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Telenovelas: Are Spanish-Language Soap Operas Good for Your Health?

January 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The latest in Spanish-language soap operas, or telenovelas, have encased more than typical romance and personal scandal, debuting some very clear messages on health care for Latinos in the U.S., specifically Colorado. Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports on the creators' reasoning in writing beyond the usual storylines.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, romance, drama and some very direct messages about health care. It’s all part of a Spanish-language soap opera that takes its viewers well beyond the usual storylines.

NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser explains.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s a sad day for Alicia. She has just learned she is dying from colon cancer. Her boyfriend, Don Juancho, is overcome with grief. He knows if she’d sought medical attention sooner, the prognosis wouldn’t be so grim.

This tragic storyline is all part of a unique Spanish soap opera called “Encrucijada: Sin Salud No Hay Nada,” or “Crossroads: Without Health, There Is Nothing.”

It’s romance and drama and tears, but there’s another powerful subtext: how to take better care of your health.

Actress Julieta Ortiz plays Alicia.

JULIETA ORTIZ, actress: We’re trying to get people to get related with this character and then feel, it’s such a shame that we lost her just because she didn’t know in time what to do and how to take care of herself, because she could have saved her life.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Spanish soap operas, or telenovelas, are one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world, with an estimated audience in the tens of millions.

But the Latino audience in the United States has very high rates of obesity, diabetes, HIV, and asthma. More than 30 percent of American Hispanics also have no health insurance.

When executive producer Jesus Fuentes came to the United States from Mexico City, he was struck by how little Hispanic people knew about health care. So he came up with the idea for “Crossroads.”

JESUS FUENTES, “Encrucijada”: Soap operas are very powerful to deliver a message. The challenge was to add medical information to that, to create the message that has — that people can believe in that, and not trying to oversell it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Fuentes turned to Denver public health consultant Cristina Bejarano for help in shaping the message.

CRISTINA BEJARANO, public health consultant: We say cancer. We mention the word cancer, but we try to define what it is, so they understand in a very, very simple way.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Bejarano works in other messages as well.

CRISTINA BEJARANO: I’m like, oh, there’s my chance to talk about nutrition, to show the plate, the size that it should be, to model portions, to model protein, fruits and vegetables, to have orange juice and water, to have different things like that, so we’re modeling the food that people should be eating.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Fuentes says “Crossroads” is also trying to combat a Latino cultural mind-set.

JESUS FUENTES: It’s very common: Like, I live my day just for today and I’m going to be fine. But I just need to go to work to get money for my family. And what if you get sick? No, I’m not. I’m fine. Everything is going to be fine. Like, we don’t think about a future. We don’t plan.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: UCLA Primary care physician Dr. Michael Rodriguez works extensively with Hispanics in the Los Angeles area, where “Crossroads” is shot. And he thinks it could have a significant impact.

DR. MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ, professor of medicine, UCLA: It can make an enormous amount of difference. Some of the studies that have been done looking at the relationship between viewers of telenovelas and behavior have seen big changes.

For example, some telenovelas that have focused on issues of cancer and leukemia have looked at the amount of people who are donating and registering to donate for bone marrow and other things go up from the single digits to hundreds.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: “Crossroads” tackles just about every health issue that affects Latinos, from diabetes, to asthma, to alcohol and drug abuse. And it dispenses advice on how to enroll in Medicaid.

Fuentes and his staff think the show is having a positive impact, based on the calls coming in to the show’s hotline. They received 2,000 calls in the show’s first season.

CRISTINA BEJARANO: They were getting ready as far as behavioral change. It was very specific. “I have been trying to eat more fruits and vegetables. I am finding out more about where to apply for Medicaid and SCHIP. I’m talking with my neighbors about the information that I’m learning.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Fuentes is able to produce “Crossroads” with a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation, which is also an underwriter of the NewsHour.

Right now, the show is seen only on Univision in Colorado, where 20 percent of the population is Latino. But “Crossroads” has steadily been building an audience, which now numbers about 15,000.

Fuentes thinks he’ll soon be able to bring the show to other television markets around the country because the message is getting through.

JESUS FUENTES: Another girl that went to the station and — with her mom, and she showed her hands, and she was all cut. And she said, “But I got inspired and I think I’m going to be better and I want to live.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: She tried to kill herself?

JESUS FUENTES: Yes, she tried to kill herself. And now she is a different person.

That’s the reason we are working and we are doing this project, is so somebody can be healthier, can save their lives. That’s the reason we are doing this.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: “Crossroads”‘ second season premieres in February.