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How ‘Vida’ and ‘One Day at a Time’ Make the Political Personal (Column)

In the wake of gut-wrenching reports from the southern border, where families are being detained and separated, the casts and crew of Starz’s “Vida” and Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” pledged funds to immigration advocacy group RAICES and challenged others to do the same for their #OneVidaataTime fundraising effort. More than a dozen shows have since followed suit, but it’s notable (and not altogether surprising) that it took shows “Vida” and “One Day at a Time” to kick off this urgent call to action within the entertainment industry in the first place. They, unlike the vast majority of television out there, have been doing the crucial work of humanizing Latinx stories all along. They, like their fundraising hashtag, have been showing how the political is so often personal, one life at a time.

“One Day at a Time” has tackled a range of issues surrounding immigration, racism, and identity since day one. In the first season, teen activist Elena (Isabella Gomez) was heartbroken when her best friend Carmen (Ariela Barer) had to move to Texas after her parents got deported. In Season 2 Elena realizes that she, unlike her brother (Marcel Ruiz), has benefited all her life from passing as white. Grandmother Lydia (Rita Moreno) constantly reminds her family that they’re only in Los Angeles because she had to flee Cuba as a teenager and leave everything she knew behind in the hopes of finding a better life — including, as she reveals in a heartbreaking Season 2 episode, her beloved sister.

While some of these stories are contained to a single episode, they are far from Very Special sidebars. They all concern main characters, fleshing them out and making clear that their struggles don’t end when the episode does. And as showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett told Varietythey were careful to make sure that their audience would get to know Carmen before she had to leave in order to make her story more impactful.

“Vida” takes a bit of a different tack, but no less personal. Set in LA’s rapidly gentrifying Boyle Heights neighborhood, the show follows two sisters who return home after their mother died, leaving them the family bar, a ton of debt, and even more questions when they meet Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), their mother’s wife they never knew about. Emma (Mishel Prada) struggles to reconcile her mother’s queerness (and longstanding internalized homophobia) with her own, but after six episodes, starts to appreciate the vibrant and vital queer Latinx community her mother fostered before she died. Lyn (Melissa Barrera) slowly comes to appreciate her Mexican roots that she’s long dismissed as irrelevant — roots that are in danger of fading from view as the imminent threat of gentrification wiping out the neighborhood’s history looms large.

One of the happier effects of Peak TV is that, while rare, “Vida” and “One Day at a Time” aren’t completely alone in laying bare Latinx struggles in this country. Freeform’s “The Fosters,” which wrapped just a couple weeks ago, told a story of DREAMers fearing deportation that ended up airing the week DACA was rescinded. And the CW’s compassionate crown jewel “Jane the Virgin” — which has also pledged funds to RAICES — has been personalizing immigrant experiences from the start, especially as family lynchpin Alba (Ivonne Coll) decided to embark on a nerve-wracking journey to U.S. citizenship.

Not all of these stories are universal — but showing the individual costs of sweeping policy or prejudice is exactly why they can be so impactful. As “Fosters” producer Joanna Johnson told Variety, “[When you] have a character that you’re invested in, then the story would have even more meaning.”

And that principle doesn’t just hold true for fictional stories. As psychologist Paul Slovic once explained to Vox, we have a tendency to flatten trauma or injustice on a mass scale in order to process it — or as he calls it, we find solace in “psychic numbing.” But individual stories can “capture our attention…get us to see the reality, to glimpse the reality at a scale we can understand and connect to emotionally.” It’s why hearing about thousands of children being separated from their parents can feel like an abstract horror, but seeing one tiny girl screaming for her mother becomes a gut-wrenching spark that can light the flame. The problem then becomes, how do you keep people’s attention once that story fades from view?

In times like these, it’s hard to understand what the point of entertainment is beyond providing a temporary escape. But it’s also times like these that reveal exactly how important shows like “One Day at a Time,” “Jane the Virgin,” and “Vida” truly are. Depicting the effects of racism and injustice on a personal level is a vivid, compassionate way to make people truly understand their impact. The more stories like these get told, the less likely it will be for them to fade away.

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