A few weeks ago, while convalescing from Covid in my mother-in-law’s home in Colombia, I re-watched Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, the famed Colombian soap opera that I’d originally come across two decades ago in Costa Rica, my home country. Feeling too weak and foggy for anything else, I binge-watched a ridiculous number of episodes in a single day and embarked on a nostalgic journey where I reconnected with the story’s humor and quirkiness, but also with the issues it knowingly and unknowingly spotlights.
Yo Soy Betty, La Fea – or “Ugly Betty” as it’s known in English –premiered in Colombia in 1999. It stars Ana María Orozco as Beatriz Pinzón Solano (a.k.a. Betty) and Jorge Enrique Abello as Armando Mendoza. The story centers around Betty, a kind, smart, and funny woman who is not considered attractive per her society’s standards. She has facial hair, glasses, and braces, and wears loose-fitting clothing that wouldn’t typically be seen as fashionable. In her time working for Ecomoda, a renowned textile company based in Bogotá, she is manipulated by her boss Armando and his friend Mario; is emotionally abused by her boss’ fiancée, Marcela Valencia, and her friend Patricia; and is bullied non-stop for her appearance. Luckily, Betty has a loving family and supportive friends, including her work clique – also known as “el cuartel de las feas” – and an eccentric best friend, Nicolás.
I was 13 years old when I first saw Yo Soy Betty, La Fea. I looked forward to seeing it with my sister who, like me, happens to laugh just like Betty in what I can only describe as a peculiar mix between a choking spell and a creaking door. My best friend, a fellow Betty fan, laughs the same way (her mom once told her off in front of me for laughing like Betty, but when I found that funny and started laughing the same way, she had to drop it). Betty’s laugh made her unique, and so did her intelligence, humility, and occasional talent for concocting plots of her own.
Yo Soy Betty, La Fea was my first conscious contact with Colombia. One of the things that stood out to me then was the characters’ catchy accents, words, and sayings. Little did I know that, years later, I’d find them equally fascinating in my Colombian husband. Re-watching the show was meaningful to me because it stirred my complex relationship with his country – there are many things I admire and many I don’t – but it also made me feel in touch with my younger self and my roots. This is a country that is not quite my own, but that feels very much like home.
I recall the show being very funny and absorbing, but I also remember how it attempted to shine a light on some of Latin America’s ugliest behaviors. During my marathonic re-watch, I found examples of superficiality, corruption, power abuse, misogyny, sexual harassment, homophobia, and more. For instance, the show emphasizes the fashion industry’s frivolous side with tired clichés such as the shallow homosexual designer, the empty-headed, sexually available model, and the glorification of fit bodies and European looks. Another example is how Armando and Betty’s dad, don Hermes, psychologically abuses and controls Betty.
The show is outdated in many ways – I couldn’t tell you how many times I cringed while watching! – but it also offers endless opportunities for reflection. It is set in a country that pairs its stark racial, economic, and gender inequality with resilience, liveliness, and creativity. It is, therefore, no surprise that today, 22 years after premiering, Yo Soy Betty, La Fea is one of the most-watched shows in Latin America. Since first streaming on Netflix in 2019, it has consistently been on the platform’s top ten. It also holds a Guinness record as the world’s most successful telenovela, seen in 180 countries, translated into 25 languages, and remade 30 times, including the US version, Ugly Betty.
Whether it is still popular because of its humor or its unconventional formula or because it depicts familiar clichés and issues ingrained into Latin American culture, what is true is that millions of people, including myself, see Yo Soy Betty, La Fea as an all-time classic of Latin American TV.