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Prosecutor, ‘La Gringa Novelera’ rides off into sunset, and a writing career

Karen Kerbis, a longtime gang unit prosecutor, is retiring and moving to Mexico. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

One morning some six years ago, prosecutor Karen Kerbis was chatting up her boss’s secretary about the latest twists in their favorite telenovela — one of the over-the-top melodramas that are the mainstay of Spanish-language television programming — when their grizzled supervisor came out of his office with an order: no more talking about novelas at the office.

Go figure: Kerbis’ boss would rather hear the confessions of gang members plucked from Chicago’s streets than Kerbis’ breathless analysis of the nightly betrayals, liaisons and murders on nighttime Telemundo. Kerbis, encouraged by her Spanish-speaking friend, opted to write up her recaps on Facebook under the name “La Gringa Novelera.”

Kerbis, who knew only a few phrases in Spanish when she began watching telenovelas as a way to learn the language, will retire this week after more than 20 years as a Cook County assistant state’s attorney. In a few months, she will move to Mexico City, where she will finish a book about her journey from the courthouse at 26th Street and California to a unlikely spot among the constellation of Spanish-language soap opera stars.

As La Gringa Novelera, Kerbis has conducted red-carpet interviews at telenovela premieres; had a celebrity makeover on one of Telemundo’s top infotainment shows; and smooched Latin heartthrob David Chocarro on one of the network’s signature Saturday night extravaganzas. In a winning bit of mangled Spanish, Kerbis told the host she wanted to kiss Chocarro “in the mouth,” though she meant “on” the mouth. At the moment, Kerbis is helping best-selling Chilean novelist and screenwriter Jose Ignacio “Chascas” Valenzuela translate his work into English, and she hopes to collaborate with him on a screenplay.

Assistant State’s Attorney Karen Kerbis poses with actor Gabriel Porras and former Telemundo Executive Vice President of Nighttime Programming Joshua Mintz backstage at the premiere of “Bajo Al Mismo Cielo” in July 2015. | Provided 

“I’ve never even been to Mexico,” said Kerbis of her post-retirement move, the first time she’ll have lived outside Chicago. “It took me almost 50 years just to move away from North Avenue.”

Her move to Mexico City is both to immerse herself in Spanish language and Latin culture, and to provide a more dramatic finish to the memoir about her unlikely journey from a dusty courthouse to minor Latin pop cultural phenomenon.

“She really does have a celebrity life. I don’t think anyone in the office even realizes it,” said Irma Lopez, an administrative assistant for the gang unit who turned Kerbis on to “Santa Diabla.” “I mean, if you’re not Hispanic, you’re not going to watch those shows. But these are really big stars that she knows.”

Kerbis’ supervisor, Brian Holmes, says few of her co-workers know about her status in the world of Latin television.

“For 20 years, she has just worked her cases and moved on to the next one. She’s a good prosecutor,” Holmes said. “I think all of us at one time or another thought, ‘I should write a book about what goes on around here,’ but we all say no one would believe it. Well, she’s going to do it.”

In fact, Kerbis doesn’t enjoy the “narco” storylines that are a popular genre of telenovela — the way criminal prosecutors are portrayed, she thinks, is comically lavish. Kerbis has for years served as an unofficial consultant for telenovela screenwriters, who call her for technical advice about courtroom scenes. In a recent blog post, she wrote adoringly of the lifestyle of the prosecutor on “El Señor de los Cielos,” who flies by private jet to extradite a notorious Mexican cartel boss, rather than onerously filing paperwork as Kerbis might have done.

Assistant State’s Attorney Karen Kerbis with Telemundo publicist Vanessa Tartak and telenovela star Ximena Duque at Duque’s Miami salon after taping a segment for “Al Rojo Vivo” in November 2015. | Provided

“One thing I have learned from telenovelas of any type is that if there is a prosecutor hanging around, that prosecutor leads a pretty glamorous life. They have a driver, they boss the judge around, and they usually have an office filled with antiques, Oriental rugs, and religious objects,” she wrote.

The persona of the guileless 50-something white woman who comically misinterprets Spanish television was irresistible to Latin audiences, and even actors and Telemundo executives became avid readers. La Gringa Novelera’s fans — including a healthy 5,000 Facebook friends and 2,500 Twitter followers — have been only too happy to laugh along over the years as Kerbis’ Spanish improved and her good-natured commentary about Latin culture became more astute, said the writer Valenzuela, who has become a close friend. While her analyses are often funny, her sincere enthusiasm for the stories comes through.

“The Gringa Novelera who doesn’t belong to the Latino world but can read and talk about the Latino world even better than the Latino, that’s the persona,” Valenzuela said. “She discovered how to talk to Latinos about themselves through the telenovela.”

Kerbis is well aware the storybook start of her writing career might not continue on as an uninterrupted success. But with a county pension and a little luck, she couldn’t have imagined a more exciting plan for retirement.

“If nothing ever comes of it money-wise, I don’t mean to sound corny, but I have already had the best time ever,” she said.