A casualty of change in Mexico


Symbol: Veronica Castro became caught up in a story a little like those of her once wildly popular soap operas except for the happy ending.

September 27, 1999|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MEXICO CITY -- In her life, Veronica Castro has been a symbol several times over.

She is perhaps the world's best-known Latina actress, certainly the best-known Mexican actress. In the early 1990s, her "telenovelas," or soap operas, electrified the post-Cold War world, making her a symbol of the emerging global economy and probably its first star. As an actress, she came to represent Mexican womanhood as exemplified by the typical telenovela heroine: pretty, sweet, hard-working, rising from poverty.

Castro was also inseparably associated with Televisa, which for many years was Mexico's television monopoly and the unofficial propaganda arm of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. "If TV had a flag, the face of Veronica Castro would have to be on it," says Jose Antonio Fernandez, editor of Telemundo, a television-business magazine.

Now, Castro is again a symbol -- this time of social and political changes in Mexico that have made her a casualty.

Mexico is slowly democratizing. Its one-party state is crumbling. Mexicans are demanding more from their political system and their television. Old customs and icons are fading.

In response, Televisa is scrambling to shed the image of crusty cultural monopoly and political dinosaur.

And so it has bluntly told Castro that it has no work for her. She can't find a job at the company she helped build.

"I don't understand anything about it," Castro says. "I've been working for them for 30 years. I've always been careful to identify myself as part of the team, so that people identified me with Televisa. I felt like an important part of the company."

There was a time when Televisa and the world couldn't get enough of her.

In 1992, after the fall of communism, Televisa sent Castro's best-known telenovela to Russia, on a hunch that political changes there might have created a market.

"Los Ricos Tambien Lloran" ("The Rich Cry Too"), filmed in 1979, was the story of Mariana, an orphan and maid to a rich family. She falls in love with the family's son, has his child, is rejected by him, goes crazy, must give up her child, fights to get the baby back and so on until the happy ending.

The show entranced Russia. Variety put viewership at a record 100 million. Pravda reported that in the Caucasus warring Georgian and Abkhazian soldiers arranged a tacit truce at the hours the show aired so they could watch it, mesmerized by the woman with billowy brown hair.

When she visited Russia, authorities had to close the airport against overflow crowds. She toured the Kremlin and met top Russian officials, including President Boris N. Yeltsin.

The reaction of common Russians startled her most. "Wherever I'd go, they wouldn't clap or cheer. They'd cry," she says.

"There were women and these enormous Cossacks crying. I said: `Please don't cry. Let's be happy. I love you.' But they'd keep crying."

"Los Ricos" is probably the most-watched Mexican television show, having run in more than 50 countries. It opened the door to a vast international market for Mexican telenovelas in 140 countries -- including Serbia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Israel. In 1996 the company said telenovelas were Mexico's leading export, ahead of Corona beer and car parts.

Castro's life seemed to reflect the telenovela heroine's triumph over adversity. She grew up poor in downtown Mexico City. Her mother was a secretary; her father left the family when she was young. By 15, Castro was working in theater and television. By 20, she was making records. She would go on to make more than 30 telenovelas.

After three decades in show business, Castro's public image is part plucky telenovela heroine and part pampered diva. Yet her seriousness, independence and formidable capacity for work allowed her to succeed in a business and culture dominated by men. She was the first female producer of a Mexican telenovela, was a member of a dissident actors union and holds a degree in political science.

Several all-night talk shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s won her a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the person who has been on television most. During those years, Castro had to check herself into a hospital for a couple of days every six months to receive vitamin injections so she could continue.

In 1974, unmarried, she became pregnant -- like any novela heroine. Mexico was scandalized -- as society in telenovelas usually is.

"I was one of the few women who were famous who said, `I'm single, I'm not getting married, and I'm going to have this child,' " Castro says. "This was really taboo."

Soon, photographers were hiding outside her house. The host of Televisa's morning show wooed her. "Everyone wanted to know who the father was," Castro says. "Maybe he wanted to put on some kind of scandalous program: `Veronica, the poor mother, suffering and rejected.' I said, `I'm neither suffering nor rejected. I did this because I wanted to.' "

Christian Castro, her son, is a well-known Latin pop singer.

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