Tanya Saracho was the ultimate fish out of water when she began writing for television. She came from a playwriting background and is Latinx (a non-binary Latino person) and Queer. Everything about her didn’t quite mesh with the Hollywood status-quo. An early encounter in the writer’s room world — in which she was condescendingly told that she was just the “diversity hire” — set ablaze her determination to be taken seriously and not just a way for studios to check off their boxes.
Saracho had stories to tell — and was bold enough to tell them her way. Arguably, it was telling stories her way that found her success in the first place. She now runs her own show — Vida on Starz. Her triumph is a testament to staying true to oneself.
Here are five lessons from Saracho, gleaned from her recent sit down with Kim Masters on KCRW’s The Business podcast, on how to maintain your individuality as a writer.
1. Take On Daunting Challenges With Style
Given the chance to run her own show, Saracho didn’t think twice about taking on the opportunity this afforded her — showing the Latino community in a new and real light. It wouldn’t be an easy task — some may even call it daunting: how to best represent a world and culture without falling into camp or shtick? “We haven’t been seen — at each decade,” Saracho explains. “Like, we get a little try — we got La Bamba!… And then what happened? Right? Or we’re seen through a point of view that’s not ours, like, we’re Scarface! What? But then, like, every decade there are some big attempts.”
The way Saracho dealt with it? Focusing on specifics. Aware that she wouldn’t be able to please everybody or capture every dynamic, she zeroed in on what she knew. “I don’t have the answer, I just know that… sometimes we try to swallow up the whole world or all of culture and be like, Okay this is the immigrant narrative,” she says. “And you can’t do that because we’re twenty-seven countries that make up the Latin diaspora, how are you going to do that? There’s a whole thing. So I just leaned into the specificity of this world, this particular slang, this style of Spanglish… and also telling the second-generational story…”
2. Write From Your Perspective — No Matter The Perspective
When Starz initially brought Saracho in, she mistakenly thought she was just interviewing for a writing gig. She had been in LA for three years and had just left writing on How To Get Away With Murder. But suddenly, she was being presented with a pitch for a show and being asked if she could take it on. Starz told her they wanted “a show… about Latina millennials in East LA about gentrification, chipsters (Chicano hipsters).” With a laugh, Saracho recalls, “I was like, I can do it. It was that specific… but also broad. Because they didn’t say ‘Queer’. You know, they didn’t say there’s a non-binary sex scene…” Saracho infused the writing with her own style, her own perspective on life, and Starz ate it up. “Everything I would turn in they were like, ‘Yes and’. They kept saying, We’re prime cable, so bring us prime cable… I’m Queer and Latinx and I’m steeped in that, so I just sort of wrote from my perspective. And… my writer’s room is mostly queer and Latina.”
3. Trust Your Instincts (In Writing And Life)
Set to graduate from Boston University, Saracho wasn’t sure what she wanted to do exactly but she was certain of one thing: her future wasn’t New York City. “It was that last year when everyone’s deciding they’re going to New York,” Saracho recalls. “And I had been to New York on the weekends to visit friends and they lived in shoeboxes and had to have three jobs and they walked and there were no supermarkets… and I’m like, wait a minute, I don’t want to be walking around all the time and not eating and having three jobs and not doing theatre because it took people a while… I wanted to start a theatre company.”
The answer was clear for Saracho: Chicago. She looked at theatre companies like Steppenwolf and Lookingglass and found inspiration. She bucked the trend of going to New York for a future that was a little less clear — but it worked for her. She was able to start a theatre company of all Latinas. Trusting her instincts paid dividends.
4. Feeling Pigeonholed? Take Advantage Of It
“Some Latinx writers don’t want to be pigeonholed,” Saracho says. But she doesn’t feel the same way. “I like being identified as a Latina writer. I’m proud of it.” She refuses to feel boxed in by it all; instead of feeling pigeonholed when asked to write about the Latino experience, Saracho sees it as an opportunity to continue to tell stories in new and interesting ways. To expand the narrative. She continues, saying, “I think I will never get tired of telling our stories… there’s so many…”
No matter how you’re feeling pigeonholed, Saracho’s advice looks at the brighter side of the opportunity and the vast, unexplored land of storytelling it provides. All these years of being ignored, there’s so much potential to explore here. The work will speak for itself.
5. Allow Adversity To Inspire
When Saracho and the team were shooting a fifteen-minute pilot presentation of Vida in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East LA where the show is set, the blowback was almost instantaneous. The public had yet to see a second of footage but that wasn’t the problem — the problem was their presence. “It didn’t get a good reaction, especially online,” Saracho remembers. “Because I’m not from Boyle Heights. I’m not from the East Side. … They were protesting us and I was not prepared for [it] and I’m, in a way, not glad, but grateful for the discussion because the discussion is this show…”
The online commenters spewed insults at Saracho like ‘white-tina’ and ‘coconut’, making Saracho want to defend herself, to defend all the other work she had done up to this point, all the strides she had made. But then she realized, “It was not about me being Latina or Mexican. It was that I’m not from this neighborhood, or from this area, you know? And the conversation just yielded a lot of conversations on our side…” It was an unwinnable battle, but one that provided depth to the show and thoughtfulness for the writers and what they were trying to do overall. The adversity acted as a reminder for what they were trying to say and speak to in the first place.
Listen to the podcast here.
Travis Maiuro is a screenwriter and freelance film writer whose work has appeared in Cineaste Magazine, among other publications.
Photo credit: Jackson Davis