A Cuban telenovela is doing it again. Just like the old days. In spring 2002, I spent a semester as a study abroad student at the University of Havana. Those were different times, with just two TV channels — Cubavisión, “el canal de la familia cubana” and Telerebelde, “el canal de los deportes en Cuba.”
Each night after the evening news there were just two viewing options for Cubans of all ages: sports or the telenovela. I lived in a house with eight other students and after dinner and the evening news I would settle down with a couple of my classmates and the night watchman to immerse ourselves in the worlds created for us by Globo (the second largest media conglomerate in the world) and the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión (the Cuban publicly owned media agency). Back then, I quickly found that the best way to break the ice in a conversation with virtually any Cuban, from school kids to retirees and pretty much everyone in between, was to get them talking about the previous night´s telenovela.
Back then, I quickly found that the best way to break the ice in a conversation with virtually any Cuban… was to get them talking about the previous night’s telenovela.
Fast forward 18 years and after dinner and the evening news I find myself once again sitting down on a couch in a Havana living room, this time instead of my roommates and a night watchman I’m in the company of my wife and our baby. Throughout the years a lot has changed. Cubans on the island today have a lot more options for kicking back and disconnecting in the evenings: first VHS, then DVD players and bootleg DVDs, and more recently the arrival of the Paquete has changed the media landscape forever, along with mobile Internet and YouTube. Breaking the ice by asking a stranger to catch you up on the novela doesn´t have the charm it once did to give Cubans of all ages and walks of life something to talk about.
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However, over the last couple months of quarantine, something strange has happened. The coronavirus has brought us together in unexpected ways. At 9 pm as the Cañonazo sounds over the bay, throughout the city of Havana people step onto their balconies or into their doorways and join their neighbors in applauding to show their support for the essential personnel that work hard to keep us all safe. Then, despite the varied programming on our 11 television stations and all the other options we have for entertainment, we go back into our living rooms and sit down in front of the Cuban novela on Cubavision. This novela, El rostro de los días, centers around a fictional hogar materno in Havana and the lives of the people who work there and their patients.
Fast forward 18 years… I find myself once again sitting down on a couch in a Havana living room, this time… I’m in the company of my wife and our baby.
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Within minutes of the novela ending, social media is buzzing with reactions to the latest episode. I’ve found four visible private groups in Facebook with 188,119 members, 52,067 members, another with 21,696. The fourth private group opened just a week ago with 4,367 members and by the time you read this there might very well be more! In WhatsApp and Telegram both official and unofficial groups have been formed where Cubans meet to discuss the novela — some praise it, but many come together to joke about the 80s teased layered hairdos of many characters, the main female protagonist’s undying love of the color blue, and her mother’s obsession with lounging around the house dressed to the nines as if she were just about to leave for her box seat in the ballet or the opera, and, of course, the gaping holes in the plot. This novela was never meant to be seen by millions of viewers around the world, but thanks to Covid that is just what is happening.
The novela is also being posted on YouTube channels like Antena Cubana, Canal Cubano, Kinkalla TV and A lo Cubano, and the Facebook buzz has Cubans living outside the island tuning in to assuage their FOMO. Antena Cubana transmits the novela live with open chat as thousands tune in from around the world. Episode 75 alone had 82,323 views. Between episodes the memes begin to flow and the variety of the memes tells us something about how diverse the watchers really are.
However, over the last couple months of quarantine, something strange has happened. The coronavirus has brought us together in unexpected ways.
Today the novela has gained an importance in the everyday lives of Cubans in quarantine that we could have never imagined. One Cuban, Mary Lou, left the island a year ago and is living in Miami. For the last month she has become a novela watcher again, just like when she was back in Cuba. She started watching when a friend back in Cuba started posting satirical critiques of each episode on Facebook. The summaries were so funny that she realized that she was going to have to watch the novela to get all the inside jokes. Thanks to YouTube she was able to binge watch until she was almost caught up and now watches three days a week. “I’ve always watched the novela because at home my mom has always watched the novela, and my brother says he doesn’t, but he gets hooked, too. And I make fun of it, I really enjoy that.” Sheepishly she admits that on the off-days she started watching the rest of the episodes she had missed. “I sit down to watch it at 9pm when I get home from work and then I go to sleep — my cat and I have a new routine. It also creates a feeling of community, and it feels like home, it reminds me of home, making fun of the novela.”
One Cuban, Mary Lou, left the island a year ago and is living in Miami. For the last month she has become a novela watcher again, just like when she was back in Cuba.
The novela is also a way to connect with friends around the world: “My friends who have also immigrated at the same time I did, a good friend who is in Spain, she’s also watching it. She isn’t as patient and committed as I am to watching all the episodes, but she watches, too. She started recently and I’ve caught her up on who the characters are.”
Back in Havana, Lis explains to me that “I think the novela has become so important because it’s something to think about that isn’t stress and Coronavirus. It’s a way to have catharsis and make community. I’ve made new friends on Facebook and in chats reading the comments that people make and you see people who think like you and defend the things you believe in. I have friends now in Santiago that I know that someday, when we can travel again, I could call them up and say we’re coming and they’d welcome my whole family with open arms. That’s pretty amazing. I can’t go outside, I can’t hug my friends, but we’ve found a way to be social and stay active.”
La novela is definitely the number one trending topic in Cuban meme production in recent weeks. As such I´m sure it has done its part in keeping Cubans on the island consuming megas and ETECSA in business. But it also has stimulated debate about serious stuff, like believing girls and protecting them from sexual violence. It’s easy to laugh at El rostro de los días¸ but on the Cuban redes (social networks) people are also outraged about the silences in the novela, and worried about the ways in which these silences seem to point to growing conservativism in Cuban society. The novela’s silence on important topics like abortion, rape, same sex relationships, and intimate partner violence, are a warning to not take for granted the reproductive rights that Cuban women have enjoyed for decades, the victories of CENESEX’s campaigns for LGBT inclusion, and the activism that has broken down myths about gender violence.
Within minutes of the novela ending, social media is buzzing with reactions to the latest episode. I’ve found four visible private groups in Facebook with 188,119 members, 52,067 members, another with 21,696.
What is going to happen after the novela? No one knows. But at least right now, for as long as the novela lasts, each of us in our little Covid bubbles, whether in Havana, Santiago, Miami or Madrid will sit down on the couch together after clapping for our doctors at 9 pm, and like we did back in the day, hum along to the catchy theme song.