NEZAHUALCOYOTL, Mexico (AP) – A staccato drum beat rolled over a crowd of thousands packed into a sweltering tent as adoring fans screamed a single name to the rhythm of a popular soccer chant. “Angelica! Angelica! Ra! Ra! Ra!” they sang while watching a copper-haired beauty make her way down to the stage, past heavy crowds held back with metal barriers.
The admirers were clamoring for Angelica Rivera de Pena, one of Mexico’s most popular soap opera stars, along with her husband, presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Walking onstage, the telegenic former governor waved to the crowd, then grabbed his wife’s hand and raised it in the air, like a referee with the winning boxer at the end of a match.
Two months before an election Pena Nieto is expected to easily win, he and his wife have become Mexican’s most glamorous couple. They’re also ushering in a mix of politics and show business already common in the United States but never as out front as it’s been this year in Mexico.
Government and show business have intertwined in the past in Mexico with a senator fathering the child of a TV star, a former president marrying a popular actress in 1970s lucha libre, or kitschy wrestling, films, and the current Mexico City mayor marrying a soap opera actress and later divorcing her.
But what Mexicans are seeing for the first time with Pena Nieto and his wife, analysts say, is an orchestrated attempt to make celebrity allure a central part of a campaign short on concrete proposals by a man characterized largely by his good looks and charm. The formula seems be working. Pena Nieto leads his challengers by as much as 20 percentage points in the polls.
“The fusion of these two characters is extremely attractive for the public,” TV critic Alvaro Cueva said. “It is the first time we see a candidate arm in arm with a telenovela star.”
Known as “La Gaviota,” or The Seagull, the nickname of one of her most popular characters, Rivera is also redefining the role of a Mexican political spouse. Presidents’ wives had for decades stayed largely behind the scenes in Mexico. That changed starting in 2001 when Marta Sahagun took on a very public role after marrying then-President Vicente Fox. The wife of current President Felipe Calderon, Margarita Zavala, is a popular political figure and the first Mexican first lady to have served in Congress.
But with Rivera, the country may soon see a first lady with her own TV-style rags-to-riches story, and the fame and glamour of France’s Carla Bruni or even Jacqueline Kennedy.
“Angelica is a fairy-tale come true,” Cueva said. “It’s the story of a hard-working girl who became a protagonist of popular telenovelas and who finds love and is now seen in the highest of the highest political spheres of Mexico. She is a person dear to the hearts of Mexicans.”
Rivera, 41, attends most of Pena Nieto’s events, recording her husband with a cellphone and posting the videos on the candidate’s YouTube site in what’s become a kind of campaign reality show. The actress offers gushing, running commentary during the video series, which sports a title straight out of Mexican soap operas: “What My Eyes See and My Heart Feels.” One of the videos has racked up nearly half a million views.
“He is walking among the crowds. That’s what he does,” she says in a video recorded during the tent rally in the city of Nezahualcoyotl, a rough area on the eastern outskirts of the country’s capital.
Amid images of the crowd and Pena Nieto’s successor as governor of Mexico state, the camera pans down to show Rivera’s hand holding Pena Nieto’s. As they leave the rally, Rivera tells her husband, “People wait for you until the end, sweetheart,” though in fact thousands of people left early that day, according to news accounts.
More than anything, the media strategy has created an image of Pena Nieto and his wife as victors enjoying the charmed life, offering a welcome distraction for Mexicans anxious over rampant drug war violence and the economy. It’s also a radical change from the old regal image of the Mexican president, whose personal life was rarely seen until 2000, when the PRI’s 71-year grip over the presidency ended.
“Pena Nieto, with his good looks, and his wife, being an attractive woman, make a couple with a happy ending,” said political analyst Jorge Zepeda Patterson. “It’s part of the idea that the country needs a winner in Los Pinos,” the country’s presidential mansion.
Or as Alejandra Lagunes, social media adviser to Pena Nieto’s campaign, said, “These videos from their SUV or in the house with the family, people love them.”
The campaign did not grant a request by The Associated Press to interview Rivera.
Having grown up in Mexico City, Rivera had no family or other ties to show business. As a teenager, she approached a popular actress filming a video on the street and asked for advice about breaking into the entertainment world. Rivera was counseled to participate in a beauty pageant and soon won a newspaper-sponsored contest. She was then cast in supporting roles in the TV melodramas known as telenovelas, beginning in the late 1980s.
Her big break came in 1991 where she played a villain alongside singer Ricky Martin in a youth-targeted soap opera, the most successful of the decade, according to the country’s largest network, Televisa. Rivera starred in more soap operas in the 1990s and 2000s and married her longtime boyfriend, TV producer Jose Alberto Castro, in 2004.
Her last show, in 2007, was the massive hit “Destilando Amor,” or “Distilling Love,” a soap opera set in a tequila-making region of Mexico. Rivera played an agave plant harvester known by the whimsical moniker “The Seagull,” who falls in love with the son of the influential hacienda owner.
Rivera divorced Castro in 2007. In a story that could have been written for Televisa, Rivera met Pena Nieto the next year, while she was filming promotional videos for the state of Mexico while he was governor. A widower, Pena Nieto acknowledged months later that he was dating the TV star. Skeptics have called it a marriage of political convenience between one of the television monopoly’s biggest stars and the man who would be Mexico’s most powerful. Pena Nieto has denied that.
The couple, each with three children from previous marriages and Pena Nieto with a fourth from an extramarital affair, wed in 2010 in a ceremony that drew crowds to the main cathedral of Toluca, the capital city of Mexico state.
In an interview with the AP, Pena Nieto acknowledged Rivera’s star power but said he wants their fans to see her as a mother and his wife.
“Clearly she is known because of her longtime profession, but what I want to highlight is that we show her like the family we are, a family newly integrated with both of our children,” he said. “I appreciate very much all she is doing to support my campaign, but it’s even more important to me the strength, inspiration and encouragement that I get from knowing that she is here and that I can count on her. That she is with me at every moment.”
Homemaker Maria Elena Escobedo, 45, like most of the women at the tent rally, waited hours to see Pena Nieto and Rivera visit Nezahualcoyotl. When the couple arrived, she joined the crowd in screaming: “We are with you all the way to Los Pinos!”
“She is his wife and supports him no matter what,” Escobedo said. “She is a woman like us, and she doesn’t want us to suffer.”
Rivera and Pena Nieto sat together throughout the rally, and at one point she discreetly grabbed his right hand with her left. He removed it to dry his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief, but quickly grabbed her left knee and whispered something in her ear.
“We support the two of them,” said 56-year-old activist Juana Chavez. “They look beautiful together.”
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