RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- What several years of protests by scores of mothers couldn't do, and thousands of police officers and politicians wouldn't do, a soap opera did in moments.
Seventy-six lost children have been reunited with their families after scenes in the evening series "Heart Burst" showed bereft mothers demonstrating with their photographs. Some children had been kidnapped by fathers; others had run away from home; two girls were found working in a brothel.
Series author Gloria Perez worked the scenes into a plot in which a toddler named Gugu ends up living on the street after his mother's former boyfriend kidnaps him. While searching for him, Gugu's mother joins other mothers protesting at Rio's City Hall.
The mothers in those scenes were real; some had been meeting every Monday for the past decade. But one day after "Heart Burst" first featured their meetings, Celio de Almeida Garcia Junior, 13, whose father had kidnapped him in 1986, was tracked down in Mato Grosso state. Moved by the TV drama, relatives of the boy's father reported his whereabouts.
After that, Perez allowed time each night for two or three mothers in the group to show their own pictures and make a brief appeal.
"Then things started happening too fast for me to keep track. They were finding as many as three children a day," Perez said.
The mother-and-child reunions were just part of what Perez achieved. Before "Heart Burst" ended early this month, Rio police Chief Helio Luz promised to create the city's first Missing Persons Department. Big supermarket chains started printing missing children's photos on grocery bags. The child actor who played Gugu couldn't leave his house without strangers approaching him to try to reunite him with his mother.
It has all been gratifying -- and frustrating -- for Perez. Since "Heart Burst" ended, the recoveries of missing children have all but ended.
"I'm scared I have raised hopes, only to disappoint them," she said.
Television's power in Brazil is enormous. With most of its 160 million citizens poor and 20 percent illiterate, television is one of the few accessible leisure pursuits.
With television predating modern democracy, its hold on Brazilians dwarfs that of government institutions, political parties and maybe even religious movements. Soaps have taken on a kind of church-like role, issuing regular sermons on moral behavior.
"This is a very individualistic country," Perez said. "TV can unite people for the moment, but there's very rarely any follow-up."
But isn't television partly responsible? Doesn't it encourage people to stay in their homes, rather than, say, engaging in political action?
"That could be," she said. "But I'm tired of people blaming everything wrong with Brazil on the power of TV. I think the problem is that many of our great thinkers aren't thinking about the real problems people face -- like the fact that people die in the street here because no one goes to jail."
Perez is doing her part on that score. After her daughter, a soap opera actress, was murdered four years ago, she led a national petition drive, collecting 1.3 million signatures, to change the law so that murder suspects could be held without bail pending trial.
She did that with no help from television, she said.
Pub Date: 5/24/96