What Latino Critics Are Saying About Starz’s Queer Latina Series ‘Vida’

Lead Photo: Courtesy of Starz
Courtesy of Starz
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Starz recently released a new series into the world and it’s since gotten rave reviews for the Los Angeles-set drama Vida. (If you missed the season opener, you can watch the entire episode here.) In this sun-drenched half-hour drama, sisters Lyn and Emma must return home to the Eastside after the sudden death of their mother. They confront a neighborhood that is quickly changing (Lyn wonders out loud, “I guess no one worries about drive-bys anymore”) and their mother’s secrets, including her marriage to a woman.

With a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes and reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter calling the show “authentic” and “like few other shows on TV,” we wondered what do Latinos think of Vida? Because really, should white critics get to decide if a show about Latinos is truly authentic? Let’s be real: anyone who watches the first episode and doesn’t notice that Mishel Prada looks like she’s never eaten a taco in her life can’t be a real arbiter of Mexican culture.

We asked a handful of Latino film and TV critics to watch the first two episodes and write about it. Here’s what they had to say.

– Vanessa Erazo, Film & TV Editor

"Witty and sexy and woke, Vida is the kind of out-there series about broken but resilient Latinx families many of us have been waiting for."

Courtesy of Starz

“Que pasa mi raza?” The very first words we hear in Vida address and create an audience at the same time. Speaking into her laptop, Mari (Chelsea Rendon) is a perfect introduction to the world of this show. Her dark lips, big hoops and bandanna all match her no-fucks-given attitude. She’s concerned about encroaching gentrification – in fact, before we hear her address her vlog followers we see her put up yet another anti-gentrification sticker on her wall. Immediately, this East Side-based series puts us squarely into a world where the personal is political and where every space is a place of contention.

By the time we meet Emma and Lyn (Mishel Prada and Melissa Barrera) and get to see how their family dynamics will intersect with Mari’s activism, the show’s made it clear it’s not afraid to wade into varying (and conflicting) visions of Latinidad in 2018. Here’s where I think the strength of Vida lies: it anchors its story in the particular and refuses to treat any of its Latinx characters as tokens. The Selena memories, the flans, the chilaquiles, the Spanglish all feels organic; an outgrowth of a world where floral prints and protest graffiti is rampant. They feel less like attempts at authenticity than authenticity rendered visible.

That’s also what I most enjoy about its approach to queerness. Sex is treated as a valid and valuable part of each character’s journey – all sex scenes inform character and advance story. Having your ex go down on you in an alley soon after your mom dies is the kind of poignantly specific scene that tells you a lot about Lyn’s emotional state as well as the show’s overall approach to feminist sex-positivity (even in characters who are cheating on their partners).

Witty and sexy and woke, Vida is the kind of out-there series about broken but resilient Latinx families many of us have been waiting for. Also, any show that uses the line, “Here’s closure: you waited to dump me until after I ate your ass” (addressed at a male actor unafraid to go full frontal) is gonna get a big two thumbs up from me.

– Manuel Betancourt

"A show that pities no one, tackling colorism, classism, and family dynamics in an unapologetic and honest manner."

Courtesy of Starz

With only two episodes out so far, Vida has already established itself as a show that pities no one, tackling colorism, classism, and family dynamics in an unapologetic and honest manner. It has a quality that people like to say they look for in friends — a ‘realness’ of sorts that can only stir itself up in the hands of an all-Latinx writers room. Commandeered by Tanya Saracho (How to Get Away with Murder, Looking) with an almost entirely Latinx cast and crew, the series follows two sisters as they return home to East Los Angeles following the death of their mother.

From the start, the show boldly proclaims what it is by featuring a young activist in a way that, for once, doesn’t directly poke fun at their identity or passion. Chelsea Rendon’s Mari is a chola in a light that guides the viewer to respect her, despite her young years and perhaps in spite of the narrative that surrounds chola identity to white audiences. The show presents viewers with its stars directly after, sisters Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada), who have not seen each other for years, on purpose. The friction between them is palpable from the moment they see one another, following the introduction of Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), their late mother’s partner, which only makes things more complicated than they already are.

The dynamic between the two sisters felt familiar and portrayed a familiar, but rarely depicted relationship. It’s not often that we see estranged sisters in the light and darkness that we do with these two. The women and non-men of the narrative steer the show, and while that might not be new to this particular genre of drama (modern, family, no swords involved — yet) it’s refreshing to see queer characters presented without apology as real, valid people who mean something to the show’s endgame.

The show’s short first season will end on its sixth episode, which is likely why it isn’t waiting around for its viewers to process any feelings. This is not to say that the narrative is rushed — it’s just less forgiving to the heart, maybe, but good stories always tend to break hearts, anyway.

– Catrina Dennis

"An intriguing, intimate, and culturally expressive approach to storytelling."

Courtesy of Starz

With Latinx representation on TV slowly increasing over the last few years with shows like Jane the Virgin, One Day at a Time and Narcos, it’s time for industry raza to start demanding even more. And it’s time for studios to realize that the largest ethnic minority in the country isn’t going to start pulling punches just because a few producers were smart enough to make the new Karate Kid Ecuadorian.

Leading the charge in 2018 and doing it with an authenticity rarely seen on the small screen is Mexican-American playwright and TV writer Tanya Saracho as the creator of the new dramatic series Vida on the Starz network. In the first two episodes, Saracho and her crew, which includes the first-ever all-Latinx writers’ room in Hollywood, prove they’re not interested playing it safe. These talented Latinx are ground-and-pound MMA fighters with a clear agenda – to take an intriguing, intimate, and culturally expressive approach to storytelling and to do it on their terms.

This cast of socially conscious Latinas headed by actresses Mishel Prada (Emma) and Melissa Barrera (Lyn) is distinct and honest. Prada and Barrera play two estranged Mexican-American sisters who reunite in their East Los Angeles neighborhood after the death of their mother, a tragedy that steers them down a path where secrets are revealed, political-economic issues are confronted, and identity is explored.

Saracho, who wrote the first episode and co-wrote the second with Santa Sierra, refuses to take the easy way out by pitting the siblings against each other because of their differences. Sure, Emma knows Spanish and practically orgasms when she eats Mexican food and Lyn only knows “pocho Spanglish” and is a vegan, but trying to categorize these young women so hastily will likely be the wrong decision as the series continues.

It’s refreshing to know that characters as real and complex as Emma and Lyn exist in an entertainment landscape where so much of what is on TV today is easily digestible and stereotypical. You know you’re doing something right when one of your main characters is a chola (Chelsea Rendon) and you make it a point to actually give her something substantial to say rather than diminishing the role into lazy clichés. If all you get from Vida is the appreciation for a life that is not your own, go ahead and mark a point for Saracho for scoring a knockout.

– Kiko Martinez

"I had never seen the Los Angeles Latinx community I know represented on screen, until now."

Courtesy of Starz

When I first watched Vida’s opening scene, with ‘La Pinche Chinche’ aka “Mari” (Chelsea Rendon) addressing her followers with a passionate anti-gentrification speech, I knew this show would be different and it is for one big reason: It’s real. I am a rarity here in Los Angeles, a native-born in a now shuttered hospital in the recently gentrified area of Echo Park and grew up in both Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights. For most of my life, I had never seen the Los Angeles Latinx community I know represented on screen, until now.

Showrunner Tanya Saracho gives life to the most amazing, and inclusive cast of characters that are real representations of the very Latinx community they are portraying. Vida isn’t a presentation of the one-size-fits-all Latinx person that other shows have shown before it, nor is it one set example of what kind of lifestyle Latinx families lead. Vida puts everything out there- in its very two episodes. With a very female and a cinematic lens, we, the audience, get to see the issues that plague Latinx communities like colorism, homophobia, machismo, gentefication and more. Each issue is a major plot point that poses questions, never once trying to say what is the right answer, but also never overshadowing the heart of it all- familia. The Hernandez sisters, Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), and their complicated relationship with their deceased mother allows an exploration of feelings of who they are and where they came from which affects the entire community around them.

Just two episodes in and every character feels like someone I could meet if I walked around my neighborhood, every scene feels like it could be a still from one of the casitas I grew up around. With every note of the carefully chosen music, I could not only feel myself at home- but I could smell the chilaquiles Eddy made for the sisters in the first episode, and I could almost taste that flan that Eddy and Emma shared in the second. Vida is more than a TV show; it’s the L.A. Latinx life finally getting the respect it deserves.

– Yolanda Machado

"Not everything that happens to these siblings speaks directly to me, but there is plenty there for me to feel represented."

Courtesy of Starz

Unequivocally critical of gentrification that results in the displacement of people of color (sometimes by Latinos themselves) and consistently reflecting a myriad of Latino experiences, Tanya Saracho’s series Vida is a product nurtured by a direct source, and not secondhand visions of what someone else believes being Latino looks like. Its protagonists, sisters Lyn and Emma, like many of us, are searching for a way to reconcile the lives they’ve lead out there in the white world with the idiosyncratic particularities of the place they grew up in, one that is rapidly changing to become a nearly unrecognizable version of itself.

Plugging back into the struggles of the people in their past, as well as the fulfilling memories such as dancing to Selena with their mother or the joys of eating flan, is also a personal awaking through which they rediscover Latinidad as something worth flaunting and not suppressing. Authenticity is a dicey term, but if it could definitely be applied here, because the stories refuse to be simplistic and that in turn makes what’s on screen more recognizable. Not everything that happens to these siblings speaks directly to me, but there is plenty there for me to feel represented.

Capturing the uneven and unpredictable rhythms in which bilingual Latinos traverse between English and Spanish with ease is a tall order. Vida occasionally succeeds, but this is still a difficult element to portray. The Spanish words in the dialogue are often overemphasized to make themselves known rather than being inconspicuous and blending seamlessly, like it happens in the real word. There is one scene in episode one where the sisters discuss the “pocho” Spanish their mother spoke and her use of words like “wachale” and “parkear,” which is specifically hilarious and truly showcases the bridges and divides between the ways we talk.

One major move on the part of the showrunners is the group of directors selected to helm the first reason. All of them accomplished filmmakers and collectively representing the inclusion the show stands. for. The list of five includes three women directors (Catalina Aguilar Mastretta, So Yong Kim, and Rose Troche), two Mexican storytellers (Alonso Ruizpalacios and Aguilar Mastretta), one US Latino (Rashaad Ernesto Green) and two artists with a history of championing LGBTQ narratives (So Yong Kim and Troche). Just like with Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, the people selected to be behind the camera speak volumes about the tangible commitment to diversity on both shows.

– Carlos Aguilar

"Tanya Saracho’s show avoids creating a made-for-TV monolithic Mexican-American experience."

Courtesy of Starz

Although this show begins with a surprise death, there is so much life in Vida. When two Mexican-American sisters, Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) Hernandez, return to East Los Angeles to deal with the sudden death of their mother, they find a less than welcoming homecoming. As if the pending funeral and wake wasn’t stressful enough, drama from the sisters’ past and present only escalates at this difficult time. Lyn and Emma are paired just as closely as oil and water, repelling and avoiding the other as polar opposites. Their stories are emotional, messy but most importantly – they feel authentic.

In just two episodes, Vida gives audiences a glimpse of the Mexican-American community left offscreen in Hollywood’s version of Los Angeles. Latinx folks make up the majority of the city’s population, yet Vida and One Day at a Time are among the first examples where a TV show reflects that reality – a place where flan heals all wounds and chisme travels at the speed of light.

In addition to the personal dramas playing out between sisters, old friends and exes, Vida also tackles some of our communities’ social problems. The most obvious of which is gentrification, a cause activist Mari (Chelsea Rendon) fights against with her YouTube channel. Through her experience and occasionally that of other characters, the show depicts the many pros and cons of gentrification: the small victory of getting wifi at the panadería offset by the loss of property and the Columbus-ing of our cultures.

Vida’s daughters only learn their mother is a lesbian after her death and how they deal with it and isn’t always easy to watch. They don’t accept their mother’s partner, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui) at first, and their rejection feels all that more emotional. It looks like there’s a lot more of this story to be revealed in upcoming episodes.

With so much diversity between the characters, Tanya Saracho’s show avoids creating a made-for-TV monolithic Mexican-American experience. Emma, whose veganism prevents her from eating most traditional dishes, connects differently to her culture than her fluent Spanish speaking sister, Lyn, but they can both nostalgically bond over the memories of singing Selena songs with their mom. Our Latinx experiences are even more varied than most television shows or movies have given us credit for – until now.

– Monica Castillo