In an industry dominated by white men, perhaps it was only natural that Tanya Saracho and Gloria Calderon Kellett would gravitate toward each other. The two fierce, passionate producers, who met when Saracho came in for a staffing meeting on “Devious Maids,” became fast friends as well, supporting each other throughout the ups and downs of their careers.
Now they’re each running a series of their own, bringing their perspectives to bear on the stories they tell. Kellett has reinterpreted Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” for modern times centered on a multi-generational Latino family, while Saracho has won praise for Starz’s “Vida,” which boasts an all-Latinx writers’ room. But their goal is to reach a wider audience. “I don’t think that ‘Vida’ is just for Latinos. I don’t think ‘One Day at a Time’s’ just for Latinos,” says Saracho. Echoes Calderon Kellett: “It’s just from that lens. Hopefully more people will watch and they see themselves, like we have been seeing ourselves. They’ll see the communality, and they’ll enjoy the storytelling of these interesting characters.”
What were your first impressions of each other?
Calderon Kellett: I liked her the moment she walked in. Normally you’re in writers rooms with older men, who are just in jeans and T-shirts. She had so much style. To see this kind of goddess walk in.
Saracho: A what?
Calderon Kellett: The fabulous earrings and great make-up and nails done. She was the whole thing!
Saracho: I don’t remember you then as much, except when you got up and hugged me. Nobody else did that and I was like, “That’s a nice person. I probably won’t get this, but that’s a really nice person.” And then you came back from maternity leave, it was good because I didn’t understand anything about TV. I didn’t understand that TV writing wasn’t writing, it was pitching.
Calderon Kellett: It was one of those jobs.
Talk about the experience of meeting in the “Devious Maids” writers’ room. Tanya, you had been told that you were the diversity hire, what did that mean to you?
Saracho: It was the first day, the first hour and we were getting our offices downstairs and a co-worker was walking ahead of me. He turns around, looks down at me and goes, “You do know you’re the diversity hire, right?” I had never heard the term, so I’m like, “What’s that?” He’s like, “Oh honey,” and then he keeps walking. I called my agent at lunch and I was like, “Tim, what is the diversity hire?” It made me feel like I wasn’t a real writer and the answer he gave me also didn’t satisfy: “You don’t cost the room anything.” I was like, “So I have no value to the room.” I had that position in my writers’ room last year and I said, “Nobody is allowed in any email to call it that. It’s the funded position. You cannot say diversity hire,” also because that’s not real in my room because we’re all one thing.
Calderon Kellett: She said this vision she had of an all-Latinx writer’s room and I remember that the men in the room were like, “What? No.” You need to hire whatever you need to do the job but it’s smart to have voices in there that either support you. Every showrunner has different needs and after years and years, it’s like the Ruth Bader Ginsberg thing, when will there be enough women on the Supreme Court? When there are nine? Why not let her have what she wants? That was very interesting to see, but my staff is only half Latinx.
Saracho: That’s still valuable.
Calderon Kellett: I have often been the only woman and the only person of color in the room and then you suddenly speak for all women and all people of color. It’s just all of our experiences are so different. When you’re the diversity hire, you do feel like, “Oh, I’m not an equal,” and you feel like you need to prove yourself.
Saracho: You have to be excellent.
Calderon Kellett: You can’t just learn like everybody else.
Saracho: If I could just be a mediocre white guy, that would be amazing. You have to be above and beyond that, which is exhausting but in every setting, right? I don’t think this is just in this industry. Sometimes people of color walk into these spaces that are dominated by the dominant culture and we have to be better, not make as much trouble. Already this business is fuckery, but then you add all that shit and it’s exhausting.
Was Starz supportive of your all-Latinx writers’ room?
Saracho: Always. I don’t know how it is anywhere else because this is my first time. They said, “We assumed from what you’ve been saying and we’ve been listening.” I was like, “Really?” I was going in for that fight. There was no fight. They were like, “Oh, we made a list for you.” Then when it came time for the directors, the same thing. Those directors get filled up.
Calderon Kellett: They do.
Saracho: They get filled up, so I wanted an all-Latino director slate, too. We couldn’t, so one slot was a woman of color. It still was good, but if we get a second season, I think we can do it because now we have enough time and stuff. But they never said no.
Calderon Kellett: Netflix was actually really supportive. I would say though, that I had the benefit of having Norman Lear and Mike Royce, who I think season one, if I’m honest, people would look to them and they would say, “Gloria, Gloria.” By the time season two came around, they just asked me. I think I was lifted up by these two white guys and so, that was nice because we need our allies too.
How rare is that?
Calderon Kellett: Rare. I think what’s been so awesome about seeing Tanya’s journey is that, that gives me hope. That type of promotion, that type of support, the fact that they knew and listened to her before, I think that we’re growing up into a world of that.
Saracho: You had experience in this. They didn’t give me a babysitter and it could have all gone terribly wrong. They handed me the keys to a very expensive car and I didn’t have a license.
Calderon Kellett: Oh, you drove it good, girl. You drove it good!
Saracho: During those quiet development months, people have to still be championing in there and that’s important too. Creators are writing, storytellers are writing the stuff. It’s all the other steps that are not coming together, so you have to have the allies in there that understand the world, that champion the world. All that stuff, it all has to work together.
Do you think that because of peak TV there’s such a hunger for different kind of voices and stories?
Calderon Kellett: I don’t know if it’s peak TV as much as it is, there’s so many places now I think, for storytelling and that the amount of homes allows more content. People are more willing to give it a try. I feel like with network TV for example, maybe there’s one Latinx show a year and then if it doesn’t kill, they’re like, “Well, we tried that Latinx thing.” They don’t talk about the 20 white shows that didn’t make it. There’s all this pressure on that one Latinx show to be amazing or else: “Well, we tried that last year.” I always look to what’s being developed on network because I feel like that’s still what reaches the most homes. I love having a show on Netflix, it’s wonderful and it’s creatively satisfying. But so many people don’t have Netflix still, that are left out, that want to watch the show. I can’t tell you how many people are like, “I want to see your show but I don’t have Netflix and I can’t afford 9 bucks a month.” To me, I hope that I’m able to get into the mainstream, but the mainstream needs to be supportive of voices of color and leads of color.
Saracho: I don’t know if that’s real yet. If it’s a cosmetic fix and a trend or if it’s an actual moment we’re having. If you count my show now, which just premiered, there’s only five Latinx shows on television, out of 520 plus. That’s crazy. We make up almost 20% of this country. That’s not even 1%, that doesn’t even take up 1%. And none of the shows are on network. CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, you are saying, you have no value, you don’t matter. It can’t be that the stories are not good. Come on, you’ve got all the money in the world and there are some talented storytellers. It means that somewhere in those two phases up and where it’s developed and then when it gets to greenlight, that we are not being valued. That’s what network is telling me, by the ratio of my people on their screens.
Calderon Kellett: I think maybe without realizing it, they are the tastemakers. They become the tastemakers for network. They tell people what’s of value.
Saracho: They change perception.
Calderon Kellett: We can see the direct line between the acceptance of people of color and “The Cosby Show,” “Will and Grace,” Ellen coming out. Those were huge, huge moments.
Saracho: Well, we became part of the narrative in that way. The poor George Lopez show, poor “Cristela” show can’t have all the pressure of Cubans, Panamanians, of Spaniards, of all of us. That’s what I’m saying. You don’t have to just be excellent, you have to be one step above that and serve so many masters. It has to hit this demographic. White shows don’t necessarily have to do that.
What do you think the biggest barriers are? Do you think it’s networks’ lack of vision?
Calderon Kellett: I grew up having to see myself through the framework of a white family. You can see that because there is a universality to being a human person. The stories are different but you can see yourself in characters, so I saw myself through the Keatons. I saw myself through the Cosbys. I think that they are still not understanding because maybe the people at the top there, are not people of color. They don’t see that it’s important to have narrative, like “Fresh Off the Boat” on TV. The only Asian family in 20 years to be on television.
Saracho: It’s insane.
Calderon Kellett: That show is meaningful to an entire group of people. The whole Apu thing with “The Simpsons,” how they didn’t realize that for 20 -omething years, they’ve been writing an Indian character, that had a negative effect on the dominant culture. This is something that doesn’t occur to them because it’s not in their line of vision. I think what we’re trying to do and Tanya has taught me so much in leading the charge for that. Educating people about who we are and how we’re different and that these stories are valuable and interesting and trying to have those conversations. Even this year, I went with a bunch of women to my agency, it was me and Rashida Jones and Amy Schumer and we told UTA, “We think actually there need to be agents of color here as well, so that they can say, ‘Oh, this might not resonate with a 60-year-old white guy, but this is really good and interesting for other reasons that you might be aware of.’ ”
Saracho: Also for them to, when showrunners are staffing, don’t just send your best white guys because you send out whoever, “Oh, this will be good for the show. This very male.” “No, hold on. This Asian female might be really good because of this and that.” It’s like, just shift your paradigm. From the privileged position you’ve been in all the time, just shift it. We’ve been here and we’ve been watching and like you said, we’ve been co-opting your story, because we haven’t seen ourselves. It makes good economic sense.
Calderon Kellett: Yes. One in four Latino girls do the box office every weekend and spend some money. How much will they spend if they see themselves and if there’s money behind their stories? Somebody was asking me what shows I was watching and I was like, “Oh, ‘Insecure,’ ‘Dear White People’ and ‘Vida.’” They were like, “Oh, so all shows about people of color?” I was like, “Oh no, I just think it’s interesting.” It didn’t even occur to me really, even though I like to support shows about people of color but I just like those shows because I’ve seen the other thing a lot. It seems like this is just fresh.
Saracho: That’s why I don’t subtitle, I will not subtitle.
Calderon Kellett: There was one scene we did in Havana, that was all in Spanish and I subtitled that, but everything on the show, I don’t subtitle. I had to go to the Encyclopedia of Britannica to look up what a bar mitzvah was.
Saracho: Also, if freaking people can be all about Dothraki on “Game of Thrones,” then why the fuck are they getting scared of Spanish? That’s an actual language that you hear anywhere in L.A., anywhere in Chicago. A couple of people have been like, “Well, if you want me to watch, then subtitle …” No dude.
Calderon Kellett: You can figure it out.
Saracho: You will not miss a thing, too.
You’ve talked about not seeing yourselves represented on screen. What are some of the worst examples of misrepresentation that you’ve seen or that you’ve had to encounter?
Saracho: I adore “Broad City,” but the one Latino is queer for jokes. You see queerness of Latinos in this emasculated with an accent or fez on a set ’70s Show. It’s always like, “Ha, ha, funny emasculated immigrants.” I feel like some of those moments, where is the joke because of our accents, constantly. Sofia on “Modern Family” and I know that’s her accent but nothing to do with her. It’s like, I know Middle America is receiving that information and saying, “Well, that’s what they are.” In a way that lessens us. Being like, “oh, they are dumb and they don’t have their tongues around English.” When it’s most Latinos are now second-, third-generation. Anyway, I feel like those have been harmful. Lupe Velez was the first crossover Mexican star. She did eight Mexican Spitfire series and we’re still suffering through that. She was this brilliant actress, created this persona and now we’re still suffering through that because even back then, that’s what they wanted to receive, the American audiences.
Calderon Kellett: I think for me, I always get annoyed by somebody speaking Spanish fast and yelling, is funny. Then everyone’s like, “Ha, ha, ha, it’s so funny. They’re so hot tempered and talk funny.”
Saracho: And when the name is done as a joke. “Oh, look at these exotic people that have a lot of names.” Yeah, I have a ton of names. It’s not that funny that I have a ton of names.
Calderon Kellett: We just don’t like to be the butt of the joke. I became a writer because as an actor, literally, I wish this was a joke, this is only 12 years ago, gangbanger’s girlfriend, gangbanger’s sister, gangbanger’s girlfriend, gangbanger’s sister. That’s it.
Saracho: That means that there’s one version of Latina that they have in their heads, which is so problematic.
Calderon Kellett: That to me was like, what’s happening? This is madness.
Saracho: For me, it was “Will and Grace,” when it came too because of Rosario. When I started, which was around there too, only maids I would go for, I think because I’m of size. I’m chubby and they were like, “Well, she’s not going to be a sexy hooker. She’s going to be the maid.” My theater company, because it was an all-Latino theater company, we wrote a piece called, “The Maria Chronicles.” Just from gathered quotes, “What was your audition today?” We all were going for the same offensive roles. They’re all named Maria, even if they were the hooker, all named Maria.
Calderon Kellett: The maid can be Russian, too. Not that I want to take down Russians.
Saracho: Hopefully we are at the dawn. Hopefully, this is not just the trend and it’s a moment.
Calderon Kellett: Just complex characters that have worlds ….
Saracho: Yeah. My girls don’t have to be likable. They just have to be compelling. They can be horrible because also, we haven’t been allowed to show that. The Latinx police are like, “No, we have to show positive portrayals of us.”
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started?
Saracho: Final Draft. I still don’t know it. I have to be like, “How do I make numbers in the thing?” They just threw me in when I got the job.
Calderon Kellett: I’ve learned, I’m more powerful than I think. Our voices are loud.
Saracho: I knew I was going to feel this way, but now I need to figure out what to do with the burden of it. Gloria was asking me if I enjoyed my premiere week and I told her, “I don’t know.” I was just worried about the logistics and does everybody have what they need? The burden of carrying a community, is a big one. I willingly take it on, that’s why we do extra things and not just about the show. Not just marching but we are in the community. It’s important to us.
Calderon Kellett: We try to be supportive of new voices.
Saracho: It’s important, engaged, civically engaged with our community and stuff. I knew because in the theater, I’ve carried that burden willingly but this is a lot. It’s been a week or not even for me. I have to figure out how to be present and then still carry that burden and not fall from the weight of it.
Calderon Kellett: Yes. I want you to enjoy it.
Saracho: We carry our people, in a way. Also, dreamers — I’m not talking DACA recipients —I’m talking dreamers that are like, “I haven’t seen myself. Can I do that too?” That’s what we didn’t have. We didn’t have, “Oh, look at those Latino showrunners.”
Calderon Kellett: There was no roadmap. So we are trying to create a roadmap for this next group.
Saracho: I’m trying to create showrunners in my show.
Calderon Kellett: Me too, girl!