The Televisa studio in San Angel, Mexico City, is the dream factory of the Spanish-speaking world. It produces more telenovelas (Mexican soap operas) than any other global media company and exports them to more than 50 countries, not only in Latin America but also across Africa, Asia and Europe. When Televisa’s Los Ricos También Lloran (The Rich Also Cry, 1979) was broadcast to former Soviet countries in the early 1990s, 200 million people watched it regularly. (Telenovelas are usually shown five or six nights a week.) It was so popular that when its leading actor, Rogelio Guerra, visited Moscow in 1992 he was asked to give the New Year’s Eve address to the Russian people after President Boris Yeltsin fell ill. Film stars such as Salma Hayek, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna all started at Televisa.
Telenovelas differ from American soaps in that they have a clearly defined beginning and end. They may last for six months. And in Mexico they are usually shown at prime time, not in the middle of the day. A typical storyline has the two protagonists meeting and falling in love, only to be pulled apart by circumstance; then, after many trials and tribulations, they are brought back together again. The good are rewarded, the evil are damned. Love conquers all.
When I was growing up in California, I didn’t really watch telenovelas, except occasionally at the laundromat. But I was aware of them – maybe it was watching my grandmother’s television. My father’s family is from Mexico. They settled in California in the middle of last century, working as farm labourers and house cleaners and then in the factories. He was the first in his family to finish school and university. He became a lawyer. Our family had lived the American Dream. The dreams people have in telenovelas are interesting because they are similar to an immigrant’s aspirations: by working hard, with a bit of luck and after a few obstacles, you can find wealth, love and happiness.
I began photographing telenovelas in 2003, for Benetton’s Colors magazine. I’d done stories on refugees, mental health, poverty and slavery. I wanted to try to explore serious issues in a less obvious way and telenovelas seemed to be a good vehicle for it. I wanted to make formal, almost painterly portraits of the actors, in character and on set. I was interested in how beauty and class were often defined by race. Generally, the stars look European. The maids do not. The villains vary.
My first trip to Televisa became an issue of the magazine, but I continued going there with the intention of putting together a book. I finished last October. On my final trip, I noticed that telenovelas were now including storylines about drugs, kidnapping and violence, mirroring the current Mexican reality.
Stefan Ruiz’s book, ‘The Factory of Dreams: Inside Televisa Studios’, is published this month by Aperture (£35)