We tend to talk about binge watching TV in many of the same ways we talk about binge eating junk food. There’s often an underlying assumption that consuming a lot of TV is “bad for us,” and that this badness is related to a lack of quality in the kinds of shows that demand marathon viewing, as if Top Chef and The Office somehow transmute themselves into empty calories once they make it past our eyeballs.
There’s no denying that what many of us enjoy about bingeable TV is the sugar rush that comes from superficial identification and escapism. I’ll be the first to admit that these days, when I sit down to watch a show representing Latina/o/x experiences, I’m usually craving nothing more than instantaneous affirmation and distraction, in the form of a scandalous plot involving characters in whom I can recognize some version of myself.
Lately, though, I’m getting more than I bargained for. Contemporary series that take on Latina/o/x life have increasingly embraced the complexity of their subject matter, at times even using the melodramatic entanglements of improbably beautiful people to pursue lines of inquiry developed by critical theorists like Gloria Anzaldúa and Augusto Boal. Sometimes these theoretical pursuits are so subtle you might miss them, but other times these intellectual ambitions are right there for anyone to see.
Case in point: in the second season of the Starz series Vida, there is a telling scene in which the usually taciturn Emma—a Mexican American woman struggling, along with her sister Lyn, to reconnect with her community of origin in East LA—starts to open up to love interest Nico on an impromptu date. An inadvertently loaded question about condiments at a taco truck leads Emma to let Nico in on some of her mixed feelings about her Mexican heritage. She alludes to ways her sense of self conflicts with others’ visions of what a “real” Mexican is supposed to do and say. In a playful attempt to let Emma know she is speaking to someone who recognizes the nuances of identification, Nico teasingly calls Emma “Miss New Mestiza,” a reference to philosopher Gloria Anzaldúa’s 1980s work on the potentially radical nature of the hybridity at the heart of the Chicana/o/x identity. Emma talks past the comment at first, then eventually circles back with an eye roll, defensively stating that she has “read Anzaldúa.”
It is a fleeting moment in a TV series full of similarly fraught conversations about identity, intimacy, culture, and responsibility. Nevertheless, this reference to an iconic Chicana philosopher illuminates some important contours of Vida’s commentary on 21st-century Latina/o/x life. It announces the serious intellectual stakes at the heart of this sexy, soapy show. And Vida is not an outlier. Several recent TV series made by Latinas/os/xs about Latinas/os/xs—like Netflix’s Gentefied (discussed below) and HBO’s Los Espookys (which deserves its own review)—are engaging with some of the most pressing and difficult questions posed by radical brown thinkers of the past hundred or so years.
At turns comedic, titillating, fantastical, gritty, campy, and just plain weird, these televisual mediations of Latina/o/x life may not conform to our ideas about what “serious” TV looks like. But each offers a fascinating take on what TV can do for Latinas/os/xs today. After all, it can bring abstract concepts back to earth by placing them in the mouths of relatable characters. Streaming series can also take their time to unfold complex narratives and explore the nooks and crannies of thorny social issues over the course of multiple seasons. TV can entice the viewer to really sit with uncomfortable realities through seductive visuals and appealing musical scores. Vida and Gentefied exemplify how TV creators can utilize the medium to engage audiences about urgent—and, at times, difficult—questions and ideas.
TV series that take on Latinx life have embraced lines of inquiry developed by critical theorists like Gloria Anzaldúa and Augusto Boal.
While Vida’s Emma may not have time for Anzaldúa, the show as a whole certainly does. In many ways, the world of Vida is a perfect encapsulation of the “borderlands,” a term used by Anzaldúa to name the spaces that emerge “wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch.”1 While Anzaldúa maintains that borderlands can emerge anywhere these conditions are present, her account of these contact zones is inextricable from her lived experience of the Southwestern US, where, she argues, the US-Mexican border forms “una herida abierta”—an open wound.2 All who live on or near it are consigned to an existence marked by “tension,” “ambivalence,” and “unrest,” not to mention physical violence and death.3 Anzaldúa focuses on the plight of queer women of Mexican descent living in the borderlands of the Southwest. She describes the ways they can find themselves caught in an endless web of contradictions between Anglo-American, Mexican, Chicana/o/x, and Indigenous cultures, becoming “immobilized,” alienated from all worlds, and consequently alien even to themselves.4
In its three seasons, Vida takes on this profound alienation. Like Anzaldúa, the show meditates on the highly unstable, messy convergence of different cultures and classes in the Southwestern US. Like Anzaldúa, Vida focuses on the particular wounds borne by Mexican and Chicana/x women and queer people of color who inhabit these cultural quicksands. The series revolves around Emma and Lyn, a pair of formerly estranged sisters, who attempt to rebuild their relationship and save the family bar as co-owners.
Unfortunately, the pain and self-estrangement that each has experienced in the borderlands keeps them from being able to trust and show up for each other. While Emma wrestles with traumatic memories of being rejected by a homophobic Mexican American community that nevertheless remains close to her heart, Lyn attempts to address the deep wounds caused by her internalization of misogynistic constructions of female sexuality found in both Anglo-American and Chicano cultures. Once Emma and Lyn have located the traces of the enemy within, the high emotional and financial stakes of the situation cause the sisters to scrutinize each other—and everyone else, but especially each other—for signs that one is selling the other out or otherwise betraying her.
This atmosphere of tension and unrest, which Anzaldúa associated with the borderlands, circulates around many of the other characters as well, particularly around Mari, a fierce young Chicana activist with a talent for raising consciousness on social media. From Vida’s first episode, Mari is often shown on the street, holding her phone’s camera at arm’s length and speaking passionately as “La Pinche Chinche” (“The Fucking Bedbug”). Through this vlogging alter ego, Mari unapologetically calls out anyone she sees as contributing to the structural issues that make it so hard to get by in Boyle Heights.
The Mari we see at the beginning of the series has much in common with “la Pinche Chinche”—she is anything but ambivalent, even off camera. When we are introduced to her, Mari is sure of herself, her community, and her politics—sometimes a little too sure. Her allegiance lies solely with La Raza, and her fight is with “gentefiers” like Lyn and Emma—Mexican American sellouts who allow the barrio to be destroyed for profit.
Over the course of the series, however, sexual desire and financial need launch Mari on an inner journey that leads her to take on a more complex worldview. By season 3, she has been forced to truly reckon with the machismo of her Chicano/a/x community as well as the myopia of her activist comrades, who struggle to be present to issues beyond the gentrification of their barrio, such as the detention of Mexican im/migrants. No longer able to look past these shortcomings, she finds herself alone in many important ways. Eventually Mari discovers that this independence allows her to do the difficult work of discovering what it means for her to show up authentically for her barrio, for social justice, and for herself.
Vida never tells us if Mari, like Emma, has “read Anzaldúa,” but the transformations we see in her character recall the philosopher’s ideas about the radical potential of the borderlands experience. For Anzaldúa, multiple vectors of alienation of the kind that Mari experiences can teach one to let go of “rigid boundaries” and “entrenched habits and patterns of behavior,” to become “flexible” and “develop a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity.”5 In the best-case scenario, the borderlands subject learns to “operat[e] in a pluralistic mode—nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else … a change in the way we see reality.”6 In the last episode of the series, Mari keeps an appointment with a digital-content director interested in her vlogs. He wants her to freelance for his platform. Although Mari knows that the company is owned by the kind of greedy corporation she detests, the director’s assurances that she alone will have total control over her content—and a much wider audience—lead her to live with the contradiction and apparently revise her ideas about what it means to “sell out.”
In the next scene, we see Mari livestreaming while she spray-paints a billboard on top of a tall building: “While you are in your car, children are in cages,” she writes in red. By cutting together close-ups on Mari’s face with high-angle shots that situate her on a roof far above the streets she previously filmed, the show encourages us to literally see a shift in Mari’s perspective on the world. As she asks her viewers to reimagine their everyday routines in relation to the inhumane treatment of children at the US-Mexico border, the upbeat soundtrack suggests that Mari’s newfound ability to embrace the contradictions of the borderlands and see things differently might actually allow her to change the way others see reality.
The influence of Cherríe Moraga’s work can be felt in “Gentefied,” which draws on the power of Latin American, Black, and Chicano traditions of performance art.
Netflix’s Gentefied, a series that debuted in 2020, two years after Vida, explores much of the same borderlands terrain. Also set in Boyle Heights, the show features a cast of characters trying to navigate the psychic morass that emerges at the intersection of Anglo-American, Mexican, and Latina/o/x cultures. As in Vida, economic hardship in the barrio forces Gentefied’s leads to recognize how they are constantly pulled in multiple directions by the different cultures that, for better or for worse, have made them who they are. As the name of the show suggests, the stigma of “selling out” is particularly haunting for the three Mexican American cousins at the center of the series—Erik, Chris, and Ana Morales—as they realize that their visions of a better life in which they can do more than just survive do not necessarily look like the dreams of their parents, friends, or romantic partners.
This shared set of concerns is no coincidence. Gentefied also has a connection to the Chicana feminist thought of the ’80s. One of the show’s creators, Linda Yvette Chávez, was a student of Cherríe Moraga, a poet, essayist, and playwright who edited, along with Gloria Anzaldúa, the important third-wave feminist anthology This Bridge Called My Back, published in 1981.
The influence of Moraga’s work can be felt in many ways in Gentefied, not least in the scenes in which the Morales family draws on the power of Latin American, Black, and Chicano traditions of performance art in order to navigate the impossible-to-resolve conflicts between their positions as members of a working-class Latinx community and as struggling business owners. Led by Erik, they turn an antigentrification protest targeting an event at the family’s restaurant into a piece of theater right out of El Teatro Campesino’s iconic playbook, which Erik specifically name checks. In episode 9, “Protest Tacos,” he explains to his family, and to the show’s audience, that the United Farm Workers Union group created skits that were “satirization[s] of the foreman-fieldworker relationships!”
Subsequently, the family stages its own bit of theater. Erik and Chris both embrace the stereotypes that have dogged them throughout the season. In their skit, Erik appears as a “cholo” who doesn’t think much of Chris’s character, the hipster gringo. Sporting a striped shirt, tie-dyed scarf, and canvas tote bag, Chris plays the hipster with glee. His over-the-top performance of a nasal white voice suggests he is savoring the irony of the role—Chris’s aspirations to be a chef and identification with the Anglo-American world of fine dining have caused him to be labeled a “coconut,” only brown on the outside.
Another cousin and a couple of family friends protest the arrival of Chris-the-hipster at the family restaurant, denouncing the presence of this “Chris … topher Columbus.” They theatrically order him to leave—Sábado Gigante style—by chanting “Fuera!” The performance contributes to an event that is a wild success for the restaurant. In this way, Gentefied suggests that art is one space in which borderlands subjects like Erik and Chris can come together to explore and move through the impossible contradictions of their respective positions between cultures, generations, classes.
In another echo of both Moraga and Anzaldúa, things don’t work out so neatly for Gentefied’s Ana. In 1983’s Loving in the War Years, Moraga persuasively writes about the scrutiny that the Chicana faces from other Chicanas/os/xs, who see her as a potential source of treachery, thanks to her gendered association with the mythic figure of Malintzin Tenepal, or La Malinche, commonly known as “La Vendida, sell-out to the white race.”7 Because this Indigenous woman, sold to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortéz, ended up translating for him and bore him a mixed-race child, the “sexual legacy passed down to the Mexicana/Chicana is the legacy of betrayal. … It is this myth of the inherent unreliability of women, our natural propensity for treachery, which has been carved into the very bone of Mexican/Chicano collective psychology. Traitor begets traitor.”8 As a consequence, relations between women of Mexican descent are sometimes deformed by a fear of “the potential accusation of ‘traitor’ or ‘vendida,’” which all too often causes Chicanas “to turn [their] backs on each other.”9
Gentefied depicts these dynamics through Ana, and the trajectory of her relationship with longtime girlfriend Yessika. Though both women experience conflicts between familial bonds, political beliefs, and the exigencies of everyday life, this overlapping experience of the borderlands divides them rather than uniting them. While the whole Morales family is involved in the theatrical skit that neutralizes a protest organized by the couple’s friends, it is Ana who is tasked with “do[ing] something” about it. She refuses and, explicitly labeled a “vendida” by her peers, becomes ostracized by the group and alienated from Yessika.
Ana is a talented artist, but her art does not exactly solve all of her problems. The last episode of Gentefied reveals that art’s ability to hold open space for contradiction, as it did for Erik and Chris, is not always a good thing. Ana is fetishized in the Anglo art world for being a queer woman of color and visually representing a marginalized community. For a while, she does her best to ignore the way this conflicts with the other parts of her life, but ultimately she does not find a way to hold the contradictory parts of herself together.
At the very end of the season, we see Ana at her very first gallery show. In a touching scene, Ana’s mother, with whom she has been at odds all season, is shown gazing in awe at the unexpectedly loving portrait of her painted by her daughter. In front of the artwork, Ana and her mother hold hands. The camera moves behind the pair, and the painting is framed in the space between them, bridging the gap. Thanks to the artwork, it seems, they are able to express their love and appreciation for each other for the first time in the series, communicating across the cultural and generational divides that usually keep them far apart. This quiet moment encourages us to hold out hope that art will play the same role for Ana as it did for Chris and Erik, that it will help her be together with others in the strangeness of the borderlands experience. However, the scene quickly takes a sharp turn.
Soon after her reconciliation with her mother, Ana is so repulsed by the greed of some of the Anglo patrons of her show that she decides to spray-paint a message in red—“RAZA NOT FOR SALE”—on a gallery wall in a gesture that strongly recalls Mari’s last scene in Vida. However, Mari was ultimately able to let go of her attachment to the toxic concept of the “sellout” or “vendida” by trusting her own instincts about compromises worth making—by living with contradiction. Ana, in contrast, is just as intent as ever on burning all bridges with Anglo culture and creating a more coherent identity for herself: the wall she defaces bears her own image and artist bio.
It seems that although her artwork helps others, like her mother, glimpse something of the value of a borderlands experience, Ana cannot shake the suspicion that she is a vendida, a traitor to her people. Unfortunately, the artsy setting of the gallery is able to hold all manner of contradictions together, even the contradiction of an artist disavowing her own work. Part of the crowd witnessing Ana’s iconoclasm, Norma, a Latina who works at the Morales family restaurant, cheers on what she sees as an even more radical artistic gesture: “Ah shit! She’s Banksy-ing this mother! Get it mija!” A second later, a wealthy white woman patronizing the gallery breathlessly asks: “Is this wall for sale? Where do I bid?” Gentefied suggests that Ana is not able to use her difficult borderlands experience to change the way others perceive reality because she has not been able to change the way she sees herself.
Much more could be said about the resonances between these and other TV shows and philosophical explorations of Mexican and Chicano/a/x identities. But even considering a few parallels between Vida and Gentefied and their connections to the work of Anzaldúa and Moraga helps us pose important questions. How do we come together around the irreconcilable experiences of race, class, culture, citizenship, gender, sexuality, and age that make Latinas/os/xs who we are? What role might our art and media play in this project?
Through Mari’s transformation and Ana’s tribulations, Vida and Gentefied suggest that one of the most important things our self-representations can do is to help us look more kindly at the ragged edges within ourselves that will just never line up—to feel more comfortable with the gaps and inconsistencies that we might associate with “selling out” or “betrayal.” To get there, perhaps we need to reflect on the fact that vendida does not need to be translated as “sellout.” It can also be translated, as Anzaldúa reminds us, as one who is sold out.10 Or perhaps these shows are pushing us to consider whether or not “sellout” is a meaningful category in the first place. Maybe the next season of Gentefied will tell us more. In the meantime, both series underscore a need to recognize that our radical self-reflections can happen anywhere—in the pages of a philosophical text, on a barrio street, on YouTube, in the art gallery. And also on TV.
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.
- Gloria Anzaldúa, “Preface,” Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (Aunt Lute, 1983). ↩
- Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera, p. 3. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 3-4. ↩
- Ibid., p. 20. ↩
- Ibid., p. 79. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 79-80. ↩
- Cherríe L. Moraga, Loving in the War Years: Lo Que Nunca Paso Por Sus Labios (South End, 2000), p. 99. ↩
- Ibid., p. 101. ↩
- Ibid., p. 98, 103. ↩
- Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, p. 22. ↩