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Latin American Soaps Invade Romania

August 13, 1998

OCNA MURES, Romania (AP) _ The workers in a Transylvania cornfield lay down their tools as if on cue and hurry back to their houses. ``Let’s go, it’s starting!″ the cry goes up.

Minutes later, women and men alike sit transfixed in front of TV screens watching beautiful people half a world away act out a drama of heartache and passion. Hoeing the fields can wait _ the Mexican soap opera ``Esmeralda″ cannot.

Similar scenes take place every day across Romania, a nation of 23 million where soaps recently have become a national obsession.

A passion for soap operas is hardly unique. But something about the melodrama of Latin American soaps in particular seems to have touched an especially deep chord in Romanians, who _ with their own Latin-rooted language and soul _ easily understand Spanish.

Television stations are deluged with thousands of letters each month from viewers begging for more soap operas or asking how the plots turn out. Bucharest ambulance crews, glued to their soaps, were arriving so late to emergency calls that staff TVs were removed.

The TV death of a prominent character was front-page news this month in a Bucharest paper, which said it ``shatters millions of Romanian women.″

``They like to see, at least on screen, the love and tenderness they want to have in their own lives,″ sociologist Diana Andrei says of the soapaholics, most of them female.

Soap operas first appeared in Romania after the anti-communist revolt of 1989. But they didn’t proliferate until recent months, after a change in broadcasting law decreed that there be less violence and sex on TV _ making soaps more attractive for stations. There are at least three a day now on all state and private channels.

Unlike U.S. soaps, which have been criticized for including too much sex, these soaps usually involve complicated and mostly platonic plots about winning the love of the main female character.

Although American programs like ``The Young and the Restless″ are also popular, it’s the South American and Central American soaps that really have caught on.

Especially ``Esmeralda,″ the story of a beautiful blind woman who recovers her vision and has two doctors passionately in love with her.

Many women among the millions of faithful Romanian viewers, Andrei says, adore the star character played by Leticia Calderon so much that they emulate her hairdo and fashion style.

Beauticians and manicurists at one Bucharest salon ask clients to wait for five minutes while they catch a glimpse of the show.

``We schedule our lives around ’Esmeralda,‴ says Alinda Dudu, a 26-year-old architect in the capital, noting that a plumber refused to come fix her broken pipe because the show was on.

The soap causes ripples at the bar in Parliament, where waiters warn journalists and lawmakers to order their drinks quickly because they want to close the bar in order to watch the program.

In Ocna Mures, a factory and farming town about 175 miles northwest of Bucharest, most shops close for an hour in the late afternoon when ``Esmeralda″ comes on. Even local phone operators sometimes suspend work.

Seven women who work in the fields gather daily at the house of 76-year-old Rozalia Corbu, who has one of the biggest TV sets on her street. When they’re not working or watching ``Esmeralda,″ they like to read magazines about the lives of their favorite soap stars, or chat about the episodes.

As the program begins their faces become more animated. From time to time, some sigh or bite their hands at Esmeralda’s heartaches.

``The poor girl,″ says Leonora Rotar, 83. ``I would give her my life just to see her happy.″

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