Maria-Elena Laas, Ser Anzoategui, Mishel Prada, Melissa Barrera, Carlos Miranda, and Chelsea Rendon star in Vida
Photo: Starz

“Ni de aquí, ni de allá” is a Spanish saying, one that’s used to describe what it’s like to be Latinx in the United States. It translates to not being from here nor there—their positions flip, but these locales are the U.S. and Latin American countries—but what it means is being asked by strangers where you’re from, then immediately asked where your parents are from if your response to the first question is a U.S. city. On the other side of the border, gulf, or ocean, it means being called “pocha” when you’re visiting relatives no matter how fluent you are in Spanish. In other words, it means always being other-ed, despite sharing language or skin color.

That liminal state is touched on in Latinx-led shows like One Day At A Time and Jane The Virgin, and is also found in similarly delightful and diasporic sitcoms like Fresh Off The Boat and Black-ish. It’s also a reality for the majority of the U.S.’s Hispanic population, which is at least second-generation American, meaning there are potentially millions of us who feel caught between two worlds or cultures. Studies show conflicting data on how many U.S. Hispanics speak Spanish these days, but they do demonstrate that Spanish is the most commonly spoken non-English language here. The future of the language seems much brighter than that of its native and heritage speakers in this country, though Spanish is hardly the only thing that defines Latinidad. It all makes for a lived experience that’s specific but ineffable, and one that few shows have captured as immediately and expansively as Vida, the Starz dramedy premiering May 6.

Executive produced by veteran playwright and TV writer Tanya Saracho, the series takes place in Boyle Heights, a gentrifying neighborhood in east Los Angeles. Saracho, who got her start on How To Get Away With Murder and went on to write for Looking and Girls, wrings some biting comedy from the gentrifying hipster trope. But as a series with a Latinx cast and writers room, it avoids centering its stories of otherness, migration, and gentrification on whiteness. Instead, the smart and ambitious Vida does all of its world-building in this Eastside neighborhood, finding more than enough humor and conflict, as well as economic diversity, among its Latinx denizens. Their shared cultures and languages—American, Mexican; English, Spanish, and Spanglish—can’t prevent misunderstandings, nor do they ensure everyone has the same income, education, or values. Because, when it comes down to it, does it matter that the person displacing you speaks the same language or has the same dulce-de-leche complexion, if you have to give up the home your family’s lived in for generations?

Vida poses this question and many others during its first season because, despite featuring a satisfying finale, it primarily wants to engender more discussion on matters of queerness, housing insecurity, immigration, homophobia, and what it means to be bicultural. Early on, its premise recalls Six Feet Under, while its hybrid structure and unconventional family place it in the company of streaming series like Transparent. Vida offers compellingly unique perspectives (queer, female, Latinx), but within the framework of some universal themes—life, death, family, and of course, sex. Like its network brethren, Outlander and American Gods, there’s lots of sex and nudity, including full-frontal male nudity. But the emphasis is on female pleasure, because this is a show primarily written by women.

Mishel Prada, Melissa Barrera, and Ser Anzoategui
Photo: Starz

We’re introduced to the Hernandez sisters, Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), as they prepare for their mother Vidalia’s funeral, which is when they also learn that their mother was married to a woman, Eddy (played by the magnetic, nonbinary performer Ser Anzoategui), and that they’re close to losing the family home—a mixed-use building with apartments for rent—as well as the family bar, known as La Chinita. The whole family was estranged, so much so that the sisters know little more than the broad strokes about each other’s lives at this point. The tightly wound Emma left their Eastside neighborhood for Chicago and a cushy corporate job, while boho Lyn has drifted through California, often at some trustafarian’s side. They’re clearly ambivalent about returning to their ’hood, but their old neighbors don’t exactly welcome them back either. Before the premiere ends, they’re called “whitinas” (as in, “white Latinas”), and “Tia Toms.” On Vida, you can go home again, but someone might call you a “puta” if they think you’re helping make way for real-estate developers.

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Having previously worked on Brooklyn-set shows featuring attractive millennials, Saracho could have easily constructed an “us versus them” dynamic, and showed the Hernandez sisters bonding with their tenants and neighbors to thwart off the invasion of cuffed jeans-wearing, upwardly mobile, newly-swilling-maté white hipsters. But, as Saracho told me by phone, the story of Boyle Heights, the neighborhood that inspired Vida, is much more complicated—in its case, the call for gentrification is coming from inside the house. Throughout the 1950s, the area was ethnically and racially diverse, but by the ’60s, it became “a hotbed of the civil rights movement when it came to the Mexican American culture.” Starz actually tapped Saracho to head up the series and capture the shifting demographics and the ongoing battle over land—and identity. “Right now, the local factions are trying to stave off change, and then these gentrifying forces try to bring change about. That transition or that resistance to that transition is what made this such an interesting story for me to tell,” Saracho said.

Gentrification wars have been waged elsewhere onscreen, on dramedies like Shameless, Insecure, and The Last O.G., as well as webseries like Aka Wyatt Cenac. But Vida offers a twist: the gentrifiers are actually “gente-fiers,” or fellow Mexican-Americans. Here, the people helping to price you and your parents or children out of your neighborhood look like you, could have gone to school with you—or, as we see with Lyn and Marisol (Chelsea Rendon), they might have been your babysitter. The bulk of the action centers on Emma and Lynn, and whether they’ll sell the bar and building to get out of debt, despite their mother and stepmother’s wishes. But along the way, Saracho and her writers, including Nancy Mejia and Santa Sierra, explore how being upwardly mobile has affected Emma and Lynn, while questioning if they can ever truly leave their culture behind.

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This, of course, prompts the question of which culture, and what aspects of it, but though those sound like items on a curriculum, Vida folds them into a thoughtful, occasionally melodramatic, and thoroughly entertaining story. Prada and Barrera really gel over the course of the season, gradually revealing just how much the polar-opposite sisters still have in common. They’re both prickly and self-involved, which aren’t historically the most desired traits in women; Emma’s abrasiveness in particular is something we don’t usually see in Latina characters, who are often portrayed as outgoing, bubbly, or “passionate.” (The younger, more affluent ones, anyway; older Latina characters often end up maids.) But the show makes a good case for how Emma and Lyn ended up the way that they did, though it doesn’t absolve them of their part in gente-fying their old neighborhood, which we learn is about more than just pondering an offer for their building.

According to Saracho, it also takes into account how Emma and Lyn “aligned with the dominant [white] culture, thinking they’ll be fine and not marginalized.” In a separate conversation, Barrera pointed out that makes the sisters’ homecoming such a rough one: “We can’t escape our roots. I feel like that’s something that’s very universal. And the fact that these girls are just trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in in their family dynamic, in the community that they come back to, and the world in general is something that everyone can relate to.”

Photo: Starz

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In this way, Vida becomes as much a story about gentrification as it is internal migration (Emma moved from L.A. to Chicago, which both have significant Mexican-American populations) and immigration in general. But it addresses those hot-button issues in a subtle and surprising manner. Spurred on by recent calls for greater inclusivity, Hollywood’s ordered several new immigration-centered dramas, including a Latinx-led Party Of Five reboot, a Fox drama about an immigration lawyer starring Orange Is The New Black’s Diane Guerrero, and a CBS drama about a Latina doctor, whose career is stymied when she immigrates to Miami, that’s executive produced by Jane The Virgin and Annihilation star Gina Rodriguez. Then there’s the Roswell reboot plans to drop the allegory, and populate the New Mexico town with aliens and undocumented immigrants.

The prodigal daughters at the center of Vida are also seen as extranjeras in their hometown, but by the people they physically resemble most. Emma learned “proper” Mexican Spanish, but her tax bracket sets her a world apart from the people she now shares her mother’s building with, who are low income and, in some cases, undocumented. Vida treats that status matter of factly, because it remains a part of the Mexican-American experience, even for multigenerational families. But the series smartly notes that there are layers to that experience, and different types of consequences depending on your status. As Prada told me, “My grandmother and my mother are immigrants. My grandmother brought my mother over when she was a small child. And I am American, but I am the first person, or rather, I’m the first line in my family to be American. And where does that completely fit in?”

The desire to tap into the immigration debate and speak up for the most vulnerable among the already marginalized is understandable, even laudable. But it ignores demographic reality, as well as the considerable influence Latinx people have had and continue to have in this country. It’s as if studio and TV execs can only manage one prevailing Hispanic narrative at a time, and given the president’s ongoing efforts to legitimize xenophobia and hatred, they chose the one that seems the most urgent. That’s no comment on the quality of the immigration dramas currently in production, but if the 2016-2017 TV season alone could have multiple time-travel shows, then surely there’s room for more Latinx-led stories, including ones that don’t rely on positioning us as outsiders.

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Photo: Starz

Saracho has helped create a one-of-a-kind show here, one that balances its humor and social commentary with deep dives into grief and change, set against the backdrops of gentrification and immigration. As overly ambitious as that sounds, Vida mostly nails it, thanks to the team in front of and behind the camera. As Saracho said, this vibrant, relevant, and poignant story couldn’t have happened without the right storytellers, who, incidentally, can be found in Hollywood’s backyard.

Give us a shot. Look what happens when you do, you get One Day At A Time. You get Vida. Look what happens when you get to do it right. It has an insider’s point of view and it doesn’t come across as a safari. So often these shows that are not handled by Latinas or Latinos, they look and feel like safaris or zoo expeditions: “Let’s go see how these people live.” That’s not what we want. We want inside out, not outside in, the way white shows get to be.

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