Love, jealousy, betrayal, temptation and deceit. Those are the time-honored ingredients of a good soap opera, but what do they have in common with the normally dull, dry details of credit reports, mortgages and interest payments? The answer is Nuestro Barrio, a new educational telenovela written, produced and filmed in North Carolina. The first three Spanish-language episodes, which premiered last week in a special showing at the Carolina Theatre, use the soap opera genre immensely popular throughout Latin America to teach Latinos living in the United States how to read the financial fine print when buying a car or house, or signing up for a credit card.
As the show's stars walked down the red carpet in slinky, sparkling evening wear, it was a scene typical for Miami or Hollywood. But this was downtown Durham, just blocks away from where writer, director and producer Dilsey Davis first came up with the idea for Nuestro Barrio while working in media advocacy for the Community Reinvestment Association of N.C.
A graduate of Duke and the School of Public Health at UNC, and also a film and theater actor, Davis combined her talents to produce the Nuestro Barrio pilot in 2004. Local cable stations aired the episode, which dealt with fair housing issues, and Davis secured funding from mortgage company Freddie Mac for three initial episodes.
Projected future episodes will go beyond predatory lending, credit and finances to deal with the ins and outs of attending college, health concerns like STDs, breast cancer and diabetes, as well as cultural issues such as racial identity and assimilation. The dramatic narrative and interwoven subplots are populated with a wide range of characters of different nationalities and walks of life. To make sure her storylines would ring true with real folks, Davis interviewed people at El Centro Hispano. "We want the stories to be as close as possible to what people really experience," she said. Meanwhile, as the plot thickens, developing all the complications of a traditional soap opera, characters impart current and accurate information about the episode's theme and reinforce its core message.
So what messages does Nuestro Barrio promote? For one, that home ownership is sexy, in more ways than one. When Dr. Maria Hayden, a Hispanic single mom, moves from an apartment into her dream house, suddenly her Anglo cheating ex-husband Frank is eager to carry in the groceries and pick up the kids from school. Maria makes it clear she doesn't need his help, and to drive the point home, her new boyfriend, the hunky mechanic Ramon, shows up to carry the groceries in. Ramon isn't above a bout of jealousy, however, since he has just seen Maria eating lunch with his brother, the bank officer who approved Maria's loan. Ramon's jealousy is caused by someone spreading false rumors, which is a parallel to the myths that circulate about home buying.
All this reinforces the notion, explained in detail by other characters, that buying a house is easier than it used to be a generation ago, and that home equity is an important step in building Latino independence.
And then there's Federico--Fedi--a charismatic young man who works in his uncle's restaurant by day and deejays in a salsa club by night. When he gets a new credit card in the mail, he thinks it's easy money and quickly overextends himself buying drink rounds and expensive new clothes. Bad girl bartender Laura leads him on, and as a consequence Fedi loses good girl Gabriela, his co-worker at the restaurant. Club owner Salvador also tries to involve Fedi in some shady business deals, so Fedi's uncle Manuel confronts Salvador, calling him a predatory lender incarnate. The episode three cliffhanger alludes to a mysterious, longstanding rivalry between the two older men.
Other issues are brought up in oblique ways. In one family with a less than stellar credit rating, the schoolage daughter sasses back to her parents in English: "Call me Kristen, not Christina!" A conversation about the pressures of cultural assimilation ensues. There's even a character whose disarming quirk is to put up new posters every day about a different endangered animal. In her own eccentric way, she is the show's advocate for environmental issues.
"Another thing I wanted to do with the tele-novela, I wanted to recognize talent that is in the area," Davis said at the premiere. By filming Nuestro Barrio locally and drawing on a pool of local actors, crew members and musicians, Davis is out to prove that all the resources to produce a high-quality TV show can be found right here in the Triangle. The actors have previous acting experience ranging from educational video and community theater to English-language soaps and movies. Monique Velasquez, whose Durham production company makes educational videos for governmental agencies and nonprofits, edited the show. Local musician Misael Garriga wrote the theme song, "El Barrio," and performed with his band Color Latino at the premiere afterparty. Appearing in the show as performers are salsa band Samecumba and singer Angelica Vargas.
Private homes and businesses were also crucial to the making of the show. The Latin Grill, Montas Lounge and El Centro Hispano opened their doors to the project, allowing their premises to be uses as sets and holding areas during filming. Ironically, the Latin Grill closed its doors on the last day of filming, but Davis hopes to continue to use the now empty restaurant in downtown Durham as a set for future episodes. Davis anticipates that she will be ready to shoot again in the fall, and she already has her series plotted out. "[The storyline] gets really crazy. We're excited that we're going to be able to do more [episodes]," Davis says.
So far, audience feedback has been "overwhelmingly positive," Davis says. More focus groups are planned, and Davis would like to round up some new sponsors. To her current sponsor, Freddie Mac, she said, "Thank you for giving us the opportunity to reach into the homes of people who need this information and who need help."
"Nuestro Barrio is about people adapting to the United States, but on a deeper level it's about people building community," says Davis. Look for the release of episode one on DVD at Latino festivals this summer.