Usually elegant and composed, Emma Hernandez sits crumpled and dizzy outside the entrance of the apartment building and bar she’s inherited, which has just been defaced with red spray paint spelling out: “Chipsters.”
Before she was accused of being a Chicana hipster, Emma’s night first began to spin out of control when Cruz, a forbidden crush from Emma’s traumatic adolescent past, found her looking isolated and self-conscious at a trendy neighborhood bar. Insistent on having just one mezcal alone at the beginning of the night to research the bar business, Emma concedes to Cruz’s persuasions to meet her group of friends in the Latinx queer scene. Tightly wound at first, Emma eventually vibes with the group and makes her way to the dance floor, becoming looser and wilder as the night goes on. Emma and Cruz’s bodies finally find each other; Emma slips away to put on more lipstick, her reflection in the mirror sweaty, eyeliner faded and smeared. When Cruz comes up to her again, she says, “There you are, desaparecida … You’re having a good time, huh? See, things aren’t so bad around here.”
“You think I don’t like it here, that I hate where I grew up?” Emma asks.
Stunned, Cruz listens as Emma finally unravels the story behind the veil of silence and shame, about why she disappeared from her hometown and never came back: Vidalia, Emma’s mother, was closeted herself, so when Emma began sexually experimenting with girls, Vidalia sent her away to live with her stern, unsympathetic aunt in South Texas without ever telling her why. For Emma, home is the site of rupture from her most vulnerable identities — queer, Latinx, daughter — and of estrangement from her family because of what she calls her mother’s “gay shame.”
Unmasked, Emma drinks and dances more. Later, in Cruz’s apartment, Emma and Cruz hungrily kiss and grope each other as Emma struggles to dominate. In the heat of the moment, Cruz flips the dynamic, but before she can be topped, Emma collapses. Humiliated, she asks Cruz to get her some water and slips out without a word. The night has been too much. She has revealed too much.
The enigma of immigrant daughterhood is mostly uncharted territory in television. It’s a vexed position from which to tell a story — gendered, racialized, and historically silenced. Vida on Starz, written and created by Tanya Saracho, which was recently renewed for a second season, revels in that difficulty with characters who bring to life its language, its bright colors, its grit.
The story begins with Vidalia, mother of Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn Hernandez (Melissa Barrera), getting up in the middle of the night, ailing and ill at ease. As she glares into the bathroom mirror, she suffers an aneurysm, collapses, and dies. This sets the estranged Hernandez sisters in motion toward each other, toward a home in crisis — one that, in some ways, is all too familiar, and in other ways unrecognizable.
Vida, set in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles’s landmark gentrification battleground, queers the trope of the prodigal daughter by exploring the tensions of escaping home for the straight sister versus being expelled by it for the other. Emma, striking and severe, flies in from Chicago to handle the business of her mother’s death. As she rides in a car toward Boyle Heights, a historically Latinx working-class neighborhood, she takes in the sights of home, heavy with disidentification. Visually, her surroundings clash with her smart blazer, matte red lips, and glossy black bob. Nervously, she checks her nails, neatly manicured with dark red polish and cut short (a moment intentionally emphasized for queer viewers attuned to the subtleties of femme flagging). When she arrives at her childhood home, she’s greeted by her younger sister, Lyn — thin, ebullient, long hair flowing in boho perfection — a stark contrast to Emma’s hard femme angles. Lyn lives in San Francisco, where her white-passing Coachella-ready beauty allows her an upscale party-girl lifestyle, so long as she’s arm candy for loaded white tech bros.
Against the backdrop of their modest childhood apartment, it’s clear that each sister has assimilated toward some promise of whiteness, despite privately grappling with discrimination along the way: Emma, a successful management consultant, chafes against her corporate, unsympathetic bosses, while Lyn is fetishized, used, and discarded by her rich white boyfriends. As the prodigal daughters return home and face the identities they tried to leave behind, waiting for them is Eddy (Ser Anzoategui) — soft-spoken, kind, butch, and who was also Vidalia’s secret wife. (While Eddy the character is a butch/masc-presenting cis female, Anzoategui identifies as queer and nonbinary, and uses they/them pronouns.)
The financial and emotional upheaval of Vidalia’s death grounds Emma in LA, and thus in the show’s central conflicts. Gentrification is a looming menace threatening to seize the problematically-named La Chinita, the Hernandez’s aging family-owned bar and apartment building in Boyle Heights. The sisters want nothing to do with the bar or the building, despite knowing mostly undocumented immigrants live in the apartments and that selling the building would displace the tenants and insult their mother’s memory. Their participation in gentrification, combined with their light skin and class mobility, sets them at odds with every character they thought they’d left behind now defending their territory, revealing the often unrepresented betrayal and resentment that arises in Latinx communities as a result of colorism and class privilege.
Despite Vida’s intricate sociopolitical and cultural backdrop, the daughters, drowned in the aftermath of Vidalia’s death, are not tragic Latinas. Part of the show’s liberatory beauty is its insistence on pleasure, and upending the expectation of the hardworking, sacrificial Latina, so preoccupied with respectability and family that she denies herself sex, pleasure, indulgence. It’s thrilling to see Vidalia’s daughters rebel against that stereotype and show the impact of what those gendered, culturally specific sacrifices mean for families: Does the mother’s denial of pleasure, and the constant pressure to be respectable, convert into better circumstances for her children? Or does it convert into shame and projection? At Vidalia’s funeral, the daughters are weighed down with grief and things left unsaid — Lyn with her failure to be “good” by being sexual, and Emma with resentment for her mother’s hypocritical anti-gayness. Both of the daughters’ issues with their mother are connected to sex, and the show liberates its Latina viewers (ahem, me) with very hot, very explicit feminist sex scenes, showing these girls get the kind of sex they want, on their terms — queer, topping, receiving of pleasure, cheating, descarada.
Vida understands the ways in which sex is always everybody’s business in Latinx families, households, communities. Machismo says we must be objects of desire, not actors on it; we must give pleasure, and take pleasure from giving; Marianismo says we are good when we suffer and best when we sacrifice — a narrative that has neatly transferred itself into the white racial imaginary as the fiery Latina sex object and the hardworking, silent maid.
While this might be a familiar narrative explored and critiqued by second-wave white feminists, the sexual revolution left working-class women of color behind; Latinx daughters still have to watch their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and elders get crushed under the heavy intersection of gender, class, and race. Conservative sexual attitudes persist in immigrant Latinx families because the control of a woman’s reputation, and therefore worthiness to the patriarchy, is sometimes the only source of power she might have. Survival is never guaranteed to Latinx women, who still make less than half of what white women make and are the lowest-paid demographic group. Shame and guilt become protective measures that insulate the daughter from the brutality of the que dirán, or the wildfire of gossip that will burn the girl for life.
Vida’s refusal of that narrative subverts familiar tragic immigrant tropes attached perniciously to Latinas, allowing for new expressions of queer Latinx subjectivity beyond gendered stereotypes.
Emma is one of the most beautifully written characters I’ve seen on television: a top femme, totally in control in every aspect of her life, who is finally made to confront her issues with her estranged, once-anti-gay mother after her death. A survivor of familial exile as a result of her sexuality, Emma’s queerness is still a secret when she comes home — a home once defined by rejection and punishment for her queer desires, but now the location of an unofficial lesbian bar at risk of disappearing. Any pleasure she gets — even just hanging out with friends to drink and dance — is converted into regret and shame the next day, causing her to distance herself from the connections she earns, and needs. For Emma, pleasure is connected to estrangement, and so sex has to be arranged on a queer dating app, discreet with no strings attached. The revelation of her mother’s late-in-life gay relationship after the trauma of her expulsion forces Emma to confront the reality that she and her mother were always more alike than she thought, each in her own closet.
The ways in which Emma’s sexuality is tied up with memory, resentment, and grief is expertly rendered during a masturbation scene, where she, upstairs in her childhood room, is restless and agitated, unable to sleep. As she furiously masturbates with a purple tongue vibrator, the circle of women praying a novena for Vidalia’s salvation downstairs gets louder and louder, each “Ave Maria,” each rosary bead marking an escalation to a climax — not to orgasm, but to mourning and despair.
That is some of the realest shit I’ve ever seen. It is a scene that complicates white narratives about “the closet” and the cultural differences that make those labels not quite so neat for Latinas by showing characters for whom queerness is not a matter of “out” or “in,” but rather something connected to cultural misogyny and generational trauma. The virgen protects us, saves us, provides us with a loving example of how to be a pure and chaste daughter, and a nurturing and forgiving mother — ways in which Emma and Vidalia have both failed. The virgen haunts us, mourns our sin, a powerful symbol of ideal, chaste womanhood at any age, which is by default anti-queer.
But these conflicts are not set up as problems to be resolved — rather, they are sites of difficulty and rigor, where characters find their resistance, reckoning, and kinship.
Audiences have long been deprived of stories like Vida that intentionally center immigrant characters of color within their own contexts, not just as guests, or worse, infestations in white ones. According to a recent media analysis, immigrants of color as a broad group comprise just 3.3% of total character representation in television, of which only a fraction, estimated at about 2%, is Latinx. Within that meager offering, male immigrant characters comprised 73% of immigrant character representation, compared to just 27% for female characters. As a whole, immigrant characters of color are mostly male, and mostly absent from the American racial imaginary as seen on TV.
When Latinx are represented in American television, they are supporting or unnamed characters that adhere to familiar narratives of adversity as poor immigrants, laborers, or criminals, which are then further flattened according to gender and sexuality stereotypes. Given few lines and limited storylines, Latinx actors are rarely, if ever, given the opportunity to cross into more fully fleshed roles or stories written for white leads. If they do, they will unfailingly be light-skinned to white-passing, straight, and commodifiable. (Even Jennifer Lopez had to become Italian to deserve a shot at Matthew McConaughey in The Wedding Planner.) This is where representation as an end goal can fail — little to nothing changes, so long as a token is paid to carry the weight.
This is a key critique (even self-critique) Vida confronts through the fearless character of Marisol (Chelsea Rendon), a BMX-riding radical young community activist rooted in the legacy of working-class Chicano resistance, and whose aesthetic, politics, and rhetoric borrows heavily from a real-life indigena-feminist bike brigade, the Ovarian Psycos. Mari is an outspoken social justice vlogger exposing the daily injustices of present-day colonialism in the form of Columbusing, artwashing, forced mass displacement via urban development, rent hikes, and the insidious hypocrisy of chipsters — college-educated, upwardly mobile, assimilated Chicano hipsters who expect a pass in immigrant neighborhoods for being Latinx, but participate in (and benefit from) the demographic and economic transformation of the neighborhood.
Mari’s protective outrage often crosses over into acts of vandalism, and volatile (but searingly funny) confrontations with the “Warby Parker bitches Columbusing our shit.” Mari has no love for the “fresa” Hernandez sisters either. Mari particularly scorns Emma, who has always been aloof and judgmental of their neighborhood and the “chuntaros,” or working-class migrants, who live in it. She relentlessly clowns the sisters every chance she gets, calling them “white-tinas,” “vendidas,” “coconuts,” and maybe most wounding of all, she calls Emma “arrepentida,” or one who returns full of regret. Emma’s roots show when, unafraid, she steps to Mari, armed with decimating reads of her own. It is in their conflict that we see the dynamic opposites of contemporary Latina subjectivities.
On the surface, it seems the source of Mari’s rage toward the middle-class, light-skinned, assimilated Hernandez sisters is one of class mobility and race betrayal. I suspect that in a different writers room, their conflict would stay at that depth to give us those thrills of confrontation (and sparkling writing). But while after coming at each other from different sides of a class struggle, Emma and Mari find themselves in the same jail cell and arrive, after much conflict, to an understanding: In the eyes of the white American patriarchy, they will always be “third-class citizens,” gay-shamed, slut-shamed, brown.
As a Latina daughter and the sole female presence in the house she shares with her brother and father, Mari is the invisible hostage of Latina daughterhood. Like most working-class, immigrant Latinas I know and have been, she becomes responsible for eldercare as soon as she hits working age. In her character, we see the role reversal that hardly ever gets written and presented on TV — the daughter caring for her aging, father, who mostly ignores or tone-polices her while protecting her brother’s right to make mistakes. Trapped by eldercare, bound to gendered domestic labor, and silenced when she uses her voice, the activists’ meeting is a place she can release the pressure and put her rage to use for her community, only to find her rhetoric appropriated and her body exploited by her fellow-activist male love interest. Mari’s love is always connected to labor, and any pleasure she experiences is erased by shame from those she thought she could trust — something Emma is very familiar with.
Meanwhile, Eddy, Vidalia’s widow, is a radical complication of the suffering maternal. Like the sacrificial Latina mother archetype we all know, she accepts the daughters unconditionally as her own, welcomes them, cooks vegan chilaquiles for them, and mourns Vidalia over rancheras and long pláticas, all while presenting masculinely. It’s thrilling to see Vida center nonbinary and gender-nonconforming characters in acts of love, mourning, and pleasure, as well as straight characters like Mari who are, in a way, queered by the sheer fact of their bodies — a concept also thrillingly explored, high school style, in a new collaborative short film, Kiki and the MXFits, directed by exciting newcomer Natalia Leite alongside Vida creator Saracho herself.
In the white gaze, desire and gender deform in black and brown bodies; cholas, pachucas, muscular “Latin lovers” are all racialized deformations of gender, loading Latinx bodies with queer subtexts that make desire for us by white people exotic, strange, forbidden. Channeling the political struggle of the pachucas, and later the cholas, Mari continues their legacy of rejecting mainstream beauty ideals with a look that says, I am not to be fucked with. Her blue-black lipstick, winged eyeliner, masc clothes with femme elements, bandanna, and hoops embrace the radical, community-oriented subculture she defends, and are emblematic of her hood-feminist aesthetic.
Lyn is another character who is queered by the fact of her Latinidad. As an embodiment of la Malinche, Lyn complicates the archetype of the “race traitor” who falls for the white colonizer and leaves her people behind: What happens when la Malinche is simply a fetish object, discarded by white men who abuse and gaslight her after fulfilling their Latina fantasy? What happens when whiteness betrays her? Traditionally beautiful by Western standards — light-skinned, cis-feminine, and thin — Lyn escapes home through relationships with white men, leaving her neighborhood love, Mari’s brother Johnny, heartbroken for his “girl who got away.” In Vida’s premiere, after being ghosted by her current boyfriend Juniper, Lyn seduces Johnny — who’s engaged with a baby on the way — in the stairwell outside of her mother’s funeral at the bar. He succumbs to her advances and gives her head until she comes, only to have that power dynamic reverse in the next episode with Juniper, whom she gives a rim job to before he dumps her and asks for his credit cards back.
Betrayed by whiteness, Lyn nurses her wounds by recklessly rekindling her affair with Johnny, all while continuing to jog, shop on credit, eat vegan, and do yoga to maintain her appeal to white men. Even in assimilation, her body cannot escape the racialized roles imposed on it.
Immigrant stories are currently trending, indicating more diverse audiences are craving “authentic” portrayals of themselves. But unlike some Latinx-centered shows on television right now, Vida has no interest in presenting legible, sympathetic, or safe characters for the sake of straight or white audiences. Legibility asks writers and creators of color to sanitize critical, true-to-life depictions of class, race, and gender in favor of “tragic immigrant” trauma narratives. Rather than alienate white viewers, the writer of color enters an unspoken contract: The POC character will have a narrative arc, and with an arc comes the promise of a resolution, which puts the labor on the writer of color to “make up” with whiteness and “resolve” the conflict inherent in racialized identities. Legible immigrant narratives sell because empathy is feel-good writing for white viewers, binding writers of color to constantly create legible arcs that reassure white viewers that everything is okay. But seldom are we assured by white narratives, and things are still not okay. If television is the primary cultural force shaping public perception, then it’s important to carefully write Latinx subjectivities instead of just identities that “humanize,” and therefore uphold, oppressive assumptions. Instead, Vida’s writing is vibrant, political, and razor-sharp, imbued with the unspoken and constantly code-switching among English, Spanish, and Spanglish (sometimes to the point of being overwritten). The show depicts queer Latinxs as human already, eliminating the need to “humanize” issues of immigration, race, gentrification, class, and violence in border and queer communities so that white audiences can understand and sympathize.
Still, there’s room for improvement. Latinidad is in and of itself a colonial racial construction. I wish there were more Black/Afro-Latinx, brown, undocumented, and trans and nonbinary characters written into substantial roles in the show, but Vida has shown that it listens to critique and has room to grow after a six-episode introductory mini-season. With a Certified Fresh 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Vida’s viewership has grown 171% since its premiere to earn the largest Hispanic audience composition for a premium series this year, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
For now, it’s thrilling to watch a show that reflects and refracts characters against one another and in each other, and have each character be reflected and refracted in us. Vida illuminates the places in queer Latinx life that go unseen, somewhere between prodigal return and forced displacement, the lure of assimilation and the radical spaces of community and love, between grief and pleasure, the material world and the spirit world, and the authentic life, as in queer life, or vida, between life and death.
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal was born in the Rio Grande Valley borderlands to formerly undocumented Mexican immigrants. She is the author of the collection Beast Meridian (Noemi Press, Akrilica Series, 2017), winner of the John A. Robertson Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters, and featured as a best-of book at The Los Angeles Times, NBC News, BOMB, Literary Hub, Bustle, and Entropy. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Boston Review, The Academy of American Poets, BuzzFeed, Epiphany, PBS Newshour and elsewhere. She is a CantoMundo Fellow, and is currently pursuing her doctorate in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she is raising her son with the help of a loyal dog.
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