Emma de la Barra Literary Pioneer

Emma De La Barra, The Author of the First Argentinian Best Seller

Emma de la Barra, the author of the first Argentinian bestseller under a male name. Photo source: Lanacion.com

Emma De La Barra was born in Rosario, Argentina in 1860. She was the youngest of three children from the matrimony of Federico De La Barra and Emilia Gonzalez. Her family belonged to the elite class of Rosario and her father was a vital protagonist in his political and intellectual life. A writer and journalist, Federico De La Barra founded and directed the first daily newspaper in the city, “La Confederacion.” As a politician, he stood out in a vocal position at the Education Council. He was also a National and Conventional Constituent Legislator in 1860. 

In the seventeenth century, the neighborhood of Rosario was turning from a poor hamlet of ranches to a city. In 1852 the region was was declared a city, and in a couple of years was filled up with houses, shops, hotels, a museum, two theaters, a bookstore, and a port were built.

“Emmita,” as she was lovingly called, would grow up in this environment. It was said that Emma De La Barra was a “delightful girl with a round face, fine features with large and clear eyes.” These are testimonies of the people who would attend meetings with her. Her education began at College of the Hermanas del Huerto, where the daughters of the most respected families attended. 


Emma de la Barra. Photo source: Lanacion.com.


Emma’s perspective began to change once her father got elected as a National Legislator and had to move to Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital city. Moving to the capital exposed Emma to a broader cultural life, a scene that appealed her and inspired her to participate in the city’s intellectual scene. However, a literacy vocation was not yet apparent. Instead, Emma was interested in music, which led her to discover the Santa Cecilia Musical Society. Recognized by her energetic spirit, Emma participated in art exhibitions, ballets, and concerts. She also was one of the founders of the Argentinian Red Cross along with Eliza Funes de Juárez Celman. Together, they established the first professional school for women in the country. 

At the age of 24, Emma was faced with a surprise pregnancy and married her uncle, Juan Francisco De La Barra Demaría, her father’s brother who was twice her age. She gave birth to a girl who tragically died the following year. Her name was María De La Barra De La Barra.

By 1882, her husband started serving as President of the Commercial Chamber of the Province of Buenos Aires. In addition, he participated in the discovery of the city of La Plata. After the construction of the new founding city, he built a working-class neighborhood in the town of Tolosa. His family’s strong connections within the most exclusive sectors of power were major for him to be able to carry out his project.


Emma de la Barra. Photo source: elquiddelacuestion.com.ar.


After the death of her husband, Emma was seized the opportunity to manage the neighborhood. As an educated, high class woman, Emma had many ambitious projects, including leading a school, a library, a church, theater, and a sports field. Unfortunately, Emma was unable to see these projects through and her parents labeled her as mentally ill.

In 1905, her work “Stella,” which she published under the name César Duayen was labeled a brilliant piece. “Stella” sold out in three days as readers wondered who Duayen was. Fans wondered about this new author and wanted to award him, as they speculated the brilliant author may have been, Julio Llanos, Emma’s second husband. 


“Stella,” Source: Rosario.italini.it.


Finally, Manuel Láinez, the director of the newspaper, deputy and senator revealed the mystery that was stirring up the city. He revealed that the mysterious author was actually Emma de la Barra, and from then on, nine editions from thousands of copies ran out like candy. This was something thought as impossible in Argentine literature, making history. La Nación mentions the success of “Stella.” In her work, Emma criticizes the aristocratic society at the beginning of the 20th century. Although a love story is incorporated, critics praised the author’s brave rebellion against gender and class standards of the period and praised Emma’s descriptions of high society, a world she knew perfectly well. 


Emma de la Barra’s work “Stella.” Photo source: Lanacion.com.


On April 5, 1947, Emma de la Barra passed away at age 86. Before her death, she made sure to view the success and appreciation of her work with pride, and to see it being transitioned to the movie industry. After the success of her first novel, she wrote the following year, in 1906, “Mecha Iturbe”. In 1908 she published “El Manantial.” In 1917 it became known as “Material Letters.” In 1933 “Eleonora” was written and in 1943, “La fortuna de Malena,” was published. 


Zully Moreno, Stella’s interpreter. Photo source: elquiddelacuestion.com.ar


Literary critics refer to “Stella,” as the first Argentine best seller. The novel follows the lives of two sisters (Alejandra and Stella) who came to Argentina from Norway to stay at their maternal uncle’s house. Alejandra and Stella represent female characters and common situations experienced by women in Argentina’s family and social life of the time. Romance and conflicts of interest transformed Stella into a literary and publishing boom within weeks of its publication. All copies were sold and successive reprints were made.

Emma de la Barra is remembered as a literary pioneer. A Rosarina from Argentina, the author wrote at the beginning of the 20th century and used her craft and love for fiction to criticize society’s limits on the role of women of her time.


Director of Future Journalist Program
Vanessa Campa | Florida International University

Vanessa Campa is a recent graduate from Florida International University holding a Bachelor of Arts in English on the Writing and Rhetoric track, and a minor in Psychology. Through working for the Latina Republic as a Latin Correspondent, Vanessa has gained a true love and passion for reporting underreported stories in the region. Discovering underreported stories that will inspire her readers, she has specialized in interviewing and writing articles on outstanding Latinx women who have made an impact in their communities, especially immigrants. As a Director of the Future Journalist Program for the Latina Republic, Vanessa will continue carrying the organizations’ mission in changing stereotypes that have negatively impacted the people within the region, and bringing light to another side of Latin America that is concealed.