How Starz's 'Vida' Created a Safe Space to Explore Latinx and Queer Stories

In Starz's Vida, the characters often speak in Spanglish, peppering their majority-English sentences with Spanish words and phrases. It's an interesting move, especially because the show doesn't bother to subtitle these moments in order to accommodate non-Spanish speakers. But for some of the audience, it only adds to the authenticity.

In fact, much of Vida will feel authentic (and perhaps comforting) to Latinx and queer viewers — and especially those who fall into both groups. The half-hour drama focuses on two estranged sisters — Emma (Mishel Prada), steely and closed off or good reason, and younger Lyn (Melissa Barrera), an occasionally naive agent of chaos — who return to their old apartment in East Los Angeles after the sudden death of their mother, Vidalia. As expected, secrets are revealed: For one, Vidalia's "roommate" Eddy (Ser Anzoategui) is actually her wife.

According to first-time showrunner Tanya Saracho, who previously wrote for series like ABC's How to Get Away With Murder, HBO's Looking, and Lifetime's Devious Maids, it was Starz who approached her with the base idea. "They wanted a female millennial show about gentefication, which is the gentrification of a Latinx space," Saracho tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The queerness came from me. I identify as queer, and it had to be there."

While queer characters and storylines have been slowly increasing on television, a series like Vida still feels important and remarkable because of its wide range of representation. There's younger, femme Emma, who wrangles with her mother's hypocrisy and secrecy, and also older, butch Eddy, who struggles with the death of her wife. "Some people receive Eddy's presentation at first like, 'Oh she's going to be tough,' [but] she's the softest. She's the heart of the show." Throughout Vida's first season, viewers also get glimpses of Emma and Eddy's respective friend groups: queer people of all ages, ethnicities, genders, class statuses and education levels. Many, of course, are Latinx, which "is important because we haven't seen brown queers that much on TV, not unless sometimes we're the butt of a joke."

Vida never makes any of its queer characters into a punchline, nor are they stereotypes or lecturers meant to educate the viewers. "I just end up writing these real people and exploring queerness in a real way without too much didactic explanation of it," says Saracho. "There's some stuff we didn't want to explain. There's a genderqueer character and actor, there's a trans actor, but it's not about that." Instead, Vida exists in a place of realistic, lived-in queerness, where characters casually mention their "fluid" phase, or playfully identify another as a "power bottom" without stopping to explain. Saracho uses Emma as an example, citing her short nails in the pilot episode. "And then you see her in the third episode, she's a top femme. We don't claim it. We don't name it. Everyone's kind of living their reality."

Although the series is talking specifically about queerness, this approach also expands to the Latinx-specific aspects of the show. When asked about the show's use of Spanglish, Saracho is quick to note that Cubans in Miami, New Yoricans in New York and Mexican-Americans in East L.A. all speak different versions. "It's all very specific to the culture, and I love that we get to do Mexican-American Spanglish, because it's so specific to us." Vida depicts terms, foods and cultural norms that exist within the Latinx community but that aren't often included when television features a Latinx character. "I've never heard the term pocha on television, but that's a term that's in our community," Saracho says. "Those kinds of things that are code-switching moments are really important in the show even though they're not huge for the story. For me it was like, 'I've never seen a show that uses this terminology.'"

Another ongoing theme in Vida that reflects real-life Latinx communities is the examination of gentefiction, which is mostly shown through young activist Mari (Chelsea Rendon) who has an antagonistic relationship with Emma and Lyn. Different from gentrification, gentefication is specific to the Latinx community. It's when, as Saracho puts it, "we are now coming back to gentrify our own. We're still gentrifying forces, even if it's our own neighborhood." Mari, who works with an activist group, takes issue with these "chipsters" (Chicano hipsters) and "white-tinas" (white-passing Latinas) such as Emma who previously left her neighborhood to build a life in a new city but is now back.

Mari is a stand-in for people in the Latinx community who find themselves frustrated with their changing neighborhoods — and particularly in East Los Angeles. "I think, especially, a lot of Latinx in this town have an opinion on gentefication because they've already been displaced from their neighborhoods, or they're moving and becoming displacing forces themselves." But it's not just exclusive to one neighborhood, as Saracho also talks about her own experience in Chicago. "Those conversations seemed very familiar. It just denotes that the rest of the country's going through it in different iterations: the displacement and erasure."

This specificity in depicting queer and Latinx communities, and especially the women who inhabit them, is no stroke of good luck. Instead, it's simply what happens when you pack the cast and crew with writers who aren't imagining from the outside but who have lived experiences to bring to the table. The writers room, according to Saracho, is "all Latinx. There's one cis male, and we love him, and the rest is female-identified. … And half the room is queer. There's a cultural or gender shorthand that I haven't had [in past shows] because usually I'm the only or one of two females in the room." This shorthand means there's no need "to be a cultural ambassador," explains Saracho. "Sometimes when I was the only person of color in a room, you had to defend all the people of color everywhere. We don't have any of that especially because it's a very female-centric and Latinx room." In Vida's room, these writers from marginalized groups don't have to over-explain or defend queer-, Latinx- or women-centric stories to straight, white and/or male co-workers who don't understand because everyone already gets it.

When Saracho expands on her early beginnings as a playwright turned television writer, it's easy to see why the Vida room seems almost designed to be the opposite. Part of her struggle was because of being thrust into a new career without much preparation — "I had never seen Final Draft! I didn't know what an outline was!" — but part of it was that she "didn't know that my otherness was going to be a thing." Within the "first hour" of being a TV writer, her office mate "turns to me and he goes, 'You know you're the diversity writer, right?'" Later, she says, her agent both confirmed it and made it worse by explaining that it means she's free; she doesn't cost the showrunner any money. "So am I a writer?" Saracho recalls wondering. "Or what am I? Do I just sit there?"

"It's like you were less than, in a way. It was like you were not used to being quiet and it was the most-quiet year. It felt like I was there only to contribute about my ethnicity, about my gender, because it was a show about Latinas." Fortunately, Gloria Calderon Kellett, currently the showrunner on Netflix's rebooted One Day at a Time, eventually joined Lifetime's Devious Maids and "then it was great because it was like, 'Ah, a sister!'"

It's clear that the experience — which she says was all the Hollywood training she needed — had a lasting impact on Saracho; when discussing "imposter syndrome" of working in mostly white media offices, she easily relates: "Oh my God, I have that syndrome right now, talking to you. I don't think it ever goes away, does it?"

But with Vida, Saracho is no longer the "only one" in the room. And what's more, Vida is proving why this inclusivity can't just be limited to onscreen or within the writers room, it has to expand to all levels of production — an argument that tends to get lost in the shuffle when discussing inclusivity in television. "All of our production department heads [are] women," says Saracho, describing her cinematographer as "a badass Afro-Latina" and adding that the casting director, composer and editor are all Latina. This all adds up to a series that feels free of the male gaze, every step of the way. It makes for queer sex scenes featuring women, and genderqueer people, that aren't filmed from the perspective of a straight man. It also makes for a set that feels like a safe space — perhaps unintentionally mirroring how Vida's bar feels to people in the neighborhood — which feels wholly necessary in a world (and an industry) where these safe spaces are becoming increasingly important yet remain hard to find. (It's no surprise that while discussing the idea of safe spaces, Saracho bemoaned the fact that lesbian bars keep disappearing.)

Saracho notes that many of the actors in Vida are at the beginning of their careers, especially in the United States, and hadn't done nude or sex scenes before. For these scenes, it "really mattered" to have a female director and DP, and to have everybody else clear [the set] so it felt safe. Even the editors were all women.

Saracho explains that the show was built in three trimesters: writing, production and postproduction. "Women have been at the helm at every chance. Every trimester. I think that creating that safe space is really important."

In an ideal world, more television shows would follow the lead of Vida: packing a writers room with such diversity that no one is othered, filling important behind-the-scenes roles with talented women of color, constructing an environment where women feel safe and powerful even during on-set vulnerable moments, and creating a narrative where oft-ignored groups (such as queers of color) can see themselves celebrated onscreen. But, of course, we're not there yet. And even with the existence of Vida and similar shows it's hard to commit to that optimism because it always feels like it could get yanked away.

"Is it a moment or a trend?" Saracho wonders of television series that showcase the female  and queer gaze. "I hope to God it's not a trend, and that we're going through a moment that will change things, that will usher in more inclusivity of our perspectives." Saracho champions these narratives and even mentions a few, such as Sundance Now's The Close, centered on a deaf, gay, graphic novelist. "You can't keep telling the same narrative, and there's been a lot of the same narrative being told."

"The thing is about Vida, we're telling a very simple family narrative. There's nothing fancy about it. It's just that we're telling it from our point of view and we've never gotten the chance to do that. That's the only difference, and I think that's the next wave of this," Saracho says, then adds another hope: "Seeing a show about Latinas, hopefully, eventually, that has nothing to do with them being Latina. They just are. That would be amazing too. But right now, we have to do an identity show like Vida, because we don't have a lot of shots at this."

It's a sad truth, that shows that center on white  and straight narratives tend to get far more chances than shows with a more diverse perspective, so the latter series have to work extra hard to establish their viewpoints and come out of the gate swinging, often putting their identities front and center. Shows about white men are a dime a dozen whereas, Saracho says, "right now there's like four or five — depending on how you count — Latinx-gaze shows" despite how prominent the Latinx community is within the population.

"There's so much TV and we get five shows? That's the crime right there. Hopefully we will start to reflect how much space we take up in this country," she says.

Vida premieres May 6 on Starz.