Inside TV’s First All-Latinx Writers’ Room

The origin story of Starz’s new series Vida is as refreshingly unusual as they come in Hollywood. Its creator and showrunner, Chicago-based playwright Tanya Saracho, moved to Los Angeles in 2012 to try to make it as a TV writer. After staff jobs on shows like Devious Maids, Looking, and How to Get Away with Murder, Saracho was wondering what was next — maybe another play? — when her agent told her Starz’s senior vice president of original programming, Marta Fernandez, wanted to meet her.

Saracho assumed they were going to discuss possible employment as a writer on a Starz show. Instead, Fernandez told her the network was interested in developing a Latinx-centered show, pitched some ideas, and asked her to pick the one with which she most connected. Saracho liked the idea of Pour Vida, as it was then titled, which featured female millennials at its center. But Fernandez wasn’t offering her a staff writer position. She wanted Saracho to create it and run it.

Tanya Saracho. Photo: Elizabeth Weinberg/Vulture

They closed the deal in February 2016, and a month later, Saracho had surgery for a herniated lower back disc. Although the procedure was successful, she caught an infection in the hospital that required emergency surgery. For six months, as she wrote the Vida pilot, she was bedbound and relied on the help of her boyfriend and caretaker, Colin, and close friend and fellow writer Mando Alvarado to develop the outline and finish the script. The story — which follows two estranged Mexican-American sisters, Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), who return to the East L.A. neighborhood where they grew up when their mother suddenly dies — explores identity in myriad ways. Emma, who is queer, discovers that her mother was as well, while the community they return to is being redefined by the impact of upward mobility and gentrification. Woven throughout are questions of colorism, classism, homophobia, and sexism.

In January 2017, Starz greenlit Vida, giving Saracho two weeks to staff her writer’s room. She decided from the jump that it would be the first all-Latinx room in Hollywood. Saracho and the show’s other six writers participated in a roundtable with Vulture to talk about what it was like to work in that space.

They are: Evangeline Ordaz (East Los High and Seven Seconds), a Mexican-American lawyer and playwright who was born and raised in East Los Angeles; Mando Alvarado (Seven Seconds, Tyrant), a Mexican-American actor and writer born in south Texas who has lived in Los Angeles for six years; Chelsey Lora (Greenleaf, Blindspot), who is Chilean-American, grew up in several places along the East Coast, and has lived in Los Angeles six years; Dominican-born Santa Sierra (Narcos), who grew up in Puerto Rico and Massachusetts and moved to Los Angeles in 2012; Nancy Mejía (wrote and directed the short Mateo), who was born and raised in Los Angeles to immigrant parents from El Salvador; and Puerto Rico native Jenniffer Castillo (Power, Black Sails), who was raised on the island and went to college in Boston before moving to Los Angeles.

Tanya, let’s begin with how the story evolved. Starz pitched you a basic theme. How did it develop for you?

Tanya Saracho: I went in for a meeting with Marta Fernandez, and she said, “We are looking for a female millennial show. Have you heard of the term ‘chipster’?” And I was like, “Of course, Chicana hipster.” “Have you heard of gentefication?” And I actually hadn’t heard of that term. She said the L.A. Times had just written an article about it a few months ago and I should take a look. It’s the gentrification of Latinx space, usually by upwardly mobile Latinx’s. I thought that was fascinating. She asked if I could do a pilot and I said, “Of course I can.” Not knowing more than that — millennial female.

It felt like a race because there were five other Latinx projects under consideration at Starz. I’m sure they were great. I don’t know how we’re here. Witchcraft, probably. Brujas!

Chelsey Lora: I was going to say, there always felt like there was some magic around this project.

TS:  Chelsey and I became friends because of Outlander.

CL:  The funny thing is we actually have a bunch of mutual theater friends in common. And I emailed her and she never responded because she’s a hot ticket.

TS: No! It’s because I don’t check emails.

CL: But we followed each other on Twitter as fellow TV writers. And I was tweeting about Outlander [about four years ago]. She started tweeting me back and then she DM’d me to hang out and I was like, “Bitch, I emailed you.”

TS: I wanted to talk about Outlander with anyone! And then Santa I met because we belonged to this Latina TV Writers Group. There’s, like, 72 of us now. You have to be staffed at least once — it’s not just aspirational.

Evangeline Ordaz: It’s amazing. So many people I never would have met ‘cause we’re never in rooms together.

How many people did you see in total?

TS:  I read 152 people. I didn’t finish the whole scripts, but I read all those people. I really read the 13 that came in.

CL: I would not say that’s common. She wanted to read everyone in our community and just get really solid people.

TS: Starz has the final say. So whomever I send has to be excellent. Who happen to be Latinx. For me, that was a big deal. The proof is in the pudding, in that script. And also in the meeting. So I would I say, “Say everything you said here, Mando, to Marta Fernandez. That was brilliant, but you’re wasting it on me.” I couldn’t just be all, I’m staffing my friends.

From the beginning, you had made up your mind you would have an all-Latinx staff. Did Starz try to talk you out of that?

TS: Never. Starz never tried. Other people did. Some people from the union. Old-guard people of the dominant culture. They tried!

EO: Los gringos.

TS: They were like, “Why would you wanna do that to yourself? Just staff the best people.” And I always thought, I will be staffing the best people. The best people for this job are the best writers who happen to be Latinx. For this particular job. Maybe not other shows I do. I do think when you see those first six episodes, you get that intimacy you couldn’t have. Everyone has cultural shorthand in this room. It happened too with the directors and the cinematographers.

What has it meant to you all to be in this room together?

EO: We all operate in the dominant culture. That is not the world we were probably raised in, but we have learned it, and learned it well. There’s still a part of you that’s missing when you’re operating in that world. And you go home, and all of a sudden, you can just relax. You can talk like you talk. You’re not putting on the white talk. That’s how it is in this room. You can be who you are. You can say something in Spanish and know that everybody’s gonna know what you mean. It’s just so easy.

Jenniffer Castillo: I’ve been an assistant for five years in four different rooms before this one. I’ve never felt this comfortable. I remember in this one room, pitching this one thing, and in order to explain it, I really had to say it in Spanish because it was a saying. My mother always says this. And then, obviously, I had to have that moment of translating. That never happens in this room.

CL: To Evangeline’s point, too, I didn’t realize how much energy it takes, to put that on until I was in this room. When I leave at the end of the day, I don’t feel as emotionally tired. I’ve been in good rooms before, too. It’s just that your time and energy isn’t as taxed sometimes.

JC: And it’s not just the language, it’s also the cultural awareness we have — that’s very different.

CL: I was gonna say, not just Latinx, but also having a great feminine energy in the room, and also having a queer perspective. All of the things!

SS: It felt like, Oh this is what the dominant culture feels like 100 percent all the time. I didn’t feel that I had to be LeBron James in this room to be appreciated. What attracted me to being in a room with Latinxs is it’s probably the only time I was gonna be able to do that in this business.

EO: Hopefully not, right?

Nancy Mejía: It’s funny how people see this as this revolutionary act. But we’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re merely telling our own stories, from our own experiences. I keep telling people it’s amazing we prove that the community isn’t monolithic. We share cultural roots, but we all have different experiences.

Because the Latinx experience in the U.S. is so diverse, I’m curious to hear what parts of the story most resonated with each of you. Where did you connect the most?

EO: Mine is really obvious. In addition to being born in Boyle Heights [where the show is set], I spent my entire professional life there. Before I became a writer, I was a public-interest attorney and I represented a majority-low-income neighborhood. Those are my clients. I founded a nonprofit that has as one of our missions to try to mitigate the impact of gentrification on the low-income population in the neighborhood. So that part of the story was really exciting to me, to be able to talk on television about this issue that was so insidiously impacting people. People talk about it, but they don’t realize the kind of the personal impact that this neo-economic phenomena is having on people on the ground.

CL: For me, the obvious ones are having two Latina leads. I love that it’s centered around family. Family’s really important to me. Probably one of the things we talked about in my meeting is how my dad came out later in life. I got to explore that a lot in [episode four] and that was really great. I’m super tight with my dad, so it’s totally different [than how it is on the show]. I talked to him a little bit about my episode and he was blown away. He had the same connection to it — imagine if you’d never shared that with your kids, like they didn’t really know you?

L-R: Melissa Barrera (Lyn) and Mishel Prada (Emma) star in Vida. Photo: Erica Parise/© 2017 Starz Entertainment, LLC

Mando Alvarado: For me it was more of the macro: the chance to tell complex characters in a way where their psychology and history drives them to behave in certain situations. We don’t really get a chance to do that on television. It’s usually like they’re an immigrant or a drug dealer. So I was like Okay, let’s do some work. Let’s show we can do it.

TS: A lot of it is sourced from me so I won’t say who’s my favorite. But what I’m most excited to put on cable TV is the word pocho or quiovole or carnala. Very specific Mexican-American slang. That is the biggest most radical political act because we haven’t had that presence. The chamoyada might be a throwaway for some, but the fact that it’s on film and we got a real chamoyada-maker to make it; the street vendor with the tamales. The way we color the world is the most gratifying thing — even those small moments are huge because I’ve never seen that on American television.

SS: Having come from Narcos, my first show, which sometimes promotes stereotypes about Latinos, this was a show that had nothing to do with people being killed and Latinos being criminals or drug dealers or gang members. This was just a show about a family. That’s what attracted me, because when people come to me with projects, it’s usually about drugs. It was refreshing as a writer to be like, I don’t even have to think about that. My mind doesn’t have to go to this dark place. It can just go to this human place.

JC: The thing I relate to the most is definitely the queer Latinx women [who] are in the show. The whole Emma story, as well, with her mother. I know what it’s like to be rejected by your own mother because of your queer identity. My relationship with my mother will never be the same because she does not accept me and my partner. They did not attend my wedding. So I’m in that place where Emma was before her mother passes away, potentially one day able to forgive her mother. We had a bruja come in, Sabrina, and she was like — como se dice?

TS: Una limpia!

JC: She said, “I’m taking the weight of people that you’re carrying. I’m feeling your mother.” As soon as she said that, she goes, “Is your mother still alive?” And I just burst into tears. I didn’t realize I was holding onto that. But I know that, to my mother, in a way I died when I came out to her. And to me, my mother died when she decided not to go to my wedding. [Tears up.] So there’s totally that.

NM: Something I really relate to and respect is the fact that we don’t shy away from exploring the contradictions of our identity, like, how do we have privilege? How do we exert that privilege? My parents obviously want me to have a better life than they did, but then how am I, this upwardly mobile Latina, contributing?

Mando, I am curious about your experience working in a room where you are the only man.

MA: The assumption would be that my experience would be really different because I’m a man and they’re women. But the truth is that every writers’ room has its own dynamic energy, and I don’t realize I’m the guy until I’m told I’m the guy. That kind of dynamic doesn’t really ever enter unless it’s for a joke.

CL: I didn’t realize consciously that you were gonna be the only dude on this show. Especially because our writer’s assistant is male, who’s also awesome and from South Texas. But I was never worried about Mando in a room. He’s always in a room with ladies. He’s always so awesome and thoughtful, creatively and personally, in a room.

MA: If you look at it macro, it’s the #MeToo movement, right? So, for me, it’s growing as a man in Hollywood. It’s things to be aware of, but I take that out everywhere. My own privilege — sometimes I have to confront that.

TS: There were some things you hadn’t realized before.

MA: We were pitching the episodes, and everyone went in and did their pitch, and they usually went over it in like a day. And then it was my turn and it took three to four days, and I realized, Oh that’s what it’s like on the other side. Like, I’m not being taken seriously. Now, the thing I realized was that it’s a group dynamic. If a group dynamic is of the same and there is the other, the other will be otherized. It’s not so much that it’s a male or female, but in a general Hollywood dominant culture, the other is either a person of color or a woman and that’s it. I understood that feeling and that was really eye-opening.

When did the writer’s room begin working last season?
TS: We started [in] August and it was only ten weeks.

So you were working when the Harvey Weinstein stories broke and the #MeToo movement started. Did that enter the conversations in the room?

CL: We were in the safest room in Hollywood. Thank God. The #MeToo movement is something that we, as women in Hollywood, have always been aware of. There are people and situations that you should worry about. We were all aware of bad things before.

TS: Otherized people, marginalized people, marginalized writers, we’ve been aware of that for longer because we’ve been not just sexually harassed, but also racially harassed, some of us in some of our rooms.

Can you give some examples?

JC: There was a room I was very engaged in, and I felt my opinion counted. But they singled me out for this one lesbian scene. They were like, “So how do we do the sex for this scene?” I spoke out and I told them. In this show, I talk and I contribute a lot more than just the sex scene. But there, I was specifically pointed out for that. It was an all-male room and I was an assistant. There were two assistants that were women. And I remember one of the male staff writers felt uncomfortable. I was like, Should I be feeling uncomfortable? But I wanted to be confident about this and say it. It wasn’t until later that I realized, Oh this is the moment where I feel like I’m singled out specifically for that.

TS: When I started my first day of work [on Devious Minds], and I’ve written a play about this story, one of my co-workers said, “You do know you’re the diversity hire.” And I go, “What’s a diversity hire?” I’d never heard that term. I’d just gotten to Hollywood, you know? And he goes, “Oh honey.” Like that. Super bitchy. I was like, That doesn’t feel good. I think diversity hire’s a bad thing. So I called my agent and I’m like, “What’s a diversity hire?” He said, “I didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t want you to get it in your head.” And I said, “Well, should it get in my head? Am I a staff writer? Am I working for the show? Like, do I have to be here everyday? (Laughs.) What is it? What is my role?” He said, “No, you’re fine. You’re just like any other writer except you don’t cost the show anything.” So I wasn’t just like any other writer, if other writers knew that I was a diversity writer and that was my value. That was a rough year — and a lot of other shit happened in that room — because after I had been so valued in the theater. I was the playwright. And then you get there and it’s like that.

What did it do to you mentally and emotionally to be in that room for that year after you were told that?

TS: Oh, less than! You don’t speak up. I am not a quiet person. I was the quietest I’ve ever been. Also, I had a showrunner that was not so down with the cause. Not very woke, you know?

MA: And you were doing a Latinx-based show.

Has anyone else been the diversity hire in a room?

EO: I was. In my case, the showrunner did try and make me feel like everybody else. Everybody had an office. I had an office. But it did the same thing to me, like when I got to law school and it was, “Oh, you’re only here because you’re Latina.”

The affirmative action days. I remember.

EO: Yeah! You feel like, I don’t really belong. It was the same thing here. I felt like, well, I can’t be as smart and as talented as all the other people in the room, right? It does silence you. And then there was a very weird dynamic where I think people also got a sense of it and ignored me. I wasn’t consequential to the room.

Were there other women?

EO: Yes. There were other women, and they were not supportive. It was really terrible. And there was one Latino director hired that year, and, and he was treated horribly. Horribly. This is a Latino director with 30 years of experience, and he was treated like he didn’t know what he was doing. Then I realized, Oh! They’re treating me the same way! (Laughs.) That show literally decimated my confidence that I could be a TV writer. I decided not to pursue TV writing for several years.

SS: I was never the diversity hire, but I was the only Latinx in Narcos. Yeah, Narcos. For season three.

EO: Again, a Latinx show.

MA: That’s crazy, right?

SS: You do feel a little bit like a token, and it’s hard to explain the feeling because you don’t get a class on how to do a writers’ room. You are thrown in a place with different personalities. Sometimes with people that have been there before, and there are certain politics you have to navigate. So you just sit there, like, What can I say? Who should I approach?

JC: I never was the diversity hire, but I would have died for one of those positions having worked as an assistant climbing the ladder. I did hear some of the horror stories but I was still, like, well, give me that horror story! It’s funny how the system’s made. Even though you know you’re going to potentially be in a place of being abused, at least that’s the way I can put my foot in the door.

SS: That’s the way you have to see it. This is just a stepping stone. I always tell new writers that it’s okay to not be perfect your first time. This is supposed to be fun. This is not supposed to give you a panic attack.

NM: Technically, I was the funded position [at Vida] for season one.

TS: No!

NM: Notice I said “funded” because I know you don’t like that word.

TS: They had thrown that word around, and I was like, “Starz, no, we’re going to call it the funded position and not diversity.” A person can’t be diversity. I get triggered!

NM: And, honestly, I totally benefited from the negative experiences that Tanya had because she did not want to impose that pain onto another human being.

Do you remember the first time you saw yourself represented on TV or film where you really recognized yourself in the story or character?

JC: In TV, it was last year when I watched One Day at a Time. [Elena is] Cuban but I’m Puerto Rican, and we’re pretty darn close. She’s queer, and she’s having this complication with a quinceañera. I was like, This is me, right here. The problem was the accepting mother and grandmother — I didn’t have that. So that was the dream version of what my life could have been.

TS: I remember Resurrection Boulevard. It was on for such a brief moment, but they were trying to do a good, Latino, Mexican-American family with a patriarch. I don’t remember all of it. And then Latinx were gone for a long time. I wanted to be an actor back then, and I was like, Oh great there will be a place. But no. Not for another 12 years or 15 years, or however long. They tried Cane for a season. You know, they tried.

MA:  Yeah… no.

There’s a scene in Cane I’ll never forget because I hated it so much. Nestor Carbonell, who I love as an actor, was drinking Cuban coffee and he had to say, “This is what I love about being Cuban.” He drinks his coffee, and I just wanted to punch him in the head.

TS: Probably a Cuban was not writing that!

MA: No, that was probably a white man.

SS: For me, that’s a complicated question to answer because I am a black Latina. And I still don’t see myself much on television. The black Latinos that are in Hollywood are playing African-Americans, so I never really did see myself. But if I have to go back, I remember Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) from That ’70s Show. I identified with him because I had an accent, too. I think I still have an accent, but it was even thicker back then when I was in high school. I was really quiet in high school because I internalize a lot. I came here at 14 and I didn’t speak a word of English. I went from being a chatty kid in Spanish, and then I came to this country and I was like, well I can’t communicate, so I started to listen a lot more. And Fez was the funniest character and everybody loved him. So when I started as a comedy writer, that was probably the beginning of me seeing myself in a character, even though he was very stereotypical.

TS: That’s problematic because you see yourself, some closeness, similarities, but really they were using him as a joke. Something like Broad City, when you see queer Latinos or Latinas on TV, they are for the joke, you know? That’s how we often exist. It’s like a form of cooning they make us do.

SS: The accent is a little bit like blackface. You see it with Modern Family. I love that show. I think it’s a brilliant comedy. But, again, having an accent doesn’t necessarily have to be paired with having less intelligence. That affected me because I had an accent when I was in school and people automatically thought I was dumber because of it.

TS: That’s why I wanted to get rid of my accent right away, as soon as I got here. We were doing a reading in class out loud, and all the kids laughed when I said Plymouth [pronounced pli-mouth]. I remember so clearly. I was used to people in Mexico laughing because I was a clown. But this was the bad kind of laughing. And that stays with you.

CL: The first thing I remember is Sesame Street, and I just held on to that. I was like, Fuck everything else. Sesame Street is the only thing that makes sense to me and looks like me because I was born in Boston. Shout out to Maria!

MA: La Bamba for me. Richie! Chicano kid coming out of the barrio. It was Luis Valdez. They were all, like, truth-telling. They were sticking to their guns the way they were telling a story.

CL: Those were my first words, “La, la, la bamba!” I watched that so much when I was little!

TS: It’s epic. No other movie has navigated mainstream and Chicano culture like that ever again. That’s sad.

On that note, in the last few years, we’ve seen black Hollywood gaining more power both in TV and movies. I’m wondering what you’ve been thinking about in terms of the Latinx community. We have the numbers, but we don’t have the voice. Are there lessons to be learned from black Hollywood? What can Latinx Hollywood do to become more visible and successful?

TS: We talk about this a lot. Any time we have a conversation, I don’t want us to negate the progress that is being made in black American culture because I’ve gotten into it with friends.

We are 18-to-20 percent, depending on what you read, of this country, right? Black American culture is 12 percent. But, with Vida, we have now five shows on American television. That’s less than one percent. Why? We don’t know why. Why are we invisible to the media? Why do we not have a voice? Obviously, we have talent, so that’s not it. It’s that we are not valued. We don’t got the bank.

EO: I think that’s the key. The thing I’ve always said is that, historically, there was a black free class. There were historic black colleges. There has always been a black middle class that has had resources. And they’ve been integral to promoting black advancement in all areas. For the Latino community, by definition, we’re this immigrant community. You don’t immigrate unless you absolutely economically have to. Which means you’re just barely trying to get your foothold and struggling to survive. Historically, we haven’t had a moneyed class, and money is power everywhere, but especially in Hollywood.

TS: Voting power, too. And sometimes we don’t have voting power.

MA: Within our spectrum, there are very many different kind of Latinx, different types of ethnicities, right? But a lot of times within our community we’ll say, “Oh, that’s Mexican, but it’s not really like me.” And that’s a positive thing in that, yes, there should be more stories. But as a group, we should also support the show when it comes out because it will open doors. I feel like the African-American community as a power block, as an economic block, has united, and through the years have established: “We’re here.” Our group is slowly starting to find that.

TS: There’s one black American narrative.  You can trace it. There are 27 countries that make up the Latin diaspora. How can we have one narrative?

MA: But we can support each other.

TS: Under that one umbrella, agreed. Like the way that One Day at a Time spoke to you and speaks to me, hopefully Vida will speak to you. Because, you know, it’s a construct. This Latinidad is a construct, so we’re all under this umbrella. And there are some similarities, so let’s support.

SS: We all speak the same language.

TS: Brazilians don’t, but yes.

SS: But even that I can understand a little bit. I’ve had this conversation with executives, and the many different countries confuse them. So they target the big ones, like Mexico or Florida and the Cubans. Or in New York, we have Puerto Ricans.

That’s the other thing. It’s not just the differences in native countries, but the regional differences, too. Mexicans in Texas and California, or Cubans in Miami and New Jersey, are not necessarily the same.

EO: Exactly. We have differences.

MA: Right but, again, you can tell a story of colorism. Colorism exists in all our cultures. El blanquito. El negrito. If you tell that story then we’re all, Yeah, I connect to that.

TS: Basically tell our story of colonization, and we’re safe!

MA: Yes. Exactly. That is our narrative.

Inside TV’s First All-Latinx Writers’ Room