Within the first few minutes of the new Starz show Vida, Mariachi Plaza can be clearly seen through the window of a moving car. Immediately, it becomes clear that this show is not just about L.A. It’s not even just about the Eastside of L.A. It’s a show about Boyle Heights. It’s a show that feels rooted in the peculiarities of a singular locale (not unlike Donald Glover’s Atlanta). It revels in specificity, not just of setting but of lived experience.
Created by premium cable’s first Latina showrunner, Tanya Saracho (she’s written for Girls and How to Get Away With Murder) it follows the story of sisters Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) who return home in the wake of their mother Vida’s death (the funeral is held “at Evergreen, of course”). They’re forced to decide what to do with the bar their mother owned—do they sell it to a developer who wants to tear it down or keep it in the family?
The two sisters exude a tangible disinterest in their old community, having moved on to other cities for education and careers. They return with a condescension for those who have stayed behind. Emma derides her own dead mother’s unwillingness to learn proper Spanish, referring to her as a “pocha,” a derogatory word for someone who’s neither properly Mexican nor American.
Yet as the sisters step out into their community, their scorn is thrown right back in their faces. When they encounter a childhood acquaintance (Chelsea Rendon) berating some white hipsters in a restaurant for “Colubusing” birria, Emma chastises her: “Have you ever considered that maybe this birria place could use the business?”
The girl comes right back calling her a “white-tina.” For a moment, Emma is stunned. It’s a retort rendered all the more complex by the story of the line’s inclusion in the episode.
Saracho—who, as a child, moved from Mexico to Texas and later to Chicago—explained to CNN that when she began shooting the pilot in Boyle Heights, she herself was viewed by the community as an outsider, a gentrifier of sorts. It reached the point that, while filming the pilot, someone from the neighborhood shouted at her, calling her a “white-tina.” It was the first time she had heard the term, and she wrote it into the script. She also sought to move production to locations that would disrupt the community as little as possible.
But beyond disrupting a community, the question of “who is a gentrifier” involves questions of ownership. If a show with an all-Latinx writers room can still be accused usurping the lived experience of a particular Latinx community, it’s clear the issue of gentrification goes beyond the mere encroachment of bougie coffee shops on working-class neighborhoods.
Vida grapples with this on a deep level. After all, it shows how gentrification can and does come from within a community (often termed gente-fication), as exemplified by the show’s villainous, vape-puffing developer Nelson (Luis Bordonada), who wants to turn the bar into luxury housing. The issue also asserts itself in offhand remarks: In a throwaway bit of exposition, Lyn reveals that she’s started a business selling “Aztec-inspired lotions.” Saracho definitely knows what she’s doing here.
This is a show that isn’t afraid to get down and dirty exploring how feelings of belonging and alienation—deep, universal experiences—manifest themselves in the nuanced struggle against gentrification in the community of Boyle Heights.
Vida airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.
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