August 1st, 2019 by Maria Margarita Lopez & Karen Burg
VIDA: Tanya Saracho Creator/Showrunner and Executive Producer Tanya Saracho says she constantly strives to “get it right” in all respects when it comes to VIDA, her much lauded, GLAAD Award-winning STARZ series. In her quest to do so, she and her team have immersed themselves in all things Latinx (a gender inclusive term), Boyle Heights, and underground Latinx queer. She has brought on as many women, Latinx and queer collaborators, both in front and behind the cameras, so as to bring as much authenticity as possible to this story of second generation Mexican-American sisters, Emma [Mishel Prada] and Lyn [Melissa Barrera], awakening to who their newly deceased mother, Vidalia (Rose Portillo), truly was. Along the way, they discover her wife, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), and rediscover themselves as they struggle with what it means to belong.
–Filmmaker María Margarita Lopez for SET DECOR
Tanya Saracho’s ensemble-minded work ethic stems from early days in Chicago theater, as co-founder of Teatro Luna, and then with the Goodmanand Steppenwolf Theaters,among other notable Chicago companies. Her television writing career began with DEVIOUS MAIDSand HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER.
VIDA is her first foray as showrunner.
She recently sat down with Filmmaker María Margarita Lopez and SETDECOR to talk about all things VIDA.
As the show’s creator, you lived with VIDA long before production. How different is the VIDA in the world of your script from the VIDA that we see on screen now?
The feel is the same. I was imagining a specific bar and we actually got to shoot the pilot in it, so then when we came back to write all the scripts, I was imagining that particular bar because it had served us so well. It’s like it manifested straight from my mind.
For the series, it just wasn’t feasible to use that specific bar...it was too small. So we turned a 99 Cent store in Koreatown into our bar! At the end of the production season, we actually turn it back into the 99 Cent store, and the storeowner is so supportive. It’s awesome. I really like the little community we’ve formed there...
But before, when they were putting the set together, I couldn’t imagine it.
I’m from the theatre, I’ve directed 15 plays...there’s something different to create a space that needs to be realistic, like 360, you know? So I couldn’t imagine how it could be as good as that real bar.
Then Ruth Ammon, the first season Production Designer...and Set Decorator Maggie Martin...turned a 99 Cent store into this bar!
I had expressed what that other place felt like, “The lighting is very poetic but you could also feel all the dust and you could see all the nicks and the craters everywhere, you know, from all the years...”
And then they did that!
Krista Gall, the Production Designer this year...and Season 2 Set Decorator Christopher Carlson...have been amazing not just in up-keeping but extending the world, because now we go into people’s homes that we only met the first year. Now we’re like, “Oh my God, of course that’s her home.” They’ve built them all on the stage for the most part, and I’m still astounded about how they can do that. There are such limitations in the theater. I’ve been astounded... it just feels like Boyle Heights.
Even though you’re not local to the area, your show embraced the controversies surrounding Boyle Heights. How did you communicate what you wanted in terms of visual aesthetic and cultural bilingualism to teams that are not only not Mexican American but also not necessarily familiar with Boyle Heights, in order to create the layers and nuances that we’ve seen in the silent storytelling you have achieved in the series?
They are embedded in the teams, some Latinx and some people from Boyle Heights. Also we went into a lot of homes. People were gracious enough to let us into their homes. And we saw like 21 bars too...lots of bars. You know, you’re working, you get in a van, go to a bar at 11 o’clock. A bar on 1ststreet. It was awesome to see the men there already at 11, and some were playing dominoes. You just have to keep the mood of it. We saw the bathrooms and now the set bathrooms reflect a lot of this.
The people building these worlds are artists…they are used to building intricate worlds like this, of other cultures and stuff, so they have come in with the utmost respect and defense for authenticity. So they do all their research and then there are people around them who are from that world, too.
In the first season, there was an altar. One of the set dressing people was Latinx from the area and the other one was not. They had a bunch of Santisima Muerte candles and I was like “Hold on, Doña Lupe does not work with the Santa Muerte!” So we went next door and bought stuff correct for her. And I said, “You would have this and you would have the water here and the incense here in this kind of container.” My altar is very specific—Latinx and Mexican altars are very specific.
In Season 1, you had the curandera. To some people it feels like magical realism...how did you work with your team so that they could really get into that character’s space and get it right?
When I can, I go scouting with them. There are tons of meetings all the time with lots of approval. The props are so important: what people carry, what people touch. They’re so important. What people drink out of, you know. And my prop master is a female queer Mexican-American. That matters. They reference their own experience, their lived experience.
Also, I have my version of Mexican-ness. Nobody has one version of Mexican-ness, but there are umbrella realities that we live by that you can understand if you’re a Mexican from anywhere...you might not go to curanderas, but you might recognize that. You might be anti-curandera, but you know that it is a reality in our culture. And so it was about coming to a consensus. This person is that type of person, so we’re going to represent them this way. My señora, Doña Lupe, the curandera that we have on the show, is not going to be dressed in what maybe the dominant culture thinks of a curandera, one of those psychics with a turban or something. It’s not her reality. We’re trying to keep it as real as we could...but also there might be a señora out there with a turban. That’s what I’m saying—you just try to stick to a truth.
One of the things appreciated about the series is the verbal code switching. It keeps the series very real. Words like “firme” and “rascuache” don’t really mean anything to people who don’t know but for those who do, it just adds that much more. Are there any visual code switching moments that maybe you’re particularly proud of? Little nods to people from Boyle Heights or Latinx that maybe the general audience wouldn’t necessarily catch?
It’s in the 2ndSeason. That’s the first one that comes to mind. There is an emotional moment where one of the characters looks at a childhood picture...the children are dressed as El Chavo del Ocho and La Chilindrina. The dominant culture is not going to get it, but every Latin American...even in South America...grew up with EL CHAVO DEL OCHO. It’s a children’s show that for went on for decades and we grew up with it. And so they’re dressed for American Halloween as El Chavo del Ocho and La Chilindrina. It works on different levels because it’s also the two main characters, the sisters, dressed for Halloween in a picture with their mother. So the dominant culture that’s not Latinx will get it because it’s like a picture of the 3 of them together, but we’ll get it on a different level because it’s Vidalia dressed as Doña Florinda. So that is a gift for us...I did that as a little gift for us, to like deepen...
Just like the Selena (musical number in Season 1) Bidi Bidi Bom Bom. You may not know Selena, but you see the mother and the two daughters dancing. That works on that level, but it works on a deeper level for Latinx because it’s Selena.
Can you tell us a bit about the evolution of La Chinita Barfrom Season 1 into Vidain Season 2?
They took down the La Chinita sign in Season 1 but it then was called nothing. It was just BAR. So they have to decide on a name, and that’s part of Season 1.
In Season 2, the bar is now called VIDA. They have no money so they had to be realistic. We got together with a group of Latinx consultants from Boyle Heights that consult on bars. They did an actual 5-year business plan for La Chinita/Vida as if it were a real bar, and it’s dire. I don’t think these girls will make it work. I just don’t.
We are following the business plan, so the story in Season 2, and I think Season 3, is going to follow the business plan. They built the business plan in phases. Phase 1 is clean up the bar. That’s 2 episodes. Phase 2, do a paint job. You have no money to change stools, so change the paint and change the art. That’s what you can do...and start offering a beer special...so everything that the business plan dictated, we are doing. We’re making the story, because how would these girls really try to make this dying bar...where the neighborhood is not that happy that they’re there. They lost their main clients, the lesbian clients. How are they going to make this work? You know? So that’s sort of what we follow. It’s not that many weeks that transpire. Only a week has happened between Season 1 and Season 2, and then it’s only a few...I think 6 weeks...that occur for the season. So it’s not that much time to make a huge improvement.
It’s wonderful also that you have these changes scripted in so that the audience is getting to experience it along with them...
And you use what they have. So they do a yard sale in the parking lot and they say, “Okay, so if we make this much money, we can buy stools. If this, we can buy a new soda fountain system.” And in the next episode, you see those two things because that’s what they really were able to afford and change. So you do see it playing as part of the story. Also, as part of the story, they sell an object of very important sentimental value. And that is huge. “If we sell this we can pay for all these things.” And they have to make that choice. I think it was really cool to be able to lean on that business plan that they made for story.
The first season establishes the look of the show. Could we talk about some of the strong visuals for the individual characters, like Doña Tita (a building tenant)and hershoes, her plants.
Very female-centric things. Doña Tita and her shoes. It’s not a fetish. It’s just that she was a foot model and no one believes her. She’s holding on to her memories. Shoes are her memory. Her plants are like her children, even though she’s living with her children that are annoyed that she’s there. But we’re Latinx, so we take our elderly in because that’s just what we do. But she’s annoyed she has to share a space and they’re annoyed they have to share a space, so it’s like the plants are her claiming of that space.
Same with Doña Lupe. So Doña Lupe is a Señora and we don’t get into it. We have so much backstory, but we only have half-an-hour and we just don’t get into their backstory. Doña Lupe is undocumented, but she’s been able to craft a really beautiful little life where she can live on her own and have a room of her own...actually, a whole apartment of her own, but the notion of feminism, etc. She used to have money and comes from a certain class in Mexico, but now here, being undocumented, she has to make do...but you see the care that she takes. She even put some lace around the doorframe. Some of the furniture is like heirlooms that she was able to bring over, so she feels that she’s carrying those memories, and making her reality here with her pieces of Mexico.
The rooftop had always been Emma’s sort of sanctuary. It’s still left up there...the same faded mural that you saw in the Bidi Bidi Bom Bom video that was more vibrant, but it’s still there. So it’s like her childhood is still up there. Whenever we go home, we go back to being our 14-year-old self, you know. And it feels like that – that was her teenage and childhood safe spot, and that’s where she keeps going.
Can you share a little bit about the role of color with these characters? How color plays in for you...
Sometimes LATINX shows are done either super bright primary colors or dark, just dark, where they take away the vibrant colors. I wanted us to honor the world but not fetishize it. Have an insider’s point of view on it...on skin tones, which is very important. I feel like Latinx skin tones are the hardest because we’re like the most colonized skin tones so we have everything in there. Sometimes, we whitewash it or we brown face it. So the color has always been super important along with the level of vibrancy.
I think the murals are great but they’re also part of the world. A lot of times, I think they fetishize murals in these urban ethnic spaces – the media has. Often when I see stuff about the East side, it’s very mural centric but without a connection to it. You know? So it was important to honor the world, and not either fetishize, dismiss it or brown face it. I want the murals to be a part of the world but not, “Look at these murals.”
Thus, the murals are sort of the societal tattoos, as you referenced.
Back to that rooftop, where it’s the mural on one side, which is a depiction of life, and then 360, it’s the city spread out below them.
What fabulous symbolism is tied in there...thank you.