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Local Spanish language soap opera takes on obesity

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Long-lost evil twin? An intergenerational love affair between family members who don't know they're related? A romance forged via ESP between two people in a coma? As long as the dramatic music was right, we wouldn't blink if we saw one of those absurd scenarios unfold on a daily soap.

But this improbable plot twist did give us pause: A locally-based, Spanish-language soap opera is taking on obesity. Say what?

The series, called Encrucijada: Sin Salud No Hay Nada (Crossroads: Without Health, There Is Nothing) and airing on Denver-based Univision, stars health-information workers who, in the course of their dramatic daily lives, encounter such issues as depression, drug addiction and alcohol abuse -- pretty standard for the soaps. The difference is that in this show, the writers sprinkle in information about real public-health services available to help people cope with such problems. It's like product placement. For government programs.

"We're seeking to reach the least acculturated Latinos," says the show's project director, Ann Smith. "This is a very under-served population when it comes to health services." The first twelve episodes, which focused on dramatizing the difference between families with Medicaid or Colorado-specific health-care aid and families without it, reached an all-Colorado audience of 15,000 to 20,000 each week. And an evaluation based on surveys and one-on-one interviews with viewers indicated that they'd retained much of what the show covered.

Which came as no surprise to Smith, since the telenovela is such an important part of Latin American culture. "There is evidence that this medium has worked really well in Central and South America," she says. "But no one's done a really bang-up job here."

The show's success in its first season prompted the Colorado Health Foundation to grant more money to the producers of the drama: Starting on January 1, 2012, Encrucijada will debut 24 new episodes that focusing primarily on obesity and obesity-related diseases. Smith says that national health foundations have been interested in a version of the show that would extend beyond Colorado residents.

We can't wait to see what those story lines hold: Diabetic comas? An incurable obesity epidemic? A reunion between long-lost lovers that's interrupted by a heart attack? Sadly, these really are the days of our lives.

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