With the second season coming out May 23, the cast of Starz‘s East L.A.–set Chicano drama talks to CHICA about how the show grapples with themes and topics that are anything but Latinx-specific while still approaching the pinnacle of authenticity.
During the second season of Vida, 20-ish activist Marisol (Chelsea Rendon) has a falling out the with her conservative, traditional father. Complaining to her brother Johnny (Carlos Miranda), she says with total frustration, “He’s so Mexican!” It’s a great line for several reasons. Not only does it show how Marisol is questioning her values, it subverts the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his distorted characterizations of a nationality. In young, progressive Latinx circles, it seems, being “Mexican” is like the stereotypical uptight white male Republicans. It’s the (often religious) patriarchy — a far cry from rapists, drug dealers or MS13.
There is no cartel action or cocaine trafficking plot lines in Vida, instead it’s about LGBTQ+ and Latinx identity and socio-economic displacement. It’s a show about real people, families in urban America — it’s relatable. Miranda tells CHICA during our phone interview with him and Rendon, “If this show were done with white people, it would be This Is Us.”
Debuting in May 2018 with a 6-episode season, Vida has garnered praise and awards from such events as GLAAD Media Awards and the SXSW Film Festival — not to mention a 100 percent from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
Vida Walks the Walk
Up to this point, Chelsea Rendon’s character, a member of the anti-gentrification activist group Vigilantes, has been spewing venom at the “White-tinas,” “Tia Toms” and “Chipsters” (Chicano hipsters) slowly taking over Eastside, a lower income mostly Mexican community. The first scene in the pilot is Marisol scolding the screen (that’s us, the viewers, on the other side of her camera phone) about the destructive impact of developers and their rich, often white clientele — and quoting Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata — while creating a video for her vlog. Marisol is someone that certain white males would probably see as exhibiting anti-white racism. She’s really more of an anti-colonialist. As Rendon says: “She’s anti-white people taking advantage of brown people.”
Chelsea actually grew up the area in East L.A. When I ask if she was consulted on matters of local flavor, she says that the producers had done their research.
Tanya Saracho (“How to Get Away with Murder”) is creator, show runner and executive producer of Vida, and as Rendon notes, she “wanted people from the area.” Saracho is lauded over and over by the cast for not only talking the talk within the script but walking the walk as far as caring about the community she is depicting. As Miranda points out, the show’s vaunted authenticity starts in the writers’ room as well as with details cultural details such as flan, limpias and Spanglish (not translating but highlighting, cast member Ser Anzoategui points out). The second season, which drops May 23 with 10 episodes, is helmed by Latina directors and written by Latinx writers. The East L.A. neighborhood set mirrors a specific locale, Boyle Heights (yet the show avoided disrupting the residents with lots of filming on location). The anti-gentrification activists are based on groups like Defend Boyle Heights.
Does Chelsea relate to her character? “I had so many friends from like middle school and high school hit me up and be like, oh my God, that’s the Chelsea I remember. ’Cause Mari is so me in so many ways. Like, she’s a tomboy and she’s tough and she’s loud. And that was me. The only real difference is the activist part I had to learn.”
Rendon also knows something about gentrification, the show’s major social theme: “Me and my mom and my sister were living in this house that was like a four bedroom house, but it was super old and ugly and then the owner’s like, okay, so I’m going to do some like renovation and you’re going to go from paying $1,300 to $2,500 and we’re like, ‘What the f–k? Like what? Like it’s not even feasible.”
The show is an example of the legitimating powers of a word that has been overused and commodified. When writers are telling lived-experience stories through vivid details that ring true, and creators use actors who have similar experiences to their characters, por supuesto, authenticity.
Summary of a sexy plot
Estranged sisters Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) Hernandez are forced to return to their childhood home and deal with the legacy of their recently deceased mother, Vidalia aka Vida — not to mention revisit the grievances that drove the family apart. They return to the mostly Mexican/Chicano Eastside L.A. neighborhood where they grew up to find that Mom was secretly, though unofficially “married” to another woman and that the small building and bar Vidalia owned are in disarray. Hijinks ensue, the community reacts, and there is a lot of beautifully shot sex. Is there too much? As Barrera tells CHICA in a phone interview, “It’s like Goldilocks and the three bears. I think we got the exact right amount. It’s all done in a way that reveals character, that furthers story, which was always very important to us and Tanya. Because, you know, nudity is a thing. And there’s a lot of it.”
One episode opens with what Barrera says was meant to be written as “the saddest orgy in the world,” one where Lyn fails to get aroused and ends up bailing. The scene, complete with male full frontal, is a bit epiphanic for Lyn — meaningless sex doesn’t do it for her — and a learning experience for Barrera as well. “I thought [that scene] was going to be really hard, but it was actually so easy…. It wasn’t the normal feeling of like, Oh, I’m the main person and everyone else was dressed. It was like, we were all naked, so we were all on equal ground and it was kind of comforting honestly.”
Though not in the scene, Mishel Prada, also on the interview call, learned something as well: “I had no idea that you actually cast a whole orgy.” Adds Barrera: “Also you have like a choreographer in there.”
The sisters are archetypal opposites. Emma is a type-A Chicago lawyer, upwardly mobile, practical and domineering. More spiritual Lyn, all eyebrows, six-pack and perky boobs, has made a habit of sponging off male lovers and going with the flow. Returning to the barrio, the narcissistic bohemian goes right to stealing back her old boyfriend Johnny, Marisol’s brother, from the mother of his pregnant girlfriend. Emma — emotionally unavailable and using her financial position to force her decisions down the throats of the grieving — has random hookups with men, women and gender neutrals, often with the singular focus of getting herself off.
As for the mommy issues. Emma was cut off by her mother for being gay — the ultimate hypocrisy. Lyn only slowly recognizes throughout the show how her mom undermined her: Lyn was always told to use her looks — implying, of course, that she was not the brightest child.
Barrero explains Lyn: “She’s been dismissed. Like whenever she, she like wants to say something or things like good idea, people are just like, Shut up and just stand there and be pretty. And that’s like during her entire life, which is why she is a way that she is. But we now get to see a little into her path, and why she turned out that way. And why she’s fighting so hard to change and to be a good person.”
Vida has a plot but it really isn’t the point. Vida is all about the characters’ competing identities — those labels a person chooses and those thrust upon you, whether based on family, ethnicity, nationality, class, color or sex and gender.
The setting, theme and issues addressed by the microcosmic show mingle with the characters lives so fluidly that anything resembling plot contrivances might serve to telenovela the story, undermining a slice-of-life reality (telenovela can be a verb, right?). Aside from the revelations from family secrets that come as the siblings comb through the figurative ruins of their mother’s property, the major overriding drama is of a “we need money” variety. Vida is clearly ramping up to a showdown with those who want to buy Emma and Lyn’s inherited building and tear it down for something marketably upscale. The developers are fronted by a fellow Chicano, Nelson (a smarmy Luis Bordonada), from the neighborhood who serves as a symbol of gente-fication. The “we’ll never sell!” narrative, represented here by Vidalia’s widow Eddy, is well-worn territory, but it is slowly and cleverly unpacked through the evolution of Emma’s desire to sell to the right person. The sisters also need to upgrade the bar and make it profitable. This makes them the target of the anti-gentrification activists Marisol is part of.
Emma and identity
Emma, the most internally distressed, drives the show. Certain aspects of her character make her admirable. Says Prada: “She came from a neighborhood, a working class, immigrant neighborhood where the odds are stacked against you…. But then I think there’s something really wonderful about the fact that Emma did have to pull herself up by her bootstraps and put herself through college, put herself through grad school to get that job.”
But Emma as a role model? Prada doesn’t think so. Emma devotes “so much to this very specific goal, that is an exterior goal. It’s like, you know, money and power, job security. She really didn’t want to pay attention to anything that was going on in the interior and also just her emotions. So, I think that’s important, just as important, if not even more so, because, you know, money won’t make you happy.”
Yet Emma refuses to abide by labels being assigned to her, whether by the developer Nelson, or LGBTQ+ characters that seek to pigeonhole her: “I’m sorry I don’t abide by your dated categories of queerness,” Emma chastises. As Roberta Colindrez, who plays Nico and gets close to Emma, says, she “is so, like, anti identity, like, hard identity.”
Colindrez tells CHICA about her own character, Nico, the wise bartender from New York who begins “consulting with Emma about how to be more careful of her relationships and how to value the people around her more and treat people kinder and, you know, just kind of be more open to having feelings.”
A relative outsider, Nico isn’t Mexican-American either. She is half Honduran and half Argentinian, which is exactly what Colindrez is. “One thing that I really love about Tanya is that she’s aware of the way I am about, like, when you see characters on television that … it’s very clearly a person with Caribbean features playing a Mexican. If you’re a person that is Latin-American, it’s kind of insulting to see that. It’s kind of like, you know, if you’re Asian, and your Korean or a Thai person. It’s just like, do you just think we all look alike? … People are not all Mexican-Americans, you know. It’s true. Even in L.A.”
Emma, spurned by her mother for her same-sex relationship, takes out her pain on her mother’s partner Eddy, played by Ser Anzoategui, who is another living shrine to the show’s authenticity. Anzoategui — a playwright and “artivist” who grew up in and around East L.A. and even guests on a show called “East Los High” — identifies as non-binary, with the pronoun “they.”
How not to gentrify
I ask if the LGBTQ+ community around Vidalia and Eddy’s dive-y bar is something they have witnessed in real life. Anzoategui explains that the show is inspired by the short story, Pour Vida, by Richard Villegas and in the story, “there’s actually a bar that is based on real bar that is actually in Boyle Heights that I’ve been to.”
They reveals an appropriate anecdote to CHICA: “It used to be owned by a transgender woman, a Latina. And it was also very heavily butch women. They kind of took over. So it was real and I would go and I remember, particularly when gentrification barely started to come, and the white flight, you know, tried to come in like, Oh, let’s see what Boyle Heights is like, let’s check out the East Side. Let’s go to the cute little bars. And remember you’re going into the bar where you have transgender women, you have butch lesbians, you have immigrants, but you can’t tell if they’re straight or what, you know.
There’s this small room with mirrors and the juke box, and they play cumbias. And a little dance floor. And I remember this white couple was just like, sort of like laughing, but, like, not with us. Then they got on the dance floor and were bumping into everybody and making fun of this. And, my friends turned to this guy and basically chewed him, like straight up told him ‘get the f–k out, white devil,’ you do not belong here.
Getting elbowed by that guy was more than just getting elbowed and being like, oh, whatever. It was like … you’re taking over, and it’s like you’re trying to make it into yours. You don’t even respect anybody or what came before it.
That’s what I feel is really, I guess to say the word “authentic,” but it’s reflective of a lot of what happened years ago. And it’s constantly changing. Downtown L.A. has changed so much. Boyle Heights has changed so much. And there’s also a beautiful resistance that happens in the Eastside and the Northeast side, where people still say, Hey, you know what? Pass the word. Like, let’s make our community stronger, so we can become the owners of the property.”
Colindrez is on the interview call with Anzoategui and gives her own thoughts on the topic. Gentrification, she tells CHICA, “happens and has historically. And it’s not just specific to white Americans, that’s ridiculous. And the idea that people of color cannot gentrify or, you know, gente-fy is insulting and really kind of racist. This show is showing that we also have the ability to do those things. We just have to be more careful because it’s, you know, with our own people.”
Adds Anzoategui: “When we do [gentrify] in our own neighborhoods, how can we do it where it’s not about pushing and displacing people that are viewed as, you know, having less…. What does that mean when you just focus on [economics] and forget about the low-income people and disabled people and seniors and LGBTQ, transgender, people of color…”
While Chelsea Rendon and Carlos Miranda both note that they’ve gotten positive feedback on the first season — Hispanic-household viewing grew 171 percent over the first season to give the series the largest “Hispanic audience composition for a premium series in 2018” — they are really hoping that the show gains more Latinx support.
Rendon tells CHICA: “I think that Latinos in general have not always been so supportive. We tend to have this, like, crabs in a bucket sort of mentality, where it’s like, I’m succeeding so you can’t. And I think that nowadays it’s different, and we’re getting away from that… So it’s like, we need to step up for each other because if we don’t do it, no one else will. And it’s like, One Day at a Time just got cancelled.
Adds Miranda: “Support the shows that you complained about not having. You know what I mean?”
“We need to support a show before it’s on the chopping block, because that way, if we do it before, it never gets on the chopping block,” says Rendon.
Indeed, it’s a bit scary how many critically acclaimed shows don’t make it. Going from six episodes to ten in the second season is a step in the right direction. With Vida’s universal and relevant message, sexy cinematics and authentic appeal, I’ll take at least 20 more.
Ultimately though, to paraphrase Colindrez on why non-Latinx should tune in: You don’t need to be a dragon enthusiast to watch Game of Thrones. As that epic ends, another is poised to take flight.