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Avoiding predatory lenders is one topic for a new Spanish-language soap opera. Telenovelas usually deals with love triangles and deceit, but this new show includes personal finance issues for first generation Hispanic immigrants. NPR's Jennifer Ludden traveled to North Carolina to see the show being produced.
JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:
A production crew is crammed into a second-floor office in a suburban home in Durham preparing to shoot its next sequence for Nuestro Barrio. The title means Our Neighborhood.
Unidentified Man #1: I drew little pictures with Heidi's lines so you could follow along.
LUDDEN: Show producer and director Dilsey Davis doesn't speak Spanish. So her scripts are translated, and assistants help give direction to those actors who don't speak fluent English. Davis explains the dilemma of this scene's character, Pedro Torres.
Ms. DILSEY DAVIS (Producer, Nuestro Barrio): He was laid off of his job and he is a little bit behind on his mortgage payments. So the bank is calling him, and he's avoiding talking with the lender.
Unidentified Man #2: 5-A.1 take 2.
Unidentified Man #3: All right, here we go again. Action.
LUDDEN: Pedro glances at a bank notice, tosses it in the trash, and then, the sound will be added later, the phone rings.
Unidentified Man #4: (As Pedro Torres): Hello. Pedro Torres, no esta aqui.
LUDDEN: This scene shows what not to do if you have money troubles. Other plotlines have characters figuring out how to open a bank account and establish good credit. These are the normally dry issues near and dear to this Telenovelas unusual production company. It's the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina. Executive Director Peter Skillern says the soap is set in a sleepy Southern town, reflecting the boom in the region's Latino population.
Mr. PETER SKILLERN (Executive Director, Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina): You're finding, you know, what is it like to get a divorce, what is it like to buy a home, the acculturation of the young teenager who wants to be accepted as American rather than Mexican. And we think that it's going to speak to people, speak to their experience, more so than colonial set romance in Central America. That's a primary fear of Telenovelas now.
(Soundbite of Nuestro Barrio)
LUDDEN: The final product has beautiful people, eye candy, Skillern calls them, in tortured relationships. Some scenes can feel a bit didactic, but the romantic twists pull you in. And no worry. If you don't speak Spanish, there are English subtitles.
The show's marketer, Martina Guzman, says she first pitched the soap opera to Spanish-language networks, but they wanted more control, and the producers worried the educational part of their plot would get watered down. So Guzman has traveled the country persuading program directors at English-language TV stations to add this to their lineup.
Ms. MARTINA GUZMAN (Marketer): I think that it's sort of like a new time for American television. And at the rate the Hispanic community is growing, I think a lot of the managers and the program directors are sort of visionaries, so to say, and they've taken a chance.
LUDDEN: Have you had a program director kind of look at you like, you're kidding?
Ms. GUZMAN: We have. We met a program director in Atlanta that said, well, oh, yeah, Latinos, I see them everywhere. I see them at the bus stop. But maybe this show is not for us. And I remember walking away thinking, Hmm, you know, it's right in front of him and he doesn't see it.
LUDDEN: In Durham, Neal Davis at WB Channel 22 says public service is great, but the show is also good for business.
Mr. NEAL DAVIS (WB Channel 22): A lot of our advertisers have budgets set aside specifically for Hispanics. So by adding a show, if it does a good rating we have the opportunity to dig in with some advertiser dollars that we wouldn't normally have the opportunity to get.
LUDDEN: Davis is counting on what he calls a guerilla marketing campaign to bring Hispanic viewers to him. The Community Reinvestment Association is putting out flyers at Latino stores and sending its actors to appearances at shopping malls and on Spanish radio.
At the largest Mexican grocery store in Durham, co-owner Rosalea Flores(ph) says she hasn't had time to watch the new show, but she's heard of it and thinks it's a good idea.
Ms. ROSALEA FLORES (Store Owner): (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: Flores says 10 years ago she bought her first house in California, but the mortgage payments weren't what the lender promised. We lost everything, she says, and ended up selling the house for thousands less. Nuestro Barrio is to be broadcast across the South by July and, its producers hope, in the Southwest and select Northern cities by fall. If it's successful, producer Dilsey Davis says there are plenty more issues to work into future episodes.
Ms. DAVIS: When we did a previous screening at the Carolina Theater, we had over 400 people come out, and we did a survey. And one of the issues that came up, which was somewhat surprising, was that domestic violence was an issue that the community said they wanted to address. So we'd really like to focus on that in the next season, and also dealing with working at construction sites, safety issues, those kinds of things.
LUDDEN: All of course woven around new loves, dark secrets and heartbreak.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
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