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Melodramatic Modernities: Latin American Serial Fiction and Silent Film Culture, 1914-1929


This dissertation examines how melodrama in early twentieth century Argentina and Colombia shaped sites of intelligibility to record multiple processes of modernization—including but not limited to massive immigration, the import of new technologies, and the (gendered) reshuffling of social orders. This dissertation also analyzes the ways in which melodrama recast different senses of community. With an archival perspective, it traces how diverse social actors appropriated melodrama for individual and group agendas, as they entered the modern political pact, the pact of representation. More specifically, and by bridging Latin American and Euro-American theories of melodrama, this dissertation traces key narrative conventions and argues that, across the social spectrum, actors recast the dynamics of representation during the period by visualizing classed, raced, and gendered anxieties vis-à-vis change through the interrelated media of literature, illustrated periodicals, and film.

The first chapter addresses how the national imagination and state formations in Latin America were shaped through melodrama, correlatively determining dominant narrative tropes across media. I focus on José Mármol’s Amalia (1851-1855) and Jorge Isaacs’ María (1867) and the cross-media iterations of both works engendered around the Argentine and Colombian centennial celebrations. The second chapter turns to 1920s tabloid newspapers and weekly novels. These served as platforms for emergent writers, many of them immigrants, who harnessed melodramatic narratives in periodicals to denounce social problems and inequity, particularly regarding destitute subjects who were marginalized in rapid urbanization processes. Turning the focus to early cinema, the third chapter examines the tense relations between material progress, tradition, and social change/immobility visualized in three filmic genres—the Argentine cine de ambiente campero, the porteño cinedrama, and the Colombian patriarchal family melodrama. These genres told contrasting tales of modernization: Argentine cinema capitalized on modernity’s changes, its thrills and anxieties, while Colombian cinema depicted tradition and religiosity as compulsory conditions for material progress. This dissertation ultimately proposes that melodrama was not an escapist form, as it is commonly defamed. Rather, it visualized the present moment, unbarred the public sphere, and pointed to an inclusive future.

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