One of my earliest and sharpest memories of South Mission is very tactile. This happened in the early 1960s. My mother, a native of Mission, liked to go to a beauty parlor on the other side of the tracks. When she went, she took my younger brother Cooper and me. I remember the tangy smell of the chemicals, the bulbous hair dryers, the pink decor. And I remember the reading material.
As a precocious kid, maybe 6 years old, I picked up any reading I could find, kid-friendly or not. And the beauty parlor had stacks of fotonovelas. Those are comic books illustrated with photographs, rather than drawings. They started in Italy after World War II with stills from movies, then they became an art form of their own. They especially caught on in Latin America, mostly on romantic themes.
I can’t remember any specific scenes. But the heady mix of the beauty parlor and the romantic fotonovelas stayed with me. Fast forward almost 60 years and I became intensely curious about fotonovelas. That’s more than a nostalgic yearning. Rather, as a language buff, I’m always looking for effective ways to learn.
Are fotonovelas a good way to practice Spanish? I wanted to get my pale gringo hands on a batch of them to find out, but that’s harder than I expected. An online search turned up no publishers. A high school pal back in Mission checked out some supermarkets and couldn’t find anything.
A Latin American Collection in a library at the University of Texas in Austin has 22 available, mostly from Mexico, others from Brazil and one in French from Martinique. If I lived within 100 miles of Austin, I’d hightail it over there for a look.
A group called the Rural Women’s Health Project in Gainesville, Florida used fotonovelas for almost 30 years to deliver its messages on health and family issues. They used the format very well but they weren’t what I had in mind for my walk back on the south side of the tracks.
Etsy and eBay had some collections for sale, some in the horror or crime genre, some in romance. I especially warmed to a Mexican fotonovela series from 1981, Valle de Lagrimas, or Valley of Tears. The particular issue, El Secreto, had the cover line “Hay veces que el destino es implacable!” There are times when destiny is unforgiving!” Now that’s what I’m talking about! That sounds like just the right vocabulary level for a gringo like me.
But, I decided to hold off on El Secreto, as I did with Kaliman El Hombre Increible Coleccion, with drawings rather than photos. That one had an Aladdin adventure vibe to it. Then there was the English-language series Vixens, about the struggles and aspirations of an all-girl musical trio. The photographer has done some other photo novels. But I already speak English so I’ll save Vixens for another madcap reading adventure.
I’ve already flipped through the first 40 pages of Dulce Amor: fast cars, chauffeurs, nervous romantic encounters, bubble baths, male strippers, and the kind of dialogue that makes fotonovelas worth my while:
Woman: Nano no es tu hijo. (Nano isn’t your son.)
Man (clutching his head in agony): Decime que no es cierto, Dios! (Tell me you’re not certain, oh my God!)
Woman: Es hijo de Ernesto, que ahora se muriendo, en el carcel. (He is the child of Ernesto, who is now dying in prison.)
OK, so far so good!
So are fotonovelas a good way to learn any language? Absolutely! They deal with basic human conditions in any language. Love, work, family, friendship, hurt. I’ve got my dictionaries ready to plunge into Dulce Amor, ready to learn. And I yearn to be swept away by the wild side of life I first encountered at a beauty parlor in Mission across the tracks.