In a Gentrifying Los Angeles, Vida’s Second Season Finds Only Hard Choices

Still from Vida, Season 2.
Vida. Starz

In Vida, as so often in life, community is more a dream than a reality. Sometimes you’re so tangled up in it that you can’t imagine anything beyond it; other times it proves so elusive you’ll chide yourself for ever believing it could exist. Perhaps no one knows this better than Vida’s creator, Tanya Saracho—a Mexican American playwright-turned-TV showrunner whose efforts to portray the effects of gentrification on Mexican Americans in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood led to her being accused of gentrification herself. (An organization called Defend Boyle Heights claimed that the Starz drama “appropriated” its movement and threatened to protest future shoots, adding that “the revolution will not be Columbused by Tanya Saracho.”) The series remains set in Boyle Heights, but production moved to nearby Pico-Union, a neighborhood undergoing similar change.

One of the vanishingly few TV shows about L.A.’s Latino population (nearly half the city’s residents), Vida is caught between the urgency of solidarity and the difficulty of achieving it. Now in its second season (with all 10 episodes available to stream), the half-hour drama follows sisters Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) Hernandez, who returned to Boyle Heights from Chicago and San Francisco, respectively, after the death of their mother, Vida. Though each had her reasons for moving away from the neighborhood where they grew up, Emma and Lyn decide to revive their mother’s failing bar, a longtime haunt of locals and lesbians, inevitably redubbed Vida. In Season 1, the sisters struggled to come to terms with the revelation that their mother had been married to a woman—bartender Eddy (Ser Anzoategui)—with Emma especially taking the news hard, as she’d been sent away to Texas to live with her grandmother because of her own queerness. But the Emma and Lyn’s efforts to update the bar to keep it going are met with swift resistance from Eddy, many of the patrons, and the neighborhood’s anti-gentrification movement.

Confronting gentrification has been the focus of some searingly great art in the past few years. Last year’s Blindspotting and this summer’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco—both set in the Bay Area—made for exceptional indies by capturing, via formal inventiveness, the sense of loss that gentrification so often engenders. Shows as different as High Maintenance, Insecure, The Last O.G., and One Day at a Time have tackled the issue too, often to poignant effect. But Vida stands out still—for its exploration of how people of color can also be complicit in gentrification as well as for questioning the authenticity policing that Manichean reductions of gentrifying forces often become.

The first season of Vida could be a tad programmatic in its delineations of the differences between the characters, but it was also recognizably bitter in its depiction of fissures within the show’s Latino community along lines of class, gender, sexuality, skin color, education, and assimilation. Emma and Lyn grew up in the neighborhood, but few consider the sisters a part of it. Highly educated, tightly wound Emma looks down on speakers of “pocho Spanglish”—the favored dialect of most of the characters—and regards with suspicion the customary handshake deals that have led to the bar’s precarious financial state. (She’s also afraid, with reason, that the neighborhood’s more-traditional forces will eventually bear down on her, though she finds some solace in other young queer residents.) Faux-bohemian and hard-partier Lyn finds her veganism gradually relenting to the temptations of flan and carne asada fries, but she probably deserves her nickname of “Coconut Becky,” especially when she talks about turning the dive-y Vida into a “swanky, Insta-famous lounge.” But this season, Lyn strives to stop relying solely on her beauty, finally realizing that it hasn’t really gotten her anything but a chaotic love life. Both sisters are sometimes brutally unlikable, and an episode where they choose to have a beer ad painted over a years-old mural in which they both appear as little girls actually made me gasp. According to their critics, Emma and Lyn are “white-tinas” and “gente-fiers”—richer Latinas gentrifying poorer Latino neighborhoods. But keeping things as is would only lead to the imminent extinction of the beloved but barely patronized bar. In such fraught circumstances ,Vida argues, there are only hard choices.

That messiness is a fact that young anti-gentrification activist Marisol (Chelsea Rendon) begins to confront in Season 2. Big-hooped, bandana-wrapped, and navy-lipped, Marisol had her devotion to her protest group challenged in the first season when its leader, Tlaloc (Ramses Jimenez), secretly recorded one of their sexual trysts without her knowledge and disseminated the video among his friends. Stuck in a series of minimum wage jobs, Marisol wonders whether the fact that she’s never left Boyle Heights means she’ll never get to leave, while her father’s sexist condemnation of her supposed role in the tape leaves her functionally homeless. Despite her yearslong hatred of Lyn—rooted in the older woman’s tendency to love and lose Marisol’s older brother, Johnny (Carlos Miranda)—the activist agrees to serve as a caretaker for Eddy after the latter becomes the target of a ruthless homophobic assault. When Marisol’s anti-gentrification group decides to target Vida, she does so with a more nuanced understanding of what the bar’s owners are up against—that there are no easy answers about how to balance preservation with evolution.

Vida’s sophomore season lacks the brashness of its debut year, and certain supporting characters, like Eddy and Emma’s new love interest/know-everything savior Nico (Roberta Colindrez), are woefully underdeveloped. But the things that the show does so well—its dual portrait of the importance and near-impossibility of communal support, its sketches of ambivalent homecoming, its essential depiction of Los Angeles, and its once-an-episode feminist softcore porn (scenes that Saracho and her writers use to expand female sexuality, especially that of women of color)—are without parallel. We can’t all agree about how to tackle gentrification, but we should be able to agree about Vida.