Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The powerful, poignant <i>Vida </i>may have ended, but its work has just begun

After three seasons of biting humor, hot sex, and even more passionate discussions about culture and identity, Starz’s Vida has closed its doors. The half-hour (in its first two seasons, anyway) drama ran for a total of 22 episodes, blazing a trail for Latinx talent behind the scenes and in front of the camera. As the first Latina showrunner of a premium cable series, Tanya Saracho challenged herself to introduce new “firsts” with each season, including having an all-Latina writers room by the second season and an all-Latina directing roster by the third, all while presenting vibrant, detailed depictions of Mexican American and queer culture on screen.

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The third season, which ended on May 31, is in some ways an abbreviated affair: Saracho says Starz offered her six episodes with which to say goodbye to the Hernandez sisters, Emma and Lyn (played, respectively, by Mishel Prada and Melissa Barrera), and the show’s fans. But Saracho and her writers, including Gladys Rodriguez, Jenniffer Gómez, and Lindsey Villarreal, found a way to make the most of the shortened season—by expanding the episode runtimes and packing each new installment with resonant storytelling and striking imagery. Season three boasts a delightfully debauched queerceañera for Marcos (Tonatiuh), what’s probably premium cable’s first mariachi karaoke performance with all female musicians, and a drag king show that sparked yet another one of Vida’s expansive conversations on LGBTQ+ people and the comforts and limitations of labels.

Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada
Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada
Photo: Starz

But even with the cast, writers, directors, and music supervisors firing on all cylinders, it’s impossible not to want more from Vida season three. The relationship between Emma and Nico (Roberta Colindrez) hangs in the air, along with Nico’s invitation for Emma to join her on her trip to finish her book. Mari (Chelsea Rendon), the chingona activist who mocked the Hernandez sisters for being “whitinas” in the pilot, finds herself without a cohort when she urges Los Vigilantes to look beyond Vida (the bar, though it’s also the nickname of Emma and Lyn’s late mother) when it comes to opposing the gentrification of Boyle Heights. Mari and Johnny (Carlos Miranda) also lose their father, which creates even more unresolved issues for the sister and brother. There is a promising development in their relationship, though, as Johnny recognizes their father’s machista ways and agrees to put Mari’s name on the deed to their house, which is now bereft of one smelly old armchair.

All that, and there was still enough going on with the Hernandezes to have devoted all six episodes to the latest challenges facing Emma and Lyn. The sisters have managed to find their way back to each other time and again, after estrangement, their mother’s death, betrayal, Lyn’s selfishness, and Emma’s defense mechanisms. Season three sees the return of their father, Victor (Blood In, Blood Out’s Jesse Borrego, who’s practically Latinx royalty), an abusive man and born-again evangelical. When the earnest Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), Vida’s widow and the sisters’ occasionally reluctant business partner, reveals to Emma and Lyn that their father is still alive, they revert to their old patterns. Emma shuts him out, while Lyn makes herself over in the image their father will find the most appropriate, in part because she can sense the dissatisfaction emanating from her handsome politician boyfriend Rudy (Adrian Gonzalez) and his overbearing mother Silvia (Lidia Porto) over her current façade.

Chelsea Rendon
Chelsea Rendon
Photo: Starz

They both eventually learn that the homophobic Victor was the real reason behind Emma’s move to Chicago as a child. It’s enough to make Emma want to walk away from the entire Hernandez family, but not before showing great vulnerability before her sister: “You break my heart, Lyn.” The only thing more heartbreaking is Lyn’s plea to her sibling: “Please don’t give up on me, Emma. You’re the only one that’s never given up on me.” The sisters establish yet another shaky truce, but there’s no big speech, no knock-down, drag-out fight over what they both need to improve upon. There’s simply an invitation: “You coming?”

Saracho could have taken this time to show the sisters battling it out with their father in probate court, or reveal whether “content creation” is a viable form of activism for Mari, or found some other way to point to point to a happy ending. Instead, she echoes Emma’s invitation, but in this case, it’s an offer to keep doing the work to expand and refine Latinx representation on TV.

Ser Anzoategui
Ser Anzoategui
Photo: Starz

Since Vida premiered in 2018, nearly a dozen Latinx-led shows have either premiered or been renewed, including Freeform’s Party Of Five reboot, Netflix’s Gentefied—which similarly explores the class and culture clash among Chicanos—and On My Block, further making inroads at traditional and streaming outlets. These series span genres, from the crime drama of Mayans M.C. to the supernatural romance of Roswell, New Mexico. The wonderfully bizarre Los Espookys is primarily in Spanish, but it airs on HBO instead of HBO Latino. Alternatino With Arturo Castro may be moving to Quibi, but for a while, the sketch series saw its namesake Broad City breakout reflect and refract what it means to be a Latino man for Comedy Central audiences. Amazon’s Undone is a mixed-media masterpiece with a bicultural family at its core, an abrasive Latina lead (Rosa Salazar as Alma) who would make the surly Emma proud, and Latinx producing talent that help make its story ring true.

Latinx creators and performers have also made headway in children’s programming with the animated The Casagrandes and Disney+’s live-action Diary Of A Future President. Real-life stories of migration are retold on Apple TV+’s anthology series, Little America. And while Pose, Superstore, The Mandalorian, and network dramas like Station 19 and Magnum P.I., aren’t primarily centered on Latinx communities, they’ve all had Latinx actors in lead roles, including Jay Hernandez, M.J. Rodriguez, America Ferrera, and Pedro Pascal.

Roberta Colindrez
Roberta Colindrez
Photo: Starz

That progress is proving as hard-won as it is elusive: For every last-minute rescue of a show like One Day At A Time, there’s a show like On My Block and The Baker And The Beauty up on the chopping block. A series based on the life of the Queen of Tejano, Selena Quintanilla-Perez, is in the works at Netflix, but as shows like Vida, On My Block, and even One Day At A Time prove, three seasons seems to be the cutoff point for shows with Latinx casts (though, as Maureen Ryan notes in Vanity Fair, the “third and final season” could be an indication that TV as a whole is sabotaging itself).

The third season of Vida also effectively marks the end of Saracho’s three-year deal with Starz, the signing of which was a momentous occasion for the former Chicago-based playwright and the premium-cable channel. ODAAT co-creator Gloria Calderón Kellett has been forthcoming about the difficulties she’s had placing new shows despite the success of her Pop TV (and formerly Netflix) series. It’s hard to tell where things go from here, to gauge just how long it will be until another show captures the complexities and joys of being Mexican American, of navigating two cultures and languages, while also offering up sex scenes that are so sensual and compassionate that they put most every heteronormative pairing on TV (and film, for that matter) to shame. Maybe it’ll even be Saracho who picks up the torch; or maybe, if she finds a way to move forward with Brujas, a show about four AfroLatinx characters, Saracho will challenge herself yet again and center a story on a group of people marginalized within another group of marginalized people. When I spoke to Saracho in April, she told me she had no plans for any Vida spin-offs, but this one-of-a-kind cast and crew absolutely should find their way into other stories and productions.

Carlos Miranda
Carlos Miranda
Photo: Starz

So take note, Hollywood executives: If you’re looking for an imperious or unlikable lead capable of great sensuousness and fragility, cast Mishel Prada, who gave prickly Chicanas their own patron saint. If your film or series needs a female lead with poise and/or a knack for physical humor, look no further than Melissa Barrera, who switched effortlessly between the two while imbuing Lyn with greater growth than just about any other character on the show. Coming-of-age stories and political dramas alike need someone like Chelsea Rendon, who was brilliant and mouthy and tender as “la pinche chinche” Mari. TV and movies will always need soulful fuck-ups and handsome everymen, and there’s no one better suited to the task than Carlos Miranda, who convinced viewers he was endgame before even Lyn realized it. Ser Anzoategui found countless layers of grief in their portrayal of the widow Eddy, but someone should cast this nonbinary actor in a romantic comedy—they’ve got the chops, not to mention great chemistry with actors like Karen Sours Albisua (who should also be in everything). And if anyone in your story needs seducing, Roberta Colindrez has been working her way across cable networks and streaming platforms in shows like The Deuce, Mr. Robot, and Mrs. America.

Whole series could be based on any of these performers, with the help of creators like Saracho, writers like Santa Sierra and Nancy C. Mejia, and directors like Jenée LaMarque, Catalina Aguilar Mastretta, and Gandja Monteiro. Saracho’s creative imperative has been “no stories about us without us,” but it should be adopted far and wide. And if filmmakers and showrunners are looking to tell incisive, sexy, and gut-wrenching Latinx-led tales, Vida’s IMDB page should be their first stop.

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