views updated


A fotonovela (also known as photonovel or photonovella) is a series of captioned photographs that tell a story. Generally presenting tales of romance, the genre began in Italy and Spain and was imported to and transformed in Latin America. Because fotonovelas are relatively cheap and portable, readers share them widely. In many working-class neighborhoods fotonovelas are distributed by a local entrepreneur who sets up a rental library where for a few cents one can borrow a volume that is to be returned the next day. Fotonovelas are exchanged and traded among middle-class young people, constantly recycling a series of images and messages that are interpreted according to the experience of the reader despite the intentions of the writer or publisher (Hill and Browner 1982).


The genre began after World War II in Italy and Spain as stills from films, such as the Italian classic roman-photo Grand Hotel, but soon emerged as a separate medium (Habert 1974). Spanish romantic novels were transformed to photographs. Latin American fotonovela production began in Cuba in the late 1940s. With the Cuban revolution of 1959, production shifted to Miami.

The formulaic plot of the early rosa ("pink"; sex is not mentioned) fotonovela featured a naive young woman of good breeding but reduced circumstances who unknowingly causes a wealthy man to fall in love with her, thus solving her financial and romantic problems. The female characters, although they tried to appear independent (and thus endear themselves to the spectacularly virile hero), ultimately were won by acknowledging their innate weakness and the man's superiority. The images of women were extremely traditional. Women should do what is best for men despite their talents and needs. Men solve problems. Women respond from the soul, not from the intellect.

In the 1970s entrepreneurs in Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico began to produce fotonovelas suaves ("soft"; sex is implied), whose characters were middle-class without upward mobility through romance for the heroine. Obstacles, including a woman's occupation, could keep the lovers apart for a while, but the stories inevitably ended happily with the lovers reunited. Career was subordinated to love and marriage. Male and female characteristics remained clearly differentiated. Women were weak and needed protection; men provided it.

The fotonovela roja ("red"; with explicit sexuality) produced in Mexico beginning in the 1970s represented a radical departure from the fotonovela rosa (Curiel 1980). Characters and settings were poor, but the villains, male and female, were upper-class. There were no happy endings. Women in the fotonovela roja were in charge of their own economic destiny despite the sex and violence that permeated all relations, romantic and contractual.

Single women in the rojas had two options: domestic service or prostitution. Both were problematic, subjecting women to the inevitable sexual predation of upper-class men. Death, the usual ending in a fotonovela roja, was presented as clearly preferable. True love was between a man and a woman of humble circumstances but pure hearts.

Fotonovela content is a function of production cost-effectiveness. Casts are small, and the sets are the homes and offices of the actors and producers. Scripts often are recycled with very minor variations, although readers often submit scripts. Original scripts are readjusted to the norm. An avid fotonovela reader, the Colombian union leader Ruth Correa sold a number of "scripts" to a Colombian producer. Union organizing was critical in her plots, requiring many people and access to the shop floor. In production the heroine lost her union roots, transformed from a factory worker to a secretary at her typewriter (a scene available in the office of the fotonovela producer).


Only in alternative fotonovelas, usually produced by community or union organizers, do women organize (Flora 1984). Alternative fotonovelas treat themes such as birth control, the importance of women's education, and the need to engage in self-help. In these fotonovelas, which often are produced by feminists, men and women work together as equals to solve community problems.


Curiel, Fernando. 1980. Fotonovela Rosa Fotonovela Roja. Mexico City, Mexico: Cuadernos de Humanidades No, 9, Universidad Autónoma de México.

Flora, Cornelia Butler. 1980. "Women in Latin American Fotonovelas: From Cinderella to Mata Hari." Women's Studies: An International Quarterly III: 95-104.

Flora, Cornelia Butler. 1984. "Roasting Donald Duck: Alternative Comics and Photonovels in Latin America." Journal of Popular Culture 18: 163-183.

Flora, Cornelia Butler. 1989. "The Political Economy of Fotonovela Production in Latin America." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture VIII: 215-230.

Habert, Angeluccia Bernardes. 1974. Fotonovela e Industria Cultural: Estudo de uma Forma de Literatura Sentimental Fabricada para Milhões. Petropolis, Brazil: Editora Vozes.

Hill, Jane H., and Carole Browner. 1982 "Gender Ambiguity and Class Stereotyping in the Mexican Fotonovela." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture1: 43-63.

                                       Cornelia Butler Flora