Armed conflict, child soldiers, drug mules, and Pablo Escobar are not just topics on the nightly news anymore, but the subjects of some of Colombia’s most popular telenovelas. Each night, millions of Colombians tune in to see some of the most traumatic parts of their history serialized for primetime television. Over the past decade, Colombian studios have revamped the popular telenovela format to bear witness to some of Colombia’s darkest moments while playing an important role in preserving the historical memory of a country engaged in civil war for the past 60 years.
For generations, telenovelas have delighted and intrigued audiences worldwide with their convoluted story lines featuring unrequited love, revenge, and Cinderella stories. Colombian telenovelas like “Yo Soy Betty La Fea” (“I Am Ugly Betty”) and “Café Con Aroma de Mujer” (“Coffee with the Scent of a Woman”) were watched by millions of people across the world, bringing Colombian culture to Eastern Europe, the Philippines, and Africa. However, instead of love stories and revenge deals, today’s Colombian telenovelas are tackling some of the most pressing issues facing the country.
It’s no secret that Colombia’s modern history is complicated. Since the 1960s, a bloody armed conflict has devastated the country, resulting in over 220,000 deaths and millions of internally displaced people. While left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and government forces battled in the rural areas of the country, the urban centers experienced the horrors of Colombia’s notorious drug wars. Notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and his Medellin Cartel terrorized Colombia’s urban residents with assassinations of high-profile public servants and journalists, car bombings, and mass murder.
Over the past ten years, Colombian telenovelas began to reflect these painful events in the nation’s history, and have become conversation starters that have forced many Colombians to confront the demons of the past. “Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso” (“Without Breasts There is No Paradise”) is widely credited as one of the first telenovelas to tackle the country’s drug trafficking history. The story follows a young girl named Catalina who leaves school and becomes a prostitute for local drug dealers to pay for a breast implant surgery that she believes will help her leave poverty.
In 2013, one of Colombia’s most controversial and successful telenovelas delved straight into the complicated history of Pablo Escobar. The telenovela, “Pablo Escobar, El Patrón del Mal” (“Pablo Escobar, the Boss of Evil”) graphically detailed the rise and fall of the notorious drug lord and showed its effect on the Colombian government, media institutions, and society. The show was a ratings hit in Colombia, the United States, and other parts of Latin America, but did not escape its fair share of controversy. Some felt that the telenovela glamorized the life of one of Colombia’s most notorious killers. Others questioned the ethics of the Caracol network, one of Colombia’s largest media institutions, to capitalize on Colombia’s pain for higher ratings. Despite the controversy, millions tuned in each night and relived the assassinations, bombings, and terror that Escobar inflicted on the country just three decades ago.
Much has changed in Colombia since the times of Escobar. Just this year, the Colombian government signed a peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and ended the western hemisphere’s longest running conflict. In its aftermath, Colombia faces deeply entrenched wounds that may take generations to heal.
To help facilitate the reconciliation process, Colombia is turning to its most popular medium to bridge a deeply divided public. The new series, “No Olvidarás Mi Nombre” (“You Won’t Forget My Name”), premiered in June 2017 and focused on the Colombian Armed Conflict featuring characters of different classes, backgrounds, political affiliations, and regions of the country. The U.S. government took note of its potential and USAID gave $1 million to the project.
Telenovelas are more than dramatic catfights, copious amounts of tears, and melodramatic love stories. They can be agents of social change and help their viewers come to terms with important historical and social events in a more effective way than the traditional news media. In Colombia, the plotlines have transcended the drama and have provided Colombians with an important mirror in which they can see their history, access their trauma, and look forward to building a better tomorrow.