«Marimar»: The Many Lives of the Woman by the Sea
«Marimar»: The Many Lives of the Woman by the Sea
«Marimar»: The Many Lives of the Woman by the Sea
«Marimar»: The Many Lives of the Woman by the Sea
«Marimar»: The Many Lives of the Woman by the Sea
«Marimar»: The Many Lives of the Woman by the Sea
«Marimar»: The Many Lives of the Woman by the Sea
«Marimar»: The Many Lives of the Woman by the Sea

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Mary Jessel Duque

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Mary Jessel B. Duque teaches courses in art, literature, and the Philippine soap opera at De La Salle University. She has also previously taught with the Department of English and Comparative Literature at University of the Philippines Diliman, where she also earned her BA and MA in Creative Writing. Her essays and short stories have been published in local anthologies including Sawi and Hoard of Thunder: Philippine Short Stories in English Volume 2 and have won her fellowships at the University of Santo Tomas’s J. Elizalde Navarro Workshop on Criticism and the Iyas Creative Writing Workshop. She has written scripts for major television networks in the Philippines and Singapore.

The Ateneo Art Gallery and the Kalaw-Ledesma Foundation, Inc. partners with Perro Berde as part of the Ateneo Art Awards: Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Prizes in Art Criticism. Each year, two winning writers are selected as contributors by its publication partners, The Philippine Star and ArtAsiaPacific magazine. These two writers will be featured contributors to this annual publication by writing an article of their choice related to Philippine and Spanish culture. This year, the winning writers are Mary Jessel Duque and Alec Madelene Abarro.

I teach a class on the telenovela. 

It is an elective that I get to teach at least once an academic year, usually at 7:30 in the morning. It may seem too early to be serving straight-up melodrama or the intense zoom-ins of FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano when most students are barely awake. Then some corners will object to the course title: why telenovela and not teleserye? After all, the latter term has been included in the Oxford English Dictionary since 2016. Both are accidents of luck and bureaucracy. First slot is what is usually assigned by the college to the Department of Literature’s electives. Then I myself would have preferred to call the class something else. Telenovela assumes that we will only discuss soap operas originating in Hispano-America, when in reality the class looks at the origins and influences of the Filipino soap opera. On the other hand, the OED associates the genesis of the term teleserye with the 2000 ABS-CBN soap Pangako Sa ’Yo. It describes the teleserye as having “the magnitude of a continuing series and the sophisticated artistry of filmmaking.”

I consider teleserye as a proprietary term associated with a network’s branding of the soap operas it produces. But local television also uses the terms fantaserye to describe narratives of enchanted beings, fashion-serye for soaps set in the competitive world of fashion design and sibling rivalries, ecoserye for TV-5’s nature and ecologically aware drama, kilig serye for whatever show the love team du jour stars in. Most local publications still refer to narratives which are aired daily as soap operas, the type of story or theme then becomes an additional label, i.e., fanta, fashion, eco, etc. Plus the registrar already had the class on record in the university catalogue as Telenovela, and changing it would require jumping through many hoops. So Telenovela it is.

The first day of class begins with a survey: Who is aware that they signed up for a class on the soap opera? Reasons vary, from they need an elective to it is the only class that fits their schedule. Hesitant hands shamefully admit to watching a show because their favorite love team stars in it and will shriek when their group happened to pick On the Wings of Love for the reports and they are totally #TeamReal. It is rare to have someone gleefully admit they watch soap operas, unless you expand the definition to include Korean dramas. Then there are those who are just bursting at the seams waiting to share why they love Messi, or who believe they are the Goblin’s bride.

Some are absolutely horrified, totally unaware that they just signed up for 13 weeks—an entire season, really—of watching, reading about, and discussing the soap opera and its various influences. Most will smugly declare that they don’t watch local television. They profess to detest such cheap thrills, preferring American or foreign-made series that have better budgets and a limited run. Not like that low-rent copy of a certain Nordic deity wielding a hammer or the fight scene that used a department store plastic Nerf gun that blasted a laser to off an enemy. If they happened to watch, it was because their mother or nanny were totally hooked on the story of a wife fighting off her husband’s mistress, so they had, like, no choice at all.

This pushback is expected. In fact, I welcome it. After all, I was once like them.

From a Catholic school I moved to a state-run high school where the hot topic consisted of a rehash of the weekend gossip shows and a listing of the shows blessed by the apparitions of the sarimanok, a multi-colored bird with a fish hanging from its beak. There was a contest running and I wanted so badly to join the conversation and to share what I saw the night before: the latest adventures of The Young Indiana Jones. I was cut off. “We don’t watch that kind of show here.” They turned their back and continued the discussion on which shampoo sachet gave a better bang for your buck when submitting entries. 

I never hated television so much as in that moment when I was twelve.

If I wanted to fit in with my new classmates, I had better be familiar with what was showing on local television. I made it my mission to know as much as I could. The weekly drama where the audience could write in the story of their lives. I joined in after-school viewings of cartoons adapted from classical literature that featured the suddenly orphaned princess then subjected to boarding school cruelty and servitude, the Flemish boy who sold milk along with his rescued dog, and the tale of the twins of destiny—two children who travelled across Europe and Asia on a quest to overthrow the dowager empress of China.

Thus, my education in local television viewing evolved around narratives of orphans in various degrees of cruelty and suffering. This motif was crystalized in Mara Clara, the tale of two girls who had been switched at birth, the event then chronicled in a diary that everyone was looking for. Clara, the daughter of poor parents, grew up in the affluent Del Valle household, while the real daughter Mara became subject to the daily cruelties of Clara—for five long years. Mara Clara has since been dubbed as the “Mother of Pinoy Soap Opera.” It was the idyllic template that hewed to the Filipino penchant for the life-long story of suffering. It was likely that Mara Clara would have gone on for far longer than the five years it lasted on air, had it been not for the tantalizing interloper from Mexico: Marimar, featuring the exotic Thalia dubbed into Tagalog, translation being the new way that the Filipino could experience narratives of suffering from other former colonial subjects of the Spanish empire.

Considering that the Philippines was a Spanish colony for over 300 years, it is anomalous that Spanish is not one of its main languages. In the late nineteenth century, only around 2.5% of the population used Spanish, mostly in places of education, trade, and administration. When the Americans came in and installed the public school system that insisted only on English, that small Hispanophone population was largely decimated as most of the middle and upper classes shifted to English as the language of power. From the late twentieth century onwards, our experience of the Spanish language was virtually nil. Our only experience of Spanish language and culture would be mediated through the imports of telenovelas. Even then the language of empire has been erased, yet its ghosts haunt us through the narrative tropes that come up again and again in our soap operas. 

After Mara Clara, Marimar is the one soap opera we keep going back to in class. The telenovela created by Inés Rodena in 1994 told the story of an innocent young woman who lived with her grandparents in a town by the ocean. Marimar’s family is poor and she is caught scavenging vegetables in a farm. The lustful farmer would have succeeded if not for the fateful intervention of Sergio Santibañez, the wealthy but idle footballer heir from the nearby hacienda. Marimar and Sergio will fall in love. There will be objections because of Marimar’s dubious origins and motives. But Marimar isn’t really who she thinks she is: her real father is a wealthy man haunted by the sin of abandoning his daughter and is now looking for her. Moreover, people in the town are aware of Marimar’s “secret” origins.

This secret is revealed in the first episode, which in a typical Filipino soap opera would have taken years. Case in fact: the diary that everyone searched for in Mara Clara for months ended up being in a very conspicuous place if only people had looked harder. Meanwhile, the sweeping love story of Marimar and Sergio, her banishment and triumphant return as Bella Aldama took all of six months. Mara and Clara’s hair pulling shenanigans, by then four years running, was glacial. In its last year, Mara Clara had to scramble to catch up with the fast-paced developments in the life of Marimar and her talking dog Fulgoso. By then, Marimar fever had swept the nation and there was no going back.

Filipinos were so enchanted by the story of the woman by the sea that Marimar has had three lives in the Philippines: the Tagalized version aired in 1996, the first official remake that made a star out of actress Marian Rivera in 2007, and, lastly, the 2015 reboot featuring Miss World Megan Young. Four if you count the movie that condensed half a year into over two hours. Five if you consider the Mexican original before it got dubbed into Filipino. More if one counts the afterlives of the story’s peripheral characters: servant Corazon, satirized by local comedian Michael V in sketches and then villain Angélica Santibañez, known in these corners as Senyora Santibañez on Twitter. 

In 1996, when the Tagalog-dubbed Marimar aired, translation was a nascent industry in the Philippines. Previous experiences of dubbed shows included Japanese import Voltes V, which was dubbed into English and popular during the martial law period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with reruns in the 1990s. There were the aforementioned Japanese anime adapted from classic literature such as A Little Princess (known here as Princess Sarah), A Dog of Flanders, and Twins of Destiny (or Julio at Julia: Kambal ng Tadhana), which were dubbed into Tagalog. Marimar wasn’t actually the first soap opera import that was dubbed into Tagalog. There was La Traidora, or The Traitor Lady from Venezuela. It wasn’t as successful as Marimar. The dubbing was off—the translation was longer in Filipino, and thus the flap (the opening and closing of the mouth as one speaks) did not match, resulting in a weird delay where the character had already stopped talking but the dialogue continued. White people speaking Tagalog was a novelty. Some considered it laughable, but La Traidora suffered the necessary birthing pains for a culture just learning to translate and getting used to imported material being translated into the local language. Fast forward to decades later and a lot of the televised material in the Philippines, mostly cartoons and soap operas, are getting the Tagalog treatment.

A decade after that initial contact with Hispanophone narratives, translation gave way to adaptation. Marimar was remade by GMA Network featuring actress Marian Rivera as Marimar and Dingdong Dantes as Sergio Santibañez. What differentiated the remake from the original was the decision to start with Marimar being born in the middle of the sea, after the banishment of Marimar’s mother due to charges of infidelity made by her mother-in-law. Gabriela takes refuge with a friend in a seaside village. After seven years, there is a chance encounter with Marimar’s father. The family is reunited, but only for a little while. The plane they are flying in explodes. Her parents die, but Marimar survives and is saved by fisherfolk, bringing us to the original narrative’s premise. The 2007 remake doubled the number of episodes of the original run. Televisa’s Marimar ran for 74 episodes, while GMA’s ran for 155 episodes and 4 specials, including the wedding finale.

The 2015 remake, again by GMA Network but featuring Megan Young as Marimar and Tom Rodriguez as Sergio, was about a third shorter with 100 episodes. This version pushes the story even further back, beginning with how Marimar’s parents fell in love. There was a regatta to emphasize the seaside origins. Marimar’s mother Mia is a cleaning woman and deemed not a good match for Gustavo, the heir of a retail empire. What differentiates it even more from the previous iterations is having the villains act as campy hindrances to the lead’s happiness. In the original and in the 2007 remake, Angelika Santibañez was Sergio’s stepmother. But in the 2015 version, Angelika as played by Jaclyn Jose is still Sergio’s stepmother, but her daughter Antonia is Sergio’s ex-girlfriend. Together, mother and daughter scheme to trap Sergio into marriage. Their plans lead to the kidnapping of Sergio and Marimar’s daughter Cruzita, with the threat of blowing her up with a bomb. It backfires when it turns out the bomb is in their possession and the dog Fulgoso switches on the remote that results in Angelika and Antonia’s helicopter exploding in midair. 

While the Marimar remakes have played with camp and reaching back into the past to portray a generational layering of forbidden romances, what remains indelible and inalienable is the story of the poor, innocent girl by the sea who suffers the indignities of the downtrodden, but is later revealed to come from a much more privileged background. The faster turn of events certainly outpaced the soap operas of the 1980s and early 1990s. But the narrative tropes that so fascinated them did not have their origins in the Latin American telenovela alone. The sarswela was one of the most popular narratives in early twentieth-century Philippines, a time when Tagalog theater was swiftly evolving. Patricio Mariano was a sarswela writer and translator whose works often focused on the subjects of romance, social conditions, and the hopes of the Filipino people. The premise of his sarswela Anak ng Dagat is quite similar to Marimar: a girl saved from drowning in the sea by a poor, kind-hearted fisherman.

Anak ng Dagat o Silay ng Liwanag (Child of the Sea or Glimpse of Light) is a play with a prelude and three acts. Each act is around twelve scenes long. The play is in verse with music supplied by Bonifacio Abdon. Several copies of the playbook survive, which gives its date of publication as 1951, but its first run is probably around 1921, or three decades earlier. The prelude has a fisherman named Berong emerging from the tempestuous sea carrying a child of around four years old. In the play’s first few scenes, it is revealed that everyone in the neighborhood knew about Berong’s rescue of the child and then later that a neighbor asks if Berong really is Nene’s father. Because a rich man has been looking for the daughter he lost thirteen years ago and is willing to offer “billions” for her whereabouts. 

Here is where we have a seemingly direct similarity between Marimar and Anak ng Dagat: the secret is already out, and the guilty father is looking for his child. The daughter Nene sells her father’s wares. Another fisherman attempts to flirts with her, she refuses, he goes too far and lunges at her. She slaps him so hard across the face that he ends up with a fat lip. Rodena’s Marimar needed saving from the farmer who wanted her virtue in exchange for a few vegetables. But here, Nene could clearly fend for herself and did not need any help. The men in the village talk about her clear rebuff and blame the man for thinking that Nene is easy like the other women.

This early scene presages how Nene in Anak ng Dagat deviates from Marimar. Marimar falls in love with the wealthy Sergio; Nene engages in a demure courtship with the poor but respected poet Carlos. When Nene’s real, wealthy father comes in, Berong finds it hard to give up the daughter he has raised for thirteen years and turns to alcohol. It is Nene and her frequent visits to the village she grew up in that saves him. The moral universe in Patricio Mariano’s work is clear: society’s structures are simplified, right and wrong are clearly labeled. In her work on the “The Romance Mode in Philippine Popular Literature”, Soledad Reyes noted that class distinction functioned as a shaping tendency and is often the cause of the conflict and passions unleashed in the text. Such is the case of Nene, for even with her newfound wealth and status she has retained the virtues of the common folk. Doreen Fernandez also writes that the sarswela, like most objects of popular culture, examines what is highly important to the Filipino: harmony in family relationships, retention of traditional values, adherence to moral codes, fulfillment in love and marriage. Nene’s trials and subsequent triumph reveal that she represents the morals of the era, and thus, Fernandez insists, the culture and consciousness of the community as well. 

In Anak ng Dagat, it is the wealthy that come off as morally dubious. Nene’s father Mariano wants to marry off his daughter to another wealthy man, who turns out to only be after Nene’s wealth. It is only after pretending that Nene will inherit none of her mother’s fortune that motives are revealed, and it is all under the ruse of Carlos, the poet-suitor who refuses to pursue the newly wealthy Nene because he is afraid people will mistake his courtship as a pursuit of her riches. Carlos Matapat is eventually rewarded for this admonishment of wealth. Carlos will only love a Nene bereft of wealth, so to keep her lacking in riches, the father bequeaths his fortune to Carlos, for him to take care of Nene and for their eventual progeny to inherit. Marimar had a different strategy: it was to reveal that Marimar, or Bella Aldama, holds equal if not more wealth than Sergio Santibañez. The Mexicans presumably view women much more equally in the late twentieth century than the Philippines had several decades earlier. 

Anak ng Dagat also views modernity in a dubious light. The sarswela was popular in the early decades of the American occupation and reveals in a subtle way the uneasiness that comes with new colonial masters and appended virtues. Carriton, a foreigner, first enters the scene speaking a strange mix of Spanish and Tagalog. He is also identified as coming from Manila and tries to woo Nene for her wealth. But he backs out when he realizes that Nene is not going to inherit anything. The foreigner’s game, with his modern clothes and pursuit of material things, is highly opposed to the quiet dignity of the rural folks that Nene grew up with in the town by the sea. Doreen Fernandez echoes Soledad Reyes when talking about the “common moral universe” of popular folk forms like the romance and the sarswela: “They spoke community. The process itself was language that spoke of values held together, of a community commitment and concern, of a common moral universe.”

The tension between the urban and the rural are perhaps signs of yet a bigger preoccupation of a Philippines under American colonial rule—that of nationhood. Nene’s real father went off to fight in the war, that is why he lost his wife and child. In between song and dance, Nene recalls a vague memory of her father as though it were a dream: “May nadinig akong salitang: labanan, tinubuang lupa, hukbo, himagsikan, na di ko mabatid ang pakahulugan.” (“I heard these words: fighting, homeland, army, revolution—words that I could not fathom.”) Nationhood is something that Nene could not understand, something that took the backseat when she dealt with matters that had to do with romance and her sense of self. 

If Marimar in its original iteration, adaptations, and remakes was ever engrossed with the concept of nation, then it is something that must have slipped by in our viewings. But Soledad Reyes offers comfort: the telenovela, the Philippine soap opera, and the sarswela are all narratives that have been labeled as “escapist.” Stories that appeared as such because they “turned people’s attention from the grim realities of the war. Instead of the infernal world, the world of the idyll peopled with characters grappling with private emotions was depicted.” The world is in ruins, what better way to distract people from suffering but to offer them narratives that afforded them temporary relief from hell? 

Currently, the soap opera is arguably the most popular “escapist” form in the Philippines. The soap opera appropriated the tropes of the sarswela and it is decidedly in the romantic mode. The soap opera then becomes a symbolic way of looking at the world. Soledad Reyes reminds us that “romance became a way of coping with the complex movements in life, a comprehensible formula which had few unknown factors, a codified structure the people could understand.” It is the soap opera’s “most important tendency”—a way of answering a need or satisfying a desire. The soap opera in general, and Marimar and its many lives in particular, is our gateway for understanding the complex structures in society that we can’t quite wrap our head around. Watching soap operas may afford escape, may anesthetize, but like the proverbial salt in the wound, it is important to stay awake, to become aware with how exactly the systems in place are trying to lull us into sleep. 

The scholar Doreen Fernandez may have been talking about the sarswela, but she may as well have been talking about the soap opera. Thus, the soul of the soap opera is “the nation’s soul; it is its song, its sorrow, its jubilation, its expansion … it lives in the public square, not in the athenaeum, and it exhibits as native qualities clarity, simplicity, taste, proportion … let the nation sing.”

What used to be afternoon viewing now occupies not just prime time (or the block after the evening news all the way to the late night news), but also the afternoon and even mid-mornings until the traditional noontime show. In short, we now have the soap opera all day, every day. If in addition to the soap opera we add the current fascination with romantic or “kilig” movies and “hugot” culture, it makes one ask: what kind of society are we in to require round the clock escape from our daily realities?

Bibliography

Doreen Fernandez, “Zarzuela to Sarswela: Indigenization and Transformation,” Philippine Studies, 41, n. 3 (1993): 320-343.

Patricio Mariano, Anak ng Dagat o Silay ng Liwanag. Music by Bonifacio Abdon. (Roberto Martinez and Sons, 1951).

Soledad Reyes, “The Romance Mode in Philippine Popular Literature,” Philippine Studies, 32, n. 2 (1984): 163-180.

This publication is commissioned by the Embassy of Spain in the Philippines in conjunction with the Spanish Cooperation through the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID). The views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AECID nor of the Embassy.

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