Mishel Prada knows how rare roles like Emma, her character on Starz’s new show Vida are. To play a modern Latinx, queer woman on television, is not just a responsibility but a bit of a miracle. Earlier this year, the Hollywood diversity report was released and noted that in film, Latinx representation is under 3% of all speaking roles, and while television is slightly better at 6%, it’s still no where near reflecting the Latinx population in general, which is currently over 25% of Americans. And that’s not counting Latinx roles for LGBTQ and non-binary actors, something which, I can happily report, is not lacking on Vida.
Emma is the oldest of two sisters who returns home to Boyle Heights, a largely immigrant community in Los Angeles, to bury their mother. To say that she had a complicated relationship with her mother, would be to downplay their relationship by miles. Emma is there to handle her mother’s business matters and return to Chicago, and that is it. Then, she discovers her mom had a secret, she was queer, just like Emma, which makes Emma question everything she thought she knew, and be forced to make decisions for her future.
We sat down with Mishel at a recent press day in Los Angeles to learn more about Vida (which airs on STARZ Sunday, May 6), working on a fully Latinx show, and how she hopes the show is a conversation starter.
HipLatina: I want to know, what was the first thing you did when you read the script and saw her?
Mishel Prada: Really scared. It was really a lot to read a character like Emma and be like, “I don’t know if I can do this.” What I started with was being like, “Okay, if this is her the way she presents herself, and it is so strong and guarded, what is in there that it needs these types of walls to protect?” I started with that beginning, middle part, which is Emma as a little girl and what happened to her and what’s so delicate and so fragile that she needs those walls to protect it. Started from the inside out and showed up to set the first day being like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I have her.” But I’m trying. And at some point it just clicks and you’re like, “Oh, yes. I got this.”
HipLatina: It was amazing to see all Latino names…
Mishel Prada: I know!
HipLatina: A showrunner with a Latino name. You don’t see that very often.
Mishel Prada: No.
HipLatina: What was that like working in that environment? It’s rare; it’s sad, but it’s rare.
Mishel Prada: It’s very rare. I have to honor Tanya Saracho for sticking to that vision. With our cast, the whole cast, is essentially fresh faces, and that’s really rare because everybody wants a big name. She was just set on, “I want the best actors for the role.” That was amazing. Huge props to Starz as well for saying yes. With the show we’re really seeing what can be created if you put the proper funds behind it and the proper support behind it. We have the opportunity to create something really special. All of that, together, was amazing, and then showing up on-set and having it be full Latinx with the churro and elote man. There was a shorthand that you don’t have to explain anymore, and it felt like family. And with so many women on-set, especially with the sexual nature of some of the scenes, you felt so supported and amazing. This is my first TV show so I have nothing to compare it to but I feel it’s pretty special and amazing.
HipLatina: I wanted to ask a little about that because there is a lot of conversation about the male gaze versus the female gaze. When I was watching the show, I didn’t check who directed what, but every scene – whether it was the two women having sex or heterosexual couple having sex, even the nude shots — was still sensual but….
Mishel Prada: It’s a different voice.
HipLatina: You feel it.
Mishel Prada: I know, isn’t that so interesting? How those nuances build onto something that is different from what we’ve seen and how, if we create space for more voices, it just creates something that is more interesting and layered, and it doesn’t take away from what’s already here, it just adds to it. Tanya (Saracho) was on-set every single day. Her fingerprints are all over it. She asked us to trust her when it came to a lot of those scenes, and she really protected us. It shows that, opposed to feeling exploited, when you’re protected you also feel more able to go there as an actor and not feel ashamed of anything, have agency over our bodies.
HipLatina: Which is interesting because this is a very Latinx show. If you weren’t to call it [that] we’d be subjected to more stereotypes, but this is a Latinx show which allows it to be more embracing of different identities, sexuality, stuff our culture is very against. When you saw some of these scenes play out, or were in them, were there any empowering moments in your head? I think about what my abuelita would say.
Mishel Prada: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about that a little bit. I come from a very conservative family, but I know this is important and I don’t, personally, feel any shame within me. In the end you have to respect with what you feel. It is a departure of what we normally see within the Latinx community represented. In the same way that we’re excited for non-Latinx communities to see and normalize what’s going, also within the Latinx community creating exposure and representation that normalizes love being love, and not feeling that we need to paint shame onto each other because what? Because there are traditions that are really beautiful, but there are some we hold on to just to create an “us versus them.” We’re so much stronger together, so why not? It’s hard enough as it is going through life. Why create another way as a Latinx community to divide ourselves? It’s all good. As we see the generations moving forward we see a lot more of that inclusion.
HipLatina: You grew up in Florida?
Mishel Prada: Miami.
HipLatina: So how did it feel being in such an L.A.-centric show and did you see any similarities?
Mishel Prada: Yeah, 100%. I think that’s something that’s really interesting because I grew up in Hialeah, which is a part of Miami that isn’t Will Smith on the beach with the bikinis.
HipLatina: I’ve been to Miami many times and the Hialeah people are so proud of being from there! Mishel Prada: Most of the people speak Spanish. You go into the store and nobody speaks English. I made the mistake of thinking the rest of the United States was like Hialeah; it isn’t. I didn’t travel until I was 17, 18, outside of Miami. I had a really hard time when I first moved to L.A. My first true place that I was like, “Oh, I get this. I like L.A.” was spending time on the East side and living there. I really love that and I go down to Mexico a lot. I can feel it in my blood, bringing that back. L.A.. is so many more things than what we’ve seen on TV.
HipLatina: I find it interesting because when I talk to my girlfriends we relate a lot to when you go away, you lose a little bit of your Latinidad, but it’s a choice, you turn away from it. It takes coming back in order to start embracing and realize this is who you are. Do you find that’s happened to you?
Mishel Prada: One hundred percent. It’s such a common thing within the Latinx community. You go and assimilate to this other culture, and maybe there’s a part of you that thinks, “Oh, well, I got myself out of that.” Or “I’m not really like that anymore. I’m more worldly.” But then you go back and you’re like, “No, man, that’s part of me.” And how important that is and embrace all of that because it’s what makes us special, to really get to hold onto our traditions and our cultures.
HipLatina: Which leads to the conversation about gentrification/gentefication. There are two sides to that story where by bettering ourselves it might bettering the community, but at the same time you want to retain those cultural ties and not displace those who were already in the community. Vida asks those questions and doesn’t give an answer on which is better. Do you have any opinions?
Mishel Prada: Part of the power that the show has is to create conversation, and hopefully people will watch it and create conversations and hopefully ideas for themselves. Because if not then we are anti-each other; “You’re this. You’re that.” But there’s always that gray ground and figuring out how to start talking about it; let’s start talking to each other, and maybe we can try to find ways to understand and take care of each other because people are getting displaced. A lot of times these people aren’t just going to move to a new neighborhood, some of them are ending up homeless and we as citizens of the world need to start in our neighborhoods, and be a bit more conscious of what the ramifications are of “Oh, I like this coffee shop.” Are we being conscious of what the whole picture is? And how can we take care of each other? In regards to the show, it is something that we are really hoping to not answer, but to create the conversation and make people aware of this going on because a lot of people don’t.