María la del Barrio

By Veronica Herrera

Growing up in Virginia in the '80s, I didn’t have a lot of access to telenovelas. If asked, my parents would probably joke that they had emigrated from Argentina to escape high drama. After years of attempting to assimilate, they really only embraced Univision and started drinking mate again when we were grown and out of the house.

Instead, guilty pleasures like telenovelas were reserved for when I visited my family in Buenos Aires in high school vacations. Crowding around a small TV in my aunt’s kitchen, my cousins would fill me in on enough of the season’s plot to follow the current episode of the Mexican telenovela, María la del Barrio. This rags-to-riches story was full of every plot twist imaginable: a Daddy Warbucks adoption of an orphaned street child, unrequited love, the return of a prodigal son, prison, mental breakdowns and murder.  For a teenage girl trying to reconnect to her Latin roots, it did not disappoint. This apt remake of the classic telenovela, Los ricos también lloran, was the perfect elixir for bonding with my tías, primas y abuela in the municipality of Avellaneda where my mother was born and raised.

After traveling to Argentina only for family visits through the years, it was especially gratifying to do field research for the first time in Buenos Aires. Working on a new book project about the politics of pollution, I investigated how citizens were responding to toxic exposure of the highly polluted Matanza-Riachuelo River that cuts through the city, and leaves some of the worst contamination in Avellaneda. Researching the aftermath of a historic legal ruling by the Supreme Court for the right to a clean environment, I interviewed NGOs and territorial groups involved in environmental advocacy claims-making. Every so often, an interviewee would ask where I was from, and smile with surprise—and then open up even more—when I told them I was born in Avellaneda. “Oh so you know,” would then lead to discussions of children, families and daily routines. Although the topic of María la del Barrio never came up, making the personal connection during interviews was rewarding, an important reminder that as interviewers we should never lose sight of people’s individual stories and how the connections to their immediate neighborhoods helps explain social and political behavior.

 

Veronica Herrera is a 2017-2018 DRCLAS Visiting Scholar. She is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut and author of Water and Politics: Clientelism and Reform in Urban Mexico (University of Michigan Press, 2017).