In 1992, as ex-Yugoslavia tore at itself in a frenzy of ethnic slaughter, a far sweeter note played on television. A Mexican telenovela—a soap opera—known as Los Ricos Tambien Lloran aired in the warring republics. The Rich Cry Too, starring Veronica Castro, was the story of poor Mariana, an orphan and maid to a rich family, who falls in love with the family’s son, has his child, goes crazy and gives up her child when her lover is unfaithful to her, then spends the rest of the show fighting to recover the baby. And every night while it played in Serbia and Croatia, where at the time happy endings were at a premium, life would stop for an hour….
And it was the highest-rated show on Croatian television that year. Since then, Mexican telenovelas have swept the world up in their teary melodramas of romance, passion, good and evil, betrayal, lies, and happy endings. Televisa, Mexico’s entertainment conglomerate and the world’s largest telenovela producer, has sold them to all of Latin America and to 125 other countries as well, among them Armenia and Azerbaijan, Belgium and Bophuthatswana, Iran and Iraq, Singapore and South Korea. China has aired twenty-two Mexican telenovelas. Cuna de Lobos (Den of Wolves) was a huge hit in Australia.
Telenovelas have taken over daytime television in the Balkans. Serbian television producers have even begun filming their own, with plot lines revolving around characters who inherit lots of money, then scheme to get more by cheating their relatives. Three Televisa novelas compete on prime time every night on Indonesia’s three main stations. The network’s newest sensation, Thalia, was mobbed when she visited the Philippines in 1995 and 1996. The press reported Philippine women naming their newborns Thalia or Marimar—one of the heroines the actress plays. In Romania a change in broadcasting law decreed less sex and violence on television. Mexican novelas perfectly filled the void left by more violent programming. One novela, Esmeralda, became so popular that women copied the hairstyle of star Leticia Calderon, and Bucharest ambulance crews were said to be getting to their calls late; finally televisions were removed from the station houses.
By 1996 Televisa could claim its novelas were Mexico’s largest export product, ahead of car parts and Corona beer.