Kafka is a penguin who lives on the beach in Pucusana, the coastal district one hour south of Lima. In 2006, when the telenovela Lobos de Mar began shooting on Pucusana’s beaches, docks, and streets, he was cast as an extra.
EPISODE ONE: PILOT
I was in my last year of school when Lobos de Mar, a gritty crime drama about an ill-fated attempt to build a tourist resort on Pucusana’s fishing docks, made its debut. It was a moment when the entirety of my family’s expectations weighed on my shoulders: that I would enter university and become some sort of engineer. It was a path that I agreed with—I liked the idea and happened to enjoy math—so I spent that summer in a university-prep academy. After the summer, I was back to school in the mornings and then off to another academy in the afternoons. I studied all day, arrived home well after dinner, studied a little more, then fell asleep.
I was at peace in my house, even though it was slowly becoming what we might call a “dysfunctional home.” My parents were separated but they still lived on the same floor, in separate apartments. My siblings and I would rarely all gather, unless it was to eat or watch television. And by 2006, when Lobos de Mar began to air, we were largely doing both things on our own.
A few weeks ago, I asked my sisters if they remembered the show; not one of them did. I did the same with friends, some who have seen many more films and shows than I have and some who haven’t, but all I’ve gotten is a “sounds familiar.”
I recall, however, that the whole time I was imagining my adulthood-to-come in engineering school, I was also trying to figure out who was murdering and terrorizing a beach community south of Lima on this fictional show. Penguin-spoiler: Kafka is neither murderer nor murdered. But my fascination with the novela marked the moment when I began to move away from everything I had known; it was, somehow, the first step towards entering not engineering but journalism school, five years later. Lobos de Mar failed too: its audience numbers were low enough that it was canceled after 40 episodes.
EPISODE TWO: THE HAVES AND THE HAVE-NOTS
“But the beach is for everyone.”
“No, it isn’t. You have to be clean to use it. Dirty people should go elsewhere.”
That was part of the exchange between one of the owners of the beachfront homes in Naplo, one of the wealthier seaside villages of Pucusana, and an undercover reporter purporting to be from the Peruvian Amazon. The scene was part of a television report that sought to show how brown people were treated every day in wealthier neighborhoods. On the periphery, we cholos discriminate against each other; further out, on the periphery of the periphery, in the districts that lay on the outskirts of Lima province, class and racial differences are as visible as a rope in the sand with a sign attached that says “do not cross.”
And yet Lobos de Mar, being fiction, gets closer to the reality of these places than that television report ever could. The show features lines of dialogue like: “they’re ignorant cholos.” “That’s what these Limeñitos are like, they think they’re the shit for simply having been born there.” “I could shoot you and nothing would happen to me. Know why? Because you’re a piece-of-shit cholo.”
In the show, the relationships between those with money and those without is warped; the former feel that they possess the right to do what’s best for everyone else. The show begins when Estela Idiakez, the representative of a company that plans to build a tourist resort on Pucusana’s fishing dock, arrives in town. She meets with fishermen and villagers in order to convince them of the necessity of value in accepting her company’s offer. But the next day she turns up dead, tied to a wooden post covered with newspapers and fish carcasses.
Though the majority of those in Pucusana had rejected the company’s offer, her death makes them uneasy. Meanwhile, for the developers, the whole town is now under suspicion. A cholo can’t shoot una blanquita and expect nothing bad to happen.
EPISODE THREE: THE PERIPHERY OF THE PERIPHERIES
Pucusana’s streets are like to the ones I walk every day, like the majority of streets in Lima’s periphery: puzzles with inconclusive or misshapen pieces, as if their designers didn’t care about the finished product. That’s Lima: messy, half-completed, misshapen. See the hills where three million Peruvians have built their homes, on ground where construction is technically prohibited.
But we Peruvians who live on the periphery do what we need to in order to survive. Today, more and more people migrate south to Pucusana in order to demand more and more from the ocean, contaminating it, in turn, with their waste and motor oil. In this sense, the owners of the houses in wealthier Naplo aren’t wrong when they complain about the state of the beaches. It’s just not my brown skin that’s making them dirty.
If the land belongs to the person who saw it first, Pucusana belongs to the fishermen: archaeological ruins suggest fishing has taken place along the southern coast for 10,000 years; Chilca, a district just east of Pucusana, is home to the oldest inhabitants of the Peruvian coast. But building houses along is a new innovation, dating back only to the beginning of the 20th century. As the years went by, Limeños and foreigners began to arrive, attracted to the region’s cheap land and tranquil waters. (Coca-Cola showed up too, setting up an industrial plant that produces half of all the Coke products consumed in Peru.)
In Lobos de Mar, the problem doesn’t arise in the spaces where people get a suntan and swim. It comes, instead, from disrupting the spaces where fishermen have spent their whole lives working. Tearing down the docks and replacing them with a tourist resort signifies changing their way of life. It shouldn’t be hard—given their precarious financial situation—for the fishermen to accept a proposal where they are offered more money,prosperity, success, “development”, right?
Leonardo Oviedo, a company representative who arrives after Estela’s murder, is also speaking to me when he tells the fishermen: “You don’t understand what development means.”
EPISODE FOUR: DOES LIFE IMITATE THE TELENOVELA OR DOES THE TELENOVELA IMITATE LIFE?
Watching television wasn’t always a solitary act for me. When I was seven I would spend Sunday evenings secretly watching Pataclaún with my younger sister, a series about a couple who lives in a house with three ghosts. It was verboten for children due to its obscene language, and so watching it began as an act of rebellion. But as we got further along in the show, my mother and older sisters joined us. I also remember watching Carrusel, Luz Clarita, El Chavo del Ocho, Chespirito, La Familia Ingalls, Luz María, Soñadoras, Amigas y Rivales, Betty la Fea, La Rica Vicky—and many, many more that I can’t recall—with them, along with the cartoons I watched alone.
The majority of those novelas—in Peru we rarely say telenovela—were Mexican, adapted from a Mexican script, or structured after the model of the Mexican novela. These are stories full of tragedy, daily life caked with makeup: intense love affairs, precipitous betrayals, astonishing resilience, happy endings. And this could happen over and over and over again, often for years. Eventually, the viewing public or the scriptwriter would grow sick and that show would end—only for another one, with the same structure, to start up soon after. Maybe we only ever watched variations of the same narrative because telenovelas tell us stories taken from our own lives. We want to be reminded of our triumphs and disgraces. Don’t we?
“The feeling of truth and fiction, in the telenovela, is only given in proportion of its capacity to move the audience,” Alberto Barrera Tyszka, the Venezuelan poet and scriptwriter, said once. “Verisimilitude, in the telenovela, lies in affect. It’s the spectacle of sentimentality.”
That’s why we always return to the same story. In the end, all we want is to be fulanito with two first names (Juan Ignacio, Luis Enrique, etc.) who always saves the day. Or maybe we want to be fulanita, who suffers a thousand tragedies but always recovers—thanks to fulanito’s love.
We know, according to telenovelas—or do telenovelas know because of us?—that our existence can always be disrupted by large unexpected tragedy. Barrera Tyszka: “We all know that our lives can become even more tragic: the idea of excessive sentimentality seduces us. In this way, the intensity is transformed into a method of evaluation that appears to distinguish us from the rest of the inhabitants of this cold planet.”
EPISODE FIVE: THE SCREEN IS A MIRROR
Toward the end of the ‘80s and the beginning of the ‘90s, Peruvian television was abandoning some of these inherited stigmas. In the police procedural Gamboa (1987), for example, the first female police officer was introduced to Peruvian viewers. And in Regresa (1991), which tells the story of the Peruvian vals singer Lucha Reyes, an Afro-peruvian woman was given her first leading role. Up until that moment, Afro-peruvian, cholo or mestizo actors were only given roles as delinquents or as household staff.
Regresa was directed by the Frenchman Michel Gómez and written by the Peruvian Eduardo Adrianzén. The duo went on to make Tatán (1993), exploring the dual life led by a criminal who does good things for his community, and many more shows throughout the ‘90s and the 2000s, but the one remembered most fondly today is Los de arriba y los de abajo (1994). For many, Gómez-Adrianzén changed Peruvian television forever by speaking frankly about discrimination, alienation, racism, homosexuality, HIV, threesomes, rape, unwanted pregnancies,corruption and poverty. These were not innovative concepts, of course; but suddenly they were being represented through voices that millions of Peruvians could hear themselves in.
Los de arriba y los de abajo was the first show filmed in the city’s ramshackle outskirts; for the first time, these places were not represented as exotic locales but rather as the places where the people in the script actually lived their lives. These people spoke like us, they shared our insecurities, our aspirations, our envy, our resentment, the color of our skin. From that moment onward, Peru could finally see itself in the television-mirror.
EPISODE SIX: STORIES OF LIFE ITSELF
If in the ‘90s Peruvian script-writers had begun to draw their stories from daily life in the present, Lobos de Mar’s creator, Aldo Miyashiro, was writing from the future.
When Pedro Pablo Florián won the 2014 municipal elections in Pucusana for the second time in a row, residents filled the plaza in front of the municipality, claiming electoral fraud. Eventually, they stormed the building, pushing past the police who guarded the entrance. As I heard the news that October, I thought how this scene had already been filmed once, eight years earlier. In Lobos de mar, Pucusanans reject the new mayor that Leonardo Oviedo has had installed: the previous one had been killed, as had the police chief, the brothel owner and the brother of one of the girls who worked there. (This last murder transforms Kafka into a kind of orphan.) The previous mayor had been supported by Oviedo but—as with Estela—power had not made him untouchable.
These fictional encounters reflected our political reality. In 2006, the same year Lobos de Mar was first broadcast, our ex-president and authoritarian strongman Alberto Fujimori had been detained in Chile. Six years before, he’d been reelected to a third term under dubious conditions, leading to tens of thousands of Peruvians to take to Lima’s streets. Fujimori fled to Japan, where he resigned the presidency by fax.
Those protestors had been led by Alejandro Toledo, who won the presidency the following year. When his term ended, in 2007, he was replaced by Alan García, who had been president once before, during a disastrous five-year term in the late ‘80s. Whenever Alan’s name came up, my parents and their friends would tell endless stories of how terrible his first term was, that he didn’t know how to control the left-wing guerrillas that terrorized the countryside or the hyperinflation that destroyed the economy. To their disbelief, he won again.
In Peru, resentment lingers, but forgetfulness comes quickly.
Today, though, a kind of justice is at work. Garcia, Toledo and Fujimori—not to mention Ollanta Humala and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Peru’s two most recent presidents—are all either under investigation for corruption or serving prison terms.
EPISODE SEVEN: WE’RE ALL MARGINAL
The first Gómez-Adrianzén novela I saw was Amor Serrano (1998), but not until 2001, when its reruns would air at midday. Before leaving the house at lunchtime, I would watch an Ayacuchano with a lot of money pursue a blonde Limeña. A few years later the duo did something similar in Qué Buena Raza (2002), but with they’d improved the formula: this time, the love affair was mutual. In Qué Buena Raza, the obstacles were the lovers’ friends and family—white and brown—and their racism was both recognizable and uncomfortable to observe.
Little by little, I began to realize that the shows I’d grown up watching, the ones with happy endings and overwrought, unlikely tragedies and successes, were science fiction. Life, these new shows taught me, was not only tragic, but also unjust: nothing guaranteed a happy ending. Especially if you live in Peru and your skin isn’t white.
When Dina Paucar arrived in Lima, she was only 10 years old. She came by bus from her native Huánuco—some nine hours from Lima—and scraped together an income as a roving peddler, an emolientera and a domestic servant. In the mid-90s, however, she became a sudden, and massive, star with her song “Qué lindos son tus ojos.” This was a huayno, a harp-driven musical genre originally from the southern Andes that she helped popularize in Lima.
Her origin story is shared by many of us who live in Lima. My own mother is from Junín, east of the capital; my father’s parents and most of my aunts and uncles on both sides are also outsiders who moved to Lima. I was born in Lima and had an education that wouldn’t have been possible if my parents had, for example, stayed in Huánuco. This “success” was available only to those of us who left our homes in the provinces.
In 2004, producers realized that with stories like Dina Paucar’s, they didn’t have to make anything up. The series based on her life was a massive hit, and with it was born a new wave of miniseries based on similar stories: beloved cumbia groups, popular saints, famous athletes, everyday people ripped from the headlines and rising above their circumstances.
These stories aren’t only made up of triumph and tragedy. More than being true, they’re marginal—just like us. Just like all of us. Nobody likes looking bad in the mirror.
At the same time, though, another formula-like novella began to emerge. In the 2000s, Efraín Aguilar became known for three shows: Mil Oficios, Así es la Vida, and Al Fondo Hay Sitio. The three followed the same schema: characters whose interactions with their neighbors and families created drama, romance, tragedy, and comedy. But Aguilar took Gómez-Adrianzén’s complex characters and rendered them shallow, smothering the dialogue with bad jokes and squeezing 500, 1000 and 1500 (respectively) episodes out of each plot.
Instead of asking them to be delighted by a story, now viewers were asked only to laugh—and for that, you didn’t even really have to be paying attention. There’s a reason why those shows are always playing in Lima’s restaurants.
EPISODE EIGHT: FINALE
In an interview, Eduardo Adrianzén said that if he had written and pitched Breaking Bad to a Peruvian network he would have been thrown out of the room. “Peruvian television is run by people who are scared of the word ‘creativity,’” he said when they asked him about the future. They’re scared because we’re not interested. Mi Problema con las Mujeres (2007), another show on the same network as Lobos de Mar, was nominated for an International Emmy in 2008 in the Best Comedy category. The story was sold to Argentina, Colombia, Israel, and Chile. In 2013 ABC was said to have been working on a pilot of a US version.
In Peru, it was a commercial flop. Just like Lobos de Mar.
After rewatching the 40 episodes of Lobos de Mar that are available on YouTube, I remembered why I still think of the show. In the end, these marginalized people—the fishermen and the residents—finally do manage to stop the construction of the resort. But by succeeding in their mission, they deny themselves the opportunity for “success.”
Beyond what the show does well and what it does poorly—the killer, who is not Pucusanan, gives an especially disappointing confession—it reminds me of a time when I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. Although up to that point I had spent many hours of my life watching television, I discovered in Lobos de Mar that a good story could grab hold of me to the point of obsession. If up to that moment I only consumed television because I was alone—or because I didn’t want to be alone—with Lobos de Mar I discovered that television could give me something more, something I hadn’t felt until that point. In the years before I began to study journalism, I preferred shows and movies to books. Thinking back on Lobos de Mar, I think that perhaps today I still do.
Translated by Lucas Iberico Lozada
Popula is 100% ad-free, reader-supported journalism accountable only to you. Every dollar of your subscription goes straight to our work. Thank you for supporting Popula.