Tanya Saracho believes if anyone is going to write about Latinas, it should be Latinas. “When you’re writing about culture and society in a moment in time, I think you better access the people who are living that moment in time,” said Saracho.
That’s why Saracho, who was born in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, México and grew up along the border in McAllen, Texas, sought out Latinx staff for Vida, a show for the Starz television network. Vida centers on two Mexican-American sisters who return home to the Boyle Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles after their mother dies. As the neighborhood around them changes due to gentrification, the sisters themselves journey through their own identities and relationships.
Vida joined a short list of Latinx shows when it premiered in 2018. It broke new ground by addressing topics like colorism and classism within the Latinx community, in addition to showcasing a diversity of queer Latinx characters. But Saracho says the team concentrated on the character’s emotional life rather than focusing solely on specific topics or themes.
“There are other Latinx shows that have taken the topical approach, and I respect and appreciate them for that because we need that kind of content,” Saracho said during a recent phone interview with the Luz Collective. “But I selfishly concentrated on keeping the girls as complicated and as true to self as they could be. Hopefully you could recognize yourself in them.”
The writers’ room consisted of all Latinx writers for the first two seasons and became an all Latina writers’ room for the third and final season, which premieres on April 26. Saracho hired all Latina directors for Season 2 and 3 and worked with eleven female artists, nine of them Latina, to write the music for the show. Some positions were harder to fill though. Saracho was finally able to find a Latina production designer for Season 3 after they couldn’t find one for the first two seasons.
“Yes, it takes more effort, but it’s doable. I don’t want to hear that we’re not out there,” said Saracho. “I don’t want to hear that because I’m proof that we are, meaning in the way that Vida was made. I’m proof. Vida is proof.”
Saracho credits Marta Fernandez, the former executive vice president of original programming at Starz, for providing the space for her vision. The showrunner was ready for a fight when she pitched an all Latinx writers’ room, but not only did Starz give her the greenlight, they also had a list of potential writers ready for her.“Because a Hispanic woman was the one who hired me at Starz, I feel like I never got a no,” said Saracho. “Every step of the way, I just got a yes. I didn’t know it was so rare that she said yes.”
After the first season, reporters would bring up her Latinx writers’ room and some made her feel like it was a gimmick Saracho said. But looking at her background, her hiring practices make sense. Saracho started an all-Latina theater company in Chicago called Teatro Luna in 2001 as a response to the lack of representation in the industry. When she was acting, she said she was only offered roles as a maid with one or no lines and saw the same women auditioning for the same roles.
So Saracho decided that the only way to get through the door is to create the door herself. Teatro Luna’s 10-year run wasn’t easy. They didn’t have money to pay royalties for a playwright, so the members would write the plays themselves despite their lack of experience. “By the end of the 10 years, you had writers that we had created, and I directed 16 of our productions,” said Saracho.
Gloria Calderón Kellett, the showrunner for One Day At A Time, a sitcom centered around a Cuban-American family that just released its fourth season, helped Saracho navigate through the process when she started Vida. Calderón Kellett would answer questions and offer her insight from her own experiences navigating the industry as a Latina. Saracho decided that she wanted to offer that same mentorship to new Latina showrunners and created The Untitled Latinx Project. “I could tell they were going to need what I needed and had from Gloria,” saId Saracho.
The Untitled Latinx Project partnered with The Black List for The 2020 Latinx TV List that will select one-hour and half-hour original pilots written by at least one Latinx writer and that feature a Latinx or Latin American character. The last day to submit a pilot is April 29. Saracho said that since the announcement, The Black List has received more submissions than they’ve had in years. “We’re super excited to do that as a group especially because we’re all writers and we all know that that first step is super hard,” said Saracho.
Saracho admits that it does require more effort to allow someone to learn their craft during a production like Vida. But the payoff was worth it. For example, Saracho’s cinematographer, Carmen Cabana, ran the camera department and was responsible for 36 people and herself for the show. That experience has led to new opportunities for Cabana, including recent work on Hulu’s High Fidelity. Vida script coordinator Jenniffer Gomez became a staff writer and a producer and is currently working on a series based on the documentary, The Infiltrators. Helping Gomez was the most fulfilling, said Saracho, because Gomez had been trying for years to get into a writers’ room.
“The first chance is the hardest,” said Saracho. “I’m so proud of those examples. That is building a movement of artists that are ready. We’ve been ready but on the sidelines, and now we’re showing you ‘Look at us.’ It wasn’t a gimmick.”