Starz’s new show “Vida” is breaking barriers just a few episodes into its season.
A mother’s sudden death brings her estranged daughters, Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), home to their historically Mexican American neighborhood in the Eastside of Los Angeles. They find their family home in danger of foreclosure, old friends and lovers resent them and that their mother has come out as a lesbian.
All of these events bring up old wounds and creates new ones, but “Vida” is not just about the drama.
It’s about the vibrancy of the Mexican American community in Los Angeles, the differences between Latinx people in how they relate to their culture and their neighbors, and how we’re dealing with gentrification, infidelity, repression and resentment.
Maria Elena Laas is just one of many actresses who bring the stories of “Vida” to life.
She plays Cruz, an old friend of Emma’s. The Puerto Rican actress says she jumped at the chance to be a part of such a momentous project despite some reservations.
“People can be sensitive about how their culture and community are portrayed,” she says, She’s relieved to see so many viewers and critics positively respond to the show.
Laas points to the scarcity of Latinx-led shows as a reason behind the pressure for “Vida” to exceed expectations.
“We’re used to seeing one or two Latinx characters here and there on a show,” she says. “To be given this platform and tell this story within our culture – which can be very machista and conservative – and tackle issues of sexuality, nudity and told from a female point of view has just never been done before.”
Because premium cable allows for sex scenes generally considered too hot for networks, “Vida” is able to portray rarely seen intimacies between Latinas with different body types and sexualities.
“We haven’t seen the body types you see on the show. It was a scary thing for us to do, it was our first time. But it was for the greater good, so people can see themselves represented on-screen,” says Laas.
“In our culture, we still have a specific beauty ideal. We have this Miss Universo, this specific curvy body. We’ve never seen these types of naked Latina bodies. We come in different shapes and sizes and there’s shame around that,” she says.
To make the actresses more comfortable, showrunner Tanya Saracho filmed with a majority female and Latina crew on a closed set. That’s a rarity in the industry that demands much of women’s bodies with little protection in return.
“The whole writers room is Latinx and most are women and most are queer, and that was reflected on set. There’s a different feeling there. When we’re in that space, it feels very comfortable, safe and intimate,” says Laas.
That attention to detail also made it possible to avoid sexualizing and exoticizing the Latinx performers. “The nudity and sex scenes are not shot in a way that’s glossy in the typical, romanticized Hollywood sex scene,” says Laas. “It’s great because it shows sex can be messy and uncomfortable and have all sorts of power plays happening within it.”
Laas says she experimented with her character’s wardrobe and style to create Cruz.
“That informs so much about how Cruz looks at the world and how the world treats and sees her. It shows how strong you have to be within yourself to walk in this world with that judgment,” says Laas of her character.
She says when she took on the character, she thought it would be for a web series. Then she realized Starz was on board.
“Hopefully, it's this big heavy door we open up and other people can walk in and other stories can be told.”