When the drama “Vida” landed on the Starz network in May, it generated plenty of expectation. For one, there was the story of two estranged Mexican American sisters coping with their mother’s death amid the creeping changes of the Latino neighborhood they grew up in. And the show was led by a Latina showrunner (Tanya Saracho) and an almost all-Latina writer’s room on an English-language television network, an event bordering on the historic.
“We don’t get a lot of chances to tell our complicated narratives,” Saracho told The Times upon the show’s debut. “I feel like progress will be made in the landscape of Latino influence when we get to tell those murky, real close-to-life narratives.”
Those complex narratives are likely why “Vida” was renewed for a second season last month. The show tells the story of career-focused lawyer Emma (played by Mishel Prada) and her flaky younger sister, Lyn (Melissa Barrera), who come together to deal with their mother’s personal effects in the wake of her death. This includes a debt-ridden bar that is minutes away from falling into the hands of an unscrupulous real estate prospector, the fact that Mom never told her daughters she was a lesbian and that, incidentally, she had a wife (who owns a third of the bar).
The show has provided plenty to talk about. There is lots of conflict and (impressive) sex. Plus, it is set in Boyle Heights, the historic Eastside neighborhood that has been the site of highly visible clashes over gentrification. But more significant, “Vida” is the ultimate Los Angeles show — one in which Hollywood sheds its misperceptions about Los Angeles (that we’re all bikini blondes and palm trees) in favor of portraying a more textured view of the city — in this case, a view that is resolutely Latina.
Times editorial assistant and Calendar contributor Vera Castaneda and I have had regular, gossipy “Vida” debriefs on Slack and in person after the airing of each episode. Recently, we got together for a more formal email exchange to discuss what resonated — and what we’d like to see further developed in Season 2.
True to life
CAROLINA MIRANDA: I wanted to start with the storylines that “Vida” rips straight from the headlines — namely around the issue of gentrification. This is frequently addressed through the character of Mari (engagingly played by Chelsea Rendon), who is a member of an anti-gentrification group called Los Vigilantes de Los Angeles (which seems modeled on groups such as Defend Boyle Heights).
There is a scene in the second episode in which you see Mari railing against “gentrification fence,” the horizontal wood slat fences that have become an architectural symbol of gentrification. In that same episode, Mari spraypaints “F— White Art” on a gallery in Boyle Heights. This was all shot within view of Nicodim, the Boyle Heights art gallery where this really happened in 2016.
You were raised in Boyle Heights and currently live there. I’m curious to know how the show reads to you.
VERA CASTANEDA: I approach any material that name-checks Boyle Heights with anticipation and wariness. Television and movies so often miss the mark and slide into cliches. (I’m thinking of you, “Lowriders.”)
The show offers some compelling glimpses of Boyle Heights. There are scenes of characters buying fruit, tamales and chamoyadas (shaved ice) from street vendors. There’s a scene when they are removing the bar’s geisha signage that hints at Boyle Heights’ history — the wave of Japanese Americans who lived in the area before being sent to internment camps in the ’40s. And there is the bar itself, which is reminiscent of Redz, an important lesbian bar from the ’50s that was located on 1st Street. (It closed in 2015 but reopened last year as Redz Angelz.)
Still, “Vida” falls short of moving beyond the standard filming locations of Evergreen Cemetery, Mariachi Plaza and 1st Street. Large chunks of the show were shot in Pico-Union, and there are reasons for that.
In a KCRW interview, Saracho explained that during a two-day pilot shoot in Boyle Heights, there were protests and she was called a “white-tina” (something she ended up working into the script). As she told KCRW: “We filmed what we had to quickly to respect their opinion because they are right. It does become this big force when Hollywood arrives in these neighborhoods.”
Unfortunately, the change in location is a missed opportunity for a show that pulls so much from Boyle Heights and is all about losing a sense of place. It doesn’t offer the neighborhood a cinematic chance to be seen in as much complexity as the women in the story.
MIRANDA: The women in the show are pretty great. “Jane the Virgin” aside, a lot of mainstream TV shows are still stuck on the idea of Latinas as maids and sexy bombshells. “Vida” has a striking diversity of characters — of all ages, education levels and sexual orientations — even if the writers are still in the process of working some of them out.
Eddy, the mom’s widow (played by Ser Anzoategui) feels vastly underwritten. But I am intrigued by the interior life the writers have managed to give the sisters: Lyn, the dippy party girl who lives on other people’s credit cards and doesn’t miss a workout, and Emma, whose method of dealing with tumult is focusing on work. These are women who grew up in the neighborhood, left to live other lives and are now back to a place that wasn’t quite the one that they left behind. They are contending with death, identity, family, resentment and class.
Plus, Emma gets some good zingers. In the last episode of the season, there is a moment in which Nelson, the creepy (and cartoonishly rendered) real estate developer shows up at the bar. Eddy tells Emma, “I’m not leaving you with that asshole.” Emma responds: “Don’t worry, I speak fluent asshole.” My kind of gal.
CASTANEDA: The dialogue in scenes where the characters call each other out on their flaws is the best at hitting issues of identity, colorism and class without the moralism of an after-school special.
In the fifth episode, Emma tries to book an Airbnb house with a gentrification fence and ends up fighting in the street with Mari, the activist. They continue arguing as they sit in jail. Mari asks Emma, “How does one, like, denounce their entire culture just so they can pass for white?” Emma says, “You start off by getting rid of that huge chip on your shoulder that you suffer from, and you go out to get an education so you can stop acting so rasquache” — slang meaning “lower class” and “tacky.” Their heated argument ends up touching on double standards for men and women. It also leads to a tender moment, where the characters find compassion for each other.
Other moments can be awkward, especially the Spanglish. There is no wrong way to speak Spanglish. By definition, it’s an improvised language. But I have a hard time overlooking the rhythm of it in the show and picturing someone Mari’s age using words like “vato,” “carnala” and “firme.” Growing up, we only used those words to poke fun of the older generation’s slang or to recite “Blood In Blood Out” scenes for laughs.
MIRANDA: What I’ve found most intriguing about “Vida” is something you raised previously: the subtle scenarios the writers set up that touch on an intersecting range of issues around race and class. For me, one of the most poignant scenes comes in the fourth episode, when Lyn takes off to the Westside and ends up partying with a bunch of rich kids in the Hollywood Hills. There’s a scene in which a drunk young man vomits on the pool deck and someone yells out to the Latina maid to come clean it up. At the end of the episode, Lyn and the maid both find themselves on the same bus headed back to the Eastside.
Those scenes hit a nerve with me. I’m a fair-skinned Latina (a white-tina, some might say) and I’ve found myself in that position on more than one occasion — of watching people treat Latino workers with a complete lack of dignity or saying inappropriate things before me, without thinking it might be a problem. That scene captures the sting of those situations, in which you ask yourself who you are and what you’re willing to stand up for.
CASTANEDA: That final bus ride with Lyn and the maid is so good, so cutting.
Another resonant moment was in the same episode when the hipster, who invites Lyn to party in the hills, tries to figure out what Lyn means when she says she is visiting family on the Eastside. “Silver Lake?” he asks. Lyn responds: “Yeah around there,” with an inflection that is all too familiar for me.
The “where are you from?” question can be loaded with judgment about your character and class, or with the expectation that you will now entertain them with stories of drive-by shootings. To answer specifically is to, as you said so well, ask yourself who you are and what you’re willing to stand for up for that day. Lyn answers evasively. My go-to evasive answer (when I don’t have the patience to deal with people’s reactions) is “near downtown L.A.” I’ve heard people who grew up in South Central respond, “near USC.”
Lyn’s ability to pick up and leave out parts of her identity in her interactions with people is a privilege. I hope the second season brings more storylines about those who can’t omit parts of their identity so easily. It’s something we start to see in Eddy’s storyline in the last episode when she walks into a straight bar looking like herself, a butch lesbian.
The show wasn’t as satisfying as I hoped it would be. “Vida” carried a lot of baggage before it even made it to the screen. (As Cardi B has rapped: “The pressure on your shoulders feel like boulders / when you gotta make sure that everybody straight.”) But even with its problems, it serves as an important mirror to lived experience, it’s a blueprint for future shows and, of course, it’s good drama.