Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Telenovelas and family planning have a long history together. NGOs and nonprofits in Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere in South America have worked for decades to increase public awareness of — and access to — reproductive health options, but, according to a research paper from Oxford University's Stuart Basten, a primetime soap opera is responsible for catalyzing a major shift in public opinion in Mexico. "Acompañame," a drama on Mexico's Televisa during the late '70s that advocated not so subtly for small family size, prompted a 23 percent increase in contraceptive sales and a skyrocketing number of women calling in to Mexico's national family planning office. CW's "Jane the Virgin," though it's much too postmodern to make such overt attempts at impacting social behavior, places itself squarely in the middle of an evolving conversation about what constitutes a contemporary Latin American family, and does so in a delightfully self-aware twist on the telenovela.
Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), a hotel employee aspiring to become a teacher, lives in Miami with her mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), a flashy singer who gave birth to Jane at age 16; and Jane's abuela Alba (Ivonne Coll), who has toiled tirelessly to illuminate for Jane the litany of disasters that will ensue should Jane opt to have sex before marriage. Thanks to the omniscient voice of Anthony Mendez — credited as "Latin Lover Narrator" — who guides us through the freeze frames, flashbacks and the absurd coincidences that are the lifeblood of soap opera plots, we know this within minutes. We also know how sincerely Jane and her cop boyfriend Michael (Brett Dier) love one another, and how much the multigenerational family of women in which she's been raised shape Jane's benevolent outlook.
Enter the dizzying series of implausible plot twists: In a freak mix-up at a routine pap smear, Jane is artificially inseminated with the sperm of Rafael Solano (Justin Baldoni), the owner of the very hotel at which Jane works and the unhappy spouse of our villain, Petra Solano (Yael Grobglas), a blonde bombshell who had planned to inseminate herself with Rafael's surreptitiously collected sperm sample before a doctor (who is also Rafael's sister) screwed things up and facilitated the impregnation of the wrong woman. After a pregnancy test reveals Jane's immaculate conception (cleverly tied in with "Mother Mary" symbolism), Jane meets with Rafael, with whom she shared a kiss Long Ago and Far Away, and agrees to carry the child to term and relinquish the newborn to Rafael and Petra, a plan that was bound to go wrong the moment Jane and Rafael locked lovestruck eyes. Lest that whirlwind give you the impression that it's too late to catch up on "Jane," the second season of which has just dropped on Netflix (season three debuts on The CW Oct. 17), narrator Mendez (and the not-quite-Telemundo accent he's embraced) will come to your rescue; each episode begins with punchy recap sequences that clue you in on exactly who has been kidnapped, who is secretly gathering blackmail material and who is the biological father of whom.
We indulge all this without eye rolls, partially because the narrator's dry humor and matter-of-fact approach allow us to do so, but also because we are swept along in the rapid pace of the form itself. "Jane the Virgin" might thrill fans of the traditional telenovela form, but for the rest of us, the show's a lightning-fast introductory course without condescension; its hijinks are not something we must ignore or forgive in order to enjoy the show but what make the show so enjoyable.
The success of "Jane the Virgin" lies in its ability to strike an elusive balance: It is simultaneously sincere and satiric. What's more, in the aftermath of the "Oscars so white" boycott that's left the mainstream entertainment industry scrambling to right some major cinematic wrongs, "Jane the Virgin" is not content to rest on the laurels of having a Hispanic-American woman as a protagonist, nor is Jane's ethnicity inconsequential. The show's characters are in and of Latin American culture, and the writers candidly acknowledge longtime tropes and stereotypes through the admittedly hyperbolic dynamics of a modern Hispanic-American family.