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Reading Sandra Cisneros's recent novel Caramelo, set in Mexico City during the late 1950s, I wondered about the fotonovelas that are mentioned again and again over the course of the book: "The Awful Grandmother" locks the bedroom door when she dips into the stack of fotonovelas she keeps beside her bed. Lala, the narrator of the novel, delights in fotonovela titles such as Virgen Santísima, You Killed Her, I Killed the Love of My Life, Don't Make Me Commit a Craziness, The Unhappiest Woman of All, and The Glories of His Love. A family of Mexican men in Chicago use fotonovelas as their bathroom reading. And when Lala's father gets caught misbehaving, Lala explains that the history of her family could itself be a fotonovela. Later, when it's revealed that Soledad and Narciso (a young couple who will eventually marry) are cousins -- which they don't suspect, despite the fact that they are both named Reyes -- the spirit of the Awful Grandmother remarks, "Just like a good fotonovela." I put down the book and thought, So what are these fotonovelas about?

Since I grew up in San Diego and often set my stories here, I frequently use Mexican or Mexican-American characters. Having spent a lot of time in Mexico in the 1960s, I came to admire the Mexican people and their culture. But somehow I hadn't heard of fotonovelas before. I thought of the popular soap operas called telenovelas that you sometimes come across on Mexican television stations, and I assumed that what Cisneros was describing were short, printed melodramas that use photographs to advance the story.

Over time, the article related, the fotonovela also became an efficient way to promote political and social agendas to those with little access to television and movies, and they appealed to many who were only semiliterate. The fotonovela form is now commonly used in the United States to promote political issues and candidates and to sell products to the Hispanic population. Fotonovelas have been produced to spread warnings and provide practical advice about pesticides, rape, AIDS, diabetes, and Alzheimer's.

Most of the examples I found online, however, were either pornographic or full of low-grade, adolescent humor. Moreover, most were illustrated, not photographic. One article made the following distinction: "Technically, the fotonovela is illustrated with photos while the historieta employs drawings, but the two terms are often used interchangeably." I dubbed the novelas with drawings fauxtonovelas.

I discovered that Michigan State University has a collection of fotonovelas, and I imagined that SDSU might have one as well. But the librarians I reached on the phone didn't know much about them. A trip to the SDSU library turned up only a few academic articles. Cecilia Puerto, bibliographer for Latin-American studies and Mexican-American studies at SDSU, told me that the Santa Barbara Public Library has a fotonovela collection.

My curiosity was piqued, and I would have welcomed an excuse to take a drive up to Santa Barbara, where I've passed serene days on the beach, but between here and there lies Los Angeles. I would rather drive east to Miami in August through the desert and steamy South than suffer the 405 or the I-5 and 101 route between Irvine and Thousand Oaks. Besides, if the Santa Barbara library had fotonovelas, I reasoned, so must the San Ysidro library. And if I couldn't find any in San Ysidro, I'd be a teaspoon full of gas from Mexico.

The San Ysidro library is small, quiet, and orderly, with lots of computers. The librarian, Lorena Rodriguez, didn't seem to mind a gringo pestering her about fotonovelas.

"We used to have a subscription to fotonovelas when I first came to this branch 16 years ago." They were usually no more than 30 pages, she told me. "They had actors and actresses with the dialogue to the side of them or above their heads. They were like reading a novel only with pictures of the people. They mostly were the romance type, sometimes with a little bit of mystery. Not usually murder mysteries, though. More to do with romance. They were very popular, but we stopped getting them at least 10 years ago. The company we used to get them from ceased publication. Then we used to get vaqueros, which were colorized, like cartoons. They were called vaqueros because they were westerns."

Lorena supposed that the fauxtonovelas came into vogue once actors and actresses decided they were better off trying to make movies or novelas on TV. She tilted her head contemplatively. "I don't think any branches in San Diego City have fotonovelas anymore. Maybe the Logan branch does. They used to carry them, but I'm not sure they do now."

A few minutes later, moping on the library lawn, I told myself that the odds of my finding anything but fauxtonovelas at the Logan branch were about the same as the odds of my being drafted by the Republican Party to run for president. And like most men, I have a mild phobia against backtracking. Besides, from San Ysidro I either smelled Tijuana or imagined I did. Over the border, at one of those corner magazine stands, I was sure to find some real fotonovelas. Onward, I commanded myself, and don't come back to el norte without fotonovelas in hand.

I don't go to Mexico often these days, though I still enjoy it when I do go, and most people I meet there are kind and gracious. But I'm not as adventurous as I once was, and last month my brother-in-law was out surfing below Playa Rosarito when his friend's car got snatched. The two of them had to stagger home in wet suits, lugging their surfboards onto Mexican busses and the San Diego trolley. And not long ago, after taking a walk on an Ensenada beach, my son Cody and his girlfriend returned to her truck to find two policemen rummaging around inside of it. They excused themselves by claiming someone had broken in and they were investigating.

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