Each weeknight, Mexican television viewers follow the twists and turns of a middle-aged woman’s life in a soap opera that challenges deep-set values - and is bringing a new network into prominence.
“Mirada de Mujer,” or “A Woman’s Glance,” is the story of one woman’s triumph in bucking the macho society typical of Latin America. The break from the usual sugary romances of Mexican “telenovelas” has caught the attention of millions of people, including lots of men.
The show tells the story of Maria Ines, a 50-year-old mother played by Angelica Aragon whose husband of 27 years leaves her for his mistress. Though her mother and children advise her to wait patiently for him to return, Maria Ines rejects tradition and falls in love with a man 17 years her junior.
In Mexico, that’s tantamount to a one-woman revolution.
“The man has always been dominant in Mexican society,” said Martin Luna Ortigoza, vice president for programming and marketing at TV Azteca, the network that produces the show. “In ‘Mirada de Mujer,’ everything is in reverse. In a macho society, this is like lime in the eyes.”
The show has sparked a lively discussion about Mexican values, challenging a double standard that makes it acceptable for men to cheat on their wives but not vice versa.
“Mirada” also offers frank discussions of sex, abortion, miscarriages and sexual harassment and it delves into such problems of daily life as loveless marriages, meddling in-laws, the loss of a job and alcoholism.
Azteca has offered up such unconventional fare since 1993, when the government put a set of national channels up for bid.
The network first disrupted tradition with another soap opera, “Nada Personal,” or “Nothing Personal,” which spun a romance featuring an independent-minded young woman around drug scandal and political assassination.
The approach helped Azteca become the first network to break the ratings stranglehold of communications giant Televisa. So successful has Azteca been that it raised $605 million by selling 22 percent of its stock to the public in 1997 - the largest offering in Mexico of the year.
Azteca’s freshness shows up in other areas.
While Televisa traditionally fills its news programs with government pronouncements, Azteca has zeroed in on juicy scandals and what the man in the street thinks and feels.
“There’s a crisis of confidence toward the people in power,” said Azteca’s news director, Ricardo Medina Macias. “People reject ‘Mr. Shirt-and-Tie’ who says everything is great, that the economy is recovering. People don’t believe it.”
Azteca reporters are expected to talk to ordinary people, not just government officials, Medina said. A story about a government program to aid the rural poor must include interviews with farmers. A story about debtor relief must include the views of debtors. In Mexico, that’s new.
Azteca’s main evening news program, “Hechos,” has climbed past Televisa’s “24 Horas” in the ratings for greater Mexico City.
Medina predicts Televisa will mimic Azteca’s style when it completes a promised overhaul of its news department next week.
While Televisa focuses its programming on the upper class, Azteca’s soap operas deal with hotbutton topics like interracial romance and police complicity in drug trafficking.
“We don’t hesitate to tell things like they are,” Luna said. “That has never happened in this country. It’s a very simple formula: Present reality.”
When the network decided to create “Nada Personal,” it tapped Epigmenio Ibarra, a former TV combat correspondent who covered the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s and had no soap experience.
Ibarra followed that success with “Mirada de Mujer.” His third creation, “Demasiado Corazon,” or “Too Much Heart” is a continuation of “Nada Personal” that debuted in October, said his assistant, Francisco Ortiz.
“It’s about love,” Ortiz said, “and it also treats issues from the country’s reality.”