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15 All-Time Iconic Telenovelas

From radio to streaming shows, these melodramas reign supreme in Spanish-language television

spinner image telenovelas on tvs from left to right yo soy betty la fea then corazón salvaje then maría la del barrio
“Telenovelas” reflect Latin Americans’ understanding of the world, sense of humor, tragic fatalism and conviction that love has the power to save. Clockwise from top: “Corazón salvaje,” “María la del barrio” and “Yo soy Betty, la fea.”
Maxiphoto/Getty Images; Alamy/RCN TELEVISION/Album; Televisa/Mezcalent Archivo (2)

The arrival of television into our homes forever changed the way we see, inform and express ourselves. Television became not just a reflection of society, but a tool for change. In Spanish-language TV programming, one genre stands out as the quintessential mode of expression: the popular soap opera format known as the telenovela.

The small screen proved to be the ideal medium for breathing new life into the already popular radio soap operas and the romance novels serialized in print magazines.

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Indeed, since they first appeared on television in the 1950s, Latin America’s passion for telenovelas has transcended social classes, countries of origin and the passage of time. The genre is an international phenomenon, as well as a reflection of Latin Americans’ understanding of the world, sense of humor, tragic fatalism and conviction that love has the power to save us all.

But telenovelas are much more than entertainment value and classic romantic entanglements. They have explored social issues (such as the inequalities between rich and poor) and taboos (such as abortion). They have given voice to popular sentiment in times of political upheaval. And they have explored a shared history, allowing Latin Americans to see parallels with the current reality. Collectively, these factors have helped make telenovelas the most successful genre in the history of Spanish-language television.

The format also became the economic lifeblood of an entire industry of scriptwriters, actors, stylists, designers, directors and many others in virtually every country in Latin America and the Caribbean, with Mexico a leading market for telenovela viewership, production and export.

A recent development has been the production of Spanish-language telenovelas in the United States, with storylines focused on Latinos’ lives in this country. But unlike English-language soap operas in the United States, which can run for years, telenovelas have a narrative cycle with a clear beginning and end, more akin to a series.

The genre, which also boasts many hit theme songs performed by musical superstars, has continued to evolve and become more sophisticated and nuanced over time, although the core elements of romance, and the battle between good and evil, are always present. No matter the misfortunes of its main characters, redemption is never far away.

The success and popularity of telenovelas have spread around the world and inspired adaptations in other cultures and languages, which in turn are dubbed for Spanish-speaking viewers.

Here are 15 popular, successful, and groundbreaking telenovelas.

1.El derecho de nacer’ (‘The Right to be Born’)

Before television, radio dramas captured the public’s imagination with stories of impossible love. In April 1948 in Cuba, writer Félix B. Caignet debuted the first of 314 episodes of El derecho de nacer, a saga about an aristocratic family in Santiago de Cuba in the early 1900s. This radio series touched on issues ranging from racial castes and social status to murder, love and forgiveness. Its remarkable success inspired a Mexican film in 1952 and the famous 1981 telenovela starring Verónica Castro in the role of María Elena del Junco.

2. ‘Papá corazón’ (‘A Father’s Heart’)

Produced in Argentina in 1973 with scripts by the prolific Abel Santa Cruz, Papá corazón found in Andrea del Boca the perfect child actor to play the archetypical role of a young orphan girl who has long conversations with her mother’s ghost. Norberto Suárez starred as the loving father who searches for a bride so that his daughter can have a happy family life. The 1974 Mexican adaptation, Mundo de juguete, was even more popular, with more than 600 episodes and a theme song by Armando Manzanero.

3.Los ricos también lloran’ (‘The Rich Also Weep’)

spinner image left veronica castro right rogelio guerra from los ricos también lloran
Verónica Castro and Rogelio Guerra starred in “Los ricos también lloran.”

In 1979, Verónica Castro established herself as the indisputable female lead of Mexican telenovelas in the tragic role of Mariana Villarreal, a woman who has been searching for her son since her husband forced her to abandon him. Based on scripts originally created for Cuban radio by writer Inés Rodena, Los ricos también lloran also introduced Rocío Banquells as an equally formidable villainess.

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4.Cuna de lobos’ (‘Cradle of Wolves’)

spinner image from left to right gonzalo vega then maría rubio then alejandro camacho in cuna de lobos
From left: Gonzalo Vega, María Rubio and Alejandro Camacho in “Cuna de lobos.”
Televisa/Mezcalent Archivo

It is well known that the success of a telenovela rests not just on its heroine, but also on the seductive darkness of its villainess. Cuna de lobos, produced in Mexico in 1986, introduced the role of Catalina Creel (inspired by a character played by Bette Davis), widely considered the greatest villainess in the history of the genre, down to the patch she wore over her right eye. The awful secret that Catalina is willing to protect at any cost, the theme of bisexuality, the intrigues of stepsons and stepmothers and the innocence of a young woman in danger are revisited in the 2019 remake, now available on Amazon Prime.

5.Por estas calles’ (‘Down These Streets’)

Not all telenovelas are stormy love stories. This 1992 production focused on the social changes and harsh economic crisis that Venezuela was experiencing at the time. Noteworthy for its irreverence and reflective spirit, Por estas calles left viewers with the phrase “Como vaya viniendo, vamos viendo” (roughly translated, “We’ll figure it out as we go”), a mantra often repeated by the character of Eudomar Santos, played by the witty Franklin Virgüez. The theme song, with its tropical rhythms, was a huge hit for singer-songwriter Yordano.

6.Corazón salvaje’ (‘Savage Heart’)

spinner image edith gonzález and eduardo palomo starred in corazón salvaje
Edith González and Eduardo Palomo starred in “Corazón salvaje.”
Televisa/Mezcalent Archivo

Period dramas brought a subtle air of mystery to telenovelas, with misty beaches and lavish wardrobes. When writer Caridad Bravo Adams set Corazón salvaje — and the story of adventurer Juan del Diablo — in turn-of-the-century 1900s Martinique, she may not have imagined that her novel would be adapted multiple times for television. The 1993 Mexican production starring Edith González and Eduardo Palomo still stands as the best version of this love story.

7.María la del barrio’ (‘Maria of the Neighborhood’)

spinner image thalía in maria la del barrio
Thalía starred in “María la del barrio.” She would become one of Latin pop music’s iconic singers.
Televisa/Mezcalent Archivo

A modern adaptation of Los ricos también lloran, María la del barrio (1995) is the last in a trilogy of telenovelas starring Thalía, which followed María Mercedes (1992) and Marimar (1994). It was through television that millions of people got to know the star who would become one of Latin pop music’s most iconic singers. This telenovela is also widely remembered for a scene that bordered on the absurd — an exaggerated fit of raving madness — in which Itatí Cantoral’s character shouts “maldita lisiada” (“damn cripple”) at Yuliana Peniche, a moment that lives on today in countless memes.

8.Yo soy Betty, la fea’ (‘Ugly Betty’)

spinner image ana maría orozco in yo soy betty la fea
Ana María Orozco starred as Betty in “Yo soy Betty, la fea.” The “telenovela” aired in more than 180 countries and spawned 25 adaptations, including U.S. TV series “Ugly Betty.”

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this endearing story, written by Colombian screenwriter and TV producer Fernando Gaitán, is the most successful telenovela in history. It initially aired on RCN from 1999-2001. Its heroine is Beatriz Aurora Pinzón Solano (a remarkable performance by Ana María Orozco), a young woman who must endure other people’s daily remarks about her physical appearance. The character’s vulnerability struck a chord with viewers. The telenovela aired in more than 180 countries and spawned 25 adaptations, including the popular U.S. television series Ugly Betty (2006).

9.El privilegio de amar’ (‘To Love is a Privilege’)

spinner image adela noriega in el privilegio de amar
Adela Noriega starred in “El privilegio de amar.”

Given that telenovelas have the same emotional resonance in all Latin American countries, it’s only natural that some productions find inspiration in stories from other regions. El privilegio de amar (1998), produced in Mexico and featuring a tender theme song performed by Mijares, was based on the 1980s Venezuelan telenovela Cristal. The plot — a classic melodrama of forbidden love, secrets, abandonment, bitterness and triumph — was written by Delia Fiallo, who was born in Havana and lived most of her life in Florida.

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10.Pasión de Gavilanes’ (‘Hidden Passion’)

spinner image the cast of pasión de gavilanes
In “Pasión de Gavilanes,” three brothers decide to avenge the death of their younger sister by seducing her killer’s daughters.

This ingenious 2003 Colombian telenovela, about three brothers who decide to avenge the death of their younger sister by seducing her killer’s daughters, left an indelible impression on viewers. So much so that Telemundo produced a second season nearly 20 years later with the original cast, a first for the genre — and now available on Netflix.

11. Floricienta

spinner image florencia bertotti in floricienta
Florencia Bertotti starred in “Floricienta,” an Argentine “telenovela” for young people.

Telenovelas for children and young people already existed in the 1960s, with shows such as Jacinta Pichimahuida. But Floricienta, a telenovela made in Argentina, changed everything. Inspired by Cinderella — and with some elements of the musical The Sound of Music — the series starring Florencia Bertotti was an international phenomenon. It debuted in 2004 and ran for two seasons. The final episode was recorded before a live audience of 3,000 viewers in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 2004, the Mexican telenovela Rebelde became another huge hit among young audiences and inspired the creation of the pop group RBD.

12.Avenida Brasil’ (‘Brazil Avenue’)

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Brazil’s “Avenida Brasil” was licensed to 130 countries and won countless awards.
Collection Christophel © Rede Globo/DR Photo Alex Carvalho/Alamy

Ever since the visionary Malu Mulher won viewers over in 1979, Brazilian soap operas have had great international success. Most notable among them is Avenida Brasil (2012), which was licensed to 130 countries and won countless awards. It is recognized as the second most successful telenovela in history. Created by screenwriter João Emanuel Carneiro, known for his talent for creating unforgettable villains, Avenida Brasil captures the vicissitudes of the Brazilian middle class; at the time, it was the subject of countless memes.

13.La reina del sur’ (‘Queen of the South’)

spinner image kate del castillo in la reina del sur
Kate del Castillo starred in “La reina del sur,” based on the novel of the same name.

Over the decades, telenovelas became more sophisticated and even found inspiration in works far removed from their narrative universe. La reina del sur (2011), for example, is based on the novel of the same name by Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte. In the role of Teresa Mendoza, actress Kate del Castillo ably transforms into her character, a woman who becomes the head of a Mexican cartel. With a budget of $10 million during its first season, it became Telemundo’s most expensive telenovela. The success of this show, now available on Netflix, led to the creation of Queen of the South (2016-2021), an English-language adaptation that aired on USA Network.

14.El señor de los cielos’ (‘Lord of the Skies’)

spinner image rafael amaya in el señor de los cielos
“El señor de los cielos” established Rafael Amaya as one of Mexico’s acclaimed actors.
Telemundo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Inspired from the life of Sinaloan drug trafficker Amado Carrillo — the Juárez cartel leader who used a fleet of Boeing 727s to shuttle his merchandise — this telenovela established Rafael Amaya as one of Mexico’s most acclaimed actors and scored the first Emmy for prime-time foreign-language programming in the United States. Its convoluted plot, relying on an extensive cast of supporting characters, has sustained the production over eight seasons, from 2013 to 2023, with a ninth season slated to debut in 2024.

15. From Turkey, With Love

spinner image actors on the set of the turkish telenovela kadin
Turkish “telenovelas” became a cultural phenomenon in 2010. Here, actors are on the set of “Kadin.”
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

With a heavy dose of romanticism, original concepts and a refined and cosmopolitan aesthetic sensibility, Turkish telenovelas became a cultural phenomenon starting in 2010. It was then that Fatmagül aired, a heartbreaking story about a young woman in a fishing village who is raped by a group of friends and then forced to marry one of her attackers. This was followed by many other high-profile productions, such as Mujer, Tierra amarga and Hermanos, which are typically dubbed in Spanish and exported to Spain and Latin American markets, where they continue to attract new fans.

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