Falling in Love and (Finally) Finding Queer Representation on a Telenovela
I know that their lips are touching, and that this is the first time it’s ever happened on a free-to-air telenovela.
Valentina Carvajal wants my attention. She’s sitting in a luxurious kitchen, all sleek surfaces and sharp angles, in a house lit like a telenovela set. That’s exactly where she is, where I see her as I walk by the TV. She’s as thin and translucent as the slice of bread in her hand, her fair hair long like the gauzy veil of a European Virgin Mary. The fire of her blue eyes breaks through the smokiness that surrounds them. “The makeup artist gave me this look,” she says.
Twenty years later, the only woman I’ve been in love with told me, over too many glasses of wine, that the year she transferred into my school, her dad started donating money for scholarships. “I might have paid for you to stay in school,” she said, caressing my thigh.
How romantic, a student of telenovelas might think. She was rich; I was poor. She was gregarious; I was shy. Her parents revered each other, and mine argued over money, over my dad’s drinking, over his one-night stands with other women. She dove headlong into the new vices she was discovering in the city, and I agonized over sips of my friends’ dads’ whiskey bottles at sleepovers. She was exactly my type—fair, dark-haired, outgoing, and unafraid. I don’t know if I was hers.
We didn’t know we could be anything other than friends, so friends we stayed for a decade, even after I left the country that had killed my uncles and cousins to live in the immense quiet of suburban Florida.
Sometimes, over the years, she and I disappeared on each other to deal with our own drama—her addiction, my perpetual loneliness—but we always found our way back.
It wasn’t until I was twenty-seven that I, like Valentina Carvajal on my TV screen, had my own talk with my brother. He was driving us to Clearwater Beach, to meet some family friends at the pier. I’d just come back from Colombia, from seeing my friend and telling her I loved her to her face for the first time. “Te amo,” I’d told her. Not “te quiero.”
Unlike Valentina, I didn’t test the waters. I didn’t ask my brother leading questions. I told him everything that had happened between my now-more-than-a-friend and me, everything I felt for her. I told him about the strangeness of having this happen so late. How might it have gone if she and I had known ourselves when we first met?
Back then, I was still clinging to the bombshells on my telenovela screen. These women cried through their drama while praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and, in the end, the strength of their love conquered all adversity. Their beauty was incandescent. Primetime existed for them. But they lived their lives in too grand a way. They were wealthy or poor, elated or sad, in their prime or washed out. Their romances had to be epic or not at all.
They always fell in love with men. They kissed men and made love to men and cried mascara-stained tears when those men left them. They enveloped their faces in layers upon layers of makeup for men. It was not my attention they sought, and though I didn’t understand why, I eventually abandoned them.
Now, Valentina Carvajal wants my attention. She’s still in her kitchen, and she knows I know she’s playing with her drink because she’s nervous. I walk away from the TV, leaving her to eat bits of bread.
These days I only think of Mexican telenovelas when I want to speak a language that mocks my own melodrama. When I feel desperate, lonely. When I think of the distance between me and the only woman I’ve been in love with. Of all the times I’ve gone back to Medellín, hoping things will change for the better, only for them to stay the same or get worse. When I remember she’s never said “te amo” back. “Te quiero,” yes. “Te adoro,” even.
I can attach my queerness to the pain of these colossal telenovela women. I think of them when contemplating the odds of finding a woman in the small American city where I live, at this age. When I think of the statistics, the years of loneliness. Only then do they call to me again.
“Cry in Spanish,” they say.
When I was fifteen, my mom’s weeknights had three fixtures: dinner, rosary, telenovela.
“Maybe you’ll pay attention to me,” Juliana Valdés tells me.
Only she doesn’t say that. She’s not looking at me. She’s looking at Valentina, sitting across from her at a table in a hospital cafeteria. She’s wearing a t-shirt with a rainbow on it, like a call signal.
“The wardrobe department put me in this,” Juliana tells me. “I don’t even know who I am yet.”
I stand in front of the TV. This hospital looks too real—the cafeteria is too large to be a set, its walls too solid, the light on Juliana’s face too soft.
Juliana parts her black hair in the middle and does nothing to her dark, long lashes. Her eyes are the dark sides of moons. Her mom has been shot. She is pale and exhausted. The whole of her, a planet wrapped in ice. Except now she smiles: closed-mouthed, sly, afraid. She brings a hand to her cheek, to cover her eyes. She lets herself sigh with giddiness and fatigue.
“This isn’t about my face, Yuly,” she says. “It’s made up to look like it isn’t made up. Pay attention to me.”
But that’s not what she says. She’s not talking to me. Valentina has asked her a question.
“No sé,” Juliana answers, her accent purely Mexican. Her face steels itself for what comes next: “Pero me encantas.”
She’s just said what has no good English translation. She wants me to watch her try the words on for size. She doesn’t just like Valentina. Maybe she likes her a lot. Maybe she’s smitten. She’s not quite enchanted. Or is she? She doesn’t love her yet, or she’s not in love yet. Or she doesn’t know she is.
Her face is dead serious and steady as a space rock, but when Valentina laughs, she laughs. She melts. Relief, disbelief.
“The ice will grow back,” Juliana tells me. “You know this. It’s not easy.”
I was twenty-seven the first time I said “te amo” to the only woman I’ve been in love with. To anyone at all. Before then, there had been no occasion, no one by whom I felt so thoroughly known, who read my any given silence for what it was, who teased me for being closed off but didn’t walk away. Who laughed often and so intently paid attention when I did want to talk. Who, given her own addictions, knew the love of an alcoholic’s daughter looked like a carte blanche.
Before age twenty-seven, she was my school friend, the one who’d started doing drugs and gone to rehab, where, she told me in an email, she’d realized she liked women. She was the first person I felt safe writing back to with the words, “I like women, too.” I emptied my bank account and flew back to the country my family had fled and spent two months accompanying her to the hospital, where doctors were putting her hand back together with pins and therapy after a motorcycle had hit her. I paid her university tuition, not yet knowing maybe she had paid mine once. I waited while she attended class and did my best to console her when she asked me, in tears, “What kind of engineer am I going to be with my hand in pieces?” and “What if these pain killers make me use again?”
I went back to her again and again, forgiving things others wouldn’t, doing things others wouldn’t forgive, telling myself it was good to forgive, if only for myself—but really hoping forgiveness would someday lead to something solid and lasting.
Now, on my screen, Juliana wants to convince me the words for falling in love with a woman don’t already fit her better than the rainbow across her chest. “I’ll have to learn to break them in,” Juliana tells me. “I’ll have to learn to love them, and her.” She points at Valentina with her chin. “Watch me do it.”
I didn’t have Juliana Valdés when I was fifteen. Back then, I didn’t know how to use the melodrama where she lives for irony. For self-admonition. She didn’t show me that I, too, could be star-crossed.
I didn’t even have her at twenty-seven, when knowing that falling in love with a woman so late and so far away made the words get stuck on my tongue and made me hope everything else I did would be enough.
But I did get the words out eventually. And even in the language I no longer spoke most of the time, they felt true.
“Why would I watch you now?” I ask Juliana, who sits sleepy in her hospital cafeteria chair. “I don’t need you. I’ve been through this.”
“But you wish you’d had me,” she says.
I want to reply, but a boy has appeared between her and Valentina, roses in hand. Fade to black.
At thirty-five years old, I watch Valentina Carvajal and Juliana Valdés kiss in a swimming pool full of fake water lilies placed there by a set designer. I’ve gone back and watched their story from the beginning, and this happens before the hospital scene, so now I understand that in the cafeteria they were trying to figure out what the kiss meant.
When their lips touch in the pool scene, the camera pans, and I can only see Juliana’s back, the side of Valentina’s face, the hunger of her cheekbone.
When I was fifteen, my mom’s weeknights had three fixtures: dinner, rosary, telenovela. As Valentina and Juliana kiss, I imagine I am fifteen, and my mom is sitting next to me, crossing herself at the sight of it. She’s never seen anything like this. She can’t believe Televisa has the gall to show it to us. But Televisa doesn’t show it to us, because I’m fifteen. To Televisa, I don’t exist yet.
Fifteen-year-old me would have watched this kiss, looked at her new school friend, and something would have fallen into place.
Now I am thirty-five, and I can hardly see. I know their lips are touching, and that this is the first time it’s ever happened on a free-to-air telenovela. I know there have been people full of this same want on telenovelas before. But they were sexless. Loveless. They existed to fix the life of a straight protagonist.
I know the first time I kissed the only woman I’ve ever been in love with, we weren’t in a picturesque swimming pool surrounded by cameras, but the kiss was no less real.
Still, fifteen-year-old me would have watched this kiss, unable to hear the cloying guitar motif playing through it over the pounding of her heart in her ears. Fifteen-year-old me wouldn’t have understood the reason for the pounding, but maybe, not long after, fifteen-year-old me would have looked at her new school friend, and something would have fallen into place.
What I can see, at thirty-five, is Televisa trying to cover its ass, to find out just how offended the housewives watching across Latin America will be. But now, even the housewife in whose house I grew up, who would have been offended twenty years ago, watches it all, not batting an eye.
I went back to the start and watched their story for this?
“Ay, Chiquita,” Valentina tells me. “If not you, who?”
I’m not a chiquita anymore. I don’t have to stay quiet as a boy asks me if I’m a sourpuss because I’ve never had a boyfriend. I don’t have to wonder why a childhood friend kissed me on the lips, then walked away as if the world hadn’t shifted. I don’t have to accept these scraps.
“Don’t we have the telenovela life you love?” Juliana asks me.
“Loved,” I say.
“Don’t you trust us?” they ask me.
I’ve watched their telenovela lives. They’re laden with the drama of kidnappings and shootings and run-ins with drug cartels. Reincarnation and transmigration. Death incarnate stalking the soundstage. Visions. Unrequited love. None of this touches them.
Valentina and Juliana are still in the swimming pool, freezing, waiting for an answer.
I’ve seen this too many times—the sweeping buildup that ends in censorship, in punishment, in self-hate, in suicide. I don’t need to see it now that I’m ready to start saying goodbye to the only woman I’ve ever been in love with, who didn’t give me the place I felt worthy of, at least on the occasions when we could be together. Who showed me the strength of my love couldn’t really conquer all adversity.
“I don’t trust you,” I tell Valentina and Juliana.
“Liar,” they say, in unison.
At thirty-five years old, I watch Valentina and Juliana continue to push against the clever angles of censorship. Fifteen-year-old girls all across Latin America also watch beside their moms, who wonder why their daughters are suddenly interested in the corny telenovela in which people die and reincarnate in someone else’s body. After Televisa has showed them every inconceivable scenario without a second thought, they finally sit together and witness the miracle of Valentina and Juliana falling in love. These girls shiver in their seats—from delight, from fear, from want.
Valentina Carvajal and Juliana Valdés are entering their third act. They’ll love each other to death—it’s the title of the show, after all—but death will not come for them soon. There’s drama afoot, and the writers won’t always do right by them, but at least they’ll make it through.
Even as I say goodbye to the only woman I’ve ever loved, knowing that doing so means embracing a loneliness I’ve too long been afraid of, I’m ready for Valentina and Juliana to become the selves they might have become outside their telenovela lives. They’ll keep me company.
“You don’t need us,” they tell me. “But watch us. Watch us take center stage together.”
Yuly was born in Medellín, Colombia, and came to the States nearly twenty years ago as an asylee. Her writing has previously appeared in Zone 3, PRISM International, and Natural Bridge. She is an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, a MacDowell fellow, and an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tampa.