Interview: Tanya Saracho

As a reader of Geeks OUT, you already understand the greater need for more diverse kinds of representation in major media outlets. As a gay Latinx person, I can attest to how few accurate portrayals of my culture exist on television and in film. The closest we've come to decent representation in any recent comic book film would have to be Diablo in Suicide Squad. Starz continues their commitment to queer content (because we all remember the hottest gay sex scene on television in American Gods last year) with their new show Vida. We talk with Tanya Saracho, writer and creator of Vida, about queer Latinx representation, gentrification, and being called a "coconut."

Geeks OUT: Starz’s Vida is the type of show that you watch and then realize just how much of a void it filled in your life. The stories, the culture, and the accurate queer representation create a show unlike anything that is out there today. How important is it that not only Latinx stories, but also queer stories are told today?

Tanya Saracho: Right now there are more than 500 shows on television, but only four of those are Latinx shows, five with Vida when it comes out. That does not reflect how much space we take up in this country. We are almost 20% of the population. Four shows out of 500 isn't even 1%. Why does that erasure exist? Why do we not count? By not counting in the media and television, it's like erasure of a culture and a people. When you don't have that opinion because you don't have that representation, you don't think that community exists. There are a lot of missing narratives from the mainstream narrative, and it's usually from a marginalized culture. Asian culture is experiencing it too. You do a lot of damage to our people when you erase them from the narrative.

I think it's especially important in the climate that Trump is creating.

Absolutely, because he is the one creating the narrative that we are consuming and we need to counter it!

I like that Vida deals with not only identity but also heritage, and the oftentimes difficult task of combining the two. Are any of the events in Vida based on your personal experience?

The four main characters each have a little bit of me, but it's not all based on my life. I use little pieces of my life to source the characters. My writer's room helped a lot to flesh them out. It's horrible because we're like, "Let's source your core damage. What's your core damage? Great, it's going in the show!" It doesn't end up just being mine because we crafted this together.

It's perfect because it’s still very representative and identifiable because all of these damaged characters are fundamentally flawed like we, as humans, are.

Exactly! They’re a fictionalization and amalgamation of many people's core damage, but with a sense of humor. I think that's why it rings true to life. My whole writer’s room is all Latinx and mostly queer, and it matters when writing a show as intimate as this one.

Have you ever been called a "whitina?" [Whitina is a derogatory term that combines the words white and Latina—Ed.]

Oh yes! I am a "coconut." We were shooting a pilot presentation in Boyle Heights. It was a 15-minute sales pitch. After that, online they were calling me a "whitina," a "sellout," a "coconut." I cried, of course. They didn't know what this was, they just saw the trucks. The neighborhood was just like, "Why are you doing a show about us without asking us?" They didn't know that we did have writers from Boyle Heights on the show. After I cried, I just put it in the show because it's real and I got called it in the flesh. I was like, "let's be meta and put it in the show!"

Does confronting people in our own community (the way the young Latinx activist character Mari does to the sisters) do more harm than good?

You are making me walk in a minefield! I understand why the neighborhoods that are under attack from gentrification and displacement are fighting back. The entities that are trying to displace are using unfair tactics. I respect people like Mari who are fighting back from being displaced and erased. I think in this area of LA, only about 30% of people own their homes. When you rent, you have few rights and are under threat more. There are also a lot of undocumented people who are afraid to speak up.

Sometimes you have to be a disruptive force to fight the system.

Yeah, you really do. Even the people who called me "whitina," I respect them because I understand why they did it. I even understand that my production trucks that come and park for a day are a little bit of a gentrifying force, so I get it. Seeing all of these Hollywood trucks is scary for people living in these neighborhoods because their concerns are always what the depiction of them will be, and what perception of their neighborhood are they working on.

Can you tell us a little bit about gentefication and why it's a problem in our community? [Gentefication is a combination of the Spanish word gente, meaning people, and gentrification, and refers to the accidental self-gentrification done by the Latinx community.—Ed.]

I don't know if it's a problem or just a real issue we have to acknowledge. In Vida, the sisters are the embodiment of gentefication. They grew up in this neighborhood, and each left for their own reasons. They are now coming back, in this case being forced back, and are going to open a business that might be a gentrifying force because of the type of people they are going to attract. This is all because of how their aesthetic has formed in the past 10 years. They're probably going to want to attract people like them. Upwardly mobile Latinx that will attract hipsters and yuppies, etc. They are technically a gentrifying force, but goddammit, don't they have a right to their own neighborhood too? That building is their legacy since it was their mother's. Why should they give it up? They should have a third generation to run it. It's a really complicated thing. Who has the right to the land?

Can you tell us a little about the show you're working on called Brujas that's set in Chicago?

It's mostly centered around the Afro-Caribbean narrative. When I was in Chicago, we used to go visit brujas (witches), or señoras (wise, older women) as we called them, to consult about divination or to do a protection spell. It was mostly mis novias (my girlfriends), who were mostly made up of people in the Afro-Caribbean community. The Afro-Latina narrative is really missing, and my experience in Chicago is nothing but that. It's based on my play "Enfrascada" from 2007, but I thought nobody could say that name so for the TV show I changed it to Brujas. It's based on the old play, but hopefully we make it better. It's still in development and still in the early days, but keep an eye out for it!

Check out our interview with cast members Mishel Prada, Melissa Barrera, and Ser Anzoategui, and our review of the show that premieres on Starz on Sunday, May 6.