Image Courtesy of New York Times
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, Starz’s senior vice president of original programming. The cable was developing a slate of programs aimed at Latino viewers, a huge market chronically undeserved 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 mother’s bar and then flee the emotional baggage of their youth. But they quickly get entangled with neighborhood politics and people they’d 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.
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.
“The dominant culture gets to have complicated narratives in the media . . . but we’re either cartel or we’re squeaky-clean girls,” Saracho said, laughing. “The big, radical thing that I’m trying to do is to portray Latinas as complex human beings.”
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