When Variety’s Marc Malkin sat down for a conversation with “Vida” showrunner Tanya Saracho as part of the 2019 NALIP Media Summit, she admitted that her Mexican heritage wasn’t always a personal point of pride. In fact, she once attempted to erase the evidence: “When I came to this country, I was trying to get rid of my accent,” she said, explaining that her motivation was a desire to join the speech and debate team as a student in Texas. “I thought it was [about] accent reduction, like in speech therapy.”
But Saracho has since emerged as an outspoken voice for Latinx representation in Hollywood, which is why she was honored with the Media Advocacy Award at the organization’s Latino Media Awards gala. Last year, Saracho signed a three-year production deal with Starz, and she’s currently working on season three of the series in addition to a new show titled “Bruja.” During her conversation with Malkin, Saracho recounted her journey from aspiring actress to playwright to TV writer (writing for mainstream hits like “Girls” and “How to Get Away with Murder”), which ultimately culminated in the opportunity to create “Vida.” “Me being here is an accident,” she said.
As it turns out, instead of perfecting the art of American enunciation, competitive public speaking awakened something in Saracho. “I was always a ham,” she said, and soon she fell in love with performing in front of an audience. Her acting dreams were short-lived, however: “I’m brown and fat and specific — I’m not a leading lady,” she said. More importantly, she learned about the lack of diversity in American theater, which inspired her to pursue playwriting, and since Saracho tends to think big, she also founded Teatro Luna — the first all-Latina theater company in the country.
Standing out as a fresh voice in the contemporary theater scene, her plays soon attracted the attention of The New York Times, which helped Saracho get an agent at UTA. Her gift for storytelling also led to her first job as a staff writer for Marc Cherry’s “Devious Maids.” For a brief moment, Saracho felt on top to the world, but she crash landed shortly after walking on set. “I started to feel my otherness the first hour I got into television,” she recalled. “You do know you’re the diversity hire, right?” a coworker said to Saracho, who was stunned. “Because I had never heard this term, I was like: ‘What’s that?’ And he was like: ‘Oh, honey!’” After making a quick call to her agent, Saracho was informed that her position doesn’t cost the show a cent: “That means I have no value” is how she interpreted the news.
Saracho became determined to prove her value as a TV writer with her next job on HBO’s LGBTQ series, “Looking.” “I was there because of my queerness,” she said, and this experience informed her inclusive vision for “Vida,” where she writes sex scenes for non-binary people, too. Saracho is the first to admit that she didn’t have to fight to get her passion project made — Starz pitched it to her, and their offer included the creative control to hire Latinx talent both behind and in front of the camera. But one victory does not constitute a movement in her eyes. “I can count the Latinx-themed shows with my hand,” she said. (Meanwhile, only 5% of showrunners are people of color and the numbers aren’t much better for Latinx lead actors.) “We’re definitely having a moment, but it’s dangerous to congratulate ourselves too much — we’re not there yet.”
So how does Hollywood get to a place where Latinx talent isn’t vastly disproportionate to the overall population? “It’s about the gatekeepers believing that our worlds are worthwhile — and that is what we have to change, because that’s systemic,” Saracho said. “I’m talking about the people in the towers” who have the power to greenlight diverse projects.
But their support usually stops at the development stage, whereas the goal should be “getting a show made and getting a show supported the right way,” she said. “Because it takes way more money to push something than to make it, and that’s when you can tell they are behind us.”
Despite overwhelming evidence that Starz has her back, Saracho can hardly believe her luck. “Sometimes I don’t believe it,” she said. “Like they’re going to take it away.”
“When will you believe it?” Malkin asked.
“Well, I didn’t even believe y’all were going to come today,” she said as the packed room erupted with laughter. “I was saying earlier: ‘Nobody’s going to come’ — and then oh, my God. People came.”