Is Mexico TV putting up a front?

Popular characters bear little resemblance to viewers

It's fairly safe to say commercial TV in Mexico is suffering an identity crisis. Light-skinned actors bearing little resemblance to the average Mexican typically land lead roles. Meanwhile, actors with indigenous features often settle for secondary parts because casting thinks they look too Mexican.

Sociologist Murilo Kuschick says that as the gap widens between Mexico's haves and have-nots, television programs and commercials aren't helping matters by reinforcing stereotypes across racial and socio-economic lines.

A recent promo for Televisa's hit soap "Destilando Amor" (Distilling Love) offers a poignant example of how characters are often portrayed.

In one of the scenes, a well-heeled character with bleached-blond hair sits at a dinner table expressing her concern that a family member has lowered himself by falling in love with a working-class woman. As the fair-skinned woman prattles on, a servant with dark, indigenous features stands silent in the background.

TV critic Alvaro Cueva says his biggest concern is that networks and advertisers here have come to define beauty based on European standards.

"Now this may sound like an extreme thing to say, but if Salma Hayek were working in Mexican television right now as an unknown actress, she would have a hard time finding work," he says. "That's because she's not light-skinned and she's not tall."

Elio Lozano, an agent who represents about 20 actors, couldn't agree more. Some of his most talented clients have had little choice but to accept roles as criminals or domestic servants because they don't fit the European mold.

Ad agencies here see the preference for light-skinned actors as a global trend.

"Everything has moved toward a more globalized vision," says Alfonso Carbo, who heads up media advertising at ad agency Publicidad Ferrer y Asociados. "I think we should depict people as they really are, and the people we see on TV obviously do not look very Mexican. But our clients prefer to see someone who looks like David Beckham."

Advertisers here primarily target middle- and upper-class audiences. It all boils down to purchasing power in a nation where about half of the population lives below the poverty line and most indigenous people live in conditions of extreme poverty.

"Indigenous people would be given more consideration if they were actually seen as consumers, but they are totally marginalized," Kuschick points out. "The interesting thing is that you will see dark-skinned and indigenous people appear in televised public-service messages, especially before elections."

Billy Rovzar, co-founder of Mexico City-based shingle Grupo Lemon, produces feature films, television programs and commercials. Rovzar enjoys complete freedom when casting for movies and he can take certain liberties when it comes to television. Casting for commercials, however, is a different story.

"When we cast for ads, we've had companies tell us things like 'That guy looks too poor' or 'That guy looks too Mexican,'" he says.

Televisa and TV Azteca, Mexico's top two broadcasters, have made some efforts to offer a more realistic portrayal of Mexico. Several years ago, Azteca aired "Los Sanchez," a comedy series featuring a traditional working-class Mexican family. Televisa currently airs "Una Familia de Diez," a comedy about a lower-middle-class family of 10.

But the exceptions are few and far between.

A more typical example of the type of programming audiences are tuning in to is Televisa's new soap "Muchachitas como tu" (Girls Just Like You), which centers on four attractive, young Mexican women who could easily pass as French, American or German.

"It's pretty ironic when you think about it," TV critic Cueva says. "The program is called 'Girls Just Like You,' but the girls who are watching the program at home look absolutely nothing like the main characters."

Some industry figures hope television will eventually move in the direction of film, which offers a much more realistic take on Mexican society.

"El Violin," a small black-and-white picture about traveling rural musicians involved in a guerrilla movement, performed extremely well at the boxoffice because it offered the kind of honesty that audiences are thirsting for.

"It was successful because it's a film about real people," says Pablo Cruz, co-founder of distributor Canana Films.

Lemon's Rovzar says there's no denying that Mexican television could use a serious reality check these days: "If we could move toward being proud of our indigenous culture, we would advance a lot faster. I think the problem is that we are trying to sweep it under the bed."
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