One of the most authentic and nuanced explorations of the Latin experience on TV ever, Starz’s Vida — currently available on-demand — is so real in its portrayals of East L.A. inhabitants and Latinos, Latinas and Latinx people in general, there are moments on the show that are almost uncomfortable to watch, kinda like life (“vida”) itself. The show not only explores the many hues of sexuality, but also the gray area that exists for many Mexican-Americans in terms of representing and preserving our culture and communities in the face of gentrification, and even more complex “gente-fication” (the changing of a neighborhood by its own people; gente means people in Spanish). Creator Tanya Saracho staffed the entire cable TV production with talents who identify as LGTBQ and Latinx, and it shows, from the Spanglish dialogue and Spanish references to the way it portrays relationships, love and sex.
But the show wouldn’t feel so real without the spot-on character portrayals of its actors. Vida tells the story of two sisters — the free-spirited Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and business-minded Emma (Mishel Prada) — who return home to Boyle Heights after the death of their mother Vidalia and must decide how to handle her holdings, including a run-down old apartment building and the struggling neighborhood bar on its ground floor. They also must come to terms with discovering who their mother really was, as they learn that she was in a lesbian relationship and married in their absence.
Powerfully played by L.A. native and longtime local theater actor Ser Anzoategui, Vidalia’s wife, Eddy — especially by season 2 — is in many ways the heart of the show. She conveys a subdued depth of pain, loss and hope while trying to forge a relationship with the young women, even as conflict emerges over how to honor the wishes of the woman who brought them together.
Anzoategui turned in one of the best performances on television this year (and last year), and the fact that their funny, heart-breaking and ground-breaking acting work was not recognized — or for that matter, the show itself — by the Emmys was a huge omission. Vida did score the 2019 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, and the actor was nominated for “Best Supporting Actor” by the 2019 Imagen Awards, which encourages the positive portrayals of Latin people in all forms of the entertainment media and celebrates excellence in the elevation of our image and status. (The Imagen Awards ceremony takes place this Saturday, August 10.)
Originally from Huntington Park, Anzoategui (who is gender-nonconforming and uses the pronouns they/their) is a theater actor, playwright and “ARTivist” who has lived in the exact neighbohood where the show takes place, and even frequented a bar just like the one on the show. The LMU graduate made a name for themselves doing solo shows at spaces such as Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights and Redcat in DTLA, where their show received five L.A. Weekly Theater Awards nominations and two wins. (The awards are now defunct, but Anzoategui remembers the honor fondly).
Other L.A. theater work, including a solo show about self-discovery and queerness called Catholic School Daze, and a musical, Evangeline the Queen of Make Believe, with music by Los Lobos, led to roles on TV, including Hulu’s East Los High, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Fosters, Shameless and more. Their work made them a contender for the meaty Vida role, especially after Saracho saw them on stage, but being much younger than the role was written meant Anzoategui had to really transform themself to make it believable.
“Working with Tanya is so easy. She communicates exactly how you can understand the core emotion of the character,” says Anzoategui, who hadn’t lost anyone as significant as Eddy did, but still related to the character. “Vidalia led to the best life that Eddy could ever imagine. I know what it’s like to be rejected from your family being poor and having to create your own family — a chosen family — like Eddy did at the bar.”
Eddy may be the show’s emotional center, but Anzoategui sees the neighborhood as the true heart and representation of it as an important component of the story. “I want to do the people justice,” the actor says. “I’ve lived in Boyle Heights and participated in a lot in the arts and activism. I know how the radical activists are and I know how the old senoras are and how the queers are. I’ve worked there, I’ve protested there and I’ve done workshops there. I think of the ancestors and all the people there who have lost their lives because of poverty or being policed. For me it’s a very spiritual thing… and I felt a huge responsibility to do that justice. ”
Exploring the rich traditions of Latin culture while at the same time infusing the narrative with a modern flair that acknowledges our changed world thanks to the internet, wokeness and both the current political and socioeconomic landscape of Los Angeles, Vida more than does the neighborhood and Latin/Mexican people justice, whether they choose to add an “X” at the end to identify or not. Even when it tackles controversial subject matter, it never judges its multidimensional characters. Thankfully Season 3 has been greenlit for next year, so we will definitely get to see what’s next for this compelling TV familia, which represents both the new school, upwardly mobile segment of the Latin population as well as the more old school mentality, repped by Eddy and its activist characters.
“It’s tricky to see a show reflect what is really happening,” Anzoategui says, reminding that Vida is scripted television, not documentary, when I ask if it takes sides on the neighborhood changes depicted. “And within our own community there are people in conflict with each other [about these issues]. But what I really is like that Tanya and the writers write all the characters with humanity. The best thing that Vida does is it shows these different points of view, so we can talk about them and actually do something in real life.”
Season 3 of Vida arrives next year; the first two seasons can be watched on Starz On Demand.
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