Melissa Barrera Finds Her Stride on Starz's Vida
The 27-year-old actress talks her biggest role to date.
In the first episode of Starz’s Vida, two sisters return home to Boyle Heights, a largely Latin immigrant community in Los Angeles, to bury their mother. The younger sister, Lyn, openly grieves and weeps at the funeral—until she spots her ex-boyfriend Johnny. Within minutes, he’s going down on her on the basement stairs of her dead mother’s bar. But that’s just who Lyn is: she has complete agency over her body and what she does with it. Melissa Barrera, the actress who brings Lyn to life, however, is not like her TV counterpart.
“I wish I was as ballsy as she is,” Mexico-born Barrera tells me at a press day in Beverly Hills. “I wish that if I wanted a man, I’d just go get him, but I never did because women are taught to be reserved. Especially in our culture, we’re so conservative. When you see Johnny going down on Lyn, which is not the norm—it’s usually the other way around—you can see the power dynamic in that. You can see that she’s the one holding the reins in the relationship.”
Vida is not your usual family dramedy. In six 30-minute episodes, the LA-centric show tackles issues that plague the Latinx community—including homophobia, colorism, sexism, gentrification, and religion—through the journey of two sisters who must deal with the death of their mother as her long-buried secrets surface, changing the way they see themselves and the community around them. It is unapologetically queer, brown, and female-led, with a mostly-female Latinx crew. It’s an environment Barrera, the oldest of four daughters, is very familiar with.
“You remember My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where they say ‘the woman is the neck that turns the head?’ That’s also very true for Mexico,” Barrera says. “Women tend to seize the ego of the patriarch, making him believe he’s in charge when he’s really not. My house was very female-led. My mom was the boss and we all had that example of a hard-working, very present, very supportive mother who had a full-time job but also made time to be with each of us.”
While Lyn has only one sister, Barrera has three. She admits it “was a crazy household,” especially with a bunch of creatives under one roof. “We’re all singers, so that was just how loud my house is all the time, to this day. There’s always at least two people singing at a time.”
Barrera calls her younger sisters her “biggest inspiration,” and says one sister in particular inspired her portrayal of Lyn. “My sister Christina, who is three years younger than me, has that innocence that Lyn has. She’s very smart and she’s very witty. When I’m with her, I can’t stop laughing.”
Though Vida is Barrera’s first on-screen role in America, she is no stranger to the United States. She grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, near the Texas-Mexico border, where she spent long weekends on South Padre Island. She went to college at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she fell in love with theater. “I love being onstage. It feeds my soul, you know? It gives you power as an actor. I feel like if you’re a theater actor, there’s nothing you can’t do.”
In 2011, Barrera left NYU and headed back to Mexico to participate in the Mexican reality show La Academia, an experience she credits with teaching her what audiences respond to most. “Complete truth and who you really are. That’s what reality is… When it feels like real life, that’s when people are able to connect with what you’re doing.”
After her reality show experience, Barrera gained prominence with telenovela roles, most recently co-starring in Netflix’s first Spanish-language original, Club de Cuervos. Today, she lives in Los Angeles, and is very much aware of living a life where home is “in-between” LA and Mexico, especially amidst the strained political relationship between the two countries. “It’s a complicated topic. When I was in the process of getting my Visa, I was terrified,” she says. “To think I could be rejected and have to go back and put my dreams on hold and have to resort to doing something else. That wouldn’t be awful, but that’s not what I wanted.”
In Vida’s fourth episode, Lyn is confronted with the reality of how Latinx people are often stripped of their humanity and seen as only “the help.” Despite how much Lyn tries to distance herself from her culture, she is still a brown woman navigating a world that doesn’t see her outside of her ethnicity. “It sucks to hear that’s universal with everyone who is an immigrant or a child of immigrants, that so many people are being deported right now to countries their ancestors came from, but they don’t know [themselves],” Barrera says. “That’s not really their home. That’s their heritage, but it’s not who they are. I think it’s great that we shed a little bit of light on that subject in Vida and create awareness of how awful it is to make someone feel like they don’t belong because of the place they were born or technicalities.”
Barrera’s immigration experience sums up one that many in the Los Angeles Latinx community are facing today. The U.S. is currently deporting people in mass numbers, ripping children as young as infants away from their parents, and putting innocent people in freezing holding cells—often without the right to ask for a lawyer, a hearing, or even a phone call. It’s a chaotic and fearful time to be Latin, and though Vida is a TV show, the stories it tells represent real lives that exist behind the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, and one season isn’t enough. Thankfully, Starz thinks so, too.