Sex, divorce, censorship and the church
Ana Arana finds out how the producers of Mexican telenovelas sidestep government and Church outrage
03 Nov 10

Ana Arana Ana Arana finds out how the producers of Mexican soap operas sidestep government and Church outrage

Las Aparicio, a telenovela produced by Argos Comunicacion, the cutting-edge Mexican production house headed by Epigmenio Ibarra and his wife Veronica Velasco, has managed to anger both the Mexican church and Venezuelan president. Called “immoral” by Hugo Chavez and Mexican prelates, the series finished in September on the free-to-air television channel Cadena Tres in Mexico. Its critics were angered by “open scenes of lesbianism,” and a strong dosage of realism. The programme is about a clan of women who only have daughters and turn that curse into a strength. The characters include ghosts, a lesbian couple and divorced professional women and the women have sex and look to life after divorce. A typical Argos recipe for breaking taboos in Mexican television. After having initially pulled the programme from schedules at the prodding of local church officials, 11 Mexican cities eventually got to watch the show and  Chavez finally relented and allowed the series to be shown on Venezuelan television at midnight.

Mexico is the home of the telenovela. The genre in the 1940s. There are various storylines, but the most popular ones are the telenovela rosa, which always involves the story of a poor woman who falls in love with a rich man, and the evil woman who tries to stop the love from flourishing. When I first moved to Mexico, I spent the first year watching these telenovelas to see if they have anything to say about Mexican culture. They don’t.

Epigmenio Ibarra is the antithesis of a rosa producer. At the beginning he was seen as an anti-christ just for producing a different type of story. Television owners think that people want stories of chivalry and traditional values that put religion at the top of the heap, says Epigmenio, a medium built man with glasses who has a penchant for staring down at his interviewer. I met Epigmenio in Central America as he reported the news for the Mexican news agency Notimex. A clever man, he managed to find sources on both sides of that vicious civil war — he was loved by both army generals and guerrilla leaders. He remains close friends with former guerrilla leader Joaquin Villalobos who teaches at Cambridge.

Seventeen years ago, Epigmenio returned home after the Central American wars ended. He tried to continue reporting on the Gulf War and the Balkan wars, but it did not feel the same. He decided to take a stake in the now-changing Mexico, which was in the throes of moving from a one party system, run by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). He met his wife Veronica Velasco, a television reporter, and tried to get into the national television business. In Mexico there was only room for two news networks, Televisa, which is the second largest media conglomerate in Latin America after Consorcio Globo, and Television Azteca. “They closed the doors on us,” he recalls. “So we started doing telenovelas.”

Epigmenio and his wife started working with Azteca, as Veronica was a former television star who had worked with one of the chain’s channels. They did a series that investigated crime and justice, but they broke big when they produced political drama Nada Personal a thinly veiled critical look at the political soap surrounding former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. With Nada Personal, the socially conscious telenovela was born.

Since that first hit, Argos has produced a series of groundbreaking programmes that have taken on lesbianism, womanising priests, philandering politicians and strong women. The house’s most recent series, Capadocia — which it produced with HBO — deals with women in prison, and chapters are inserted with real life “hijuelos” or bastards, capturing real stories of drug trafficking, political corruption and social upheaval, which Argos introduces in the weekly or daily episodes, making the series uncannily close to real life.

“We are not interested in making a telenovela that features women who cry but still have perfect makeup. We look for a thinking viewer who does not want to be fed a story,” says Veronica Velasco, a tall, dark-haired striking woman.

Argos Comunicacion, the couple’s production company launched in 1992 — is today a sort of family business, with Epigmenio and Veronica at the helm, and other family members working in key positions, including one of Epigmenio’s daughters, Erendira, who played a lesbian in Las Aparicio. They have other business partners, including Mexico’s richest man Carlos Slim, who has invested in their production house. But the couple controls the content of Argo’s productions.

Epigmenio and Veronica recount the awards their series have obtained in the last 17 years, more out of awe at having conquered all odds than out of ego. “We won five awards in the recent International Festival of Telenovelas in Argentina,” adds Epigmenio, as we sit around a large square table in his spacious office. It is here in the Casa Azul — a turn of the century large mansion in Colonia Condesa — that he runs a production/talent scout and drama school conglomerate. Aware that many of the telenovela or Mexican starlets come out of the drama schools run by the two large television networks, he has also focused in trying to create more sophisticated and focused talent.

“It is the first time one telenovela has won all those awards in the festival in Argentina,” he continues. “We use the same writers TV Azteca uses, but they don’t win awards there,” tells Veronica. Cadena Tres was less of a struggle for Argos, which has had legendary falling outs with TV Azteca, its old outlet. Cadena Tres is a smaller media conglomerate. This new network is run by another Mexican millionare, Olegario Vasquez Raña, who owns hospitals and a newspaper.

Epigmenio continues to be involved in politics. He supported Andres Manuel Obrador the candidate on the leftist Partido Revolucionary Democratico (PRD), who ran for president in 2006 and lost to current president Felipe Calderon, amidst charges of vote fraud. On his twitter account, he writes anti-government messages. But one thing he learned being a war correspondent is that peace should be kept at all times. He says El Salvador’s biggest achievement was to reach peace after twelve years of war.

Argos’s latest plan are to produce a new soap called “The Weaker Sex”, a parody of a group of men who are abandoned by their wives and girlfriends. It is an old story in the United States and Europe. But this is a serious topic in a society that it is still dominated by the macho man and his virgin girlfriend telenovela that the other networks produce.

Still, Epigmenio and Veronica continue to be the outsiders who learned how to be insiders in Mexico. Their number one lesson from all the years producing telenovelas and series is: “You can’t touch the church and its values. We learned that when we tried to write about a womaniser priest. So we have figured out how to work out socially important stories without elaborating much on the church.”

Mexico is a very religious country, says Epigmenio. “We were told all priests were good when the Maciel scandal was at its height.” [Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, a conservative catholic sect, was exposed as a sex offender and has subsequently been formally denounced by the Vatican].

“We believe that the analysis commercial television uses to measure what Mexicans and Latin Americans want is wrong,” says Epigmenio “Lets not assume entertainment is something vacuous…television should also take risks,” he concludes.

Ana Arana is Index on Censorship’s Mexico editor and director of the Fundación Mexicana de Periodismo de Investigación