By: Samantha Schmidt
José Contreras grew up infatuated with the drama and steamy romance of telenovelas. He swooned over the Venezuelan soap opera star Fernando Carrillo — Contreras even took part of the actor’s name when he transformed into a drag queen, Jocelyn Carrillo.
But the telenovelas of Contreras’s youth never told the stories of young gay men like himself. Whenever gay couples appeared on the TV screen, they were forced to keep their love a secret, to resist holding hands. The stories mirrored Contreras’s own fears of coming out to his Salvadoran parents.
On Tuesday night, Contreras watched something he’d never seen before: A young gay couple premiered in a prime-time telenovela, not just in secondary or cameo roles, but as the show’s protagonists. The telenovela, “El Corazón Nunca Se Equivoca,” translated as “The Heart Is Never Wrong,” is the first Spanish-language prime-time series featuring a same-sex couple in a leading role in the United States, according to Univision, which airs the show.
“Los abuelitos, our uncles and aunties can see a gay couple on the screen,” said Contreras, now a 42-year-old promoter and performer in the D.C. area. “Hopefully it opens more minds.”
The Mexican-produced show is a spinoff of the popular “Mi Marido Tiene Más Familia” (“My Husband Has More Family”) telenovela. While the new series aired earlier this summer in Mexico, its U.S. debut was Tuesday night.
The show’s plot centers on a young couple, Aristótles and Temo — better known by fans as “Aristemo” — who move to Mexico City together to attend college. Aristótles, played by Emilio Osorio, pursues a music career, and Temo, played by Joaquin Bondoni, aims to be a politician, despite the resistance he knows he’ll face as an openly gay man. “Their love will be put to the test as they create new friendships and overcome the challenges of being gay in Mexican society,” reads the Univision description.
It’s a seemingly simple story line. But its place in such an influential arena of Mexican life — the telenovela — could mark a significant shift for LGBTQ acceptance in a culture where traditional gender roles remain deeply ingrained, experts say.
“Traditional masculinity is profoundly tied to heterosexuality in Mexican culture … being gay threatens the idea of masculinity,” said Juliana Martinez, an assistant professor at American University whose research focuses in part on gender and sexuality in Latino cultures.
The presence of not only a same-sex couple — but a male gay couple — in a telenovela provides an example of “alternative masculinities” in Mexican pop culture, Martinez said. Also notable is the fact that the father of one of the teenage protagonists does not reject him for his sexuality. “That is a very important masculinity to portray and to model” Martinez said.
Despite gay rights advancements in countries across Latin America, cultural acceptance of the LGBTQ community in parts of the region has lagged behind the United States — especially in Mexico, one of the major producers and exporters of telenovelas.
Brazil’s massive telenovela industry, however, has been ahead of Mexico on LGBTQ representation: In 2014 the Brazilian soap “Amor a Vida” featured a gay kiss; a landmark moment for gay rights in the country. In 2015, a lesbian couple was featured on the soap opera Babilônia. A newer series follows a transgender woman as she considers gender reassignment surgery.
Still, within the last two years two highly successful soap operas in Mexico have featured subplots with same-sex couples — “Artemo” in “El Marido Tiene Mas Familia,” and a lesbian couple in the telenovela “Amar A Muerte.”
“Along with soccer, the most important entertainment in the Hispanic world is telenovelas,” said Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst College who has researched telenovelas extensively. In Mexico, for example, “Congress comes to a pause,” Stavans said. “You will see less traffic at certain times because of the telenovelas.”
It’s also one of the few examples of pop culture that, like soccer, bridges generations. In Latino cultures, including in the United States, soap operas are watched across different ages and socioeconomic levels “in an incredibly democratic way,” Stavans said.
And over the years, telenovelas have served as catalysts of social dialogue, as “a force of rebellion,” Stavans said. For example, during the feminist movement of the 1970s in Mexico, telenovelas started to broadcast feminist characters.
But the “Aristemo” couple has also prompted a backlash from social conservatives in Mexico. Carlos Leal, a politician in the state of Nuevo Leon, tweeted a reference to the show in January. “It’s clear that television channels are trying to ‘normalize’ #homosexuality from youth with a pro-LGBT agenda,” he said. His ruling party, the Morena party, ended up expelling him due to the statement and other anti-LGBT remarks.
The new show has also faced criticism from LGBTQ advocates for focusing on a white, wealthy family. But many see it as a significant improvement from earlier portrayals of gay characters on telenovelas.
In previous shows, gay characters were depicted as stereotypical caricatures — such as the flamboyantly gay fashion designer or the assistant to the female villain, said Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a professor at the University of Georgia, whose research has focused on telenovelas.
Contreras, the 42-year-old performer in D.C., recalled one telenovela in which a gay man dressed in drag, but by the end of the series “he fell in love with a girl,” Contreras said.
“It wasn’t a good message for us,” he said.
To Contreras, Tuesday night’s debut episode already made clear that this story line was different. It still had the typical drama of any other soap opera — the suspenseful plot twists, the mysterious death of a character’s brother. But it also showed an example of family and friends accepting, and standing up for, a young gay couple.
When their parents drop the young men off at their new place, the administrator of their apartment building asks if they’re brothers. Temo’s father replies, without hesitation, that they’re not brothers — they’re boyfriends.
“¡Qué barbaridad!” the building administrator says, taken aback. She says the boys are “confused.”
“They aren’t confused at all,” Aristótles’ mother says, calling Temo her “son-in-law.”
Before watching Tuesday night’s premiere in D.C., Steph Niaupari thought back to the telenovelas that would play from the living room every day after school while growing up. Niaupari’s grandmother would watch the soaps on Univision late into the night, said the 27-year-old, who identifies as queer and non-binary, and uses they/them pronouns.
One time, Niaupari’s Ecuadoran grandmother found a photo book that Niaupari’s wife had made with photos of the two of them. The revelation about Niaupari’s sexuality did not sit well with the devout Catholic grandparents.
“That relationship pretty much ended,” aside from the occasional birthday message on Facebook, Niaupari said.
Niaupari wondered aloud if the grandparents might be watching the new telenovela: Would they say something about it? Or would they just change the channel?