Tanya Saracho walked into a meeting with an executive at the cable network Starz thinking she was being considered for a staff job in a writers room. Instead, the relatively fledgling TV writer walked out as the show-runner of Vida, a half-hour drama series premiering this Sunday about two ambitious, sexually adventurous sisters who return to their Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles after the death of their mother.
“I had only been in L.A. three years,” said Saracho, a Mexico-born, Chicago-based playwright who had previously worked on just a handful of TV series, including Devious Maids, Girls, and How to Get Away with Murder. “Who would hand me a show?” she asked, chuckling in amazement.
The answer was Marta Fernandez, Starzs senior vice president of original programming. The cabler was developing a slate of programs aimed at Latino viewers, a huge market chronically underserved by the television industry. At the meeting, Saracho was quizzed on terms like “chipster” (or, Chicano hipster) and “gentefication,” which was defined by one California journalist as “the process of upwardly mobile Latinos . . . investing in and returning to the old neighborhood.”
Gentefication is at the heart of Vida. Emma (Mishel Prada) and her estranged sister, Lyn (Melissa Barrera), arrive in L.A. planning to sell their late mothers bar and then flee the emotional baggage of their youth. But they quickly get entangled with neighborhood politics and people theyd left behind: old loves, unrequited obsessions, and activists furious that locals are being priced out of their homes and replaced by cafes serving pricey lattes made with almond milk. Although it takes a few episodes for Vida to unpack its sensuous secrets and let its characters blossom, it eventually becomes clear that the sisters are “agents of chaos” (as Emma calls Lyn at one point), inspiring both change and trouble.
Ironically, while shooting early footage in Boyle Heights, the swiftly changing Los Angeles neighborhood where the series is set, Saracho encountered pushback from the community. “They were like, Why are you writing a show about us and you are not us?” she said. “They were very vocal online by calling me white-tina and coconut”—echoes of which are incorporated into Vida, addressed to Emma and Lyn, who decide to revamp their mothers dilapidated bar. Rather than swamping the embattled neighborhood with production trucks, Saracho said she and the Vida crew instead decided to film at a bar in Koreatown.
Steeped in Spanglish and with a queer, Latina perspective, Vida dives into territory that is still relatively virgin for TV, even in 2018. Saracho knew she needed to hire an all-Latinx, heavily queer, and mostly female-identified writers room for the show, despite discouragement from Hollywood veterans.
“Older white people in the industry would be like, Why do you want to do that to yourself? Just staff whoever is best for the show,” she recalled. “That was so condescending, because I was trying to staff whoever was best for the show—great writers who happen to be Latinx!”
Saracho says her time in the Chicago theater world did not prepare her for the television industry, with all its intricate hypocrisies. As a playwright, “you are the top dog in the herd all the time,” she explained, and her playwriting process was “this kind of holistic ritual experience.” When she landed in TV writers rooms, she found it was less about writing than pitching: “It was about who could be more clever and witty.”
Even more startling was the racial tension Saracho encountered on her very first day of her first TV job. One of her co-workers turned to her—the only person of color in the room—and said derisively, “You do know youre the diversity hire, right?” The interaction felt like a sucker punch.
“It was really traumatic,” Saracho admitted. Diversity hire is “a less-than title—like you are less than [everyone else].” She went on to dramatize some of these early experiences in her 2017 Off-Broadway play Fade.
So Saracho was stunned when Starz encouraged her to immerse herself in what she called the “Latinx gaze.” Trying to name Latino-centered shows currently on American, English-language TV, she could only think of a handful (Narcos, One Day at a Time, Queen of the South, Jane the Virgin) out of the hundreds of series on the air. “Thats an erasure of a whole lot of people,” she said dolefully.
Although Saracho feels pressure to represent a community in the face of this near void, in Vida she has created damaged, provocative characters, not pristine role models. Emma is emotionally guarded in a way that initially reads as aggressive-bordering-on-hostile, and Lyn seems to use her sexuality as a weapon. Then there are supporting characters like Eddy, a kind butch lesbian with a deep well of secrets (played by gender non-conforming actor Ser Anzoategui), and Marisol (Chelsea Rendon), a crusading local activist and blogger whose anger sometimes pushes her over the line.
“The dominant culture gets to have complicated narratives in the media . . . but were either cartel or were squeaky-clean girls,” Saracho said, laughing. “The big, radical thing that Im trying to do is to portray Latinas as complex human beings.”
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