VIDA stars get real about issues that resonate with Latinx community
By Christine Bolaños
At a time when the Latinx community feels the weight of the world on its shoulders due to a broken immigration system, outrageous student loan debt, attacks on women’s reproductive rights, an unorthodox president-- it’s more critical than ever to find an escape. Since its premiere in 2018 on Starz, the groundbreaking and GLAAD award-winning show VIDA, has offered a refuge to Latinxs who have felt desperate and alone in a world that appears divided and intolerant. The show centers around Emma and Lyn, two Mexican-American sisters from East Los Angeles, who are polar opposites but return to their old neighborhood after the death of their mother, Vida. Upon returning to Boyle Heights, the sisters are forced to deal with their mother’s true identity, including her marriage to another woman.
The show tackles important modern issues such as gender identity, social justice activism, and gentrification in beautifully authentic and powerful ways that resonate with its audience. For Latinxs who may wrestle with imposter syndrome, grief, and identity, VIDA offers a sense of community they may not get otherwise. Four of the show’s stars, Roberta Colindrez (Nico), Chelsea Rendon (Mari), Ser Anzoategui (Eddy) and Mishel Prada (Emma), recently participated in the Summer Traveling Speaker Series for the popular millennial women conference Create & Cultivate. During the panel, 'You Can’t Be It If You Can’t See It: How the power of representation can break barriers for women and the LGBTQIA+ community', the VIDA stars touched on community, craft, culture and what drives them to take the lead in their careers and beyond. Other panel participants included Chandon head winemaker Pauline Lhote and Ashlee Marie Preston, a media personality, Civil Rights activist, and creator of #ThriveOver35 campaign.
Regarding the panel, Founder and CEO of Create & Cultivate, Jaclyn Johnson, said, “According to the Hollywood Diversity Report, Latinx representation is under 3% of all speaking roles (television is only slightly better at 6%) and when you consider that the Latina community represents over 25% of Americans, it’s not nearly enough—that’s not counting Latinx roles for LGBTQIA+ and non-binary actors. The leading VIDA cast members spoke candidly about how their roles are breaking new ground in changing the culture, the importance of speaking out about the challenges and struggles faced by minority communities, and why this visibility is so crucial to the next generation. We want Mishel Prada’s vision to become a reality, that is for "Vida's inclusivity to be the rule, not the exception."
Rendon and Anzoategui did a Q&A with The Mujerista following the panel to expand on some of the topics discussed; including gender identity, navigating today’s world as a Latinx, their careers, activism, imposter syndrome, and more. On VIDA, Rendon plays Mari, an activist who wants to preserve her community from gentrification. While Anzoategui portrays Eddy, the wife of Emma and Lyn’s mother.
Anzoategui is a non-binary Latinx/Chicanx actor, playwright, and artivist with the gender pronoun They/Them/Theirs. They wrote and performed at Rio Hondo College from 1994 to 2004. They were cast as a recurring guest star on Hulu’s Emmy-nominated East Los High as openly queer character Daysi Cantu. Following East Los High, Anzoategui landed roles on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Fosters, Shameless and more. They are playing a significant role in empowering and advocating for the local community and educating the larger society through entertainment.
Rendon began acting at age six. She’s won multiple awards for her role as Cristina in No Turning Back. As a child, she worked on shows such as E.R., The Shield, and Judging Amy. More recently, she’s worked on the Oscar-nominated film A Better Life and Disney’s McFarland, USA. On television, she was featured on The Bridge, Major Crime, Code Black and played a recurring role on The Fosters. Rendon worked on Netflix’s Bright, directed by David Ayer.
VIDA has been a groundbreaking show partly because it touches on relatable topics from a Latina/x lens. Why is it important to offer your audience a relatable show that touches on timely issues?
Rendon: Hollywood has always shown brown people in one specific view. They’re either a gang member or cartel leader, or they’re the vixen or the maid. With 45 (the current President of the United States) calling Mexicans rapists and stuff, we have to push the truth that Latinos are just regular people. We’re human, and we bleed, and we have hearts just like everyone else. We have people in really tough situations, and again, we’re human beings, just like everybody else.
If you take everybody’s skin color out of the equation, you’ll find that we all have problems with relationships and friends, and I feel like that’s the most important thing about VIDA. I hope it’s humanizing people. If you’re a white middle-class American (it opens your mind), VIDA is literally in this brown neighborhood with so many different aspects through activists, the sisters, the butch lesbians, the young high school jock working at his dad’s shop. No one is in charge of everything, and I feel that’s so important. It’s also putting a face on the word “gentrification.” People know it as a news article, but they don’t realize, ‘Wow, this is happening to people.’ With kids in cages, once those pictures were out in the world, they were putting a face on the problem. I hope we’re doing that with gentrification. We grew up on the East Side of L.A., so we’re able to represent our community.
Anzoategui: VIDA does something a lot of shows haven’t been able to do. It highlights radical activists, the LGBTQ community, different genders that haven’t ever been on a screen like that. What that does for people is revolutionary. It’s healing at a time when so many things are against you. You can’t really put it into words. To see themselves, their culture, their parents, Boyle Heights, the East Side, whatever, is powerful. It’s connecting to themselves, and then something happens inside of us. A lot of people are having that awakening within themselves, and they’re feeling this way because it does all that.
Do you ever find yourselves dealing with imposter syndrome and what are some strategies you use to combat it?
Anzoategui: The mind is one thing. Your ego is one thing. Your spirit is another. Then you have to differentiate who’s taking over: your ego, or is it your true self? You have to take that into consideration when dealing with all the voices in your head that you’ve picked up from childhood. You have to interrupt that negative thinking right away and state an affirmation into the universe out loud, and over time, you’re able to break through it.
Rendon: I started acting as a kid, so this is all I know. I very strongly feel I belong here and am doing what I’m supposed to do. The reason we have (For Your Emmy Consideration) is because we’re going against all these shows. We’re going against shows with millions of followers on social media. So sometimes we ask, ‘Are we enough?’ What our show is is quality work, quality writing, and it deserves to be recognized. Being positive and saying affirmations: ‘You are worthy enough. You are enough.’ We’re the little engine that could.
What is the one piece of advice you would give your younger self?
Anzoategui: You know those poems you keep writing? This is happening for a greater reason. I love you. I believe in you. You are worth it.
Rendon: I think my mom is the second generation. She has that immigrant mentality. When I was younger in the business, there were so many things I did for free. I didn’t think I could’ve asked for money. I booked a pilot, and my agents wanted to fight for more money. I think I would tell my younger self and my mom it’s OK to ask for what you deserve. You deserve to get paid and to get paid a good amount. It’s not that you’re a diva or that you’re bitchy. It’s a business. You’re worth it.
Ser, non-binary performers, I would imagine, still fight for their fair share of screen time and opportunities to share their story on the theater stage, on television, and on the big screen. Was portraying an openly queer character on East Los High intentional and what was the impact of that character on future television and the viewing audience?
Anzoategui: Daysi Cantu was someone who was written to be openly queer and a different type of representation and a very positive response to coming out of the closet. Whenever I’d do fan meet-ups, we got to meet people face-to-face and get to hear their personal stories, of queer folks. One individual was shaking and crying and told me, ‘This is how I’m able to connect with something that is me because I’m not allowed to be me where I live.’ They came from (elsewhere) to be part of something that gives them that freedom and somehow saves lives.
Daysi was an intro to having that conversation and tell my cast that I was non-binary and they were all like, ‘What.’ We don’t have the chance to talk about these things usually. We were just talking on the set, and the cast has this conversation with me afterward about transgender issues. They’re heard which is like, ‘Oh, we’re opening up this conversation for the first time.’”
I really want to talk about different bodies we have represented. Myself, playing Eddy, I hadn’t gained weight by accident. We’re in Hollywood because not everyone is as open to want to cast someone thick. I wanted to really go through a transformation from season 1 to 2 of Eddy going to the hospital. She got such a big beating. It was so traumatizing. She would be bloated, she would have gained weight. I’m doing it because this is what the character would do. It’s not something I’ve been asked about. I gained 4 inches from season 1 to season 2. There’s a visible difference to me. I want to keep talking about thick bodies in Hollywood and on film now. We get to see their own selves reflected in that. I wanted to say that we have Chrissy Metz from This is Us and rom com actress Rebel Wilson. I’m going to keep talking about this.
Chelsea, do you use your Latina heritage to leverage your career and any critical social justice issues you wish to convey through the characters you portray? If so, can you talk about that and give an example of a character through which you have been able to accomplish that?
Rendon: As actors, we audition for 30,40,50 parts every week. Part of it is we need to work as much as we can in order to get to a place of power where we can make strong decisions and be able to play characters we want to play. Because Mari is an activist, I’ve actually been able to become an activist myself.
Being a Latina in Hollywood is almost a form of activism in itself. For the last 20 years, I’ve been working, I’ve had many parts and been part of a kind of movement in itself by still being here. I met people as an adult from when I was younger, who ask if I’m still acting. What else would I be doing? I’m not going to give up.
I’m definitely talking about supporting brown Hollywood. A lot of people complain there’s not enough representation, but then we don’t show up at the box office. We have to be there on opening weekend when the numbers matter to support the brown movies. We have to post about it, tweet about it because Hollywood is going to ignore us until we demand they pay attention and give us the representation we want.
I feel in a way I’m very much an activist, and I talk about that on social media. That’s how Mari has influenced me as an activist. People have to remember we are artists and actors are playing a part. If you’re playing a rapist, that doesn’t mean you’re a rapist. But with this show, we feel so strongly about it, we end up being activists for our community, for fellow brown actors and activists without even trying.
Editor’s note: The responses have been edited for clarity and length.
(Photos courtesy of Create & Cultivate)