In the Heights
Vida, Tanya Saracho’s tale of class, gender, race and family in L.A.’s Boyle Heights drew critical raves in season one.
When Starz decided to create original programming for the Latinx audience, one of the first people senior vice-president of original programming Marta Fernandez reached out to was Tanya Saracho, a playwright and writing veteran of shows such as HBO's Looking and ABC's How to Get Away with Murder.
"Her name kept popping up," Fernandez recalls. "Everyone kept saying how awesome she was."
Saracho most responded to an idea of Fernandez's that was inspired by both a Richard Villegas Jr. short story called "Pour Vida" and by a Los Angeles Times article about concerns in the predominantly Hispanic Boyle Heights neighborhood over gentefication, or gentrification by upscale Latinos of their own working-class communities.
By the time Saracho returned to Fernandez's office, she'd mapped out at least half of the first season of what would become her critically acclaimed series, Vida (Spanish for life).
"It was clear that she'd been thinking about a show like Vida for a really long time," Fernandez says. "It was obviously the right material for the right writer."
Saracho's premise revolved around two estranged Mexican-American siblings who have successfully fled East L.A.: imperious Chicago fashionista Emma (Mishel Prada) and her younger sister, irresponsible San Francisco party girl Lyn (Melissa Barrera). They return home reluctantly to do some estate-settling after the sudden death of their mother, Vidalia (legendary Zoot Suit actress Rose Portillo).
They spend the rest of the season dealing with Boyle Heights politics and the baggage of their mother's failing lesbian bar and — perhaps most significant — processing that bartender Eddy (Ser Anzoategui) wasn't just their mother's roommate, but her wife.
When Vida premiered last May, reviewers hailed it for spotlighting the young Mexican-American community known as "chipsters," as well as for how a staple of Starz programming — explicit sex scenes — became a legitimate storytelling device, something meant to reveal who these characters are.
"They have agency — they're unapologetic about their sexuality," Saracho says of all of the individuals who populate the world of Vida, not just the conventionally beautiful ones. "They're complicated."
Not only is Vida the first U.S. premium-cable series that tells its story from the perspective of female and/or LGBTQ Hispanic characters, Saracho also broke ground by assembling a Latinx-only writers' room. In the second season, she hired only Latinx female directors, many of whom (herself included) are directing TV for the first time.
When season one actually aired, though, creator–executive producer Saracho may have undersold her benchmark achievements to her mother.
"I told her, 'Mom, I'm fine. I have a job,'" Saracho says, admitting that she worried about her mother's reaction to what she laughingly calls "the naughtiness." Not to worry: mom couldn't resist the series' emotional pull. "She watches it over and over and over again," Saracho reports. (Executive-producing with Saracho are Robin Schwartz, Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub of Big Beach TV and Stephanie Langhoff.)
The show's themes of class, race and churning family dynamics spoke equally to Chelsea Rendon, who plays Mari, a back-talking, anti-gentrification activist character, in a portrayal one critic singled out as "fierce and funny." Rendon was raised in Montebello, a 20-minute drive from Boyle Heights.
Her mother grew up in the neighborhood, and her uncle worked for 30 years in the kitchen at El Tepeyac, an East L.A. landmark.
"Everything Mari cares for, so do I," Rendon says. "I have family [in Boyle Heights]. I go to the same places here — Tamales Lilianas, El Mercadito. The way I connect to Mari is, 'What if this was all taken?' I want to be able to bring my kids here and say, 'This is where I grew up. These are your roots.'"
Rendon has been acting professionally since age seven; she's been on shows ranging from the CBS legal drama Judging Amy to Amazon Prime's gritty procedural Bosch to Freeform's family drama The Fosters.
Sitting in an anteroom in the cluttered Pico-Union 99-cent store that doubles as the dilapidated bar/apartment building the Hernandez sisters hope to sell, Rendon ticked off the many ways Vida feels unlike any other set she's ever experienced.
"There's a shorthand, and if you Spanglish it, everybody still understands each other," says Rendon of how set conversations combine English, Spanish and slang. She says the singularity of the situation — to be Latinx and telling a Latinx-focused story — weighs on the cast and crew, who show up every morning determined to work together as a team.
"You know how big a deal it is, whether you have 20 years of experience or two. It makes everyone feel like, 'We have to do this right,'" she says.
"I think we all have that connection. We talk about it. We are like, 'Let's not be stupid. We're going to do this together.' We call each other on the shit. Like, 'Okay, you're acting like a bitch right now.' We literally said that if one of us is acting crazy we have permission to say, 'Calm down, diva.'"
There's a lot of warm embracing on the Vida set: hello clasps, enveloping goodbyes. After Vida premiered at South by Southwest, which was the first time the cast saw the pilot episode, Mishel Prada says, "We had this big group hug afterwards. We love each other so much. It was just a moment of 'Wow, we made this. This is a real thing.'
"It's everything I wanted to see, not even as an actor, but as a consumer of media. It was like, 'How did I get to be a part of this? How did this happen?'"
Hailing from Hialeah, Florida, Prada is a relative newcomer to the industry. Before Vida, her biggest credit was as a zombie apocalypse survivor on AMC's web series Fear the Walking Dead: Passage.
But during season one of Vida, she turned Emma into a fan favorite, squeezing laughs out of the smallest gestures, like how Emma telegraphs disdain with her haughty mincing gait, designer purse held aloft in the crook of her elbow. "This girl thinks she's Audrey fucking Hepburn walking through this neighborhood," she says, "but brick by brick her walls start to crumble and she's trying desperately to put them back in place."
Prada says she and Barrera decided during pre-production on season one that their performances would rise or fall on the credibility of their relationship as sisters. A scheduled coffeehouse bonding session migrated to an unscheduled visit to a bar and ended at 6 a.m.
"It just accelerated our kinship; now she feels like my sister in real life," Prada says, rising from her chair. It's time to rehearse a scene: Emma's attempts to generate revenue by renting out a wall of the bar for a beer advertisement are disrupted by a bristling Eddy. Before Prada heads outside, though, she drops a clue about what's going on with her composure-obsessed character in season two.
"Emma?" Prada throws her head back and laughs. "She has no more fucks to give."
More morsels from season-two: Starz has upped the 30-minute episodes from six to 10; the entire season will drop May 26 on the Starz app and on demand; that same evening the show will make its linear premiere on the cable network, where new episodes will air weekly.
As for the evolving story, Barrera has a hint: carefree Lyn — "hot mess is a better description," she says — is doing whatever she can to get a grip on adulthood. "We're going to see Lyn try to make something of herself, to make Emma proud," Barrera says.
Because Lyn is so assimilated that she no longer understands Spanish, journalists are often startled to discover that Barrera was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico. "They don't know that English is my second language," says the actress, who began her career on the musical reality show La academia, then moved on to Mexican telenovelas like Siempre Tuya Acapulco and Tanto Amor.
Her Twitter and Instagram feeds have let her know that viewers don't always find Lyn and Emma lovable, but she's proud that Vida doesn't mind tackling tricky issues.
"We're talking about things that are important, things that need to be heard right now," Barrera says. "And it's great to see that people are actually listening, watching, relating to these characters — and not only a Latino audience. It was universal, and it was beautiful to see."
The production moved there last September when, six miles away in Boyle Heights, they were greeted by "Hollywood-go-home" protests.
"It still hurts my feelings," Saracho says, wincing at the memory. "In lots of ways I'm an outsider coming in and telling their story."
Born in Mexico, she was raised in a Texas border town and then made her home in Chicago. "A lot of people in my writers' room and my crew are from Boyle Heights. But that doesn't matter, because the creator is not. So yes, it hurts me to be called a coconut [brown outside, white inside]. But I also understand it."
Did Saracho's respectful season one quell residents' fears that being glorified by TV would mean certain displacement? "It didn't," she says. "They stuck to their guns." She winces again, but it's all grist for the series.
Today, for example, they're shooting a scene in which Rendon's Mari — who is part of a guerrilla organization that seems based on a group called Defend Boyle Heights — stops to gawp at a rapacious real estate developer's billboard that's been vandalized with red spray paint. "GTFO Nelson Herrera" is scrawled, as well as " pinche vendido, " slang for "fucking sellout."
It's a pleasantly cool afternoon, so Prada, Anzoategui and new season regular Roberta Colindrez hang out on the corner between takes. An old friend of Saracho's, Colindrez appeared in her off-Broadway play Mala Hierba. Another season-two addition is Raúl Castillo Jr., who starred in the hit indie film We the Animals — and has been Saracho's friend since they were teenagers.
The first person Saracho hired for Vida was Emmy-winning casting director Carmen Cuba (Stranger Things, The Florida Project). "She is Latinx and she gets it," says Saracho, who learned from Cuba to find actors in unexpected places — including Instagram, where she found the band San Cha y Las Sirenas.
"Have you ever seen Buzzfeed Latino?" she continues. "There's this one guy, Curly [Velasquez], he's hilarious, so I gave him a line. It's the Carmen Cuba way. It becomes really — I hate the word authentic because it sounds like I'm talking about Mexican food — but it makes it become very true to life.
"A beautiful family has formed. They hang out — even when we're not on set. The connectivity is Vida, but it becomes bigger. Everyone has skin in the game."
The season-two timeline starts nine days after the end of season one, with Eddy recuperating from a hate crime, which included a vicious stomping and hospitalization.
"Eddy is in very bad shape, lots of broken bones," says Anzoategui, who is gender non-binary and favors gender-neutral terminology. "We want to cheer Eddy, watch [Eddy] try and do the impossible. But it's like juggling plates while they're on fire."
Before Vida came out, Anzoategui, who is active in the L.A. theater community, engaged in some mental preparation about who would be evaluating the series. "I was bracing myself that a lot of older white men would be reviewing the show, [men] that I feared would have the same response to me as they do in the theater and other worlds," Anzoategui admits. "It was, like, 'Here we go.'"
While each of the main actors has been touted by individual reviewers as a breakout star, Anzoategui is most frequently singled out as the heart and soul of the series. "The reviews! It didn't matter if they were women or men, white or Latinx. They were all great!" Anzoategui says, laughing happily. "It's been like, 'Pinch me. I'm dreaming.'"
Saracho often refers to Vida's first season as "a three-hour pilot." "So now it really begins," she says. Sitting in her Hollywood office, where incense smoke wafts above the many throw pillows, Saracho begins describing a project she is developing called Brujas (Spanish for witches). Midway, she furrows her brow, wondering aloud if she can make lightning strike a second time.
Vida is filmed on a soundstage at CBS Radford in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, while most exteriors are shot some 10 miles south, in an area of Koreatown occupied primarily by Central American stores.
"The vibe is super-sweet on Vida, special. If Brujas happens, how do I replicate and divide?" she asks. "I know that a lot of blind faith created [Vida]. I made choices that someone more knowledgeable might not have made. But it worked. So I don't know. Is that a formula? Or a fluke?"
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2019