'VIDA' Depicts Boyle Heights Amidst Gentrification

Marisol (Chelsea Rendón) fights Eastside gentrification in Vida. (Erica Parise / Starz)

Review by Alci Rengifo

Vida follows two sisters as they deal with loss and class conflict in the Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights. This new, vibrant episodic drama from Starz brings a Latinx face to the recent batch of urban-themed shows. In the spirit of recent titles like Dope and Atlanta, it journeys into corners of the country mostly ignored by mainstream television, telling their stories with style and gritty realism.

Here, gentrification and the culture clashes that can take place within a community propel a narrative that also features universal themes. But for many viewers this will be the show to watch to understand the lifestyles, struggles and cuisines of that Chicano part of Los Angeles where you really need to polish your Spanish and... your Spanglish.

As the series premiere opens, an aged woman named Vidalia drops dead on a bathroom floor. We are then introduced to a very proper young woman named Emma (Mishel Prada) who flies into her childhood barrio from Chicago. Emma and her sister Lyn (Melissa Barrera) are Vidalia’s surviving daughters. Emma, practically estranged from her mom, chose to seek professional success and status away from home. Lyn stayed in the neighborhood, working at what she can and hoping to someday open her own business.

Emma is surprised find out that Vidalia had a roommate, the non-binary Eddy (Ser Anzoategui). During the memorial services, Lyn hooks up with her now engaged ex, Johnny (Carlos Miranda) and discovers that Eddy is actually Vidalia’s wife. This rattles Emma, particularly after she discovers the neighborhood building belonging to her mother has been willed to her, Lyn and Eddy, on the condition they split the profits three ways.

The terms outlined in their mom’s will land the sisters squarely in the middle of the ongoing battle over gentrification, as old properties are scooped up by greedy developers devoid of compassion who seek to build expensive housing for trendier crowds. Emma quickly gets an offer from a local shark named Nelson (Luis Bordonada), but Lyn warns that many of the tenants are undocumented and would be left with few options if, as the new owner, they decide to sell the property.

Created by Chicago playwright and TV writer Tanya Saracho, Vida never feels less than authentic. It is stripped of stereotypes or a distant gaze. Instead it feels like a show that knows the world of its characters inside out. East L.A. and Boyle Heights come to life here as never before on cable television, with its blemishes and color left intact. It is a detailed rendering of Chicano culture, its complexities and its socio-economic layers.

Emma is the Latinx who believes success and respect comes from leaving her roots, looking down at those who stayed and calling them “stuck.” Yet she mocks Lyn for speaking bad “pocho Spanish” and moans a little too much when munching on authentic tacos. And of course Lyn’s business plan is to sell “Aztec-inspired lotions.” Anyone who has lived in a Latinx home will grin and nod at the memorial scene where mountains of food, especially rice and beans, are served and a big flan spread is the chief décor of the dessert table.

Real Eastsiders will recognize a room packed with friends and relatives who disappear for years, only to emerge suddenly, as if my magic, to witness the anguish of a family tragedy unfold, much like those who slow down on L.A.’s freeway to ogle at an serious accident. Saracho’s script also captures with sharp subtly the way Chicano culture starts mingling with emerging hipster trends. In an early scene Eddy serves Lyn a big, beefy Mexican meal. She frowns, saying, “I’m a vegan.”

Another groundbreaking feature is the focus on women as the narrative catalysts. In a society where patriarchy remains entrenched, these women suffer few fools. Emma and Lyn are both written with strong individual but equally insightful personalities. Eddy is a unique representation of a long present, but hardly ever publicly addressed, gender identification diversity in Chicano culture.

The key male figure in the season premiere, Johnny, is a bit hard to read but registers along familiar tropes as that guy who is engaged, but won’t pass up the opportunity to have sex with his ex (“I’m such a pendejo” he whines afterwards). Lyn corners him and makes it clear that he’s no idiot. He knows what he’s doing. These are characters intolerant of hypocrisy from the men they must interact with.

Gentrification becomes the underlying theme of the plot in the pilot. It is also the story’s way of exploring various social facets of Chicano life. When a white TV reporter does a story on a local taco joint, a fiery young activist Mari (Chelsea Rendón) interrupts, calling the reporter a colonizer. In the episode’s opening scene Mari films herself making radical, anti-gentrifier statements, quoting Zapata before a distant adult voice calls her to make food. Later on she will slam Emma as a “bougie puta.”

Visually, Vida is also an example of elegant grit. The visual style of the series captures both Boyle Heights and adjacent East L.A. in soft colors and beautifully framed compositions. In the spirit of films like Sin Nombre and A Better Life, the look of the show gives the lives of its characters a rich tone, a veneer which approximates a sort of urban poetry.

The television renaissance has proven to be a wonderful platform for stories about everyone. Vida dramatizes the Latinx experience with a human touch and a sense of storytelling that will hopefully have wide appeal. Like cinema, good TV takes viewers into the lives of others, because the more we understand our neighbors, the better we can understand ourselves.


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