I try to convince myself that I haven’t posted in so long because I just haven’t felt inspired to write. The pathetic truth, however, is that I’m lazy. Now, happily, a bit of inspiration has arrived to shake me out of my sloth, inspiration not from literature but from the exquisite emotion and pathos of mariachi music.
Telenovelas, icons of Latino pop culture – I watch them to maintain my Spanish-language skills...
They’ve held me rapt in spite of myself ever since I lived in Ecuador over twenty years ago. The stories are frequently set in incredible places and audiences get treated to gorgeous views – beautiful countryside, charming colonial towns, tropical beaches, nighttime urban vistas. Then there’s the romance...the wooing, the sexual tension between two strong personalities, the beautiful men who cry so easily but with quiet dignity...the sentimental melodrama, the far-fetched plot lines, the frequent episodes of outrageous scenery chewing, the slapsticky humor. Telenovelas are, after all, soap operas...
One important thing about telenovelas makes them so much better than North American soaps: they end. Each telenovela ends and a new one begins. I watch a few episodes of each new one to check out the cast and the chemistry between the romantic leads, to get an idea of the plot. If I stick with one, it’s usually because I've noticed some unique quality about the production: a hot actor...
But there’s a novela running at the moment that’s unlike any other, a production of Colombia’s RCN network being shown on Telefutura (a “sister station” of Univision) here in the states - La Hija del Mariachi (The Mariachi’s Daughter). It’s the best written, best acted novela I’ve ever watched. It's so good that I rank it among the best TV shows I’ve ever watched, not far behind PBS’s Mystery! and Masterpiece Theatre, Homicide: Life on the Street and the first season of The Wire, and a few slots ahead of Six Feet Under and Rome (two more soap operas that got a lot more attention...).
The plot, of course, sounds rather ridiculous: Emiliano, a sophisticated yet somehow naive young man from a wealthy and powerful Mexican family is framed - by his business partners and lawyer no less, who are supposed to be his friends - for laundering drug money through his very high-end car dealership in Mexico City, and upon the advice of the unscrupulous lawyer, flees the country when the police raid the business, ending up in Bogotá, Colombia where he is mugged and robbed of his money and passport and left dazed and confused with a bleeding head wound to wander lost through the streets of the strange city until he happens upon a bar with a familiar name, La Plaza Garibaldi (the name of an actual park in Mexico City where strolling mariachis play everyday and where stands a statue of one of Mexico’s greatest composers of mariachi music, José Alfredo Jimenez), and suddenly, under the bright lights of the bar’s marquee, he sees standing before him the girl of his dreams, the beautiful, and as it turns out, very kind Rosario Guerrero, who takes pity on the lost but handsome young Mexican, believes him when he tells her his name is Francisco Lara (Lara – the last name of a famous mariachi singer/composer, Agostin Lara) and that he’s an auto mechanic who was just passing through Bogota on his way to a job in Argentina when he got mugged, dresses his wound, finds him a place to stay, gives him food and money, and who happens to be the one and only lady singer of the mariachi band at La Plaza Garibaldi and the daughter of one of its past stars (long since dead) and discovers that the young Mexican has a fantastic singing voice and helps him get a job as a singer in the band...and the Mexican becomes one of the stars at La Plaza Garibaldi and known to the loyal house audience as “El Príncipe de México” (The Prince of Mexico)...and he quickly falls completely in love with Rosario (and she with him) who is known on stage as “El Lucero de México” (The Star of Mexico)...and he becomes fast friends with the band’s lead violin player, Fernando Vladimir Molina, proud union member and son of a martyred union organizer, who’s so smart that he figures out pretty damn quick who Francisco really is and then sticks his neck out over and over again to help him, and is known on stage as “Mil Amores” (1000 Loves), an appropriate but frequently inconvenient nickname, and also with its lead trumpeter, Sigifredo de la Cruz, known on stage as “El Sentimentál” (The Sentimental One), older and wiser mentor to the young and foolish members of the band, who loves all things Mexican...and he gains an almost mortal enemy in the band’s lead singer and boss Manuel whom everyone just calls “Coloso” because his stage name is “El Coloso de Jalisco” (that’s “The ‘Colossus’ of Jalisco (the state in Mexico where mariachi music was invented).” My question is, “What exactly does “Colossus” refer to? – a colossal singing voice, a colossal presence on stage, a colossal...something else?? What’s really colossal about him is, of course, his villainous ego...) because he’s always wanted Rosario for himself...and he has to fend off the amorous advances of Virginia, the uber-spoiled, whiny, conniving daughter of the bar’s owner, and stop Rosario from being jealous of her...and he has to control his own jealous rages towards Rosario’s suitors, Coloso and a rich, pompous lawyer named Javier Macias who frequents the bar, even though he hates mariachi music, because he lusts after Rosario (and he’s married, the sleazy bastard)...and, of course, he has to stay one step ahead of the Mexican police, the Colombian police and Interpol who all believe that the young Mexican businessman has turned money launderer and is on the lam somewhere in Colombia.
So - its main plot line is the usual: two beautiful young people love each other passionately, but before they can live happily ever after, they have to overcome certain obstacles, primarily their own dopiness but also the evil intentions of several selfish people who, for various reasons, want to thwart their love. But La Hija del Mariachi has so much more:
A well-developed, well-acted friendship between two smart, witty men:
Mark Tacher (a Mexican actor) as Francisco/Emiliano is, of course, incredibly handsome and very charming, and he has great chemistry with Carolina Ramirez who plays Rosario. I like 'em, but they're just so sweet, really sweet, sickeningly sweet...
The best relationship in the show, an unusually interesting relationship for any tv show, is the one between Francisco and Fernando (Mario Duarte). The show could almost be called “Las Aventuras de Fran y Fer.” They first bond when Francisco helps Fernando fight off a gang of thugs who have hunted down the violin player to remind him again to stay away from his latest “amor,” a married woman whose husband is a mobster. But they keep getting into trouble together, especially after Fer figures out the truth about Francisco's identity. Fernando keeps a close watch on the internet for news stories about the police's search for the Mexican fugitive and listens with endless patience to Francisco's fears and heartaches. And he teases Francisco mercilessily, about his jealousy over Rosario, his "knack" for finding problems for himself, his inability to understand Colombian Spanish. The two actors make a talented comedy duo, with Tacher usually playing the straight man and Duarte improvising the funniest bits. While Tacher is almost too perfect in his Hollywood looks, Duarte has an unconventional handsomeness and his smile twinkles with so much charm that it takes female breath away.
As the show has progressed, these two have developed into sort of a macho male version of "Sense and Sensiblity."
Pertinent social commentary:
Novelas frequently tackle the ills that plague society at large - substance abuse, domestic violence and rape, child abuse, even mental illness. And, of course, the disparities between the rich and the poor. But the serious sociopoitical problems endemic to the country where one takes place usually don't crop up. Drugs cartels, kidnapping and political corruption rarely get mentioned in a Mexican telenovels. So I was almost shocked when Colombia's horrible history of murdered union members popped up in La Hija.... Early in the story, Fernando agrily laments to Francisco that his father had become another Colombian statistic as an assasinated union organizer. The revelation has never develped into a plotline, but the writers must have wanted to acknowledge the national problem.
Gay men have also long been portrayed in the macho world of telenovelas. As in all tv shows, these characters have been drawn with varying degrees of fullness and stereotyping, from the "swishy" comedian to the conflicted young man to the loyal friend of the heroine. While homophobia has been portrayed in a negative light, gay characters themselves have never been sexual towards each other. Finally, in LaHija..., two gay men have kissed each other in a romantic way. Granted, they were passing characters - one hired the band to serenade his lover - but it was the first gay kiss I'd ever seen in a novela, and I was impressed as hell.
Actors of African descent play characters who are not either servants or criminals.
Some of the greatest romantic music ever written – mariachi music – is integral to the story.
The story takes place mostly at night in La Plaza Garibaldi when the band is performing. It attracts a large loyal audience that knows the songs by heart and enthusiastically sings along (evidently, mariachi music is almost as popular in Colombia as it is in Mexico). The intrinsic romanticness of the music fits perfectly into a novela, and there are dozens of songs for each stage of a romantic relationship (granted, most are to be sung by men):
For the pre-relationship stage, there are the I’m-a-true-lover-of-women songs;
For wooing and declarations, there’re the polite Please-know-that-I-love-you songs and the more suggestive Just-wait-‘til-you’re-mine songs;
Then there’re are We-love-each-other-and-life-together-is-beautiful songs and the When-we-make-love songs...;
For when things turn to shit, there’re the You-broke-my-heart songs, I'm-no-good-for-you/I-don't-want-to-hurt-you-anymore songs, You’re-a-rotten-so-'n-so songs, Please-forgive-me songs, Please-don’t-leave-me songs, and She’s-left-me-and-I’m-not-going-to-survive-without-her songs.
The huge majority of these songs involve crying, drunkenness, dying of love, all three or in some combination. Francisco, Rosario and Coloso sing these songs and many more. They sing them to the audience and to each other, in duets and in duels (yep, duels). The band hires itself out for serenades and plays these songs to help the love-lorn citizens of Bogota with their romantic dilemmas.
I've been a lover of Latino culture, especially Latin music, for over twenty years, but failed to discover Mariachi music. Until now. Now I'm in permanent swoon for this music. Something about it has grabbed me and won't let go. It has a romantic aura about it similar to that of tragic opera. I can't really explain exactly how the two disperate genres are the same but the feeling I get when I listen to both is very similar so I know they both hit me in the same place in my soul.
La Hija... has, sadly, ended here in the States. For some really dumb reason, Telefutura decided to cut it short, even while the saga continues in Colombia. It was a dull, anti-climactic ending to the greatest of all telenovels. There will never be another like it. Look for it on dvd...
In the doctor's forest...
...while I certainly don't ignore new books, I don't focus on them, either. I'm a slow reader and can't keep up with the publishers, the professional reviewers, the advanced bloggers. After I finish one book, I like to choose the next at random from a range of "genres" - classics, historical fiction, mysteries, world literature, history, biography, drama, the usual. There are many "old" books that I read long ago but still feel like talking about. The current "hot topic" won't even be tepid by the time I get to it. I also like to bring in other cultural matters - art, theatre, music, opera - when they fit in the context of a certain literary work. The content of "the Canon" and literature in translation also pop up occasionally.