Melissa Barrera Says 'Vida' Is More Than a Latinx Show: 'The Message Is Universal' (Exclusive)
By Liz Calvario
Courtesy of Starz
For Melissa Barrera, being on the set of Vida felt "like home."
The 28-year-old actress grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, and began her career starring in a slew of Mexican telenovelas. So for Barrera, crossing over to the U.S. and landing a role in the Latinx-led Starz series was not only special, but also comforting.
"For me, it's always been this way," Barrera tells ET over the phone about working on Vida, now in its second season. "I come from Mexico, and everyone on set is either Mexican or Latino for the most part. Then coming out here, and my first job being this [it's so great]. It must be, like, 80 percent Latinxs all around in every department and it just feels like home."
Vida, which has been picked up for a third season, has been praised for its diverse cast, refreshing storylines and all-Latinx writers' room, half of whom are queer.
"Having an all Latinx writers' room just makes sense," Barrera passionately states. "The people who are telling the story should know the story, it shouldn't be someone else trying to tell a community how they live their life because they don't know it. And that is when shows fail...People want truth and they want to connect. I think that is why people have connected so much to our show, especially immigrant families because, at the core, it's an immigrant family show that shows people struggling with identity and finding their place and the threat of being erased."
"It's not just the Latinx community, it's all minorities," she adds. "And they watch the show and they're like, 'My family is like that,' or 'I can see my mom saying that,' and it's just a beautiful thing."
For those unfamiliar with the show, Vida chronicles the life of Mexican-American sisters, Lyn (Barrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada), who return to their East Los Angeles home after their mother's sudden death. Upon arriving at Boyle Heights, they discover that their mother was queer and married a woman named Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), whom they are forced to share their inheritance and family bar.
Season two picks up with Lyn and Emma officially taking on the family business, all while dealing with their own identity crises, the massive business debt, Eddy's unexpected attack that left her in the hospital and the growing anti-gentrification movement. While the series follows these Latinas and their struggles, the storylines are universal and not just for Latinxs, Barrera says.
"I grew up watching American television and I could relate to the characters just fine because you connect with the inside, you connect to the struggle, you connect to the emotion, you connect to the way they make decisions," she explains. "If we can relate to them, they should be able to relate to us. It's like, yes, we are here, we are Latinx. You can clearly see that just by looking at us, by seeing us on screen. We are there and people know that we are not white. But, the storylines are there, the human emotions are there."
For Barrera, growing up two hours south of Texas, she always related to American culture and grew up going to American schools. When coming to the U.S., she felt like she instantly fit in. However, she was surprised when she received hate from Mexican fans for talking in English and working in the States.
"It's a weird situation. You can't please everybody," she says, adding that she finds that the Latinx community can be so divided at times. "We're always looking for things that make us different as opposed to what unites us."
"You asked me earlier how I felt about being part of an all-Latinx cast and I love it," Barrera expresses. "I think it's a beautiful thing and I love that it's happening. I love this movement of Latinos getting more opportunities, but it's still [a work in progress]. It hasn't really become a thing and people think it is because it's in the headlines but it isn't a reality yet."
"I also feel like the fact that our show is Latinx and all of our creatives are Latinx and is marketed as that -- every headline that we get is 'the Latinx show' or 'the show that is written by a Latinx,' everything is always about that -- I feel like people don't want to watch us because of that," she continues. "Because they think that it's just for Latinos and it doesn't interest other people [or they won't be able to relate]. But we have such a good show and it's universal. The message is universal. Yes, there is a little bit of Spanish that if you don't know [the language] you might miss out on an inside joke or two, but it really is so minimal that you don't miss the plot line."
For example, Barrera's Lyn -- who is constantly told she's nothing more than just a pretty face -- begins to go through an emotional journey and experiences some major personal growth.
"Lyn's journey in season two is all about finding her strength, learning to believe in herself for the first time ever in her life, finding that she is capable and strong and smart, and is actually a good businesswoman," she details. "Every scene where she is dismissed and made to feel less by other characters, this is something that every woman goes through in life. We all have been through a moment in life where we are judged by our appearance, or just by being a woman."
"It made me excited about the season coming out and people seeing that new side of Lyn and empathizing with her," she adds. "Because season one we didn't really see a lot of Lyn's emotions and her side of the story. I was excited for people to see this because we all go through that."
Barrera also explains how Lyn's storyline opens up a conversation about not judging a book by its cover, knowing your worth and letting others that it's possible to overcome anything.
"It's important to let women know that everyone goes through this and it's possible to overcome it and to fight," she says. "And to teach and educate other generations to not judge people by where they come from or how they look."
"Lyn goes through a lot of ups and downs in season two, and for an actor, that is the best thing," Barrera shares. "We want to play, we want to be challenged. Also getting to portray a woman that has been easily judged, not only by the characters but also by the audience, and surprise them and change their minds about the character, is the most fun and interesting thing to do."
She credits her co-star, Prada, in part, for begin able to translate that journey onscreen. "We are like sisters in real life. I love her so much," Barrera marvels. "I am so lucky that we got cast in this and our paths crossed. We're going to be family now forever and that translates onto the screen."
"Even though Emma and Lyn argue and they don't always see eye to eye, the love is there and it helps that we, in real life, love each other so much," she says, adding, "And she is just such a generous person and such an amazing scene partner. We know we have each other's back and we are there 100 percent all the time, even when we are off camera, she is 100 percent there for me and I am 100 percent there for her and that makes a huge difference."
All in all, everyone on Vida has become like family to Barrera, who couldn't have asked for a better show to make her crossover. She's next starring in Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights movie and was recently cast as the lead opposite Jamie Dornan in Carmen.
"We are all very lucky and I feel so blessed to have this cast of such amazing human beings and just talented people," she gratefully says. "That is one of the most special things about our show. The love is real and it's there and we enjoy working with each other."
Season two of Vida is now streaming on the Starz app and Starz On-Demand. Starz will also air weekly episodes every Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
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