Century Pedagogical Tool for Primarily Spanish Speakers in the US?

  1. Jared T.

    Thanks for the post, Kris. My grandma watched novelas as well as English language daytime soap operas. I’m pretty clueless about novelas, but I’ve recently seen the ending of two that a family member was watching. Both shared a lot of the same actors and both ended in fairy tale fashion after passionate love scenes in the closing episode. One other one now underway seems to have a drug smuggling story underlying part of it, perhaps a nod at the salience of drug-related stories in the news. I don’t think this family member takes them too seriously, but does find them entertaining.

  2. Kris Klein Hernandez

    Hi Jared,

    Thanks for your comment. Sounds like you have held a similar experience with telenovelas. Telenovelas are unique; seen simultaneously as solely entertainment products and cultural anachronisms, depending of course on who is viewing them. It may seem like more and more of our generation has desisted from watching them (or maybe just not as much as our preceding generation). The question is what will Anglo America propagate onto Latino America if the telenovela audience and telenovela dies out?

  3. Michael K. Bess

    The discussion of media’s impact on the viewing public is something that definitely resonantes with my work as I consider the effect of advertising on consumer society in the borderlands. It’s interesting how telenovelas reflect their audiences’ values, but also can open up new spaces for social and cultural dialogue. Thanks for sharing.

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