As the shadows on Honradez Street lengthened, Conrad Alvarez bustled about his open-air corner grocery store making sure all four television sets were on. It was 6:30 in the evening and it was time for ''Mari Mar,'' the country's favorite soap opera -- a blizzard of love, sex and betrayal, poverty and sudden wealth, revenge and triumph. And a talking dog.
But the actors who flutter across the screen are not the usual stable of Philippine stars. Instead, all are Mexican and they have rampaged through the Philippines like a late-summer typhoon.
Especially the actress who plays the heroine for whom the show is named. She goes by the stage name Thalia, and recently, in the midst of a historic peace agreement with Muslim guerrillas and the centennial celebrations of the Philippine Revolution, all was pushed aside as she stormed into town where she was thronged by crowds usually seen only by the Pope.
''She's captivating,'' sighed Mr. Alvarez as he huddled in front a television with his wife Emma. ''She's so sexy. She's romantic.'' Their five children hunkered down around another set, some neighborhood kids drifted in and an hour of romance had begun.
''It's different from our soap operas,'' explained Mrs. Alvarez, settling onto a plastic stool. ''She has the same problems we do. It shows the discrimination against poor people. Her house was burned down when she was poor. They mistreated her. They degraded her. She's almost Filipina.''
But the Thalia phenomenon is not restricted to the Philippines. Televisa, the Mexican network that produces ''Mari Mar'' and is the world's largest producer of entertainment television, markets this and other soap operas in Asia and Russia. Thalia drew similarly enthusiastic crowds last year on a visit to Indonesia.
Since first exploding onto Philippine television sets last March, ''Mari Mar'' has bulldozed the country's prime time television hour, established Mexico in Filipino eyes as the font of what is pure and romantic, and transformed the Philippines, in the words of one commentator, into the ''Republica de Mari Mar.'' Across Manila, at the witching hour, commuters scramble from buses, street basketball players hurry home and bars fall silent as Mari Mar, her Spanish dubbed into Tagalog, begins to talk.
It was people like the Alvarezes, by the thousands, who gathered outside Manila's airport in the predawn darkness to welcome Thalia, whose plane finally touched down at 4:30 A.M. For those who didn't make it to the airport, television carried the event live. From there, it was a week of concerts, interviews and public appearances. Thalia, a 23-year-old who got her start as a pop singer, showered kisses on the crowds like confetti. Tears flowed. Politicians vied for her attention.
In Guimba, a town a couple hours north of here, local officials told the local power company in no uncertain terms that there were to be no power failures during Thalia's visit or during daily broadcasts of her show or concerts.
''Very seldom do we see our people in Guimba preoccupied and mesmerized with such a soap opera, and to deprive them of such enjoyment would be to act like a killjoy,'' declared Benny Rillo, a member of the Guimba city council.
At the head of the list of politicians feting the Mexican star was President Fidel Ramos, who rolled out the red carpet at the Malacanang Palace.
''It's O.K. if I kiss?'' Thalia asked the President's wife, Ming Ramos, before planting a taco-sized buss on the delighted President, a kiss that graced the front-page of virtually every newspaper in the country.
''This is what goes with the office,'' the President beamed, capping off a 45-minute meeting. A dinner drenched in the trappings of a state occasion followed.
The frenzy over Thalia, whose real name is Ariadne Sodi Miranda, stirred bewilderment among commentators more accustomed to dissecting the confabulations of national politics, and resentment among some politicians.
''Not since the days of the galleon trade have Filipinos celebrated with wild abandon the arrival of a ship from Mexico,'' offered Conrado de Quiros, a local columnist. ''She has pretty much stolen the hearts of Filipinos. Filipino soaps are too familiar, American soaps are too alien. 'Mari Mar' is neither.''
The sober Daily Inquirer managed to meld sociology with its own long-running series on corruption in Congress. ''You can understand what the Filipinos are trying to escape from,'' the paper wrote. ''They are trying to escape from the ugliness around them. The ugliness of their surroundings, the ugliness of their poverty, the ugliness of their public officials.''
''But you can see Thalia descending,'' the paper raved, ''like an apparition from Mount Olympus, and you can understand what the Filipinos are trying to escape into. They are trying to escape into beauty. The beauty of goodness winning over evil, the beauty of folk rising above adversity.''
Some lawmakers found the adulation for Thalia overwhelming even the celebrations of the Revolution, which, with American help, ended Spanish rule of the Philippines. ''We're becoming a nation of 'Mari Mar' fans,'' moaned Edcel Lagman, who rounded up 100 equally grumpy colleagues from the House of Representatives and filed a motion deploring the transformation of the Revolution into, as he put it, a ''non-event.''
The soap opera mines every cliche and wrings every tear. Mari Mar, brutalized by poverty, is rescued by a weakling rich-boy husband who chucks her out on a trumped-up accusation of theft. Mari Mar returns Eliza Doolittle-like, smart, cultivated and bent on revenge. In moments of despair, her ever-loyal dog Fulgoso lifts her spirits.
Many here believe Thalia's Mari Mar embodies the experience and hopes of Filipinas and Filipinos.
''It's almost the same as the Philippines,'' insisted Mr. Alvarez, as he stacked a few loaves of the bread made in the bakery behind the grocery store. ''We're very romantic, Filipinos. Sometimes when I go to bed I dream of Mari Mar.''Mrs. Alvarez swatted her husband with a paper. ''He'd better not,'' she laughed. ''But Mari Mar is what we all believe in.''MarimarEduardo Capetillo
Fernando x2, Carrillo, above, and Colunga, bottom