My Soap Opera has a Name: Originality and the Teleserye

Delivered at the University of the Philippines Writers Club Lecture Series, Recto Hall, Faculty Center, University of the Philippines, Diliman, February 18, 2015.  

Photo courtesy of
Photo of Jodi Santamaria as Amor Powers, courtesy of

It may sound curious, our configuration of two keywords—originality and teleserye—but reading them together proves to exemplify what Lucilla Hosillos once called the Filipino Literary Achievement. Despite the dissatisfaction of many for its being formulaic, predictable, and derivative, as well as its perceived incapacity to “upgrade with Hollywood Level”, the teleserye, 15 years after it had finally earned a name, has distinguished itself as a distinct Filipino cultural text by precisely being the drama of the Filipino local. Etymologically, drama is performance, and for Doreen Fernandez, performance as “palabas” signifies two meanings: “Palabas indeed it all is—performance, show, entertainment, fun. Palabas—outward—it also is: people-based and community oriented.”

However, what is unsaid in this explication of palabas is the very internality or paloob that it requires, one that enables this outward movement to begin with. The teleserye, as the Filipino soap opera, may be seen as both an internalization and externalization of the Filipino experience in this wide-reaching, border-crossing televisual medium. It is our palabas, as externalized in creation, production, dissemination, and consumption. It is also our palabas, as internalized in our constant search for national identity. We may have missed the point of signification, but 15 years ago, the soap opera in the Philippines sought a linguistic turn by identifying itself as teleserye, in the advent of the emergence global soap operas like the Latin American telenovela and the Asian drama in Philippine television. It may be surmised that the primary landmark of its originality is the daring to give itself a name.

This capacity to dare, this decolonizing gesture of naming, may not be found in the object of calling the soap the teleserye. It was, anyway, a simple network brand in the first place, a mere marketing strategy to distinguish a Filipino soap opera for the new millennium, Pangako Sa ‘Yo. The soap opera then had more promises than the word, but the word stayed on in broadcasting consciousness, at least, to be used by all networks in referring to their soap operas, and to soap operas in general. One may prove this discursive practice by simply going to the respective websites of the networks and typing “teleserye” in the built-in search engines, or even surveying entertainment news reports available in video format. The word, to this day, however stays true to its neologistic nature—it is disputably mainstream, but it has yet to be registered in repositories of Filipino discourses, foremost of which is the UP DIksiyonaryong Filipino, despite considerable public use.

Quite recently, chancing upon a project I was once involved with, spearheaded by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, an ingenious archive of Filipino cultural icons for distribution in the schools and libraries, I was surprised to discover that the word “telenovela” from Latin America was archived, but not the teleserye. I immediately volunteered to revise the entry, since, the telenovela was eventually subsumed under the teleserye—which is historically more circumspect, and more preferential to our cultural discourse, all things considered. While the telenovela may be said to be the catalyst for revolutionizing the Filipino dramatic genre, and while it has also entered our discursive consciousness (since for a time, it had been used to refer to soap operas, like Mula sa Puso), it had remained to be what it is: the foreign, similarly-colonized televisual product that resonated with us by way of Marimar and her tropical dreams and fantasies.

However, it would be facile to merely undermine the Latin American telenovela, and its pivotal role in the rise of the Philippine teleserye. After all, both share not only what may be called the vernacularized colonial language (the local enunciations of the Spanish for Mexicans, Venezuelans, and Columbians, and bits and pieces of the same in our national language, Filipino), but also embedded histories of colonial upheavals, political instability, and economic disarray, that animate their respective dramatic worldviews. Also, the Latin American Telenovela may be just as old as the Philippine soap opera, with the former being perhaps a few years its senior. Both began in the 1960s, with the telenovela curiously emerging from other names, such as “teleteatro”. When the two converged in Philippine space, in the threshold of the new millennium, the Philippine soap opera was still emerging from the return of democratized broadcasting after the Marcos regime, and was awaiting to be transformed, not only by the diaspora of filmmakers and writers to television, but also by the constant demand for foreign dramatic texts in the market.

Marimar propelled the process, and offered to the Filipino market a viable alternative: a more compact and engaging plot with a more time-bound seriality. Take note that it had not really reinvented the romance that we have learned to love; I remember clearly that people followed Marimar because it was fast-paced. No looking for a lost diary for three dragging weeks, like in Mara Clara‘s. The reaction of the broadcasting industry was radical, and it involved a reconfiguration of programming landscapes. Mara Clara, ABS-CBN’s strongest afternoon soap was deployed to battle it out with Marimar and her talking dog. Around this time too, GMA 7 was reconfiguring its primetime, which led to its first primetime drama offering, Kadenang Kristal. If there is any word to this describe this event, it must be resistance, but not in the way that Raymond Williams described it in his Keywords entry on “reactionary”, which is to react to “particular kinds of change”, but more so, to reiterate that it has its own self to bring to bear. Change was bound to happen anytime soon (as it was a “revolutionary” period, anyway), and the telenovela, spectral of our very own colonialism and feudal imaginaries, “incited” in a way, our soap opera revolution.

To be original is to have an access to the source or to launch beginnings, and for Hosillos, literary originality is a means to carry out vengeance by way of assimilating, transmuting foreign elements and influences for “(our) own purposes”, considering our postcolonial realities. Hosillos has observed that same capacity to “transcend the foreign materials that inevitably influenced” Filipino literary works, from the Hiligaynon balac to the Philippine Educational Theater Association’s dupluhang bayan which she has called the “total theater”. This may also be the case for the teleserye, not only during its moment of inception, but also during the course of its proliferation, after the Marimar and the telenovela fever. Sure, the broadcast industry reacted by presenting a more compact, more time-bound, competitive version of the soap opera, but it certainly had a more original sense of what it had wanted to dramatize.

We may point out too easily the many similarities between the telenovela and the teleserye (and it would not surprise us at all, considering the affinities), but the teleserye, as a showcase of Filipino dexterity, has achieved originality by transcending imitation and up to this writing, still transmuting “foreign elements into original works that are truly Filipino” and in one way or another embodying “relevance to social consciousness and the development of nationalism.” In her critical work, Hosillos emphasized that this assessment of literary achievement may only be done extensively, that is, with other works in consideration, and the teleserye fits perfectly this kind of assessment since it is continuously produced and reinvented. While we accept the fact of inconsistency in production quality, the oeuvre of the past 15 years already compels for a vigorous appraisal of the teleserye after it had proclaimed independence from the telenovela, which practically gave birth to it, and which is another text for comparativity. The breadth of the materials, along with the challenging work of archiving information about each of them, makes the task rather quixotic, but nevertheless necessary, if only to show not only how we have managed to create a soap opera of our own, but also how far we have come in shaping the continuing Filipino narrative.

In a way, the closedness or terminality of the word telenovela (as in television novel) already signifies a kind of fixity that we had to negotiate with as we were apprehending its procrustean and Western form. The novel, no matter the length, will end, and this is, of course, rhetorical for the much lamented idea of speed, a very contemporary and nevertheless western concept that enthralled us in Marimar.  In contrast, our narratives—from our folk epics and myths to perhaps the Noli and Fili, which had invited sequels and allusions from not a few of our novelistsindulged in seriality, re-emergences, resurrections, even it it turns out to be grotesque, as in the Filipino telenovela Mula sa Puso, where the villain seemed to have had nine lives and had to be violently expunged from the face of the earth in the soap’s ending. That’s more than poetic justice for me. This perhaps explains not only the aptness but also the originality of the term teleserye, as particularly indicative of the kind of narrative that we intended to perform. Our’s is a culture that lingers to hear of stories memorized, that thrives in plot and character complexity, that attends to adventures (and even misadventures) that seem to only always trick us since they lead to darker groves where valiant men are tied to trees and ceaselessly grieving their usurped fates. Yes, the world is used to multi-character, multigenerational plots, but our concept of multiplicity in Pangako Sa ‘Yo, the very first teleserye, was indeed multiplicitous.

On the one hand, a love story of the past was presented in Pangako Sa ‘Yo, between a maid and an hacienda heir, and their love would prove to be epical because of the many years of chasing that unfolded. But the story was not yet over, since, in a manner of mirroring, a similar love story would emerge, this time involving the initial pair’s love daughter and a boy the hacienda heir would consider a son for quite a while. The configuration in itself was already complex, and it was made more complex not only by the twists and turns of the story, but also by the introduction of various individuals that would get entangled with the characters. The nature of the serye in this case is very much observable, and despite the soap’s being shaped by the romance mode, where endings always call for weddings, the seriality—the web of interrelations not only of events, but also of individual encounters—illustrates the distinction of the teleserye from the telenovela. It may look like a telenovela, but it is certainly not one. It may have been compact and fast-paced already, but it refuses to be completely colonized, just as Hosillos has described, in the case of the Philippine Literatures she has revaluated.

There is still however Hosillos’ requirement of works to embody “relevance to social consciousness and the development of nationalism” to consider. Is the teleserye, despite its commercial underpinnings, capable of avenging “with originality to create literary works of artistic significance even in (its) Filipinoness”? For her, “(i)t appears that Filipino writers who transmuted foreign influence into literary achievement of originality were primarily concerned with such transmutations in terms of their personal experiences and social realities.” Pangako Sa ‘Yo, the very first teleserye, immediately located itself in a time and place recognizably ours, where the struggle for land is unending, and the city is but merely boulders upon boulders of trash. Politics was also tackled by the teleserye, and what better way to expose its seething corruption than a dramatization of a festive local elections? Our teleseryes have not gone far from these realities, even if the discussions were peripheral. The very fact that they exist shows how they have became spectral, hounding us even in our fantasy teleserye worlds, from the barrios or urban jungles of Coching and Ravelo superheroes to the imagined realms of Encantadia. When characters in Philippine popular culture desire to find or heal themselves, they usually go abroad, to the middle class fantasy of the United States, but that trope too had also been overcome.

When a teleserye character is relocated abroad, it is more recently in the contemporaneous context of the Overseas Filipino Worker, at once viewing the foreign land as tourist, and as a subjected migrant laborer.  And we have gone so far from depicting the absented individual—usually just a picture in a frame, a voice from the telephone receiver or a tape recording, or an image in a video call. The individual is now imagined in the land of the foreign, among foreign peoples, struggling to make ends meet, in the name of a better future for the family, and making the experience more estranged for the audience. I suppose, we have to thank the Koreanovelas for fuelling our dreams of flight, as seen in the local adaptations of Only You, Lovers in Paris, and even A Beautiful Affair. The teleserye has also participated in historical retrospectives, providing imaginations of our past and heritage, particularly the Spanish colonial period. While most have only remained within the vicinity of romancing the hagiographic and the heroic, like the recent Jose Rizal biopic Ilustrado, there have been notable instances of historical representations like De Buena Familia, and Amaya, a story of an indigene warrior from precolonial Philippines, and loosely based in Panay folk literatures. There was also the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Noli Me Tangere which should have been given space in major networks to reorient audiences with Rizal’s founding narrative.

The teleserye, being the drama of the Filipino local, has managed to locate our experiences. In a way, it has become a parallel narrative to our current historical unfolding, providing retrospects, reflections, and prescience, even in seemingly domestic episodes. The particular is embroiled with the pervasive, in such a way that the two parallel narratives—our historical time and the creative temporality of the teleserye—converge in certain instances. Pangako Sa ‘Yo has alluded to the Payatas tragedy in delineating the life of Amor Powers after her banishment from the hacienda. In an earlier episode, parallel shots were done to show her beloved’s arranged marriage to her eventual archrival, alongside her own miserable state in the dumps, as she was finding out about the wedding from a discarded newspaper society page. She exclaims, just as man and wife were being pronounced: lahat ng hirap at sakit na ibinigay ninyo sa akin, ibabalik ko! This dialogue echoed the same misery and desire for vengeance of people from the dumpsters, of the marginalized in general, as seen in the opening of the soap where the Payatas tragedy was recreated, a pivotal event in the teleserye’s time that spelled the initial fates of the characters. Curiously, political references in history, like that of the Marcos dictatorship, have also been referred to by the teleserye, and this was followed by other teleseryes, like Kris Aquino’s Kailangan Ko’y Ikaw, which dramatized the suicide of a police general in a memorial park, weeks after former Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Angelo Reyes took his life in front of his mother’s grave, being embroiled in a government scandal.

In another front, the use of the national language, and the embedding of the other national languages also articulates located experiences: countering the basic gahum or hegemony of English, which for a time was the language of Philippine broadcasting discourse. Today, English is not really phased out, but is merely embedded in the Filipino corpus, as part of this growing medium slowly defining itself as “national language”. Drama has played a big part in this process, though is yet to be more inclusive to really avenge the minoritized Philippine culture and employ the fullest blunt of decolonization. One can just think of the example of the long forgotten Isabel, Sugo ng Birhen, a landmark in relocating the teleserye locality to that of Cebu, even if it meant dramatizing the experience of a Marian miracle using their own enunciation of Tagalog. Isabel was an exemplar in teleserye decentering, one that could also be seen in the most recent production of Maria Flordeluna, parts of which were shot in Cebu, and the currently running Forevermore, which relocated its story in Baguio, and used snippets of Ilocano for verisimilitude’s sake. We need more archipelagic consciousness in our teleseryes.

“The question of originality,” wrote Hosillos, “is crucial to assessing Filipino cultural achievement.” She continued: “It can be asked: what is original about a culture that bears the diverse cultural influences of other nations?” In this discussion of the teleserye, we cited/sited the instances of its breaking away from the catalytic text that is the Latin American telenovela, tracing its reaction by way of transforming the form (its own and that of the encroaching foreign), transcending and transmuting influences while staying rooted in the discourses of locality. This attempt to explicate the said televisual process that happened after the return of democratized broadcasting in the Philippines in 1986 shows that originality in the case of the teleserye manifested its significant conceptualization in various fields—the first being in its “claim” for a name, which is primarily a linguistic conquest. The act of naming, though not orchestrated or performed as a matter of conscious subversion, surfaced in public discourse, as the word and more teleseryes were continuously perpetrated. As also observed, the teleserye has manifested originality in its imaginings of the Filipino experience, from within and without, and through time. It had certainly unpacked the new form offered by the telenovela, restructured its narrative by way instituting its seriality, and re-languaged it, so to speak, “for our own purposes”.

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