This interview includes spoilers for Starz’s Vida.
In March, Starz held a SXSW screening for two new shows, including Vida, a highly anticipated half-hour drama created and executive-produced by Mexican American playwright Tanya Saracho. The screening—complete with Spanish cuisine, music, and beverages—immersed attendees into Vida’s universe. The show follows two sisters, Emma and Lyn, as they reunite in East Los Angeles and unexpectedly uncover secrets from their mother’s past. There’s already a lot of buzz about the show, which will premiere on Sunday, May 6, because the cast is diverse; all of the writers are Latinx; and it explores queerness in a time when it’s still uncommon on a cable network as large as Starz.
Ahead of the premiere, I spoke with Saracho about transitioning from playwriting to writing for television; what she learned working for Shonda Rhimes; and how she’s making the television industry more inclusive.
What inspired you to start writing for television? Growing up, did you see yourself reflected onscreen?
I grew up in Mexico, and then came [to the United States when I was] around 12 or 13. I saw myself reflected in Mexico, but then I came here and I was like where am I? I found shows like The Cosby Show that were sort of close to what I identify as. I started writing when I was in New York doing a play at a small theater and a UTA agent got ahold of [one of my] plays. They took me out for lunch and said that I could write for TV. I didn’t even know people did that, so I hadn’t considered it. I had a lot of questions, but he said, “Just take meetings.”
I didn’t understand how you got a job from taking meetings, but he said to let them get to know me and see if they want me. I had a play in Los Angeles, so I said, “why don’t I go and take these meetings that he keeps talking about?” There was a mistrust because I didn’t understand it. After a bunch of meetings, there was a job and then I started the job and it was hell. It was horrible. TV was so horrible! [Laughs]
My playwriting was holistic; I meditated and lit incense and candles before I went into the world, but TV is talking, pitching, and trying to get the best idea sold. I’m not a good salesperson, so I hated it. It was horrible. I wanted to go home. Every day, I would cry at lunch in the bathroom [laughs] and I would send videos to my friends in Chicago saying, “I fucking hate it here! I just want to go home! What do I do?” But it was the first time I really was getting paid to write, and I also owed five months of rent in Chicago so I had to stay. [Laughs] I had to fucking at least pay this rent. Then I got off that show and it got good. I started understanding the format more. I write 36-page scenes in my plays, but these people wanted one and two-page scenes. I was such a weird, precious purist of theater, so [TV writing] was a shock to the system.
Then, I started understanding the power that TV has. For $7.99 or $9.99, you can reach anyone. A large percent of the population can afford Netflix or Hulu or Amazon [Prime] and it’s really magical to me that TV has such reach. I think more people saw my one episode of Looking than my 16 plays combined. I do have a little agenda. I want to complicate Latina women and put them front and center. It’s super simple, but you need a big platform for that so you can affect perception.
What inspired you to create Vida? How did you decide to turn this idea into an actual show?
Starz pitched the show to me. [Starz] asked, “Have you heard of the word chipster?” I said, “Of course, [it’s a] chicano hipster.” [Then they asked me,] “Have you heard of the term gentefication?” We chatted about it. They gave me an article, and I was like, “Oh my god I get it! Yes, of course!” They [wanted me] to write a pilot about Los Angeles, and I said, “Yes, I’m a playwright. I can do it.”
I had to say yes because it was [a] exciting concept about upwardly-mobile Latinx [people] and Latinx [people] coming back to their neighborhoods and starting these businesses that affect the [community] like they’re gentrifiers. It’s really complicated, and I was trying to figure it out.
I wanted to hold on to the things I know, which are women, queerness, and Latinas, so I anchored myself in these two sisters. The more I got to know these sisters and excavated and uncovered their characters, the more I fell in love with the world and the possibilities of the world that I was being allowed to create. I have never seen anything like I was creating, and it was really exciting that at every turn, Starz was like, “Yes, and what else? Yes, and what else?” Building this was really lovely with them because there was never really a no. I’ve never developed like this. It took two years, but we’re here.
That’s so great that Starz was so open.
And supportive. It matters that Martha Fernandez invited me to create [Vida] and gave me this deal. She’s not Latina, but she’s Hispanic, and there’s a cultural shorthand that we have that I’ve never found in any other time that I’ve developed.
At SXSW, you spoke about Starz allowing you to hire all Latinx writers for Vida. There still aren’t a lot of Latinx people working in Hollywood. What has to happen for the television industry to become more inclusive?
They need to stop talking about it and be about it. I’ve only been in Hollywood [for] five years, so how did I end up with my own show? I don’t know, la Virgencita y mi madre Oshun; that’s how I ended up here because it happened too fast. [Starz] handed me the show two years ago, but that’s an anomaly. They said, “Here you go. Yes, we trust it. Oh, you’ve never done it before? We have faith in you.” Who the fuck ever says that? No one. I’m not trying to be a company kiss-ass with Starz, but they did it through action. They said, “Here are the keys.” I’m like, “You’re going to let me drive? I don’t have my license!” [Laughs] and they’re still not taking the car away. Fuck, thank you, give me another season though. [Laughs]
Other networks and studios need to take a chance. Yes, it’s risky. You don’t have any numbers. You don’t have any statistics to show if this is going to work because our community has not been accessed in that way. We don’t have the Puerto Rican show; we don’t have the Cuban show that’s just about lawyers and has nothing to do with being Cuban; we don’t have complicated representation in a million shows. Right now, there are four shows on television out of 520 that have a Latinx gaze: Queen of the South, Narcos, One Day at a Time, and Jane the Virgin. I’m not counting [Vida] because it hasn’t premiered. East Los High is gone. You don’t have diversity in storytelling when you have four shows. That’s not even 1 percent, so we don’t have [audience] feedback and numbers and statistics, so they have to just take a chance.
There are four shows on television out of 520 that have a Latinx gaze. You don’t have diversity in storytelling when you have four shows.
There’s a lot of talking. There’s a ton of developing. Right now, every network [and] studio has multiple Latinx projects. It has been at a fever pitch. Before [Vida], I had already developed multiple things with different networks, but they were never going to produce anything that I wrote. They just wanted to see it, but it wasn’t a full commitment. Starz saw marriage potential with me as soon as I sat down, and then they put a ring on it, but other people who have developed with me, they’re like, “mmm we’ll go on a couple of dates and we’ll see” and they ghosted me.
You just have to commit. It’s scary, but we’re done with [letting] the dominant culture handle our narratives. In Black American culture, you hardly ever allow that. Why do you allow it with Latinx culture? Let us tell our own stories. They [need to] put their money where their mouth is because there’s so much talk. There’s so much talk.
What did you learn writing for Shondaland? Did you implement any of those lessons while creating Vida?
First of all, I’m working for a woman, right? It was amazing [working with] such a powerful woman of color. I didn’t have as much access to Shonda [Rhimes] as I wish I could have, but she was a presence—just seeing her in the hallways and seeing that her assistants and other producers are women. I absorbed a lot from that. There were more women in the [writers’] room for How to Get Away Murder because my boss was Pete Nowalk. His writers’ room also had more people of color than not, and it was very queer. I think six out of nine writers were people of color; it was the most [amount] of women of color that I’ve been in a room with. I love Shondaland because there’s a shorthand when you’re pitching. You don’t have to explain or be an ambassador. You don’t feel like a token.
When there was a possibility that I was going to get a [writers’] room of my own, I said why not all Latinx? Why [shouldn’t we] handle our own stories?” There’s so much diversity within Latinidad in my room. I have an Afro-Dominican and a white Chilean, but [we’re all] Latinas. I have one cis[gender] male Latino [writer], but most of the room is queer. That’s how you build a show like this. It’s important because we have not historically gotten a chance to handle our own stories. Other people have handled them for us or babysat us as we tell them.
All the directors are Latinx and/or women of color. My cinematographer is an Afro-Latina Colombian [because] it matters what our skin color looks like on film; Latinos are colonized people, but sometimes they wash us out when they put us on camera. They don’t include all our colonized histories up there, and I want to—even though it’s subtle. You’re going to recognize, “Oh! That hue is different than that hue! I understand that story!” It’s really important because I don’t think I’ve ever seen us lit right; in film, yes, but not so much on TV. Our composer, Germaine Franco, is the first Latina to join the [music branch of the] Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and she wrote for Coco.
We’re done with letting the dominant culture handle Latinx narratives.
For one of the episodes, I wanted a song that only uses native Nahua/Meshica instruments. I wrote words and a prayer for it that Franco translated to Nahuatl. We don’t speak Nahuatl—it is an Aztec tongue—but I didn’t have to explain it. It’s such a beautiful entry to [Vida]. It’s right because Franco is a Mexican woman, and she got it. It matters who the eyes, the ears, the heart, and the mouth is of a project because it has to be authentic.
What was your process for creating complex Latinx characters?
That was the easy part because Starz said “yes yes yes.” I reflected on real life: We’re not the Madonnas and we’re not the whores. We’re complicated. We’re not an archetype. The two Hernandez sisters [in Vida] are flawed as fuck. You’re not going to be like “those are good girls, those are buenas.” They’re complicated. They do shitty things, but we all do shitty things; even the good characters are flawed.
We have an amazing activist, Mari (Chelsea Rendon) a.k.a. “La Chinche,” which means the bedbug, and she is woke as fuck, powerful, and civic-minded. She’s also a mess; she’s 21, still a virgin, and is real dumb with guys. She lets a guy do something really bad to her because as woke as she is, she’s still a girl. Her mom didn’t raise her and she doesn’t have anyone to fucking ask about girly things. Mari’s friend tells her, “You have the most potential to be the baddest chingona I know, but you get stupid with guys.” But [Vida] shows this girl coming into her power. I think there’s progress when [you] let these characters be their complicated selves, but you still get to be compelled by them, and hopefully love them.
In the show, Vidalia (Rocío López) and Eddy’s (Ser Anzoategui) history as a queer couple is mentioned. What key things did you consider in order to bring this kind of relationship to the screen?
So, we never see it on the screen. We see the aftermath of [their relationship]. That’s an interesting way to deal with it, but it affects every moment of the series because it’s [really about] a mother who lied. We’re going to spend season after season (hopefully we’ll get seasons) unpacking what that meant. Why didn’t mom tell us? Why did she keep [her queer relationship] a secret? The answer is cultural and familiar, like family shame, and we have to unpack that. The answers will come slowly because [Vidalia is no longer] living, but we still have [Eddy]. Walking hand-in-hand with your wife in this neighborhood has a different meaning than in a more progressive neighborhood or a neighborhood [with] a different ethnic makeup.
[Emma and Lyn] have to deal with the aftershock of their mother’s decision because they’re inheriting this lovely soul in Eddy. It’s never a homophobic thing. Emma is queer. [Emma and Lyn] don’t accept Eddy because their mother lied and started a family without them. [Vidalia and Eddy] had a wedding without them and that’s horrible for daughters to [realize] their mother was married for two years! It’s really complicated and tangled. I love how we tease that in the first season.
How did writing plays, like Mala Hierba, and producing for the stage prepare you to create Vida and Brujas? Is there something specific that you’ve implemented into your work as a showrunner?
In Mala Hierba, there’s a queerness to Liliana, the main character, that’s [also in] Emma. Emma is still trying to figure out if she’s attracted to trans, cis, male, female, genderqueer, nonbinary people—the spectrum. And that’s something about Liliana that I was also exploring. Maritza is a very masculine-of-center lesbian that I was also exploring. So, all those colors of Mala Hierba are in Vida. Brujas is actually based on my play Enfrascada. I wrote that play in 2007, so when I go back and read the play I’m like, “Oh my god this sucks.” But there’s so much stuff about it that I like, so I’m going to extract that stuff and make it better. Now, we’re connecting brujeria and feminism and just going back to the old matriarchal feminine traditions—our Indigenous feminine traditions. I’m going to connect that more.
I ran an all-Latina theater company called Teatro Luna for 10 years. First, I was co-running it and then I was running it by myself, and we used to tour around the Midwest and the country. We would write the plays, direct them, star in them, and then drive around the Midwest in a van. I had to make sure we had the hotel reservations and get all the girls to the airport while creating plays, directing them, and applying for grants so we could keep doing this. It’s a lot like showrunning. Teatro Luna had a tiny, tiny budget compared to these TV budgets [laughs], which, to me as a person who ran a not-for-profit, were crazy like, oh my god people don’t need trailers! Do people need trailers? [Laughs]
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Teatro Luna prepared me for managing and leading people, and I’m so grateful that I was getting an education in showrunning. I was a first-time showrunner this past season. I tripped so many times. I had to learn so many things. I was doing everything for the first time. Big Beach, the production company under Starz, helped, but there are a ton more people than the 10 girls that were in Teatro Luna. Being the artistic director of a struggling theater company and making it drive prepared me.
It’s amazing that Teatro Luna exists, especially since it was all Latina.
I think it’s gone now. They passed it on to another girl and I think they started [performing with] guys and other women of color, too. I don’t think they do plays now. I left in 2010, so it hurts my heart because it’s what I was proudest of doing. I was 22 when I cofounded it and then I left at around 32. We need another 22-year-old to fucking do it and ask “what are the stories of 22-year-olds right now?”
What do you hope people will take away from the Vida, especially since it gives a glimpse into some of the struggles that undocumented immigrants face?
We haven’t started those storylines because I only have six 30-minute episodes, but we have started injecting characters that hopefully, if we get a second season, you will start to see. I have hired DACA recipients; you don’t have to know they’re there. Also, undocumented queer artists are in my show. Julio Salgado is a background actor, but he’s very prominent in the artivist and activist storyline. He’s an undocuqueer artist. He’s a DACA recipient and his artwork is gorgeous and it’s at the forefront of the resistance, so we covered the walls with his artwork and we put him in it. I also hired Yosimar Reyes, another undocuqueer poet.
That’s just the beginning. There’s also Yoli (Elizabeth De Razzo), a character who’s going to be a DACA recipient but we haven’t started to deal with it. Another character who’s part of the scene works for an immigrant rights organization. You can’t fully see it until the second season because I didn’t have enough space [laughs], but you’ll see it in the threads and the fabric of the world. Hopefully we’ll get a second season.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.