Arts·Point of View

Unapologetically Latinx and queer: Why I think everyone should be watching Vida

Amanda Parris: "I can already tell you that this female-led story only gets better."

Amanda Parris: 'I can already tell you that this female-led story only gets better'

Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada play sisters Lyn and Emma in Vida. (Courtesy of Starz)

Last month, while looking for something on Crave to distract me from the dull ache of disappointment left from the final season of Game of Thrones, I stumbled on Vida

The Starz series premiered in March last year, so I'm late to the game. But now that I'm here, I've become a dedicated evangelist for the series.

The show follows two estranged sisters, Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), who return to their home in East Los Angeles after the unexpected death of their mother, Vida. Their grief is disrupted, though: Vida's left them her bar, along with an apartment building filled with residents — and a staggering debt. 

The second season was released last month and although I'm only three quarters of the way through, I can already tell you that this female-led story only gets better. It's filled with complex Latinx and queer characters who are grappling with family, grief, gentrification, identity and activism.

And Vida is unapologetically made by and for a particular group of people who rarely get to see their stories told on screen with such care and consideration. In the show, the characters fluidly move between languages. They play in the murky waters of Spanglish and community-specific slang, and the dialogue isn't necessarily translated to English. These shifts never disrupt the story but rather introduce texture and intimacy to the series. Watching it feels as though I'm being invited into this world — and that's something I appreciate deeply as a woman whose father is from Venezuela. However, those who actually belong to this culture can appreciate it in a different way.

I had the chance to interview (and fangirl over) two of the stars earlier this month: Mishel Prada and Ser Anzoategui (who plays Eddy, Vida's widow). Prada explains that "there is a cultural shorthand" that's understood by everyone on the production, and that's because series showrunner, Tanya Saracho, used her hiring power to do something historic: Vida has an all queer and all Latinx writing room. In the first season, the directors were all women and men of colour. For the second season, they're all Latinx women. The editors are all female. Composer Germaine Franco is the first Latina to join the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Together they became the architects of a world that I have never before seen onscreen.

Ser Anzoategui in Vida. (Courtesy of Starz)

As important as representation is, it is not the only thing that Vida brings to the table. It features nuanced characters, richly textured relationships, compelling conflicts and hints of spiritual forces. The show resists Hollywood Latinx clichés. This isn't a show about cholos, gangs and cartels; instead, it gives us beautifully shot scenes like a vaquero-themed gay wedding that's hosted by drag queens. (That one literally brought me to tears.) And the action is embedded in the rapidly changing neighbourhood of Boyle Heights

In the world of Vida, gentrification is not an issue tackled in a single episode — it's part of every aspect of the show. It informs the characters' business decisions, relationships, housing choices, activism, identities and safety. Anzoategui grew up in East Los Angeles, and as they told me: "You can't talk about the area without taking into consideration that gentrification is part of everybody's life."

One of my favourite characters, Mari (played brilliantly by Chelsea Rendon), opens the first scene of the show by pasting a "Gentrified Colonialism" sticker on her bedroom wall, donning blue lipstick and then delivering a scathing straight to camera manifesto. "If those fuckers think that we're gonna take this — this occupation, this recolonization — lying down, they got another thing coming, mi gente!" 

On TV, activists are often portrayed as self-righteous, single-note characters. But Mari is given a welcome depth and vulnerability that feels familiar to my own early-20s activism. Her passion is not an abstract intellectual pursuit but emerges from an urgent and specific need: the survival of her community. And in the midst of the protests and the meetings she also makes bad decisions. She falls for dreamy but arrogant and untrustworthy fake-woke dudes (who remind me of my own ill-fated early-20s crushes). Mari's story is the coming-of-age narrative against an activist backdrop I've been waiting for!

Mishel Prada in Vida. (Courtesy of Starz)

But back to the dialogue around gentrification. It's not just part of the narrative — it filters into the very production process. Prada tells me that producers made a conscious decision to film much of the show on the CBS lot because they're mindful of the footprint that film sets can leave on a community. "If we're shooting in the neighbourhood and drawing attention to maybe a specific bar [and] the show becomes a bigger hit, how long is it before there's a Starline Tour driving through?"

Some within the community have challenged the production, suspicious of the show's motives. An activist group called Defend Boyle Heights attempted to organize a demonstration during filming, arguing that the show "tastelessly exploits the anti-gentrification struggles of Boyle Heights."

Vida executive producer Saracho seems to have taken those challenges as opportunities for dialogue. She hired a community liaison to increase connection with the people of Boyle Heights. And she's used the show to further explore those issues.

The show's depiction of sex has also stood out from typical television fare. Thoughtfully constructed and beautifully shot, each sex scene serves a purpose, revealing another layer of a character or foreshadowing another shift in a relationship. "It's a female gaze. It's not there specifically for male consumption or this idea of what sex should be," says Prada. Some scenes are erotic, others are awkward, and more than one raised my eyebrows.

Season 2 opens with an orgy scene — one that stinks of depression and disillusionment (and vomit). In another Season 2 episode, a sex scene between two women shows one putting a condom on a sex toy before using it to pleasure her partner. One of the women provides instructions on what is and isn't working. It's rare to see a moment of agency and communication between women in a sex scene.

(L-R) Chelsea Rendon and Mishel Prada in Vida. (Courtesy of Starz)

I asked Prada about the process of creating scenes like these, and she broke it down. First, she says Saracho will broach the idea with the cast. Once it's written into the script, the actors, director and director of photographer have a closed set and rehearse the scene, having a detailed discussion about what each actor is comfortable doing. After that, following Starz policy, the actors are given several days to think it over and make sure they are still comfortable with everything that was discussed. As Prada tells me, on the day of the shoot, "you sign a contract that has everything specifically laid out, like 'boob at this point,' 'side of the butt' or whatever. And then you get handed your wardrobe. You change into it and then you show up on set." The amount of thought put into these scenes comes through in ways that are powerful and — unfortunately — singular in our contemporary media landscape.

So if, like me, you're looking for something to fill that Game of Thrones void, check out Vida. (Special bonus: there's a ton of eye candy. Seriously, this is an exceptionally good-looking cast.)


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.