Call it the anti-Roseanne.
Vida, the new Starz series created by Looking alum Tanya Saracho, has a little something for every liberal. It centers on two sisters—Mishel Prada’s Emma, a ladder-climber who squashes her competition with dagger eyes, and Melissa Barrera’s Lyn, who believes her beauty allows her to avoid adulting, as long as she barnacles herself to a rotation of selfish men with expense accounts—who return to their East Los Angeles roots upon their mother’s death, long after escaping into white society. This is, obviously, a story of loss and grief despite complicated parentage: Emma and Lyn come back to discover that their mom came out of the closet in their absence and was running her neighborhood bar with her wife, Eddy (played by non-binary talent Ser Anzoategui). It’s quite a surprise, and a good jumping-off point.
Except that the series doesn’t open with the women’s arrival. It actually starts with Chelsea Rendon’s Mari, a local kid Saracho describes as the “Greek chorus” of the story. With opinions as on point as her well-applied lipstick, she is not at all keen on the dismantling (via gentrification) of the working-class immigrant neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Mari and her friends believe Chipsters—Chicano hipsters like, she feels, Emma and Lyn—are as much the problem as the gringos moving in and “renovating” houses or popping in like second wave Jonathan Golds to shoot Buzzfeed-style testimonials about a “just discovered” mom-and-pop taqueria.
Lots of Spanish is spoken in the show, sometimes without subtitles. And all of these details together allow Vida to give the multi-layered debate that’s happening in many immigrant communities across the country a national platform.
“There’s assimilation, there’s acculturation and there’s Americanization, and we’re seeing all of it embodied” in Vida, Saracho says. “The sisters are fully assimilated because they’re not immigrants, they’re Americans… I want to shift our notion of what America is. This is an American neighborhood… We need to redefine the mainstream’s notion of Americanism.”
One way to start is to acknowledge that the series itself doesn’t fit into the archaic television categories of comedy and drama. In addition to Looking, HBO’s meditative, subtle depiction of gay life, Saracho is a fan of series like Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Pamela Adlon’s Better Things on FX and Tig Notaro’s now-ended Amazon program, One Mississippi. She also stresses how grateful she is to Jill Soloway’s Emmy-winning Amazon series Transparent, which is also set in Los Angeles and deals with grown children (albeit white and much more affluent) learning about a parent’s late-in-life coming out.
With Vida, Saracho gets to help dispel the myth that the Latinx community is not accepting of its LGBTQ members and have a conversation about what it means to be a powerful woman. The writers’ room was fully Latinx, and half queer. The four leads are Mexican or Mexican-American (Prada is half Mexican-American, half Dominican-American), and both Anzoategui and Rendon live in the very neighborhood the series depicts. Some of the dialogue even Saracho wasn’t familiar with: She grew up in Texas, and wasn’t always hip to all the regional slang that made its way into the scripts.
“I’m queer, and queer to me is not being stuck in a binary and being kind of fluid,” says Saracho, who purposefully made Prada’s Emma both queer and what she describes as “closed off to intimacy.” Conversely, she says, “How does Lyn give herself up all the time and still have agency and power? Those things are complicated and are not one thing or another, you know. That was always going to be so in the show.”
It also was important to show that these characters and their neighborhood are not without fault. A scene late in the season has Emma sparing with Mari over her decision to change the name of her family bar. Mari’s irked that Emma would want to destroy something that’s part of the community’s history. Emma’s point? The sign has a geisha on it and the place is called Little Chinese Girl.
“Which is so racist!” Saracho stresses. “I want to talk about it, because we have those prejudices in the Latino community… That’s horrible. Well, they do it to us all the time. They’ll put Mexican [on a sign] and then there’s a flamenco dancer. That’s not even the same culture.”
This is true for the sisters themselves, particularly Lyn. In the first episode, she goes from being a self-centered vegan prima donna to an inexcusably jealous attention whore mere minutes after seeing that her high school boyfriend, Johnny (Carlos Miranda), has shown up to her mother’s wake with his pregnant fiancée.
“I love playing flawed characters and people who make bad decisions, because we all do,” Barrera says. “I think people are going to hate her and love her at moments and love to hate her. Hopefully a lot of women will see themselves in her. It’s true; we all go through phases of being spontaneous and wanting a man so bad or wanting to play someone. It’s part of growing up.”
A native of Monterrey, Mexico, Barrera also says that it’s important to remember that the gentrification storyline is not unique to America.
“I think it’s part of the greed of humanity and developed [cultures] wanting to make money off of people,” she says. “And, part of the natural order of things to being able to grow and adapt into a modern society.”
Prada adds that she knows “the unknown is scary, so you see immigrants and you think it’s scary. Or you see queer people and you think it’s scary.” But she hopes all of this will “open up the barriers” that can divide different races and economic backgrounds.
“I think it would be great to know us from us,” Prada says of the audience she hopes finds Vida. “Not like you’re in a safari and you’re looking at us in our natural habitat. It’s like, ‘Come on in. Have some tacos. Have some mezcal. I’m going to fight with my sister right quick just like you probably do.’”
While Prada and the others involved in Vida certainly don’t expect the series to change someone’s views overnight, they do hope for what most everyone wants right now: to start a dialogue.
“I think if we can change culture, we can change politics,” Prada says. “We are in a very interesting position in Hollywood to broadcast to the living room of people… There’s this projecting of the “us” versus “them.” If we can really open the doors a little bit and let them see that we are similar, we all want to feel secure. There are bad people in all sorts of ways and shapes and forms. But, in our cultural climate, if we can open the doors and get to know each other, I think we’ll be less scared and less willing to fight each other.”
What an appropriate answer for a show that’s quite literally about life.
Vida premieres Sunday, May 6 at 8:30 p.m. on Starz.