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Voices: I Loved Telenovelas, Now I’m Binge-Watching Bilingually

MIAMI, FL -- Most of us now confess to binge-watching our favorite shows, and the holiday season is a perfect time to do this. But I may be spending even more time on my couch, thanks to the trove of Spanish-language programming now available for streaming that makes a bilingual, bicultural self-confessed "telenovela" fan like me have even more options.

But first, some background.

Back in the 1970's, my Cuban parents did everything they could to make sure my sister and I retained our Spanish. At home, they enforced a strict, Spanish-only policy, which we practiced with our extended family and a few shops and restaurants in the increasingly Spanish-dominant Miami where we lived. If we complained, they swore that we'd learn to speak English on the first day of kindergarten and they had only a few short years to make us native speakers in our non-native surroundings.

Of course, there were cracks in the system. My sister started school before me and she would bring me English words she'd acquired on the outside. From then on, the most common refrain heard in our house was - Contestamé en español! - prompting us to answer whatever we had just said in Spanish. It wasn't until I was older that I appreciated how tiresome it must have been for my parents, who were both fully bilingual, to insist on the translation when they understood us the first time.

But in all honesty, if I'm fluent in Spanish today it probably has less to do with their discipline and more to do with my raging telenovela habit. I wasn't born speaking Spanish, but I was a born romantic. At family reunions, no matter what game I was playing with my cousins, come early evening I'd join my grandparents on the couch. As Carlos Mata sang "Mi Vida Eres Tu" to his beloved Cristal or Grecia Colmenares felt her way into a room as the beautiful but barely convincing blind woman Topacio, my grandparents would nod to each other approvingly and say - 'Esta es novelera,' (this one, is telenovela obsessed).

For better or worse, telenovelas became my Spanish teacher. I may have put off doing my language homework from time to time, but I never missed an episode of Quinceañera after school. I even developed a gift for picking up accents, from the Italian-inflected Argentinian to the Mexican sing-song or the smooth Brazilian hush, while expanding my vocabulary with words like "maldita" and "desgraciada" (loosely translated to 'damn you' and 'you're a disgrace', which on the shows was usually followed by slapping a lover or rival in the face).

Even after moving to New York City, my Latina friends and I crowded around the television to catch Colombia's epic Café Con Aroma de Mujer. I convinced my English-only, post-college roommate that watching Argentina's Muñeca Brava was really for her benefit rather than mine. And during my grandfather's final days, time slowed down when we watched Yo Soy, Betty La Fea from his hospital room. After he was gone, our shared passion for the O Clone became my excuse to check in on my grandmother every night, as we compared notes on what Jade might do next.

Despite this, I went a few years without getting hooked on another one. I blamed it on being too busy, but the truth was harder to admit. I had changed, but telenovelas had stayed the same. The preposterous storylines, spackled make up, and over the top acting became harder to accept as reality became realer. They weren't only in another language, they were in another time. Or so I thought.

Frankly, I was looking for the drama and the Spanish, but with the classy quality of Downton Abbey.

A couple of years ago, I gave up cable and a friend recommended the historical series Isabel from Spain. Well acted with sky-high production values, it was amazing to see a single camera show with a uniquely un-American point of view - at least until they get to the part where they discover America.

And while my friends obsessed over Breaking Bad, I got lost in the arid Chilean landscapes of Prófugos on HBO Latino as a group of fugitives ran from a drug deal gone bad.

Another lull in Netflix options led me to Velvet - a Mad Men-era department store soap opera with light doses of sex comedy kitsch - think Downton with a bit more glamour, beautiful dresses and yes, those glamorous Madrid accents.

Meanwhile, the exemplary locker room Spanish of Club de Cuervos, about a Mexican soccer club, has given me a brand new vocabulary to express anger or frustration.

There's no question that Spanish-language programming has had a breakthrough year and as the holidays approach, I plan to catch up on a few I may have missed. Far from a hard sell to my Anglo friends, they're constantly asking me what to watch next.

Years after devouring all those dramatic soap operas with my grandparents, I'm happy to report that what I wrongly thought of as an old-fashioned format - the serialized, highly produced shows with beautiful people and cool Spanish accents - are actually tailor made to today's streaming culture. Except now, the next episode is just a click away, and it's already 2am - but I have to know if Velvet's beautiful seamstress ends up with the handsome department store heir.

Technology has finally caught up to telenovelas and everyone understands what my grandparents knew all along - that there's always hope in another episode.

In that sense at least - whether you need the subtitles or not - we're all finally speaking the same language.

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