Poor Alex. With his baby face and soul patch, the sensitive heir to a successful Napa Valley vineyard is alone in a world of malevolent usurpers and ambitious liars. He is a dreamy optimist, the Candide of Telemundo's 8:00 p.m. soap opera Tierra de Pasiones (Land of Passions). What he longs for more than anything else in the world is true love.
His sulky girlfriend, Belinda, is definitely not the one. Indeed Alex has already strayed to another, someone who fans the flames of a passion more intense than any he has felt before. But the new lover is a tease. Alex cannot seem to bring their long-established friendship to the next level. Expensive presents and fawning adulation come to nothing at least until Episode 33.
Then, amid dramatic violin swells, Alex's pent-up desire explodes into a passionate kiss. Finally it is met without resistance. There is only one problem: Mauro, his beloved, is engaged to his sister. And spurned Belinda, smirking with vindication, catches the two men midsmooch.
The turmoil of Alex and Mauro's affair which achieves love-triangle status when Alex falls for another gay character, Andrés has become one of Tierra de Pasiones' main story lines. Telemundo films the show in Cutler Bay and Homestead, with interior scenes shot at its massive sound stage in Hialeah. The network says Alex Domínguez's on-air canoodle with Mauro López is the first man-on-man kiss aired on a Spanish soap in the United States. Their affair represents a marked departure from the telenovela norm, where gay characters tend to be chaste interlopers bumbling through saunas of lust.
"This is the first time in a Spanish soap that the gay character is not for comic relief," says 25-year-old actor Carlos East, who portrays Alex. "Normally he would be a hairstylist. He would be clownish or heavy."
Tierra de Pasiones writer Erick Vonn agrees. In almost twenty years of writing soaps in Mexico, he has seen very few gay characters break out of stereotypical behavior. For those who do, their sexual identity is only hinted at. "I did it in 1989 with a novela called Mi Segunda Madre (My Second Mother)," he says, referring to that show's controversial villain, who emerges from prison with an obvious and unacknowledged affection for men. "But as far as I know, nobody like Mauro and Alex has been done. Not only is the theme talked about openly, but the characters presented are önormal,' with dreams, illusions, passions, and ambitions identical to what any human being could feel."
Gay identity has been a controversial subject even in the soaps of more liberal countries. Brazilian novelas produced by meganetwork Globo have featured more gay and lesbian love stories than their Spanish-language counterparts, but even there producers are timid. A lesbian couple in the 1998 soap Torre de Babel (Tower of Babel) was unpopular with audiences and subsequently killed off in an explosion. And after writer Gloria Pérez revealed that Globo cut a man-man kiss from her 2005 novela América, 300 gays and lesbians staged a beijaço (big kiss) on the lawn outside congress in Brasília a mass display of ardor as rainbow flags were unfurled across the grass.
Twenty-six-year-old actor Eduardo Cuervo, who plays Mauro, doubts the homosexual liaisons of Tierra de Pasiones would have made it to the screen in his native Mexico. "People in Mexico get a little more scared. Here people seem okay with it."
East seconds that opinion and adds that a gay actor would likely not take on a gay role. (Both actors are straight.) He contends that homosexuals in the industry generally stick with the low-profile identity of confirmed bachelors. "Un suspiro a gritos," quips East. "A whisper that's screamed."
But writer Vonn disagrees on both counts: "The themes of telenovelas have evolved everywhere. Homosexuality exists, and we can't ignore it. I think it's a good moment to break the myths that surround this topic, and what could be better than doing it on a television screen?"
In the U.S., audience response has been overwhelmingly positive. Telemundo's soaps have traditionally trailed Univision's in the ratings, but with Tierra they have seen a rise in market share. In Miami the network's soap is number one in its time slot. And the telenovela's subject matter has made little difference to advertisers. "Obviously they respond to success and ratings," says Telemundo spokesperson Elizabeth Sanjenis.
Both Cuervo and East are routinely recognized on the street, where Alex's naive character is often the object of sympathy. "A lady came up to me on the street and said, 'I suffer for you! Why don't you leave Mauro?'" says East.
And Mauro has his fans as well. When gay viewers approach Cuervo, they chastise him for toying with both siblings, he says. "Then they tell me I'm handsome."
Like DNA tests and cell phone cameras, gay romances are simply a routine addition to this very traditional genre. Their inclusion changes everything and nothing. After all, any opportunity for emotional revelation and thwarted love must be exploited to its fullest potential: When the heroine of Tierra de Pasiones, played by Venezuelan bombshell Gaby Spanic, discovers Andrés is her son and he's gay her eyes fill with soft-focus tears: "Sexual orientation is not what makes a person, and nothing that is done with love can ever be bad," she asserts in her characteristically smoky voice. "Let them say what they want. You are my son, and I support you in whoever you are and whatever you do."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.