Romance! Betrayal! Wildlife attacks! These delicious Spanish-language soaps have it all -- including more viewers than mainstream shows like ''Gossip Girl.'' Here's why

By Vanessa Juarez
January 12, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

We now join Cuidado con el Ángel, already in progress. A young, handsome character named Juan Miguel is battling an older smoothie named Leopardo (Leopard) for the love of a woman and her baby boy. A crowd of shocked onlookers stands nearby. The tension is palpable, and this is the sound of men locking horns for love:

Juan Miguel: I am the father of this child.


Leopardo [turning to the woman]: No, no! Please, Lirio, talk to me.

Juan Miguel: Her name is not Lirio — it’s Marichuy.


Leopardo: Marichuy? But…that’s the name of your wife!

Juan Miguel: Exactly — she is my wife.


And so goes another shocktastic rehearsal scene for Cuidado con el Ángel (Beware of the Angel), a popular Spanish-language telenovela where melodrama is never in short supply. Dueling suitors! Mistaken identities! Secret daddies! It’s a lot to take in, especially if you’re one of the actors at the center of the madness. ”As a man, it’s really hard,” explains William Levy (Juan Miguel) during a break on the show’s Mexico City set. ”They want you to cry all of the time.”

American viewers more used to General Hospital may find the dialogue risibly overdone, but telenovelas like Cuidado con el Ángel are no joke. As English-language networks struggle to hang on to their audiences, these Spanish-language soap operas, which have been around since the early 1950s, are kicking culo on Univision, which airs Cuidado here in the U.S. five nights a week at 8 p.m. The clutch-the-Kleenex story of Marichuy (Maite Perroni) and the two men fighting for her affection currently averages 4.7 million U.S. viewers per evening, beating out heavily hyped English-language network offerings this fall like Smallville, One Tree Hill, ‘Til Death, America’s Next Top Model, and Gossip Girl. On Fridays, Cuidado and another Univision import, Fuego en la Sangre (Fire in the Blood), have stronger ratings among viewers ages 18-34 than all five broadcast networks: What was once ABC’s TGIF is now Univision’s Gracias a Dios es Viernes.

NEXT PAGE: When actor Levy (a.k.a. ”the Latin Brad Pitt”) is having trouble delivering his lines one morning, floor manager Enciso lets him have it: ”I’d understand if it was late at night, but you just got here!”