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Set In A Predominantly Latino Neighborhood, 'Vida' Shows Life Through A 'Brown Gaze'


At a production studio in Hollywood, Tanya Saracho is neck-deep in finishing Season 2 of her TV show "Vida" for the network Starz. That means spending long days inside this anonymous-looking office building. The suite she has set up for her editors is also low-key. They use a code name on the sign by the door. I just have to ask. When we walked in here...


SHAPIRO: These production rooms, it's the flan post...

SARACHO: Oh, yes.

SHAPIRO: Right (laughter)?

SARACHO: Yes, because it's like our hidden name (laughter). Like - so it's like...

SHAPIRO: Like, the secret name for "Vida" is flan.

SARACHO: Well, yes, because last year, when we had "Vida" on, a lot of actors dropped off headshots and would come in. We would be working. They would be like - 'cause there's also casting.

SHAPIRO: Flan as in the creamy dessert. It shows up a lot in Season 1 of "Vida."


SER ANZOATEGUI: (As Eddy) This is corn flan. This one's chocolate. And this one's got some weird nuts in it.

SHAPIRO: It's not surprising that Saracho gets a lot of unsolicited visits. Her show is unusual for Hollywood. It's explicitly Latino and explicitly queer about two estranged sisters who come home to the Boyle Heights neighborhood in LA for their mother's funeral to discover that she was secretly married to a woman.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) How long?

ANZOATEGUI: (As Eddy) Full-on married - just two years.

SHAPIRO: Now that she's achieved some success in Hollywood, she wants to bring others from her community up with her. The directors of all 10 episodes in Season 2 are Latina.

SARACHO: I haven't been at it that long, but it feels like the right thing to do to just sort of, like, keep the door open and be, like, come through, however many can come in, you know?

SHAPIRO: For Season 2, that also means musicians. She takes us between editing booths, calling up scenes that feature real-life performers she has invited to play themselves in the show.

SARACHO: In this episode, we have San Cha, el San Cha, who is this amazing genderqueer performer, a Latinx performer, is amazing.

SHAPIRO: So people who know East LA are going to recognize...

SARACHO: East LA and Latinx culture.

SHAPIRO: We should just say Latinx, Latina, Latino, either gender...

SARACHO: Latinx, yeah, is a gender-inclusive term. So it's like we used to say Latino, but it's a male.


SAN CHA: (As herself, singing in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: We sat down in Tanya Saracho's office. There's a book called "Unladylike" on the coffee table and a Frida Kahlo Barbie on the shelf across the room. She told me she was excited to tell stories that aren't often seen on TV.

SARACHO: It shows that we exist. And that's, like, visibility, which as, Latinx in this country, we have been very - you know, we've been invisible. They're trying to erase us right now, you know? And so just by living and being, it's like a political act, you know?

SHAPIRO: When we talk about invisibility, there's one scene in Season 1 that I would like to ask you about which features a maid. And this is a predominantly white space that one of the main characters has entered into. And we see this woman cleaning up vomit.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Aurora, Charlie threw up again. I feel so bad. She has to keep cleaning it up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Don't, that's what she's here for.

SHAPIRO: And then we see her on the bus with this character riding home to the same neighborhood. That was such a powerful scene to me. Tell me about how that fit into your conception of this show.

SARACHO: That was - when I was writing the pilot, that was a scene that I sketched back then. I was like, God, I want to see this, that whole storyline, especially 'cause I'm new to LA. And we're the working class, right? We are the nannies and the - we're judges and doctors, too. But for a section of LA we are cleaning up after people. And I really wanted to not just tell that story but also compare Lyn, who is such a - like, a social climber - for her to measure herself against that and be like, oh, they see us, and they will eventually see us as the same thing. The way she was being exoticized - you know, they were talking about her Frida eyebrows and stuff like that - and it was like, eventually I will clean up your vomit, too.

SHAPIRO: Did you know going into the show how much Spanglish you wanted to use?

SARACHO: Well, I've written, like, 16 plays, and most of them are Spanglish. So sometimes it's Espangles (ph), which is a Spanish base with English sprinkled on top. And then backwards, you know, Spanglish - English base, Spanish sprinkle on top.

SHAPIRO: I know it was important to you in "Vida" not to have subtitles.

SARACHO: Yeah, absolutely, 'cause you don't go to Boyle Heights and get subtitles.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SARACHO: I didn't want - realism is really important, you know, that it be naturalistic. And it needs to sound like we sound.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Yo know. Yo se que my days are numbered. So I touch every leaf, every petal, and I grab it punos de tierra.

SARACHO: And it sounds like we sound without any translation. You will miss stuff, though. Like, you really won't...

SHAPIRO: Right, but was there ever a moment that an executive said, good effort, but we need you to do subtitles now?


SHAPIRO: No one said that to you?


SHAPIRO: That's an incredible respect for your artistic vision.

SARACHO: This is what I'm telling you.

SHAPIRO: And not what we hear about in Hollywood very often.

SARACHO: The first year was kind of like - I couldn't have, you know, fantasized about it better. The second year, now I have to, like, worry about, like, you know, people do have to watch this. So we have to think about ratings and stuff like that.

SHAPIRO: So are you now making artistic editorial choices to appeal to the audience that you're trying to attract?

SARACHO: No, but now I'm more anxious about it (laughter).


SARACHO: It's just now I'm like, I need CBD.


SARACHO: 'Cause I'm just like - but I was, like, protected from that the first season.


SARACHO: You know, like, it was just like, make art, which - they're still doing that, but now I - we have reviews out there. And we have comments. And people are like, oh, my gosh. We had such a polemic about how to eat a taco, how one of our characters eats a taco. And it became a little bit...

SHAPIRO: Wait a minute. Describe this to me. What was it?

SARACHO: Well, I - we made a choice with one of the characters. She was like - to say that she'd been away from the neighborhood...


SARACHO: ...Whatever, you know? Oh, my goodness, it became the most, like - she can't even eat a taco. Who would eat a taco - who would put Valentina on a taco? So Valentina is a hot sauce that you usually put on, like - I put it on chips. I put it on fruit. But like, you would usually put salsa on a taco. But this character that day was like, the choice will be - and she had all her reasoning.

SHAPIRO: But isn't it kind of wonderful that people are...

SARACHO: Yes. Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Invested enough in this world that they really care how your character is eating?

SARACHO: Yes, but now we addressed it this season.

SHAPIRO: This season. She...

SARACHO: She explains why she puts Valentina on tacos (laughter).

SHAPIRO: To take a step back from "Vida" for a moment...


SHAPIRO: ...You have an overall production deal now with stars.


SHAPIRO: And I know there's another show you want to make called "Brujas" which is set in Chicago, where you spent a lot of your adult life. And I sort of think about, you know, what Shonda Rhimes has done for roles for African-American women or what Ryan Murphy has done with queer actors or older women who didn't have great roles where they've created almost these empires of worlds that offer stories and roles within a particular frame. Do you see yourself or hope to someday do something similar within the words that you're creating?

SARACHO: Access and opportunity sounds so exciting, especially because we don't have anyone - a Latinx that has sort of that access, you know, that, you know, Lena Waithe and Ava DuVernay - they have these, like - they're starting their empires, you know? And - but they also give opportunities to their clan but not just in shows. They have incubators. They have, like, script competition. Like, they have - that is, like, a dream. But I'm now realizing, wait; if we're going to keep employing people, we need to keep having access. So I need to keep having shows. But like, if you put your head down and do the work, hopefully...


SARACHO: ...It'll start to happen.

SHAPIRO: Well, Tanya Saracho, congratulations, and thank you so much...

SARACHO: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: ...For talking with us.

SARACHO: Thank you for coming to our little office.

SHAPIRO: Tanya Saracho is the creator and showrunner of the series "Vida" on Starz. You can stream Season 1 now, and Season 2 premieres next spring. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.