Delia Fiallo, master of the telenovela, dies at 96
By Penelope Green
Delia Fiallo, the Cuban-born television writer known throughout Latin America as the “mother of the telenovela,” the addictively melodramatic Spanish-language cousin to the American soap opera, died June 29 at her home in Coral Gables, Florida. She was 96.
Her daughter Delia Betancourt confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.
Every fan of the genre knew what to expect: Gypsy maidens. Wicked stepmothers. Wealthy, handsome male heirs. Amnesia, fictional illnesses, mistaken identities, misplaced babies. And at the center of it all, a young and beautiful woman who was often an orphan, but always from a humble background, and with whom the well-born young man would fall madly in love — although the couple would be thwarted through all sorts of swirling Shakespearean complications (murder, faked pregnancies, love triangles, those conniving stepmothers) before coming together in a happy ending, 200 or so episodes later.
(American soap operas go on forever, with an unending cast of characters. The telenovela works itself out in under a year, with a finite cast of characters. Mostly, they end happily.)
“The essential theme of a novela is the story of a love that is obstructed,” Fiallo told Variety in 1996. “A couple meet, fall in love, suffer obstacles in being able to fulfill that love and at the end reach happiness.” She added: “If you don’t make the public cry, you won’t achieve anything.”
Fiallo was a master of that operatic, weepy form. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, she wrote more than 40 telenovelas, most of which were produced in Venezuela and then adapted (often by Fiallo herself) and televised all over the world (and continued to be shown long after her last original drama, a blockbuster called “Cristal,” first aired in 1985).
While Fiallo’s Cinderella stories were global successes, it was in the Americas where they resonated the most.
In the United States, three generations of Latin American families often wept together in a nightly ritual that’s hard to imagine today.
“You watched what your family watched, every day for weeks and months,” said Ana Sofía Peláez, a Cuban American writer and activist, whose fluency in Spanish came in large part from sobbing with her Cuban-born grandfather through years of Fiallo dramas such as “Cristal,” “Esmerelda” and “Topacio.”
She recalled both of them losing it when Luis (the wealthy stepson of the head of a modeling agency that is the plot pivot of “Cristal”) sang “Ma Vida Eres Tu” (“You Are My Life”) to his beloved Cristal (the orphaned model whose ruthless boss turns out to be her biological mother).
“My grandfather and I were raised in different countries,” Pelaez said. “We had different frames of reference. But we found the same things romantic, and we were transported by those stories together.
“We were all in. It was a shared experience that I didn’t appreciate at the time but I value so much today. It was a pan-Latin experience. Her shows were Venezuelan. But my parents would say proudly, ‘Of course, pero es Cubana’: She is a Cuban writer.”
Delia Fiallo was born July 4, 1924, in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, the only child of Felix Fiallo de la Cruz, a doctor, and Maria Ruiz. The family moved often, from small country town to small country town, and Delia, shy and bookish, began writing stories to combat her loneliness.
She majored in philosophy at the University of Havana, and in 1948, the year she graduated, she won a prestigious literary prize for one of her short stories. She edited a magazine for the Cuban Ministry of Education, worked in public relations and wrote radionovelas — the precursor to the telenovelas that arrived with television in Cuba in the 1950s — all at the same time, before turning to the form that would make her famous.
In Cuba before the revolution, that form flourished thanks to the sponsorship of companies such as Colgate-Palmolive, said June Carolyn Erlick, editor of ReVista: The Harvard Review of Latin America and author of “Telenovelas in Pan-Latino Context” (2018). Writers such as Fiallo honed its central themes: “Love, sex, death, the usual.”
Fiallo met her future husband, Bernardo Pascual, director of a radio station and a television actor, when they were both working in radio. They married in 1952. (Betancourt said it was love at first sight, just like in one of her stories: “She told herself, ‘That man is going to be mine, ese hombre va a ser mío.’”)
After the couple moved to Miami in 1966, Pascual worked in construction and then started a company that built parking garages.
“The family joke is that in exile Bernardo passed from the arts to the concrete,” Fiallo told the Miami Herald in 1987.
Fiallo first tried to sell her scripts in Puerto Rico, for $15 an episode, but Venezuelan broadcasters offered her four times as much; to prepare, she immersed herself in the culture of Venezuela, a country she barely knew, by reading novels and interviewing Venezuelan exchange students in Miami to learn the local idioms.
She took her themes from the news but also from romance classics such as “Wuthering Heights.” She often tackled social issues — rape, divorce, addiction — which meant often butting heads with the censors. A late-1960s drama, “Rosario,” a sympathetic exploration of the trauma of divorce, was suspended for a time by the Venezuelan government. In 1984, the government threatened to cancel “Leonela” if Fiallo didn’t kill off one of its characters, a woman who was a drug addict.
“Some friends say I could have chosen a more literary genre,” Fiallo told the Miami 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.”
In the late 1980s, as many as 100 million viewers in the Americas and Europe tuned in to watch episodes of Fiallo’s shows. Her fans were devoted to her characters and their odysseys, and they often called her at home — her phone number was listed — to discuss plotlines. One fan, claiming she did not have long to live, begged Fiallo to reveal one story’s ending.
“The fans are passionate about the characters,” she said in 1987. “I would be embarrassed to have my number not listed. I don’t think it would be quite fair.”
In addition to Betancourt, Fiallo is survived by three other daughters, Jacqueline Gonzalez, Maria Monzon and Diana Cuevas; a son, Bernardo Pascual; 13 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Pascual died in 2019.
“I consider myself successful if I can deliver to viewers a world of fantasy, even if only for an hour,” Fiallo told the Miami Herald in 1993. “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.”