On Sunday, Starz will air the first episode of Vida, a new series about two Mexican American sisters who, after their mother’s death, return to their quickly gentrifying neighborhood on the Eastside of LA. The show is groundbreaking, you may have heard, for its writer’s room, which is helmed by Mexican-born playwright Tanya Saracho, and its all-Latinx, mostly woman-identifying, half-queer makeup. But in an era in which talking about creating diverse film and television seems more popular than actually doing it, what’s most important about Vida is how the fact of having a Latinx, queer writer’s room translates materially to a show that is about young queer Latinxs. Which is to say: it cuts through the bullshit, and makes for one of the most touching, complex, and lovable English-language shows about Mexican Americans I’ve seen in my life. Not that there are loads to choose from! But it feels good to feel seen, and gotten. Right, even.
Vida is the name of the mother—Vidalia—and when sisters Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada) get back to their childhood home, in a building above a bar that their mother owned, they find everything in disarray. Their mother, who had chased away Emma as a youth for displaying queer tendencies, as it turned out had been married to a woman named Eddy (played by by nonbinary actor Ser Anzoategui); the sisters must process this new reality while also learning to become part of this ghost family they never knew. And as their neighborhood is gobbled up by predatory lenders around them—including gentefiers, people from their community who are selling them out—a parallel story follows Marisol (Chelsea Rendon), one of my favorite characters on television in ages. She’s a young activist on a really cool bike who vlogs about the changes happening around her and does her best to try and keep things the way that she’s always known them. At one point, to a white yuppie gentrifier “discovering” long-running establishments on Mari’s turf, she screams, “Get out my neighborhood, you Warby Parker ass bitch!” It is glorious.
Vida has heart, drama, and great character development, and it’s shot beautifully, in natural Spanglish and a proper-lighting tone of sepias and browns. Jezebel spoke with Tanya Saracho about creating this world, and how she managed to get such deeply intersectional concerns onto actual television.
JEZEBEL: I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to see a TV show like Vida. Where did this idea come from?
TANYA SARACHO: This was pitched to me by Starz, the idea of a show about gentefication and millennial women. They called me because of my playwriting career, all my plays are about Latinas, and I’ve been dealing with this area for a long time. But they’re the ones who introduced the notion of gentefication to me.
Which is interesting, for a network to actively want to do that.
That’s what I said that day. I do think it matters who was pitching this to me—the executive at Starz, her name was Marta Fernandez, and I think that tells you everything. So she is looking at the idea in this complicated way and with Starz, they’re very female-centric, but it’s cable. They want complicated stories. That was sort of the charge: Chicana hipster, gentefication, millennial women, go.
They pointed me to an article in the LA Times and this short story that they had, and they were like, If you want to get anything from this, if it helps. I just held onto the sisters, just keeping to their truth, and then the world kind of drew itself around it. Not naturally, but easily; it just all kind of manifested. I’m a first-time showrunner, and I think that has a lot to do with Marta Fernandez, like, This girl can do it. It’s not that I’m being a company woman, but at every turn they have supported me and said yes.
I think that’s clear in watching the show, not just with the amount of straight and queer sex you depict and the realism of it, but also the choices you made, the subtle references to Chicana and Mexican American culture. Did you ever feel any limits, or even that you were imposing upon yourself?
Yes, that’s more the limits, but I always knew that if I made a show it was going to be coded. And that’s why you’re seeing a very coded show, where code-switching happens even if you don’t notice it, with imagery, with who we showcase in the music. Like Selena in the first episode, which is very iconic but very Mexican American—but also the new indie Latinas.
I see you! Who did the music? I love the music aspect of it.
An amazing musical supervisor, and some [music] has been a part of it from the pilot stage. I’ve been a fan of Susana Baca forever. We have her in the fourth episode. I’ve been wanting to use that song forever in plays that I directed and I finally found a way to use that song. That song’s been with me for a decade and a half, it’s been for awhile. One of the songs that got me through the election was the Calle 13 song, the “Latinoamerica” song. And the fact that I get to end the series with those badass women singing it? It’s still the Calle 13 song, but it’s the chorus of “Latinoamerica.” It’s so many dreams come true, that I get to do this, you know?
It feels like a dream to feel like I see myself reflected in this way, too.
I know what you mean. I hadn’t seen me, and that’s why we built it, you know? How many of us are there that we’ve grown up never seeing the realm of an accurate image of ourselves.
Also, a lot of the English language television shows about Mexican Americans or Latinx people in general often default to or are based on telenovelas. That’s been the standard and the way we’ve often been able to see ourselves on American television. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I have so many complicated thoughts about it. In my career as a playwright, reviewers—I think there’s been racism in the reviews—but they always compare us to telenovelas. But I question if anyone [reviewing me this way] has ever even seen a telenovela. That was always really offensive to me. I respect the telenovela a lot, and also I think it’s really problematic. But the way they have tried to pigeonhole my work before is really frustrating because, what are you trying to say? If you ask me, it’s a little racist. There are soapy elements to this; it’s just that they are not in a telenovelic form. You know, heightened melodrama, which has its own place in our culture. Because like, what would my grandma do without them. Even though it’s problematic when it comes to class and race.
The DNA of this is more in the indie-film, cinematic. And also the people who directed the episodes and the cinematographer, they’re more indie, so the way it looks, it’s the DNA. It’s more independent Latino film.
Yeah, and you see that in the directors you chose for these first episodes: Alonso Ruizpalacios, Rose Troche, Catalina Aguilar Mastretta. I do want to talk to you about class and race, because one thing that I really appreciate about Vida is how you manage within a half-hour show to get at these really complex intersections of class and colorism and colonization, and how colonization changes a community even from within, and gentefication. And talking about those things in a drama series could be so easily hit-you-over-the-head preachy. How did you navigate writing these elements into the show?
Colonization is the ultimate form of gentrification, right? It’s the original form of gentrification. And we used, at the top of Episode 2, a Jarina De Marco song that was the Standing Rock anthem, and it says “500 years, 500 years,” like it’s talking about like the ultimate gentrification. I think it’s still linked to that because it’s a damage we have been carrying, since these countries are in the Americas were formed. But all of it, like I said, is coded, and I feel like the right way to handle it is to live in the reality of it and not explain it. This is not about gentrification, but for example Cruz’s friends: you see them like, this one’s getting a masters, this one’s getting a doctorate, but they’re ratchet, and brown, and trans, and genderqueer. We don’t explain that. We just live it. So yeah, that’s really important because it says we exist and we are here. But it doesn’t get didactic. Because that’s how we live. I wanted to display us how we are.
And we have such a history of being stereotyped. You show a lot of intra-Latinx issues, like homophobia within our communities, or machismo. I wonder if it was hard for you to put it on screen because of this idea of how that could be taken out of context... you know, by the colonizers, ha.
The discussion wasn’t quite that; it was like, what are we reflecting that is true and how are we reflecting it. From little things like how Emma has sex with Sam; half our writer’s room is queer, and it was very important to have a femme top be having sex like a femme top girl. That is a truth for her in all six episodes. The fact that she has short nails in all six episodes. Not everyone is gonna get that, but if you live in that truth, it pays off in that scene. There’s inclusivity when it comes to queerness within the community, and, because it’s true, the machismo is toxic. And you know, she says, “What would it have been to be like to walk through this neighborhood hand in hand, mamí and Eddy?” That’s a real thing, that’s a real fear. We can’t shy away from that. And the charge is to tell the truth.
What you said about your writer’s room being half queer, and it’s all-Latinx. A lot of attention is being paid all of a sudden to this idea of having and creating diverse writer’s rooms. And it seems pretty fucking easy to do! But can you tell us about how you put together your writer’s room?
Before I had a greenlight, I kept telling everyone, “If I get this going? I’m gonna put an all Latinx writer’s room together.” And either showrunners or TV writers from the dominant culture would say, “Why would you do that to yourself? Why don’t you just pick who’s best for the room?” And I’d be like, I am going to pick who’s best, who happen to be Latinx. For this personal, intimate series, I need a Latinx writer’s room, and a mostly queer writer’s room. So that was important, but it was weird how the default of “good” is not us. My writer’s room is badass, and they’re family, and they care about the show so much because they have been in TV writer’s rooms where they have been the only token, or they’re the only person of color in the room and they [are expected to represent] all people of color. It’s really complicated, and a lot of them had PTSD. We had to be like, you’re safe now. You’re safe!
Because a writer’s room is a lot of competition for who has the best joke, the best pitch, who’s the wittiest. And when you are an “other,” and a “less than,” you’re not going to be heard. That’s how it works out. So the dominant gender and the dominant culture are usually what dominates these rooms.
The first thing I noticed before I even saw Vida when it was announced, it was greenlighted—that this is a writer’s room I have never, ever seen before. I do want to get more specific about the characters, and my most obvious question is about Marisol, played wonderfully by Chelsea Rendon. She’s political and punk and takes no shit and feels so familiar to me, like people I know in my life. But her arc is so interesting, because she fronts like she’s so tough, but then she realizes throughout the show that she is vulnerable and being oppressed in an awful, eye-opening way. I am very curious about the development of her character and her arc.
She’s a composite of girls on the Eastside, I won’t bring up names so it’s not necessarily one person. But the look, everything is that. That was really important to me, and the fact that if you’re woke in one way and wanting to be heard, that doesn’t mean that you are. And for that, it’s gender—the three oppressors in her life are her father, her brother, and the guy she likes. And the fact that she hasn’t conquered that part of herself. She’s got a whole systemic, cultural thing happening, where she has to fight against all of it. But I love that we get to see her really stand out, because the real fight is not in the streets the way she thinks. The real fight is in her private circle. She has to claim her power there, first. I don’t think we’re gonna really solve it this season or next season. She has to really find herself and to find her voice. I love her.
You know, a couple of people have asked me today, “Yeah the gangbanger you have, the chola.” And I’m like, Wait. She’s 100 percent not that. These are Latinas! Like, it’s crazy that you’re giving her that stereotype because she is an activist and that’s what she looks like? Like, this is what an activist looks like right now on the Eastside. But it’s crazy that we can only pigeonhole her as a chola. She’s zero that! She’s a good girl, she’s a virgin, she has three jobs, she feeds her dad. She’s a good girl. And her brother, they’re both good kids. He has a steady job holding down the family business. But it’s funny, how even we make us stereotypes.
Yeah, and isn’t that a point that the show is making? That sometimes we internalize these narratives and then we end up screwing ourselves over.
That’s exactly what we do.
I also wanted to ask about the arc. There’s this looming idea of Lyn and Emma’s mother Vida. The idea of the matriarch is so strong, and I guess that’s one of the coded things that we were talking about, but I wonder if you could speak to her presence in the show.
Well, this is a family show. It’s not a show about the sisters; it’s a show about a family, as broken as it is. Every episode, the effect and presence of Vida is felt. It’s just that she’s just not there in body. It’s very much a show about a family—a mother, two daughters, a wife. And hopefully you felt Vida’s presence, because she should be there. And they’re cleaning up her mess. Not just the building that she’s left them with, but also that she pushed her daughter away for what she thought was gay behavior, and then she comes back and thinks, What a hypocrite?
I have one last question. You named your production company “Chingona Productions.” There’s an ongoing conversation, even in the show, about what it means to be chingona, and the negative connotations and subsequent reclamation of it. What does it mean to you?
A Mexican friend asked me, “[Gasp], how you gonna say that word in Mexico?” And I was like, “I’m reclaiming this word!” It’s like “badass boss,” right? “Badass bitch.” I’m reclaiming it for that. I grew up hearing, “Eres chingon.” “He’s a chingon.” But to call a woman a chingona was a bad thing, a stubborn, willful woman. But no, what it means is a woman who’s taken her power, I think. So I named [my production company] that. And I still haven’t told my mother, but... she’ll be fine. [Laughs] I wear chingona earrings and a chingona bracelet, and she sees them and is like “Ay, Tanya.” But she doesn’t know I named my whole production company? We’ll deal with that when we come to that. Talk about taking your power, right?!
Vida airs Sundays on Starz.