Melissa Barrera, Tanya Saracho, Mishel Prada on the set of "Vida" (Starz)

"We are an invisible people": Creator Tanya Saracho on the end of her queer Latinx series "Vida"

The showrunner spoke to Salon about mourning the end, evolving identity, and what she hopes for the show's legacy



Kevin Smokler
June 2, 2020 12:01AM (UTC)

As Starz's critically acclaimed "Vida" made its last call on May 31, social media was filled with the hashtag #VivaLaVida, honoring its bright and ephemeral life. 

With only three seasons and 22 episodes during its run, there's no arguing that the groundbreaking drama created by playwright and showrunner Tanya Saracho left us too soon. Starz had decided to pull the plug on the series just before the debut of the third season, which means that the last episode became the series finale. That left at least a pony keg's worth of open storylines for the Hernandez sisters – Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and Emma (Misha Prada) – who inherit and run the bar left by their deceased mother in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. 

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Through those doors and within that vibrant neighborhood, the siblings encountered a number of locals who made them rethink the narratives they'd told themselves. There's Eddy (Ser Anzoategui) their mother's loving widow they didn't even know existed; Lyn's on again, off again high school ex Johnny Sanchez (Carlos Miranda); his younger sister Mari (Chelsea Rendon) an activist working against the "gentefication" of the bar and surrounding businesses; and Emma's new lover, bartender Nico (Roberta Colindrez).

With the series ending abruptly, what becomes of Emma's and Lyn's relationships with their partners and with each other? Will Eddy find a new life beyond the shadow of mourning? And can Mari's new paid job as a content creator be effective in saving her community? Most importantly, does the bar Vida stay with the Hernandezes, or will it become another victim of gentefication?

Despite these questions, in the time it had, "Vida" made maximum impact and soared, leaving worn ground far behind. Saracho insisted on both an all-Latinx writers' room and all-female department heads, a television first. The show's plainspoken sexuality and casting of queer actors backed up its obvious but revolutionary supposition that sexuality is more about one's personal identity than how the world labels you. It asked hard questions of its cast and of us: about colorism in non-white communities, about who a neighborhood really belongs to, and offered no easy answers. It dared to venture to places where even premium cable hadn't before and did it while still being funny, sexy, beautiful, and with a banger of a soundtrack almost entirely in the Spanish language.  

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Like many "brilliant but canceled" shows, the pain around losing "Vida" so suddenly is soothed somewhat by the legacy it leaves behind – by the talent it introduced and those careers it shot into the future. The hope is that, instead of a comet, a show like "Vida" resembles a Big Bang, creating a more rainbow-hued and inclusive universe. 

Over the phone from her home in Los Angeles, Saracho spoke to Salon about grieving the series, evolving queer identity, what she hopes for the show's legacy, and working with her best friends and "framily."

What stage are you at in your feelings of grief or sadness about the show's ending? 

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Well, if you were to talk to me even a week ago, I was at full acceptance. Full of just joy and gratitude for having gotten to do the story that I wanted exactly how I wanted to make it. Seriously, I worked through all of them: bargaining, everything. Then acceptance was lately. 

Today, just this week, I'm sad. I'm sad again. 

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The reason why I put so much meaning into it, that's because I really loved this project. It's not just a first project. It was like my first child. I know you're going to have other loves..I don't know what I will have, but I know that this was my love.

If you and your writers had another year with "Vida" or a chance to revive it in some way, what would you have done? 

I had to shut that game down, of what would I do, because that hurts to dream it, especially my writers, to do that exercise . . . now it belongs to the audience to think. 

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People have said it's like an indie film; it's a cinematic ending. We don't know what's happening with them, and that's okay. Maybe they'll live on in the audience's minds, the characters.

From everything I have read and seen, it's so clear how much you and the cast enjoy each other's company. 

Well, it's very clear that as the series is ending that we are like a family . . . not just the cast. It expands into the writers. They have relationships with the cast and the editors. I think it does change the stakes of what you're making and I found that out in the theater because people have more skin in the game. They have accountability to you as a friend too, not just a peer.

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This is the theater-maker in me. I've always tried to create an ensemble, a troupe, any time I make something . . . I didn't know Meli or Mish. Roberta and Ser I did know before. 

You and Adrian Gonzalez, who plays Rudy in the final season, are best friends in real life. 

I have this "framily," friends that are family. There's a few of us, and they all ended up in the show. Not because of nepotism but because they were the best thing for the show or maybe sometimes I was writing a character for them. It's customized. My other best friend Karen (Monica, Eddy's potential new love interest in Season 3) is in Episodes 5 and 6. And Raul Castillo, who plays Baco in Season 2, I've known since I was 14 years old. 

I love that "Vida" is part of a history of portrayals of Latinx people in very specific parts of Los Angeles. All the way back to "Zoot Suit" and "El Norte" in the early 1980s to "Mi Vida Loca" and "Real Women Have Curves" which are Echo Park stories. "Vida" is very specifically about Boyle Heights. 

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We wanted Boyle Heights to be the seventh character. You have to have people who know it. 

Your cast and writing staff are a mix of natives and Los Angeles ex-pats, right? 

Two out of four main cast members are from the area, actually from East L.A. Then everybody else is an import, including the showrunner. That was an issue for some people in the neighborhood the first season and I get it. A lot of my writing staff is from the area or from L.A. with family.

We're doing mariachi karaoke this season. That's a very specific kind of karaoke from one bar, and [series writer] Evangeline Ordaz, who is born and raised in Boyle Heights, she knows who created that. 

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It matters, and that's why the show's so specific and detailed. Because we're building it with people who have skin in the game . . . How do we honor and not co-opt? 

Practically every episode of the final season of the show leads off with a sex scene. What conversations did you and the writers and cast have about those moments? 

I found out through this process that I don't respect sex that much. It's about power, right? We use it as currency to negotiate power. That's how it was utilized for the characters.

Lyn willingly gives up power in order to get power. She figures out what her partners like so she becomes that because that's how she thinks of power. She's strong, but that's where she thinks her power lies.

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I feel like I didn't have as many sex scenes this season as I usually do, but maybe I did. One we changed. We were going to have a threesome and then we were like, "Well, we mostly just need the conversation of this threesome. All right. Let's just do a dance pre-threesome and then post-threesome." We needed to see that Emma was jaded and like, "Love is never going to work." 

I'm going to spare Misha a sex scene; those are very hard to do. They're meant to reveal something about the character. I was working with their sense of power and being empowered or something even though we're watching her like, "You're not empowering yourself girl. That's not what that is." We can have an opinion about it, but they are acting their own instincts on that.

Language and how we use it to identify ourselves is a thread that runs through the whole series. I'm thinking of Eddy and Monica's flirtation and how it centers on different terms for queerness for different generations. 

Where Eddy grew up in the show, the word "queer" used to be a fighting word . . . That shows you she's a neighborhood lesbian that has never left the neighborhood with those values. [She's] as progressive as they can come, but also traditional because of her generation.

In Season 2, when we did the baby queer tourist thing . . . In our community I get called a tourist all the time because I have dated cis men. Last season I was like, "We have to do the tourist conversation. We have to do it." Then this season I really wanted to get generational about terminology . . . I love exploring that.

I think identity is about being seen or wanting to be seen.We are an invisible people in this country and you have to fight a little harder – like Mari, to be seen sometimes, Lyn with her antics. You have to fight a little harder when you're us.

The principal relationships in "Vida" are siblings who are also business partners. At the center are the Hernandez sisters and Mari's last line to her brother is "You have to put me on that deed, Johnny." 

All the siblings, all those relationships got created before I created the pilot. There was an article in the L.A. Times about "gentefication" and "chipsters" and then there was this world-building document the production company had by a writer named Richard Villegas [who had written the short story "Pour Vida," on which the series is based]. I think there were two sisters in there.

Some writers write in themes like, "I want to explore this." I do not think that way. . . . I knew that I could just write a show about gentefication if I was just writing a show about the two sisters. . . . They will just keep the theme alive by being themselves.

To write my plays, I used to just light a candle, light incense, and just let the muse come. For the "Vida" pilot, I had two back surgeries actually and I couldn't walk for six months. . . . I just remember writing like Frida Kahlo on my back. Then I had a pilot when I didn't do the opiates anymore. I was like, "Oh, man. Okay." There's a lot of haziness, but I'm glad for it. 

How do you feel about "Vida" going down in television history as a show that was brilliant and taken from us too soon?

I do think of legacy for "Vida" a lot. I do. Especially since the lockdown. Just all you can do is think, right? 

Since my surgery actually I've been like, "What just happened to me?" First of all, I can walk and I have a show. In retrospect, we were the first prime cable Latinx-themed show.

In lots of ways we couldn't find the audience in this lifetime, but hopefully there's a lifetime that the show is measured in. We need to have our stories out there. I get mad every time I think about how we've been left out of the fricking narrative. For so long, we'd get one thing and then years pass and then another thing and I just hope it is not like that. I hope that it heralds something else, multiple something elses, just because I am so invested in these people and I want them to work and eat.

My writers are working right now, almost all of them. I talk to them not just daily, [but] throughout the day. I think they're probably like, "All right. Give us a break." It's the actors – I want the actors to work, and right now no actor is working. 

I read that the next step for you is forming your own company like Ava DuVernay and Lena Waithe.

I don't know about any of that because we're in this pandemic. This is shifting so much so I find myself with nothing in my hands right now, which is the most frightening position I've been in since my surgery.

I have a little vision board that I'm like, "Then I'm going to have a slate. I'm going to have the YA. I'm going to have an incubator for Latinx talent . . ." I have this blueprint and right now I just put it in the drawer just because I feel like we need to survive. 

The people you just described, I admire them so much. they create space, and community, and access, and opportunity, and that's all that I want to do.

What is the status of "Brujas" (Saracho's series in development about four LatinX/Afro-Caribbean Women in Chicago) and how are you feeling about it?

I don't know. Maybe in two years. Nothing right now. Stuff feels like smoke coming out of my hands. Let's talk about it in a few months, and maybe I'll know what's happening with things.

 


Kevin Smokler

Kevin Smokler is the author of "Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies." He's a writer and documentary filmmaker based in San Francisco. He's currently working on a book of conversations with women filmmakers.

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