MEXICO CITY -- Not long ago, Raul Araiza, a well-known producer of the Mexican soap operas known as "telenovelas," came to officials in Tijuana with a script for a soap opera about the city.
Tijuana officials might have been forgiven a giddy moment, pondering how the show might help the city's image. But as they read the script, the moment faded.
"Tijuana" the telenovela, as it turned out, was going to be a lot like Tijuana the city. The show, which begins filming later this summer, is a love story set against a backdrop of immigrant smuggling, drug trafficking, discrimination against Indians, assembly plants, gun running, violence and xenophobic U.S. politicians wanting to build walls between the two countries.
Tijuana officials have unsuccessfully tried to stop the show, even attempting to copyright the city's name.
Araiza says he doesn't want to hurt Tijuana. He removed a scene, for example, in which drug smugglers deal at Club Campestre, a hangout of Tijuana's business elite. "But they want me to make a film about a city that doesn't exist," he says. "When I show Tijuana with no prostitutes, no crime -- people will die of laughter."
For Mexico's telenovela industry, reality now matters. It's a change that reflects the country's awakening from its long political slumber. After being ruled 68 years by the longest-lived authoritarian regime still in existence, Mexicans are becoming more critical and demanding, less willing to settle for the same old story in politics, the supermarket or on television.
Telenovelas -- for years the most weepy and preposterous melodramas -- have scrambled to keep up.
A love story will forever be the core of the telenovela, but "Tijuana" is one of a new generation of shows that has begun to question most everything else about the 40-year-old genre.
"Tijuana" is produced by the Televisa network, the largest media conglomerate in the Spanish-speaking world. Created and led for 25 years by Emilio Azcarraga Milmo, who died last month in Miami, Televisa has largely defined the mass culture of Mexico, ultimately deciding what the country watches on television.
And it invented the telenovela, which has become a sort of cultural sponge, soaking up actors, singers, writers, directors and producers -- who can't otherwise support themselves. Televisa asserts that its programs are Mexico's leading export. Telenovelas have been dubbed and shown in 125 countries, from Qatar to China, Korea to Uganda.
Televisa's "Los Hijos de Nadie" ("No One's Children"), now airing, deals with homeless street kids. About to enter production is "El Alma No Tiene Color" ("The Soul Has No Color"), whose subject is racism. "Al Norte del Corazon" ("North of the Heart"), now airing on the new Television Azteca network, is a love story about illegal immigrants and shows them being beaten by the U.S. Border Patrol. Azteca's "Lagunilla" -- named for a working-class neighborhood -- is about street peddlers, a profession in the news due to its battles with the government.
Even on traditional telenovelas, women now smoke. There's nudity. Characters actually have jobs and drink alcohol. There now are settings not known for their glitzy ambience, such as Tijuana.
The traditional telenovela follows this formula: Poor, virtuous girl -- usually named Maria and usually employed as a maid -- meets rich young man, usually her boss. They fall in and out of love as wicked relatives get in the way. Rich, childless old man proves to be Maria's long-lost uncle. Young folks marry. Live happily ever after.
In Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil, producers have taken greater risks by sometimes hiring more talented directors and casts. But in Mexico, Televisa exercised a near-monopoly in the style of Hollywood studios of the 1930s, imposing exclusive contracts and rigid control over content.
"Las Marias," as the telenovelas became known, had to be done to the formula dictated by Televisa's founder, Azcarraga. Writers were not allowed to deviate from it. Writers also knew they could not find work anywhere else.
But just as the ruling party -- the Institutional Revolutionary Party -- is losing its monopoly on politics, Televisa is losing its monopoly on pop culture. Two state-owned television channels were sold in 1993 to Television Azteca. Its news shows now compete with Televisa's, and the competition has spilled over to telenovelas.
Indeed, most of the innovations were sparked by Azteca broadcasting a daring telenovela produced by an independent company, Argos Television.
"Nada Personal" ("Nothing Personal") was a love story that included themes of high-level government corruption and political assassination. It followed the headlines. One character used the phrase "Demons are on the loose" -- taken from a press conference in which then-Assistant Attorney General Mario Ruiz Massieu resigned and accused his superiors of complicity in the murder of his brother, a leader of the ruling party.