Melissa Barrera Hopes That ‘Vida’ Gives People An Authentic Mexican-American Experience

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Family dramas are a television mainstay, but sometimes a show comes along that shakes up the usual formula. Vida is one such show. Focusing on two estranged sisters who left their old neighborhood behind to start their own lives (and ignore their baggage) and then return home after the death of their mother, Vida digs into the complexity of queer relationships, the careful mechanics of the Mexican-American experience, and the difficulties that comes with wildly different family members. Despite some deep wounds, maybe you can go back home again.

Lyn, the younger sister, initially has the easier time adapting to life in their old Los Angeles borough, but soon finds herself falling into old, destructive habits. Played by Melissa Barrera, Lyn is truly a lost a soul who still has a lot of growing up to do. Barrera was kind enough to talk with Uproxx about the groundbreaking show and what it like making the jump from Mexican telanovelas to Hollywood.

All right, now I’m going to try and keep this interview from becoming just “Vida does a lot of things that you don’t often see on television,” but Vida really does a lot of things that you don’t see on television often, if ever, and that’s really exciting.

It is very exciting! I know I can’t be objective about it because I’m so personally invested in this show, but I feel like we are bringing something to the table that is different, that’s fresh, and that’s unapologetic and bold and giving voices to characters that are not regularly seen on tv and not represented, so it’s exciting to be a part of something that ambitious and that beautiful.

Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show get into the complexities of gentrification in Mexican-American culture before.

Yeah, with Vida it’s like right there in your face.

You’ve done a lot of telenovela work. What was it like transitioning to a little bit more grounded show like Vida.

It is different in the sense that telenovelas are all melodrama and they’re a little bigger, more theatrical and you do like 40 scenes a day. It’s like a bootcamp for acting. But I think all my years doing telenovelas in Mexico really prepared me for this. I feel like everything happens the way it’s meant to happen, and everything that you do in life leads you to and prepares you for the next moment, so I’m very thankful. Other than the style, I feel like working in Mexico is the same as working in Hollywood, honestly. I came here with expectations and I idealized Hollywood so much and I thought it was going got be so different. Then, the first day on set, I was like “yeah, just like home.” It felt exactly like home.

That’s probably comforting making that transition and finding it a little easier than you expected.

Totally, totally and it also helped that Tanya [Saracho, show creator] is really good about picking the people she works with and she’s just good at reading energy, everyone from the camera guy to the director, the costumes, the wardrobe, the make-up. Everyone was so passionate about this show and so happy to be working on it that you could feel it. It just made it so much easier every day. The family got created so fast and we all got very comfortable with each other really quickly and that just helped to focus on telling these stories and doing it in a truthful way and in a way that our community would be proud of.

Definitely. I want to talk to you about your character, Lyn, a little bit before we dig into some of the other elements of this show. She really had a lot of growing up to do this season and I found her arc very compelling. What was it like tackling that character?

It was a beautiful thing. Honestly, it’s a joy as an actress to get to portray a character like this who’s so complex and so broken and flawed and to get to see her mature and grow throughout very short amount of time. It was only six episodes. But I think so much happened and she does a lot of waking up and she, in the end, she is the heart. She’s just all love. But she doesn’t always know how to express it in the right way or how to go about it in the right way. She has no control over her impulses most of the time, and that’s because she never had to mature because she escaped.

That’s why she left her neighborhood, so she didn’t have to deal with reality and she could just live a privileged life that she always wanted but she never really grew up. So coming back, she’s confronted with all that she left behind and who she really is because you can’t escape your roots. And that’s what starts cracking at her facade that she built: the worry-free girl, a yogi, and a vegan, when in reality she doesn’t know who the hell she is because she’s been lying to herself her whole life. So, reuniting with her sister [Mishel Prada], reuniting with her old flame Johnny [Carlos Miranda], just brings all these memories back and all these pains and just uncovers all the wounds that she’s been hiding, so she has to grow up. I think she surprises people in the sense that she seems like the weak one, because Emma is so strong in the beginning.

But I think she made herself a shoulder for Emma to cry on. She stepped up her game when she’s needed and I think that speaks volumes to her character and to how much she is willing to change because she wants to. She doesn’t know how, which is why she’s constantly looking for help in Doña Lupe [Elena Campbell-Martinez]. She is just desperately trying to find something to hold onto because she doesn’t know how to be by herself, but she grows a lot. I’m really proud of her.

I was too by the end! Another thing that I was really struck by was the way that you guys handled female sexuality. So many shows treat women like they’re sexual objects, so it was so great to see so much agency in these characters as well as an emphasis on female pleasure. What was it like sort to taking a different route then so much other television?

I think for me it was an awakening and it was a learning experience as well, because I grew up in a society where it is taboo. Women’s sexuality is not talked about and it is shameful if you are open about it, so being able to play this woman who is so open about her sexuality and so in control when it comes to her sexuality was beautiful. Because television is educating and it is normalizing stuff, so if you see these women not being slut-shamed and being proud and having agency over their bodies and their sexuality, then that means it’s okay and being a part of this message, for me, is amazing and it also helped me learn about myself and why am I so ashamed of wanting pleasure for myself. It’s something that we don’t talk about and we feel it’s wrong, but it’s not. Men are champions for it, where women are taught that it’s shameful to want pleasure. I think this is a good show for that just showing women in their power in all senses.

Yeah, I agree. The show has such a slice of life focus, with this neighborhood and specifically this family, but because of some of the elements of the show, with the well-fleshed out queer characters and the emphasis on an authentic Mexican-American experience, it still feels like a bold political statement. What was it like making a show like this and bringing it into our current culture?

I think every theme that we touch upon on this show is so important and it needs to be talked about right now. There are so many things that people are scared to talk about and one of the things about the show is that it isn’t scared to go anywhere. It’s in your face and it doesn’t try to kind of talk about something but not actually mention it. Sometimes we do that in shows. Vida will use the names and it will say the words, and there is no hiding what we’re going through and what the community is going through and what the characters are going through, and I think it’s very important for television to be honest and to be current and to make people in their living rooms talk about stuff. Also, it’s a tool for people to peer into the lives of maybe a community that they think is foreign or strange and realize that everyone is the same and that we have so much in common.

Actually my next question kind of relates to that. There’s been a lot of conversation lately about what a “real American family” looks like with the Roseanne reboot and the backlash from that. If you compare that to the family in Vida, I think people forget or they choose to ignore that there is no blanket “real American family,” which is why representation like this feels so vital.

Yeah, there is no such thing as a prototype. That’s the beauty of this country, that it’s made up of immigrants and there is so much diversity in it and every family is unique and all families are made up of different members. There is no recipe. There is no correct form. There isn’t a right way to depict a family. Everyone is different and that doesn’t take away from their humanity and from their rights. I don’t know, it really amazes me. I think we’re taking a step in the right direction with inclusion in television and depicting of these families and giving a voice to queer characters, giving a voice to minorities. I hope that with Vida, people can open their eyes a little bit and hopefully look around and realize that human beings are everywhere and that Latino people are everywhere. Everyone deserves to be loved and everyone deserves the right to be happy, to feel safe, and to feel at home.

Vida premieres Sunday, May 6th at 8:30 p.m. on Starz.