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Review and cast interviews: Starz Vida needs to be on your TV radar

Vida cast show a side of life less explored in Los Angeles

Starz original series Vida is an intensely emotional and joyous celebration of life and all the messiness and change that is inevitable. Especially the latter.

The scene is set in East Los Angeles, a historic Hispanic neighborhood. Thanks to the insanely high prices of real estate and a growing population’s weariness with commuting on the dreaded LA freeways, East LA has become inviting for outsiders to check out and maybe spruce up the street.

The underlying premise to Vida, a story about a fractured family forced back together in the early death of the matriarch, is this external change. Except that the people who live there and who cannot afford to leave are now hostages of a sort enduring the tweaks and upgrades that don’t feel like they belong in the area.

But as we all know, money speaks loudest, and before you know it all the neighbors start to cash out. It’s the oldest story in any city anywhere that is gaining population and running out of actual room for people to live.

But the showrunner, Tanya Saracho, has cleverly woven many layers and sub-stories within Vida like a tasty torta of storytelling, giving us a rich cast of characters brought to life by an amazing cast.

These women tell their stories and also reveal a part of Los Angeles many outsiders (and even LA natives) had no idea was so vibrant.

Saracho’s scripts use Spanish, English, Spanglish, and Espanglés which makes the dialogue effective in showing how the subtleties of how the cast’s communication endear or deflect emotional reactions. Saracho and the writers for Vida have flexed this in nuanced measure and the drama features everyday life underscored with complex issues all presented in an entertaining and authentic way.

The half-hour drama features a Latinx community, where LGBTQ and gender-neutral, -fluid lives are just the normal noise, part of the big picture and a solid part of the neighborhood. Not a big deal and their issues are universal and resonate with all viewers.

Saracho’s Vida is, at its core, a family tale that also blows up Spanish language gendered words and brings the term Latinx, Chicanx and even the term “gente-fication” and “chipsters” (Latin hipsters) to the forefront.  The Latinx LGBTQ community have claimed their preferred descriptors in the English language.

Add to this interesting mix is the story around our departed matriarch, Vidalia, or the titular Vida, a late-in-life lesbian and bar owner who is married to Edvina “Eddy” Martinez (Ser Anzoategui).

Vidalia’s two millennial daughters return to their home from points east and north, and immediately absorb the implications of their mother’s life that were not so well known to them, but very much accepted and celebrated in their neck of East LA.

The Hernadez sisters are magnificent. Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada) are “chalk and cheese” but deeply connected by old hurts and shared history.

Melissa Barrera, Mishel Prada
Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada) are sisters who sort their lives after their mother dies suddenly

Eddy understands that they are not keyed into their mother’s queer inner life, and tries to win their trust and affection with a very affable and food-centric showering of love, not unlike a doting overly concerned Jewish or Italian mother. Eddy is the secret weapon that ultimately will help this family repair themselves.

For repressed and angry Emma, the more educated and successful of the two sisters, it takes longer. Lyn is a sunny soul who is not warring with her own sexual identity and desires as her sister has been doing for a long time. Lyn is a more impulsive and open character.

Emma starts to exhale as the series unravels, and she accepts her sexual desires and in doing so, resolves to save the bar her mother has created and cobbled together in a neighborhood desperately in need of an anchor to congregate.  The cocktail bar that she inherited now becomes Emma’s raison d’etre and the bridge to keeping Eddy in the family and close. Her high powered gig in Chicago is put on hold.

In Vida, there are messy and complicated liaisons along the way for both sisters. No spoilers, but Lyn is a one-woman wrecking crew and Emma is all over the place until she finds what’s in front of her, a love that was there all along.

Neighborhood characters to note include Cruz (Maria-Elena Laas), an angry activist and frustrated young woman Marisol Sanchez (Chelsea Rendon) and Mari’s brother, Johnny Sanchez (Carlos Miranda). Their old-school father the source of patriarchal exasperation for Marisol who yearns to make changes, everywhere.

The anchor to Vida is Vidalia’s bar, the Cheers “where everybody knows your name” place in this love letter to the East side.  The villain in the piece, Nelson (Luis Bordonada) is doing his best to wheedle people out of their humble properties to cash in on the housing sales boom and the Hernandez sisters’ business is in his sights.

Make no mistake, this is not just a queer show or a Latinx drama, but a fiercely funny and heartbreaking rich human story that will appeal to all and reinforce the values of family, loyalty, love, and respect for all people.

We spoke to the cast about their characters.

Lyn is played by Melissa Barrera

Melissa Barrera
Lyn is insecure but hides it expertly and with fashionable flair

Gorgeous and fey, Vida’s looker is Lyn, a wanna-be L.A. party girl who has left a complicated life in San Francisco behind her, not to mention a boyfriend with the name Juniper.

Melissa spoke to us about her flighty character, Lyn and said: “If they sold the [bar] building, Lyn would be on the first plane to San Francisco. She’s not great at dealing with real-life things…the one dynamic shift between them, you think one of the sisters is one thing and the other sister is the another, and then you learn it’s the other way around [for them] in many aspects…emotions and being comfortable being home.”

Emma is played by Mishel Prada

Mishel Prada
Emma is a simmering volcano ready to erupt

Emma is a buttoned-up, buttoned-down executive who is educated, smart, savvy and very much in need of liberating.  Prada’s Emma is a smoldering Vesuvius about to blow. Sent away as a child because her mother sensed Emma’s true nature, Emma’s pent-up anger (at her mother) and the road to forgiveness and acceptance is a white-hot sexual reawakening.

Prada said: “She’s not happy in Chicago, she wants connection more than anything. She wants a family more than anything but she’s scared. As a young child, she was shown that’s not a safe place for her and it hurts a lot. Emma worked really hard to pull herself up from her bootstraps and put herself through college and create a business persona…She is such a complex character.  I was really excited because she [Emma] is just a challenge. It’s really easy to look at a character like Emma and play her like an ice queen, but the challenge is to bring a lot of humanity to her, then you start to understand why she is that way.  [And] The writing is so good to begin with, all the writers did an incredible job. It makes that part of it easier.”

Eddy is played by Ser Anzoategui

Ser Anzoategui
Eddy is the heart, soul and the glue that sticks the family together whether they want to or not

Eddy is all heart and soul, and grieving their wife’s passing while trying to mend the rift that exists with Emma and Lyn, and helps Emma in her quest to save Vidalia’s bar and stay closer to home. Eddy is an amazing cook, a trusted ear and a loyal and sensitive person who is a big part of the neighborhood.

Ser said: “Eddy promised Vidalia that the bar would keep on and that her legacy would remain, When Emma and Lyn show up, my character is setting aside grief to mend these two and keep it together. Eddy just wants them to feel strong about the family and accept Eddy, who’s the heart and glue holding it all together. Lyn warms up quick but Emma really reminds Eddy of Vidalia, it’s powerful.”

Marisol is played by Chelsea Rendon

Chelsea Rendon
Marisol is the five feet of fury in her neighborhood, frustrated and angry it is changing

Marisol is spit and fury and so very frustrated at the glacial pace of change in her own house. This firebrand is “woke” and using her words and her technological savvy to mobilize the neighborhood. But spray paint and yelling are not very effective at making real change.

Chelsea said: “I’m very similar to Mari, I am from that neighborhood and I’m strong and independent. I tend to put on a front of [having] more strength than I actually have. I call myself a pomegranate… I have a hard exterior but I am soft and sweet on the inside just like Mari. She’s ready to make it happen, but she’s also got her brother’s back and when she sees Lyn in the neighborhood again Marisol is like, ‘no way you are going to hurt my brother again.’ But Marisol is smart and witty and ready to make it happen and stop the change in the neighborhood.”

Johnny is played by Carlos Miranda

Carlos Miranda
Johnny cannot give up Lyn, despite his pending child about to be born

Johnny is a do-right dude until hurricane Lyn returns to town. Johnny knows he was burned once, but the flame is powerful and he is a moth with a death wish.

Miranda said: “This is a guy, I think he is kind of got his life figured out for the most part, but nobody really does. In a sense he is engaged and a baby on the way. He’s got his routine, he’s got his program, he wants to settle down. Everything kind of goes…a monkey wrench is thrown in it because Lyn shows up and he’s head over heels for her. But he wants to be a good husband and father too. ”

Cruz is played by Maria Elena Laas

Maria Elena Laas
Cruz is the crush that Emma cannot shake

Sultry and seductive Cruz loves Emma and has for a long time. Now that Emma is back in town, how long will she stay and will Cruz take a chance on someone who is still sorting themselves out?

Laas said: “Cruz was born and raised on the Eastside and she is a social worker that does community outreach, she’s the older, more sophisticated version of Mari [Marisol] who can actually create change. Cruz has a history with Emma which comes to light. Cruz is the only person who can see right through Emma’s bulls*** and see Emma for who she is, and knows her in a clearly different way than anyone else does, and she’s the one person who gets to her and can weaken her bravado that she has. It’s also a little bit of an emotional compass with Emma.”

Vida airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on Starz.