Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo didn’t meet Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez, also known as “La Veneno,” in her best light. They often saw the prolific trans performer and bombastic media personality — by then in poor health — quietly eating a sandwich and sitting on a curb with her friends from her sex worker days. Nary a fan begging for an autograph was in sight.
Still, the actors-writers-producers-directors knew her story wasn’t only deserving to be heard around the world, but also one that would undoubtedly shine as brightly and stun as loudly as the firecracker did in her heyday. With this in mind, they created “Veneno,” which was produced by Atresmedia and Suma Latina, and generated a wave of buzz in the U.S. after its November release on HBO Max. The legendary RuPaul praised the show on social media, Variety included the biographical series on its 15 Best International Series of 2020 list, and it currently holds a 100% Tomatometer critics’ score and 98% audience score on the online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
“Cristina always boasted that she’d be a global sensation, and look, she’s finally done it,” Calvo says.
“Veneno” isn’t the only TV biopic from the past year to be based on the life of a Hispanic icon. From “Luis Miguel: The Series” to “Selena: The Series” and “Isabel: The Intimate Life of Isabel Allende,” the supply for stories about famous Latinos, Latinas and Spaniards has suddenly started to surge.
For many, this is a “finally” moment, after years of hunger for this content from the roughly 60 million self-identified Hispanics in the States and from creatives who have long had these stories on their hearts and minds.
As “Isabel” executive producer Isabel Miquel puts it: “Latin America has a great host of characters to choose from — artists and politicians alike. [And] there are some lives that are striking because they are connected to history, or to critical political events, or they necessitate emotional breakdown and evolution.”
However, with more global platforms looking to serve a broad audience, Hollywood is taking notice of these projects in a new way.
“We’re creating content that shows the North American public, as well as the world, how great the quality of our stories are, and how well we tell our stories, and how our essence and our soul bleeds through the people we choose to highlight. And there’s simply a demand for exceptional storytelling and exceptional biographies, regardless of what country they come from,” Miquel says.
Before Netflix snagged the two-part drama “Selena: The Series,” Moisés Zamora had a difficult time selling the gone-too-soon Mexican-American singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, coined the “Queen of Tejano music,” as riveting television.
“Maybe it was because three or four years ago the market didn’t envision Selena important enough to be taken seriously. Now, of course, after the popularity of the show, everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, I wish I had bought it,’” Zamora says, “but hindsight is 20/20, right?”
Zamora also credits the globalization of entertainment and Gen Z’s indifference toward subtitles as one of the driving forces behind the influx of Hispanic biopics on television.
“They’re not afraid of captions. I think that has a lot to do with the generation’s desire to learn more about these icons that are part of our cultural makeup and are essential to redefining identities. Selena died before most of these kids were even born, but she’s still such a role model. I think everyone’s looking to the past to reaffirm their future,” he says.
Miquel notes that you can’t just adapt the life of any celebrity into a series: some may have fame, but drama is still what sells. For that reason alone, she had faith in the marketability of “Isabel,” given that the titular Chilean subject is considered the world’s most widely read Spanish-language author and whose multitude of highly acclaimed books have been translated into 42 languages.
The confidence that these stories aren’t too niche or specific to one community or country must come from the creatives behind them. Their passion and their knowledge of what pieces of the story are universal can help sell the buyers.
“The toughest part of selling ‘Veneno’ was getting people to realize that Cristina could leave anyone transfixed, but we did it,” Calvo says. “Whenever people would come up to us and say things like, ‘Wow, I didn’t think I’d like the show because I’m not gay,’ I always say, ‘Hold up, hold up — you like ‘Dexter,’ but you’re not a serial killer. You like ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ but you’re not a surgeon. You don’t need to completely relate to a story or a person to be moved by them.”
Similarly, the long-held belief that Latino and Spanishlanguage series and TV are only for the Hispanic community has shattered,” Calvo continues. “We’ve opened up the market, which is only getting larger and more potent, and we are creating great content that the entire world is consuming.”