“Vida” gives us the queer Latinx stories we desperately needed
Seven reasons you should be streaming the new Starz series right now
I am a white man. Born into privilege, raised in Europe, sheltered from prejudice. What could I possibly know about other narratives than mine, right? Little by way of experience, which is why I thirst for different stories, why I open my ears to voices new and brave, voices like the ones on “Vida”, which has just finished its first season on Starz. I wanna know as much as there is to know, yo escucho.
Of course this is not about me. It’s about the fierce five ladies in the pic above, and the other lady that you don’t see. Vidalia, Vida. Mexican-American mother of Emma and Lyn who passes away from sickness and leaves behind a bar, a secret wife and a pile of debts from two mortgages. Back on the Eastside of L.A., in Boyle Heights, the estranged sisters run into old lovers and acquaintances and grapple with the concept of coming home. They’re forced to determine their own futures, the future of the bar, and, to an extent, the future of the barrio, which takes us through six refreshing episodes touching on themes like gentrification, race and homophobia. After all, “you’re not home until someone calls you a puta”.
Let’s explore why the short series is such a catch —
A decidedly Latinx insider perspective
Rarely do we get to see non-white stories told from a non-white perspective. TV has always had its eccentric families — from “Six Feet Under” to “Transparent” to “This Is Us” — with one uniting factor: their whiteness. A variation on a main theme. White and black boyfriend. White and trans-dad. White and an adopted black kid. White, white, white. Which means these families could stay in their shells as private people, fight their wars in the secure spaces of their own homes, not having their spaces and identities threatened or attacked. They would never have to become political.
“Vida” manages to show a Latinx family from the inside, thanks to “an all-Latinx cast, an all-Latinx writer’s room, a majority Latinx crew — and a queer Latina showrunner”. Which means, the people that tell these stories know exactly what they’re talking about. They are not tokens in a room full of white dialogue, they are the dialogue. Authenticity is a big keyword here. Nothing about Vida feels forced or scripted, the themes naturally flow from each other and we see people in their natural habitat moving how they move, talking the way they talk without conforming or explaining. It’s a big step and a testament to Starz’ forward thinking approach. After all, it’s not about an exclusive dialogue, but about letting the people tell their own stories and shape their own narratives beyond stereotypes of Latinxs (criminals, gang members).
A kick-ass female cast
There is a wide unexplored pool of Latinx actors for show runner Tanya Saracho to draw from.
The sisters are played by Melissa Barrera (Lyn) and Mishel Prada (Emma). There’s an impeccable chemistry between both. The focused, successful consultant Emma is ready to take on the challenge and deal with the inheritance while Lyn seems to be more invested in her romantic shambles, setting fire to everything she touches. While both are beautifully flawed, my sympathies slightly tip to Emma’s side. Her strong will barely contains her vulnerability and Prada is an expert at letting us in on her inner turmoil.
The two are supported by Ser Anzoategu, as Vida’s widow Eddy, who steals most of the scenes she is in, making her the beating heart of the series. Up next is Marisol (Chelsea Rendon), potty-mouthed freedom fighter, quick on the draw but soft on the inside. And finally Cruz (Maria-Elena Laas), a school crush of Emma’s that shakes up the boundaries around her. Oh, yes, there is also Johnny (Carlos Miranda), Lyn’s boyfriend from the past, and a handful of diminutive male characters that have around 5% screen-time. It’s a woman’s world.
Authentic queerness and unabashed lesbian sex
Queerness is definitely a main topic, however it is not a queer show in the way that “Transparent” is a queer show. It’s not foregrounded. It’s a part of the characters but it does not constitute them. There are traumas but no coming outs. There is a fair share of violence but it does not overshadow everything else. True to the theme of authenticity, being queer on “Vida” does not need any explanation. We understand these characters because we see them as they are, bold, gentle, fragile, kind.
We get a lot of sex in “Vida”. Hetero sex, queer sex, rimming, masturbation. That’s a great thing because it’s less kink and more passion. Again, forgive me, it’s not up to me to judge what real girl-on-girl action looks like. All I know is: the queer sex scenes in “Vida” felt real. They touched me. Now take this quote from Tanya:
Also, I don’t know how else to say it, but face-sitting is a big thing! And we never see it. It’s a thing we do. I just don’t see enough face-sitting on TV, so I’m like, we need to have some of that.
We do need face-sitting.
Importance of home and belonging
But we also need home.
Home is where the flan is. (Seriously, why all the flan?) Home is where you recognize the squeaky floor boards. Home is where you buy that colorful Mexican snack and where you recognize yourself as a ten year old girl in a mural. Home is a safe space. Home is a state of mind and you cannot choose your family but you roll with them. Home is a bar.
Gentrification and power abuse
There is something called gentefication and it’s real. The difference to the gentrification in places like Kreuzberg, Berlin is the aspect of race, whereas gentrification per se is about money and class. Gentefication is when upwardly-mobile Latinos return to the neighborhood and attempt to reclaim it. Your panadería turns into another third wave coffee shop with Wi-Fi, your taquería suddenly has an Instagram wall and loan sharks are out to snatch the last bit of pavement from underneath you.
As random as the term may be sometimes, it ties neatly into the narrative when Emma learns that her mother took a predatory loan and she is steps away from foreclosure. Elsewhere, Marisol is spray-painting gentrified property (“Fuck your white art!”) and has to experience that political engagement does not make a good human being.
Que bueno: Untranslated Spanglish
I relished in the Hispanisms. Growing up bilingual, they remind me of the German-Russo talk of me and my family. Mi gente, don’t get mad, just because you can’t understand. Educate, don’t enervate. It’s not tan dificil. Embrace getting lost in the translation. Lose your dominance and listen to the other.
In 2016, author Esmé Weijun Wang decided to include untranslated Taiwanese into her debut novel, “The Border of Paradise”. Not only does this stylistic device highlight dilemmas in her character’s understanding, it points to a much more general idea: there is no universal reference for all of us. Elaine Castillo of “America is Not the Heart” fame supports this notion. In her thought experiment you visit a different culture, which is doing its best to accommodate you via erasing their otherness:
And we’re all talking to you, politely and clearly, so that you can understand every word we say, and all of our conversations are directed towards you, for your comfort and pleasure. When you’ve left the house — have you met us? Have you met any people, at all?
We are polyphonic by nature.
Everything in 30 minutes
Short episodes are the future. Bigger is not better and the current television bloat does not benefit the stories or the viewers. You lose track of what has been going on, you have to backtrack to Wikipedia articles or Vulture recaps… In times when Netflix’s ultimate goal is to take up all your free time — maximize the time you spend on the site and control your mind — and the average episode of any given series clocks in at about 60 minutes, brevity is life.
Just like “Atlanta”, “Vida” manages to make its point in around 33 minutes. As the end credits roll you feel the way my granny said you’re supposed to feel after a good meal: satisfied, yet slightly hungry. (Tanya, please give us more than six episodes next time around, will you?)
Entonces, that’s seven reasons pro “Vida” and you are surely tired of hearing me talking with this fake Mexican accent. Now, go! Stream!