There’s this saying in Spanish that if you’re a Latina, you probably heard at least once as a little girl: “calladita te ves más bonita.” It literally means “when you don’t speak, you look prettier.” It’s a pretty terrible thing to say to any child, but it’s specifically meant to keep girls and women quiet, and in their place as caretakers and homemakers. But, whoever first said that phrase is in for a real surprise because Tanya Saracho, creator and showrunner of Starz’s Vida, is calladita no more.
Vida is Starz’s first all-Latinx show, which stars Mishel Prada and Melissa Barrera as two sisters, Emma and Lyn, who have returned to their childhood home in the low income, and largely immigrant community of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. It’s a show that Saracho herself has called “the female brown queer perspective” and dares to touch several issues that plague the Latinx community like colorism, machismo, homophobia, and so much more. It’s authentic in its story, and stays true to whose story they are telling — the underrepresented community of queer brown women, due largely to Saracho herself.
We got a chance to sit down with Tanya at a recent press day in Beverly Hills to talk about Vida, finding her voice in machismo culture, and how she listened to the very community she was putting on screen.
HipLatina: I read a piece where you said that you’re obsessed with Latinas and the femaleness quality. I know you were born in Mexico — and traditionally, Latin culture up until now, has been very patriarchal. How did you find your voice within that culture and concentrate on the female aspect of it all?
Tanya Saracho: It’s so funny because I don’t want to get super personal, but also in the microcosm that is my family, I’ve been finding a really strong, hard patriarch in our family, and that’s a metaphor for the toxic machismo that’s part of the Mexican culture, among other beautiful things of our culture. Because we do honor the mother in a different way than in American culture, so it’s so complicated and beautiful. I don’t want to say it’s just that one thing. Because I’ve had this struggle and fight with my own father forever, from always, that I feel like, I’ve always fought to be heard and now I come in like a chingona swinging, “do not tell me no!” I don’t think the same thing would work in Mexico in the same way. We, here, can at least demand, “Hey, hey, listen to me!.” I feel we’re ages behind in Mexico, in that regard. Also, I want to say that it’s because women have infiltrated or are now occupying spaces of power. The person who basically gave me this opportunity at Starz, her name is Marta Fernandez, that tells you the whole story. She infiltrated the castle and opened the door for me. Women have opened that door for me, historically, in the theater, here. I’m very indebted to women so I open doors whenever I can, try to hire us whenever I can.
HL: I know this is your first show that you’re showrunning. When I opened up this invite I saw a beautiful list of an all-Latino cast, a Latina showrunner, and it’s all people of color.
TS: Cinematographer, casting director, composer, all my second ADs — most of my department heads are women, my makeup head is Latina. All of it matters. Our cinematographer knows how to shoot the colonization that is running through our blood. It’s really important because historically they either whitewash us or saturate us in a way that’s a little brown-facey.
HL: There’s distinct feeling of the female gaze throughout the series. Where you can see the sensuality of it without the objectification. Can you talk about creating that environment for your actors?
TS: From the beginning, the casting director, a female, Latina. Most of the writers, female, Latina. I have one male because you have to do it for the perspective. But then, like I said, most of the directors were female and that’s who ends up dealing with you on-set. That’s where the trust has to be. The cinematographer is female. All my ADs are female, both second and first ADs. My second ADs are both queer females. My sound person who deals with a Latina. You populate the world that way and then you start to feel it’s family. All these actors had not done sex scenes before. We cleared sets and there’s a safety in that. The female gaze is truly looking at you, and looking out for you, that was really important. Also, it happened in post. To find the fact that we had three female editors, but also the head of post is a Latina; my head editor is a Latina. All that matters because this was built in three trimesters. First trimester: the writing process. Second trimester: production, when we shot it. Third trimester, which is really important, is post where we edit it and refine it which is where the rhythm of it gets put together. There’s a responsibility that you’re answering to — we gotta do this right, but not just for the project; for something bigger than us. We felt like that at every turn.
HL: One thing about this show that, at least to me, it’s really embracing that Latinx term. I know it got started in South America.
TS: It’s a Latin American term. People say, because I’ve been reading all the comments, “Latinx are…these gringos” and it’s like, no, we created that.
HL: But I think in the United States it took on a slightly different meaning and it became more inclusive. I find that very beautiful. Do you think by using the term Latinx it allowed you to be more experimental and go places that maybe other Latin-centric shows have not gone?
TS: I don’t know. I didn’t think of it that way. I’ve been using Latinx since my theater days. In the United States it grew out of academia, that’s who adopted it first, and then it went to the theater, artistic circles. Then, I started hearing it three years ago in the television business. I was always gonna do the show, whether we were calling it Latino, Latinx. In practice being Latinx. I didn’t use it for license. I just hung onto the truth of these characters, as I see the world; I identify as queer. I said, “I see the world this way, I’m just gonna reflect it that way” and that’s what we have.
HL: You’re not from L.A., but this is a very L.A.-centric show.
TS: But I do have L.A writers, Boyle Heights writers, and East L.A. writers.
HL: I’m born and raised here so I’m telling you, this is as authentic as I’ve ever seen it get.
TS: Oh my God, tell people that!
HL: I love the way the gentrification/genteification debate is presented in that you’re offering both sides of the spectrum.
TS: All sides, because there’s not just two.
HL: And you’re not giving any clear answer like “This is the right way.” How was that part created and did you experience it in Chicago?
TS: Yes, but I also experienced it here, on the show, a pushback. So we did a pilot presentation, this 15-minute presentation. They gave us money and we put together a pilot presentation. ‘and the economy looks like this and sounds like this. The music, it’s indie, Latina, alternative, and it looks like this.’ But when we were shooting in Boyle Heights, during those two days, they came for me and were like “You’re not from here. Why are you telling our stories? You’re appropriating. You’re genteifying.” I really listened because I didn’t want to do that. So, how can I still do this show and listen to them? They called me “white-tina,” that kind of thing. I was like “that’s real” because that reaction is loaded because it comes from a place where that community is being displaced and that equals out to erasure and I get it. I’m not gonna be about that.
HL: I saw the entire series. I am obsessed. I love it. I’m demanding season two to everybody who is willing to listen to me. Season 2 right now.
TS: Oh my God, put that in your article. Demanding a season 2!!
Vida premieres May 6th on Starz.