“I hope that Vida gives permission and is a marker in this timeline of us,” says Tanya Saracho of the Starz series that came to an end tonight after three seasons. “Us meaning Latinx in this industry,” the seasoned playwright and TV writer added of the East LA-based and LGBTQ-focused Vida. “That it’s a marker that allows for this kind of storytelling to happen.”
With the final episode both penned and directed by Saracho, ever battling sisters Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) came right to edge on finally walking away from each other and the bar that they had built up to a success against all odds after their mother’s death. In a journey that has taken many turns both for the show and Starz since Vida debuted just over two years ago, Saracho got the ending she wanted, even if there will be no more seasons of the series.
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As trauma both past and present hung over the sisters collectively and individually, as well as an America still hobbled by the coronavirus and hit hard by the killing of George Floyd in the street by a Minneapolis copy, I spoke with the always forthright Saracho about the end of Vida. Pulling back the veil on the power structures that Latinx shows and films face in this Peak TV era, the showrunner also opened up about what it is like to come to a conclusion in the purgatory of a global health pandemic and a city under siege in protest and pain.
DEADLINE: Is this really the end of Vida, because from that last scene with Emma saying “Are you coming?’ and the two of them walking back to the bar, seems like the story isn’t over yet.
SARACHO: It’s devised that way, but I’m told it’s the end, but also, it’s an end, you know? I went for a more cinematic indie film ending that is a mood, it’s an essence, more than, like, wait, what happened?
Because I’m not going to get a fourth season, people can fill in the blanks, you know? But I always wanted, like, from the beginning, for them to be walking off into the sunset of their intersection – that’s always the image I had.
Vida is a love story between two sisters, always has been for me. You know, when the senora, the Bruja, tells Lyn in the last episode, your love is downstairs. We needed three seasons for Lyn to find out what that was and for Emma to realize what that was too. From that, the spell’s been cast, to when they walk towards the intersection and into their bar, then they guess that’s what it always was
DEADLINE: Did you get there the way you wanted in the end?
SARACHO: When they shortened the season and shortened the series, I was like, okay, how do we earn that? Then I got to direct it myself, too, so it got to look how I wanted it to look. So that was a gift to be able to do that, because when I dreamt this up, I didn’t know I was going to be directing stuff.
So, yeah, so there’s, like, an open-endedness to a lot, I mean, it wouldn’t be Vida if we resolved everything, you know? Like, what is the resolution with Eddy? It’s satisfying. Her pulling the ring from her marriage with Vida off is satisfying, but what is it, you know? I love that.
— @Vida_STARZ (@VIDA_STARZ) June 1, 2020
DEADLINE: It breaks the standard rule of series finales where everything gets tied up in a nice bow. You’ve still got the deadbeat religious dad wanting to take the building from Emma and Lyn in a lawsuit he may win, Lyn and Johnny (Carlos Miranda) may or may not work out, Emma and Nico (Roberta Colindrez), Hell, Lyn and Emma may not work out and sell the building anyway, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui) and Monica could still happen and Mari (Chelsea Rendon) now has a bigger platform for her activism and POV than ever before but there are landmines in the big media owners …
SARACHO: Yes, hopefully, this satisfies, because in six episodes, there’s only so much we’re going to do. In that, I had to earn a reconciliation or reunification, so I had to break them up. That’s what happened this season and the breakups between the sisters wasn’t like other seasons where it’s like they blow up. It’s more hurt here, especially because Emma is more vulnerable this season.
So, it’s more painful. It stings more, this one. Emma giving up is giving up on her sister this time.
So, I always knew we had to break them up a little bit to bring them back together. So that’s sort of what we did, and we just designed it that way for the six chapters of the season.
It feels so wrong to try to celebrate or observe anything that has to do with Vida ending right now. How can I say goodbye? The world is on fire.
— Tanya Saracho (@TanyaSaracho) May 31, 2020
DEADLINE: As someone who is at the frontline of representation and the real force of the soft power of media, I have to ask you about this last week in America, especially after that tweet you put out this morning.
Over 100,000 dead from the coronavirus, with a vastly disproportionate number of those fatalities and the over 1.8 million confirmed cases being from communities of color, economic havoc and the killing of George Floyd in the streets of Minneapolis by a much complained about cop. This weekend we saw peaceful protests but also direct confrontation with the cops, a curfew in LA and destruction. We have another night of curfew now on the night of Vida’s series finale, where do you see all this going, realistically?
SARACHO: You know what I just tried to make YouTube videos about this with a response and they messed me up. I am all messed up now. I’d rather sit this question out I’m so sorry. I didn’t know I was feeling so emotional about this because I didn’t cry at all yesterday but it just all came flooding out and I’m making no sense
DEADLINE: I completely get that, it is so visceral on every level that is shatters the soul. Certainly, that scene in finale is also visceral in its own way to with the father where the sisters confront him and reveal how he abused their mother, Vida, in front of his congregation. That stung, with that prayer the group suddenly starts reciting over Emma. Watching that, that was a scene a playwright wrote, not a television writer …
SARACHO: (LAUGHS) I don’t know where one begins and one ends, but that scene was always the plan for the dad, where he went for religion. Not the exact thing, but something like it has happened to a lot of us in the writers’ room that come from religious backgrounds or families that have turned their backs on us.
When we shot it, Dominic, my first AD, second AD, my set director, they’re all queer women, and the first time we did it, it was, like a small room, and we were all in the corners, and we all had to stop for a bit. I had to hold my set decorator because she was bawling. She’s from the south, and she was so triggered.
— @Vida_STARZ (@VIDA_STARZ) June 1, 2020
DEADLINE: How do you think that scene will be seen by Latinx queer youth who have faced so much backlash from religious members of their own families and their communities?
SARACHO: They will see themselves reflected. I know it. Now, will we get backlash from more conservative members? Maybe, but this story, Emma’s story, was a kid that got turned away because of her queerness, you know? Whatever the reason, that’s what it was, and so being entrapped like this, this experience I think is going to resonate, especially because this is done. This prayer is real you know …
SARACHO: Yes, I didn’t take it verbatim but there’s a prayer invented to stop homosexuality and lesbianism.
People pray over someone, and usually it’s when you’re having a conversion situation where someone willingly wants to get rid of those so-called demons of queerness I guess, and then you willingly let them pray over you. So that’s what’s scary, that this is very much part of a culture. It’s such a sin that we must be prayed over, except this one is forced on Emma.
DEADLINE: Even with the re-introduction of Emma and Lyn’s long assumed dead father this final season, in retrospective that series has been building to that scene for a while, it seems?
SARACHO: I’ll tell you, I love how it looks, but when we were in there, there was a danger to it, you know? But to your question, it was always going to lead to this when we were building the season. Basically, it’s seeing it embodied and in action in the father, his intolerance and the intolerance in their communities from more traditional belief systems.
DEADLINE: With the exception of the Season 2 finale, unlike previous seasons, you both wrote and directed a big chunk of the shows this year. You directed the last three episodes, which are pivotal when a show is ending. What has that been like for you, and how has that brought your vision of the show to help to bring it to your conclusion?
SARACHO: Whew, that’s big, for me at least
SARACHO: Yeah, you know, when we were dreaming up in the writers’ room the Queerceañera, even the color teal, it was in the script. Like, the dress, all of it got dreamt up, and then I was able to realize it, and that’s such a gift because I didn’t need to translate it because of Jenée LaMarque, who I adore. She’s my sister who’s directed half the season, and she does an amazing job every time.
That’s why I shared the season with her, because she’s very much Vida, you know, and we developed a lot of imagery with her in the second season. But, even then I still have to translate my bad direction or as a showrunner because I’m not that great at instructions and directions and suggestions. So, I don’t have to do that when I’m directing, right? It’s just we take away the middle woman. So that, just economically for time, is easier.
And then the ending, I mean, to get to direct the ending of the show I created, how great is that?
DEADLINE: To that, how was it directing that final scene of the final Vida, the scene you had always envisioned?
SARACHO: The last scene, when we shot it, the day was fraught with problems. Eight of my people in the camera department were out with the stomach flu, including both my camera operators. So, I was working with new camera operators that I didn’t know, and also, we were losing time, and also, I had to take care of Mishel and Melissa because, for this particular scene, they knew the gravity. It was the last thing we were ever going to shoot in that intersection.
And then we were saying goodbye at the end of that when we were wrapping that day. So, there was that finality, so I just tried to check in with them.
DEADLINE: What was it like?
SARACHO: They were not talking, they were just really focused, and trying not to lose it. You can’t just turn that stuff on and then let it go. I mean, I feel so bad for them, because, like, we just kept hurting them. Like, talking about trauma, the body doesn’t know that it’s fictional trauma. They’re experiencing it, you know? So, with those scenes, I don’t have to do much, but I do have to take care of them. Making them do that over and over, you have to economize it.
— @Vida_STARZ (@VIDA_STARZ) June 1, 2020
DEADLINE: Really sounds like directing is the direction you want to go next…
SARACHO: The directing bug has certainly bit me. I want to direct now, and I’m so grateful to Marta Fernandez (former EVP Original Programming at Starz, who left in May 2019) for making me direct. She was my executive at Starz for the first and second season, and she’s the one who said you’re directing this season, in season two. I was like, no, no, no, maybe, maybe, fourth or fifth season. She’s like no, this season, and it was awesome. I’m so grateful because she empowered me, truly.
I mean, the showrunner is a director, but also a producer, but also a mother and a schoolmarm and whatever all the things that showrunners are. But, I mean, I really want to direct a film now. You know, when the coronavirus hit us all, on March 13, I was supposed to be on my way to London to study cinematography at the London Film Academy.
DEADLINE: That’s serious, especially with the final season of your show about to debut…
SARACHO: I know, because I’m serious about this. I want to direct, you know, but also, I don’t know shit, you know? So, I was, like, trying to learn some lenses and angles, my attitude is teach me.
DEADLINE: I know when we spoke at the beginning of the final season in late April, legacy was on your mind a lot. Has that evolved for you over the last six episodes in a COVID-19 world?
SARACHO: I hope that Vida gives permission and is a marker in this timeline of us. Us meaning Latinx in this industry. That it’s a marker that allows for this kind of storytelling to happen. We were the first prime cable show, and in lots of ways, we didn’t find the audience the way we wanted to, you know? We found you all, and thankfully we did, because the critics, you know, they got it, and then the fans that we did find, they are ride or die.
DEADLINE: What do you mean by permission?
SARACHO: I mean the gatekeepers. That they say, yes, we will green light and support our shows. It’s not just green lighting it. They have to support it and push it. Something for all Latinx or queers in complicated situations and spaces or anything. However, I want this this, I want Vida to open doors, I hope it does, because we keep losing our Latinx shows, you know?
DEADLINE: Why do you think that is happening?
SARACHO: Because we don’t matter enough to the gatekeepers and the power players. I mean, and that’s real, and because they’re just reflecting American consciousness in that opinion of us. I mean, what other reason?
We’re 20% of this country almost. How come we’re not almost 20% of what is on TV? It makes no sense, unless some of those opinions about us are resonating with people who are making decisions. Otherwise, if not, we would matter. I get very angry, and I also don’t get it. Why don’t we matter? Why? It’s like erasure for decades and decades.
Each decade, we’re still absent from the narrative of American-ness, you know? And it matters. Unfortunately, American media and entertainment gets exported to the rest of the world, and what they see is what is they think and what we think is America, you know?
When you’re missing from America, you don’t exist.
So, the people making the decisions, that’s where it matter. It’s not people who can create the stuff. We’ve been ready. We’ve been ready, but it’s people making the decisions.
DEADLINE: It appears that for all the talk of diversity, as Spike Lee has said repeatedly, just having that one person in authority who gets you, who comes from your culture can make all the difference …
SARACHO: Well, look at this formula here. Now, Marta wasn’t in the corner office, but she was next to the corner office. Marta Fernandez is the one who found me. I’d only been here three years. She read my play. She called me in. Said do you want to do this, and she took me all the way to the end of the second season. And she had to champion me in there and fight, fight. I was never privy to it, so I don’t even know what fights she fought, because that’s the equation. You have to have a champion, an ally in there, and it makes the most sense that one that, you know, looks like you, absolutely.
We are 27 countries that make up the Latin diaspora with varied identities. So, there’s a lot of stuff we still haven’t gotten the chance to see on TV.
DEADLINE: So, do you think we will get past the point of there just being one or two Latinx series on at any time or can’t you see that event horizon yet?
SARACHO: I think we will get there. I just don’t know when, because I look at the country. I mean, look at today. I can’t…even with today. I look at last night and then I lose hope. Right now, I lose hope because of how dark it is right now, but I know it has to happen. There’s no way. I hope I get to see it, and not just cosmetically where they throw around diversity and inclusion and they have initiatives. Not just that way. I’m talking organically that we are in the castle, in the throne room.
DEADLINE: Ending a show is almost never easy, even if you had some lead up time as Vida had. But, and I don’t mean to be trite, but there was no cast party, there was no final screening party, all those sorts of things, your show ended in this unprecedented period of the coronavirus. You finished filming it months ago, but you really didn’t get a chance to say goodbye in person, did you?
SARACHO: No and I’ve been very emotional this week. There’s no ritual to the ending of this after all everyone put into it.
Now, I know I’m privileged that I was able to finish it, deliver it so they could do all their technical stuff, and then we’re able to air. I have friends like Gloria Calderón Kellett, who was midway through shooting her latest season of One Day at A Time, when the ‘rona shut them down. So, I’m privileged, I know that.
So, I’m not complaining about the macro, but there’s something about saying thank you and goodbye to my crew, to my cast with a hug and frankly, you know, toasting with Moscatos. Everybody on the show has these trajectories that were accomplished within the three seasons that are really meaningful, and we didn’t get to celebrate that and observe that. We are people of ritual, and my crew and my cast and my writers, my editors, we are people of rituals, and we didn’t get to have our closing ritual.