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History of TV: The Family Politics of ‘Vida’

April 8, 2021
3 min read time

The sunset hues and artful shots that saturate Vida give the half-hour drama  and the East Los Angeles neighborhood it's set in — an air of gorgeous grit. Starz shows all feel a bit gritty; reflective themes and distinct visual signatures, and Vida exemplifies those qualities with style. What could have been the age-old tale of sibling rivalry put aside because of a death in the family is cast in a fresh light, thanks to showrunner Tanya Saracho and her trailblazing all-Latinx writing room.

Family politics

While Mari (Chelsea Rendon) opens the series with a dialogue on the gentrification of her Boyle Heights neighborhood, providing the undercurrent of the larger cultural and societal themes at play in Vida — and America on the whole — we almost immediately pivot to the heart of the show: family. It is the lens through which the show explores points of view not often depicted on prime time, yet one that can be universally felt. Family ties that bind us, shape us, define us, are universally forever.

Mari’s own father interrupts her vlog, and then we're introduced to Vidalia herself — in the moment of her death. It’s what brings estranged Mexican-American sisters Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) together. And together, they meet the wife they never knew their mami had, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui). Turns out, Vida left the building (with the bar) to all three of them, which means all three of them need to work out how to move forward together now. It’s a relatable series engine in that family dynamics can spawn years of emotional turbulence — plus the very tangible and immediate, “what do we do with this heavily mortgaged building we don’t want?” Except for Eddy. They seem to be the only one who really knew Vida’s heart (at least at first).

Identity matters

The characters that populate the world of Vida all seem clearly defined in the beginning; with separate lives, jobs, outlooks and relationships. But there’s nothing like the death of a loved one to tug at that one loose thread and make you realize maybe you don’t have it all together; that the past still defines your current actions — and for Vida’s leads, is why they’re still figuring out who they are, where they belong, and what part of themselves to show the world (or even just their loved ones).

It becomes apparent right from the outset that Emma’s relationship with her mother was strained, and that Emma’s carefully constructed facade — one devoid of personality with her tailored outfits and nondescript jewelry — is because she is trying to trade her true nature for one that blends in; into white America, into heterosexual relationships. On the flip side, her younger sister Lyn lives on the edge, using her sexuality. She wears her heart on her sleeve, yet unlike her sister, who knows who she is and tries to hide it, Lyn feels to still be on a quest to figuring that out. Like watching your best friend make the same mistake over and over again with the wrong person, you root for Lyn to see herself as worthy beyond outside approval.

Through Eddy, the quiet, bright heart around which these two orbit, Vida most explicitly explores LGBTQ love and acceptance. Their relationship with Vidalia — queer and between people of a "certain age" — defies the stereotypical. While we don’t get to see their relationship, we feel it through Eddy.

Love language

And what makes Vida so poignant in my opinion, is the feel of it. The writers infused every moment of Vida with heart — and visceral heartache. Yes, it’s about a world perhaps not most of us are familiar with, but because the show never “explained” or preached — it simply was — everyone is made to feel included in the conversation. 

But the visual language of Vida is what’s most captivating. The show’s cinematographers have a distinct language with which they introduce us to characters and setting, so that what we see is as important, if not more, as the dialogue we hear.

Emma, for example, poised and sleek in the back of a black car returning to her old neighborhood, yet her hands never stay still in her lap. When she’s on a passionate rampage after discovering the three-way ownership of Vida’s bar, she’s still contained and true to character; furiously wiping down the table and spritzing herself and Lyn with hand sanitizer before orgasmically devouring her food at a neighborhood eatery. Conversely, we meet Lyn in a moment of shock and grief over her mother, tuned out to Eddy’s chatter in the background. Her tears are quick and her outfits descriptive. For their part, Eddy nurtures from the outset; cooking and constantly trying to make peace. We instantly and instinctively start to understand who these people are, what they're keeping close to their hearts, and what will set them off. And then there’s the flan everywhere.

In retrospect

Though Vida only has three seasons to its name, those 22 episodes beautifully weave sociopolitical statements with intimate human emotions and relationships into a stunning visual tapestry. Originally based on a short story by Richard Villegas Jr., Vida — the 2019 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comedy Series recipient — was an industry trailblazer. Its collaboration of Latinx writers, actors and cinematographers, nearly all female, is hopefully a benchmark for shows moving forward.


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