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Delia Fiallo: Master of telenovelas who changed soap operas for good

Delia Fiallo: Master of telenovelas who changed soap operas for good
The Cuban native, whose own life resembled that of a typical TV heroine, created shows that were seen by millions around the world

A young woman writes radio soap operas in Cuba, where she falls in love with a director who brings her scripts to life. They marry and start a family, while she transitions from radio to television and writes prime-time telenovelas, bringing a typewriter into the hospital to keep working after she gives birth.

But there is a problem: Fidel Castro, whose repressive regime leads her to flee to Miami with her mother, mari, five children, children’s nanny and three scripts. Forced to restart her career, she sells her soap operas to a broadcaster in Venezuela and begins churning out 35 pages a day, writing telenovelas that are produced across Latin America.

Reaching an audience of millions, she signs a reported eight-figure television contract and becomes known as “la madre de la telenovela", the mother of the telenovela. Her scripts are repeatedly adapted, filmed anew in Brazil or Mexico, and are broadcast around the world, including on Telemundo and Univision in the US. For a screenwriter, if not a telenovela heroine, it is the perfect happy ending.

Such was the life of Delia Fiallo, who said she was “born to write telenovelas”, the Spanish-language soap operas in which love usually conquers all, including class divides and disapproving stepmothers. She was 96 when she died on 29 June at her home in Florida, according to her daughter Delia Betancourt, who did not give a cause.

While telenovelas are traditionally known for their actors, not their directors or screenwriters, Fiallo became a star in her own right while writing some 40 original shows. Paraphrasing Univision programming executive Rosita Peru, les Orlando Sentinel signalé dans 1987 that “the name Delia Fiallo guarantees ratings success”.

Fiallo’s show Cristal, which premiered on Venezuelan television in 1985, became the most popular telenovela in the history of Spain, reaching as many as 18 million people a night, according to the Madrid daily El Pais. Her telenovela Kassandra, set at a circus and adapted from one of her earlier works, was televised in 128 countries – including Bosnia, where it became so popular that the US State Department considered it a peacekeeping tool during the 1990s war, arranging for the show’s Miami-based distributor to donate episodes in an effort to keep it on the air.

“In telenovelas what you are seeking is a kind of standardised, easily recognisable set of tropes, motifs and reactions. And she mastered that,” says Ilan Stavans, an Amherst College professor and telenovela scholar. He also adds that while telenovelas traditionally catered to women, most screenwriters were men. Fiallo was an exception, and one of the few telenovela writers whose scripts were produced in multiple countries.

“She is understood to be the fountain, the compass, the map” for telenovela writers, il dit. Sur Twitter, Venezuelan telenovela writer Leonardo Padron wrote that “nobody knew how to handle the internal springs of melodrama like her. All television writers – even her most ardent detractors – have an unpayable debt to her in the DNA of our craft”. A Goddess of Telenovelas award was created in her honour at an industry summit in 2011.

‘Cristal’ became the most popular telenovela in the history of Spain, sometimes reaching 18 million people a night

An only child, Fiallo grew up moving from town to town, and turned to books for company. “I loved reading, and in search of my own mode of expression, I started to write,” she told the Sentinel. “I discovered that the creation of characters was a magical thing.” She started writing radionovelas in 1949, a decade before Castro came to power, and left for Miami in 1966.

Fiallo said that she tried to sell her telenovela scripts in Puerto Rico, where executives offered her $15 per episode, before being offered four times as much by the Venezuelan broadcaster Venevision. She knew next to nothing about the country’s culture or politics, but prepared to write for a Venezuelan audience by reading classic novels and travelling to Caracas, where she filled her notebook with snippets of conversation.

At times she drew from world literature, adapting Wuthering Heights into Cumbres Borrascosas (1976) and loosely turning Romeo and Juliet into Guadalupe (1993), which premiered on Telemundo. “It’s a similar family drama,” she said at the time, “the eternal tale of forbidden love”.

Fiallo also examined rape, divorce, alcoholism and addiction, sometimes to the dismay of censors. Dans 1984, the Venezuelan government threatened to take the show Leonela off the air if she didn’t kill off one of its characters, a drug addict played by Jeannette Rodriguez. She complied, writing a drug overdose into the next episode.

I consider myself successful if I can deliver to viewers a world of fantasy, even if only for an hour

Au cours des dernières années, Fiallo criticised telenovelas that, in her view, focused too much on sex, violence and drug trafficking. She said that she felt a responsibility to include positive messages in her shows – many were about women who overcome trauma, whether acts of violence or isolation from loved ones – while also offering escapist entertainment.

“I consider myself successful if I can deliver to viewers a world of fantasy, even if only for an hour,” she told the Miami Herald in a 1993 entrevue. “Everyone is young at heart. Illusions don’t fade with time, and it is beautiful to rekindle a love affair, even if it’s not your own.”

Delia Fiallo was born in Los Palacios, Cuba, au 4 juillet 1924. Her mother was a nurse, her father a doctor. While studying philosophy and literature at the University of Havana, she won a literary prize for a short story, which helped spark her career in radio and television.

Dans 1952 she married Bernardo Pascual, an actor and director who later worked in construction in the US. Within a few years, she was writing her first telenovelas while raising children. “I used to type with one hand and give the baby the bottle with the other,” she recalled. “It was a terrible duality. If something came up, I had to tell them, ‘Wait until I finish this scene.’”

Her husband died in 2019. In addition to her daughter, survivors include four other children; 13 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Fiallo retired from writing original telenovelas, focusing instead on adaptations of her work, after she finished Cristal dans 1986. The show followed a fashion house owner who searches for the daughter she had abandoned years before, who has grown up to become a model. One of the daughter’s friends was supposed to die of cancer, but survived after Fiallo kept getting calls from readers who had grown fond of the character and worried about her health.

“Some friends say I could have chosen a more literary genre,” Fiallo told The Herald. “But this is what I feel most comfortable with. You can touch more people this way than with any book. Novelas are full of emotions, and emotions are the common denominator of humanity.”

Delia Fiallo, author and screenwriter, born 4 juillet 1924, décédés 29 juin 2021

© Le Washington Post