‘Vida’: Tanya Saracho on Colorism and the ‘Authenticity Police’

‘Vida’: Tanya Saracho on Colorism and the ‘Authenticity Police’


Starz’s splashy half-hour drama “Vida” begins with two Mexican-American sisters, Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada) Hernandez, returning home to a gentrifying Eastside Los Angeles after the death of their mother. While dealing with their loss and the reality of the large debt their mother left behind, they encounter homophobia, wrestle with sexual identity and wade through the heavy emotional baggage that comes with complicated family relationships. And then there’s the secret wife their mom never told them about.

In its short six-episode first season, “Vida” deftly covered a lot of ground — the show is an intimate look at the experiences of the grandchildren of immigrants and the struggle to balance being both Mexican and American. Season 2, premiering Thursday, delves even deeper into the sisters’ performative bicultural identity.

Tanya Saracho, the showrunner, said most of the writers — herself included — have encountered what she’s dubbed the “authenticity police.”

“You’re not brown enough, you’re not light enough, you’re not Mexican enough. Your Spanish is not good enough,” she explained.

On the flip side, “We are steeped in the dominant culture. It reminds us of our otherness every day.”

In a recent phone interview, Saracho discussed being a first-time showrunner, tackling colorism in the new episodes and making her television directing debut. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

During Season 1, you posted on social media about the uneasiness you felt being a new showrunner. Did you have mentors for that process?

I didn’t have mentors, but I did have people who held my hand. There were technical things, like — what kind of camera [to use]? Those kinds of things that I didn’t know about, I felt that it was O.K. to ask. Even though I’d done a showrunner training program and learned about budgets from John Wells in a one-day workshop, that’s not enough [time]. Everybody around me was a woman and maybe there’s something to that, that I didn’t feel dumb asking my producer Robin Schwartz, “What does that mean?” or “How do we hire a line producer?”

[Starz] said, “Show us what you want it to look like.” I made a whole presentation, but mostly I said, “I want it to feel this way.” Some people, because they’ve been around cameras a long time, they know shorthand they can say on set. I don’t have training in this. Theater is my training.

They did give me a pilot presentation where it felt like a great crash course for showrunning because we had to do everything from top to bottom, hire all the same positions. Aesthetically, it was a time where I could learn to communicate with a director. Because I had a specific way I wanted it to look.

What motivated those choices you made for the visual style?

I wanted it to feel [insidery]. A lot of times when we watch our communities represented on the screen, it feels like a museum piece. Like we’re coming to watch a safari. But that’s an outsider’s point of view.

Also our skin color — I find that TV whitewashes our different shades; they wash the diaspora out of us. Latinx [a gender-neutral term for Latinos] — we are all subtones and undertones, and they just wash it out with a blue, or something bright. Or they brownface us even more. They just saturate us. I wanted it to look like us, but also to give it that prestige of an indie film.

This season, you directed an episode for the first time. Why did you pick the finale?

At the end of the last season, Marta Fernandez, my executive at Starz was like, “You should direct next season.” I was like, “Yeah, I do want to direct like fourth or fifth season.” She was like, “No, just direct next season. You’ll be fine. You will have support.”

When we came to set up the season, the one that made the most sense to direct, so that I could finish my showrunning duties, was the last one. But I was just as scared because I was like, “Hold on, that’s the finale. I don’t want my finale to suck.”

It was like this looming thing at the end. It was a source of anxiety, but then it was the best experience. I’ve directed 16 plays in the theater. And I forgot, “Oh, that’s right. I’ve directed actors. I’ve done that part.” My favorite part was sitting and editing my own stuff. All the stuff I was scared about, like not knowing angles, running out of time for a scene — none of that happened. So I’ve got the bug now. I want to do it again and again. Only for my shows — I don’t want to mess up somebody else’s show — and maybe a movie. Now the possibilities are endless, and I have to thank Marta for making me do it.

Can you talk about the Spanglish that’s used on the show?

There are opinions on the type of Spanglish we use. It’s so complicated because it’s a made-up way of communicating and there’s not one uniform way. There’s no dictionary that you could look at. It’s how we communicate and if you hear us, the writers, like in our texts — the California Spanglish is just very different from the Tex-Mex stuff. Also, it’s generational.

But every character has had a cadence and a rhythm since the beginning. Eddy has a different kind of Spanglish than Mari; Eddy’s older. Eddy still says “carnal,” “firme” — words that Mari should not say.

And with marketing, too. The fact that we get the words desmadre and chingona on the key art and teaser art, to me it’s radical. It’s revolutionary because not even every Latino is going to know what desmadre is —it’s something like a “hot mess.” Mexicans and Mexican-Americans haven’t gotten a chance to see themselves like that in key art.

On Latino TV shows, we rarely see Afro-Latinos. Is that something you thought about in regards to casting?

Not for this show. I’ve been very aware of this and I’m in full agreement with you. My next show I’m developing is called “Brujas” and it’s all Afro-Latinx leads. I just had a mini writers’ room for [the pilot] and it was all Afro-Latinx writers.

In the “Brujas” writers’ room, we talked about how proximity to whiteness becomes the goal. Our culture’s colonized. All of us.

Have you heard of the notion of “hay que mejorar la raza,” meaning “You have to better the race”? A lot of Afro-Latinx suffer from their mothers or fathers saying, “Marry lighter, marry white so we can better the race.” We have that in us, in our culture.

In this season of “Vida” I wanted to touch on the notion of being prieto, and how colorism is alive and well in the Latinx community. All that is our shame, our stuff that we haven’t aired out that much. And I love when we get to air it out.



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