Latinos hope 'soap' about diabetes hits home

Marisol Alamo always wanted to be an actress, but she never thought she would get the chance to star in a telenovela with a serious message that hits so close to home.

Now the dean of students at the Bruce-Guadalupe Community Middle School, she’s among a cast of 20 Latinos of various ages from the Milwaukee area who appear in “Dulce Temptación” (“Sweet Temptation”), a Spanish soap opera that’s designed to entertain and educate.

The telenovela, locally developed and produced, was conceived as part of a research study by the Medical College of Wisconsin in partnership with the United Community Center. It’s designed to make information about diabetes more accessible and understandable to the Latino community, which has a rate of diabetes that’s nearly double that of non-Hispanic white adults.

It’s taken two years to make the one-hour Spanish language video. A team of medical experts worked with the local community under a two-year, $200,000 grant from the Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program to produce the show.

“Dulce” tells the story of the fictitious Morán family and what happens when the patriarch, Anselmo, becomes seriously ill due to complications of diabetes, which has been poorly managed and treated.

Meanwhile his daughter, played by Marisol Alamo, learns she’s pre-diabetic. The story details the family’s efforts to deal with diabetes through lifestyle changes, medical consultation and support from one another.

And like all telenovelas, there’s lots of family drama, secrets, twists, turns and tears tossed into the script.

“Family is very important in the Latino community, and we wanted to emphasize the general importance of culture while providing medically accurate information,” said Elaine Drew, as assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the Medical College.

The story is of a multigenerational family that’s Puerto Rican and Mexican living in one household and learning to address the issues of managing diabetes, preventing it and how families can come together to help one another, she said.

Research also was conducted on media use among Latinos.

“That showed that most Mexicans watch 2.5 hours of telenovelas a week, which is evidence that this entertainment format could become a powerful way to convey health messages in an entertaining way,” Drew said. “It’s called edu-tainment, and more and more public health efforts are trying to do that because it’s a format that’s interesting engaging and memorable.”

The UCC provides medical and healthy lifestyle information in a variety of ways, but this is a different and innovative way to try to reach Hispanic audiences, said Ricardo Diaz, executive director of the UCC.

“The novela is a concept all of us grew up with. It was in our living rooms and kitchens,” Diaz said. “What a better way to disseminate information and have it sink in better.”

Independent producer Sal Gomez was hired to direct and put together the telenovela. Gomez had a lot of volunteer help from friends, and many at the UCC wanted to participate, Diaz said.

Shooting had to be done on weekends because cast members work or go to school.

“A lot of scenes in the script came from real stories of community members and our actors who have family members who are diabetic or pre-diabetic” he said.

That’s true for Alamo, 42.

Born and raised in Milwaukee’s Hispanic community, she attended the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, where she appeared in many plays. In college, she studied to become a teacher.

“I always wanted to be an actress, and I think I missed my calling,” she said with a laugh.

When she auditioned for the telenovela, all the family members had been cast except for the mother, she said. That’s the part she won.

“I play a Hispanic woman with a traditional lifestyle,” she said. “My parents live with me, my husband and three children. I’m a professional woman juggling family and work and so busy holding everything together that I neglect myself.”

The story hits close to home for Alamo because diabetes runs in her family. Her father is diabetic and her grandparents who lived with her family were diabetic, she said.

“I’m predisposed, so I learned a lot from the novela,” she said. “As Latinos, we don’t take diabetes seriously. Sometimes there’s the mentality that it’s never going to happen to us, or we don’t want to deprive ourselves by changing our eating habits.”

The televnovela premiered on Friday at the UCC. Now it will go into the testing phase, where it will be screened and selected individuals will be tested before and after the showing to determine the video’s effectiveness, Drew said.

Depending on what the results show, the telenovela might get a broader distribution, she said.