Soap opera 'Cafe' gives Colombians daily dose of cheer

January 19, 1995|By Knight-Ridder News Service

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Every night at 8, a wave of urgency sweeps Colombia. Families bolt from the dinner table. Hostesses put their cocktail parties on hold. It's time for "Cafe."

Even President Ernesto Samper is a fan. "When he can't watch it, he's always asking me what happened," said Juan Fernando Christo, a presidential adviser.

The TV romance of a beautiful peasant and wealthy coffee heir has taken Colombia by storm. But this is not just another Latin bodice-ripper.

In a land tormented by violence, "Cafe" has become a daily fix of cheer. Set in the proud, hard-working coffee region, it has mesmerized the nation with a vision of Colombia far removed from the news du jour of drug trafficking and guerrillas.

The soap opera has had such an impact that the charismatic leading actress, Margarita Rosa de Francisco, was named one of the top 10 Colombians of 1994 by the magazine Semana -- right up there with the drug-fighting attorney general.

"Cafe" is replete with many of the bad guys familiar to soap fans everywhere: cheating husbands, gold-digging women, crooked businessmen.

But it's a sharp break from past Colombian soap operas that featured kidnappings, killings and other reflections of this violent land. Colombia has one of the highest murder rates in the world -- seven times the U.S. rate.

The soap opera is the story of Gaviota, a beautiful, iron-willed but sweet migrant worker who rises to become a coffee executive. In classic Cinderella fashion, a handsome coffee heir, Sebastian, falls in love with her. But his family disapproves, and assorted misadventures separate the couple.

Further complicating matters, a second suitor turns up: Dr. Salinas, an executive of the national coffee federation.

But beyond the love story, the soap opera is a tale of a region of rugged individuals dedicated to the land and the world's best coffee.

"Cafe" has particularly intrigued Colombians because they are taught from childhood that coffee is a part of their national identity. But few know anything about it.

"What you see above all is this relationship with coffee, the pride in growing it," said Fernando Cano, editor of the newspaper El Espectador.

Colombians also see themselves reflected in the show. In particular, Gaviota is what Colombians call "echada pa' delante" -- determined to get ahead.

Jesus Martin Barbero, a professor of communications at the Universidad del Valle, said soap operas like "Cafe" are immensely popular because they identify national traits at a time when local culture is being overwhelmed by foreign influences -- from Arnold Schwarzenegger movies to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Like many Latin American soaps, it has only a limited duration. The adventures of Gaviota will end in March.

When the daily El Tiempo recently asked readers to vote on which man Gaviota should select, Sebastian won.

Poet John Galan Casanova declared that scriptwriter Fernando Gaitan could "change the course of history" by having Gaviota dump the leading man.

Too many men shared Sebastian's obsessive, tortured style of love, he wrote. Too many women felt unable to break away from their first love.

"I'm not only talking about [changing] the history of 'Cafe' or other TV soap operas, no," he wrote. "I'm talking about the history of love in this country . . .

"Please, unite Gaviota with Dr. Salinas!"

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