“Vida” Showrunner Tanya Saracho on Working in a Room Filled With Latinx Creators and Getting Queer Sex Right

Feature image via Tanya Saracho’s Instagram

Vida is the TV show of my queer Chicana dreams. Watching it is like an extremely on point targeted ad on Instagram — like wait, how did you know I needed this very specific thing? It’s like that but with spot-on Latinx storytelling about the messy lives of Mexican-American sisters, Emma and Lyn, who come back to East LA after their mom, Vidalia aka Vida, dies, and take over the bar their mom owned and managed. In its second season, Vida continues to explore the nuances of queer and Latinx identity, grief, power, family and delivers the hottest queer sex scenes on TV.

All-around queer chingona Tanya Saracho is the mastermind behind the show. Saracho, an award-winning playwright and former TV writer for shows Looking and How to Get Away With Murder, is only one of the few Latina showrunners in Hollywood — and she’s killing it with a show for Latinxs, made by Latinxs. She hired all Latina directors for Season Two and leads an all-Latinx, majority women, writer’s room. Saracho is actively cultivating a space for Latinxs and queer women to shine in an industry that has kept them out for so long.

Saracho is a big deal, but she’s even bigger deal to me because she grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, where I’m from. Anytime I hear people from the Valley are doing big things, it makes me want to whoop and jump for joy because those are my people doing shit and succeeding. When I spoke to Saracho over the phone, I told her I was from the Valley and I was relieved to hear her be as excited as I was about the fact and exclaimed, “What part?!”

I wondered how the Valley has informed her work on Vida. There may be slight cultural differences between Chicanos from South Texas and from Southern California where Vida is set but the struggles of being brown, millennial, and queer are similar, Saracho says. She grew up in the Valley, a predominately Latinx region along the U.S.-Mexico border, and then spent 15 years in Chicago and sees a lot of commonality between the areas. So even though she isn’t from East LA, she says she “held on to some truth and real colors that exists within our communities.” She also points out that there are markers that resonate with American Latinx like how there’s always a Last Supper painting in a tia or abuela’s house.

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Vida continues to nail those markers in Season Two, especially when it’s both gay and Mexican, like the dreamy vaquero wedding in episode three. I recently got married and wrote about wedding planning for this very website and our entire vision for our celebration was a gay Mexican ass party. And I recognized that joyous joteria in Vida’s queer wedding. My heart skipped a beat when Carla Morrison’s “Eres Tu” started playing and two brown queer men in cowboy hats were walking down the aisle because that’s the song my wife and I first danced to as a married couple. I loved that there were glammed up queers, genderqueer people and drag queens alongside señoras who are probably someone’s tias and how this actually happens out in the real world too.

Saracho says every detail in the wedding, from the bright tacky party space to a custom made cowboy hat cake to the scene where everyone was dancing to legendary hit La Chona, was crafted and built in the writer’s room. “That can only happen in a room filled with Latinx and in a room that has gone to a lot of gay weddings too… That can only be done, that specific, if you have people who have skin in the game.”

Episode three is even more fantastic because it tackles the very difficult conversations of how our own queer communities police each other’s sexualities. While at the wedding, Emma’s sexuality and gender presentation are scrutinized and questioned by Cruz’s queer friends, one of them even asks her if she’s a “tourist” visiting the Isle of Lesbos. Autostraddle Associate Editor Carmen Phillips succinctly captured the heart of what Saracho was getting at in this scene:

“Any one of us who’s bisexual, or pan, or queer have had to sit through drunken conversations exactly like this one, even from supposed allies and especially within same-sex spaces that are supposed to feel safest for us. Conversations where assumptions about who we choose to sleep with or how we choose to adorn our gender is met with blank stares or derision. And that’s a dynamic that’s rarely talked about on lesbian television with as much bell-ringing clarity as it is right here.”

“That conversation has happened to me so many times,” Saracho says. Her queerness is on the spectrum and dates cis and trans men and women. “I’m always having to defend that I’m a tourist, especially when I dating a cis male.” The writer’s room had different opinions and views on the topic and we were able to see that show up on screen. Thankfully, Nico, played by heartthrob Roberta Colindrez, is there to swoop in to diffuse the situation and defend Emma.

“We created [Nico] in the lab. She’s the perfect soft stud,” gushes Saracho. Saracho and Colindrez have worked together before in the theater world. Colindrez plays a version of Nico in Saracho’s play Mala Hierba. Saracho knew she wanted Colindrez involved in Vida. “She’s just so good and extraordinary and I don’t think there’s anyone like her,” she says. I couldn’t agree more. I learned about Roberta when Riese couldn’t stop talking about her on I Love Dick and then I watched the show just for her gay cowboy artist scenes and then couldn’t stop talking about her either.

When the writer’s room first got together, they wanted to write Nico as the “brown Shane.” But they realized she wasn’t Shane because “she’s like earnest and a little bit more wholesome than Shane. She’s got her shit together but is still a free spirit.” Once they were describing the character, Saracho said she had to get Colindrez onboard. And she did.

The hottest scene by far on the show happens in the season finale which Saracho makes her directorial debut, which airs this Sunday on Starz. After a few episodes of excruciating sexual tension, Nico and Emma finally fuck in the bar’s graffitied bathroom, in all its queer glory. Saracho workshopped the scenes with Colindrez and Mishel Prada on the sidewalk while shooting for another episode. “I was like Roberta, do your thighs hold both of you? Like if you slide down the wall? And she was like, let’s see. So we tried it on the sidewalk.”

Saracho had the help of her queer crew — first AD, second AD, the DP — to get the sex just right and avoid being “anatomically incorrect” like other lesbian sex scenes. “It’s a different level of care for detail.”

The scene was more than just a fun romp in the bathroom but a very intimate moment for the characters. “Nico doesn’t want to change Emma and I think that’s so frightening to Emma,” Saracho explains. “It’s so scary that somebody likes her for herself. She never tries to show people herself. And that’s the culmination of that, that you’re seeing in the bathroom, letting Nico fully see her. So when she’s undressing her, it’s like she’s taking down all the shields that she’s put up.”

Saracho goes on to burst my bubble and say that Emma and Nico can’t be together. “Emma can’t have a good relationship. I’m just saying, for the third season, she’s gonna fuck it up.”

But that’s the beauty of Vida, it’s complicated and messy and real. And I can’t wait to see what happens in the next season. “Lyn and Emma are broken girls that are functional. Whatever they’ve come up with has worked for them, but you put them in a healthy situation, and they do not know what to do with themselves. And that’s a lot of fun to watch.”

Vida’s Season Two finale airs this Sunday night on Starz

Yvonne S. Marquez is a lesbian journalist and former Autostraddle senior editor living in Dallas, TX. She writes about social justice, politics, activism and other things dear to her queer Latina heart. Yvonne was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter. Read more of her work at yvonnesmarquez.com.

Yvonne has written 205 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. This was great, Yvonne. Thanks so much for this interview.

    But this, though?

    “Emma can’t have a good relationship. I’m just saying, for the third season, she’s gonna fuck it up.”

    😢😢😢

  2. I absolutely LOVED season 2. The moment I saw a bunch of queer people vogueing to La Chona I realized how grateful I am for this show, because literally no one is doing that on tv right now.

    I loved both Emma and Lyn’s development this season. I talked about it with my sister and we both agreed that the sister dynamic was on point, and is truly the (messy, imperfect) heart of the show.

    The highlight for me was of course Emma and Nico….. I was going mad with their sexual tension. While I did think Nico was built sort of like a savior to Emma, I didn’t care at all because she was just so likable, and the first person that really got Emma. Who by the way I love, and I don’t understand why she gets so much hate (ok I do understand but I think it’s unfair).

    I’m so glad we’re getting a third season, they absolutely deserve it and I’m excited to see what comes next.

  3. WHAT I am SO UPSET “Emma can’t have a good relationship. I’m just saying, for the third season, she’s gonna fuck it up.” You can’t just drop that like that! I had so much hope! Also I live for Nico and her impossibly perfect earnest wholesome soft butch vibes!

    This needs a spoiler alert. Kind of ruined my day. I love this show and may or may not have selectively watched all the scenes with Nico multiple times…

  4. Thank you so much Tanya Saracho for creating Vida. For me, is the greatest show you can find on TV nowadays, without any competition.

    When I first heard about it, I thought, well I will finally see some Latinxs on TV, but I’ve never expected to find myself sooo related to this show. I’m from Argentina, so probably the issues of American Latinxs are not totally common for me. But here comes Tanya Saracho’s genius; take something very common for Latinxs, no matter where you come from: FAMILY, FRIENDS AND BEING LGBTQ+ and everything related to those and you got it.

    PD: I really don’t get why Vida doesn’t have a lot of feedback from other AS members because, come on, Faking It and Glee used to have a lot of comments and those where lousy/lazy shows.

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