First Came Brunch. Then, Dinner. Now, 2 Powerful Latina Writers (& Their Friends) Are Saving Television
Today, there are roughly 60 million Latinx people living in the U.S. — each one of us with our own unique cultural experiences and points of view. We are launching Somos, a cross-platform channel created in collaboration with the Latinx staff at Refinery29. We seek to elevate, educate, and inspire a new generation of changemakers committed to Latinx visibility. We’ll explore the unique issues that affect us and dive into the parallels and contrasts that make our community so rich‚ all while celebrating nuestras culturas.
“I read him to filth,” Vida showrunner/creator/executive producer Tanya Saracho begins, detailing a recent conversation with a high-powered Hollywood insider. The individual in question was hoping to see Saracho, a Mexican-born playwright-turned-TV writer, pair up with another scribe so that she could help “educate the dominant culture, basically, on immigration,” Saracho says, the frustration obvious in her voice.
Some may assume such an educational “opportunity” should be a dream, as America’s ever-worsening immigration abuses continue to plague the country’s Latinx population. Saracho, whose East L.A.-based Starz series Vida is currently speaking truth to power in its third and final season, is happy to explain why such a request isn’t a win at all.
“I was like, Hold on. Hold on. It’s not my responsibility to educate. I will amplify, I will represent. But ‘educate’ puts the responsibility on me. It’s on me for you to learn,” Saracho continues during that same afternoon phone call with Refinery29. “You don’t put the burden on people of color or Brown queers or women to be like, Let me also educate you.”
Hence, the filth-reading.
Such bleak pressures will only continue if Latinx writers are constantly given a seat at the far end of The Table. That is if they make it to the proverbial Table at all, as 2019’s bombshell USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study of Latinx film representation called into question. With decades of experience between them, Saracho and her spiritual “big sister” Gloria Calderón Kellett, who adapted Norman Lear’s 1970s One Day at a Time to now focus on a Cuban-American family for Netflix and then Pop, are hard at work making sure there are Latinx voices all over writers rooms. That way, no one has to play Immigration 101 professor ever again.
As a new decade begins, the pair’s first order of business is the brand new Latinx TV List, an initiative through famed unproduced script survey the Black List. The Latinx List’s goal is to find the best yet-to-be-filmed, Latinx-written, Latinx-led scripts out there and give them the signal boost they deserve. Earlier this month, Hulu partnered with the Latinx TV List as submissions for the contest closed. Saracho promises there’s also “a bunch” of more projects coming our way from the pair and the TV writing sisterhood who call themselves Untitled Latinx Project.
“We were already a part of this really beautiful Latina brunch group,” Calderón Kellett starts, explaining the roots of ULP and how that sisterhood ended up spearheading the Latinx TV List. The Flash writer Judalina Neira and L.A.'s Finest writer Diana Mendez started the “lovely” group years ago. While Calderón Kellett appreciates the culinary delights supplied by her fellow writers — think everything from breakfast food to tacos — the One Day writer stresses she appreciated the “company” more than the food. Then, the company ballooned.
I’m not putting gas on that fire. Because the negative doesn’t help us.
Gloria Calderón Kellett
“It started getting so big, which is wonderful because it means more Latinas are working. It became less of an opportunity to just sit one-on-one and go, What are the problems you’re having? What do you need to continue?,” Calderón Kellett, who stands as America’s first Latina showrunner and the first Latina writer to score an eight-figure development deal (cheers, Amazon), explains. “Goddess angel woman” Saracho, as Calderón Kellett calls her, came up with the idea of bringing together a smaller group of “upper-level” Latina writers and executive producers to figure out how to support one another and the Latinx community as a whole in Hollywood.
“That became a monthly dinner club where we would meet after work to share some food and wine and break bread and get into it,” Calderón Kellett elaborates. Saracho, for her part, admits, “I asked Glo, Can we do dinner at your house because it’s bigger than mine? She’s a proper adult, you know? Gloria’s got a house, a pool, a husband, and kids. She’s so aspirational to me.”
Saracho has a point about her friend being aspirational. Calderón Kellett’s One Day at a Time is in the middle of airing its fourth season on Pop after a Netflix cancellation, making it the first-ever axed Netflix original to revive itself on linear TV. First-generation Cuban-American Calderón Kellett is preparing to start work at Amazon in just a fews weeks, come June 2020. The scripts for the remainder of One Day have been written, are in “phenomenal shape,” and Calderón Kellett is simply waiting for it to be “safe to go back to the set” after the novel coronavirus shut down Hollywood sets across the world (her sitcom’s Los Angeles production included).
It was inevitable that such a high-achieving supper club as the ULP, which currently counts 18 high-powered Latinx women writers among its ranks, would start generating big ideas. “Every month we meet and there’s an aspect of that. Like, The casting is going so slow … But then, we’re like, What else can we do?” Saracho explains. Enter the Black List, to which ULP sister Lindsey Villarreal, writer for USA’s The Purge and Saracho’s Vida, was already connected. Then the Latinx TV List was born. Ten scripts will be named the finalists of the inaugural list; Hulu has confirmed it will offer a WGA minimum blind pilot script deal to two winning writers or teams. The streaming giant will also meet with all 10 finalists.
If anyone can handle managing such a massive undertaking in the quarantine era, it’s the women of the ULP, who have already had a Zoom get together during the pandemic. “It was more like, Let’s check in, because It’s scary out here,” Saracho sighs. Now, they’re looking forward to the script-reading and script-discussing at hand, which Calderón Kellett confirms will continue over Zoom and email.
“I’m hoping for fresh voices. For stories that haven’t been seen a gabillion times. And really, authenticity. That’s the answer … Because I’ve read many, many versions of the Latinx experience that are not. I’m fully done with stereotypes,” Calderón Kellett says, preparing to start reading submissions (the Black List will review the scripts first, then the women of ULP).
Calderón Kellett is quick to point out that Latinx TV List winning scripts don’t need to be defined by their Latinidad in much the same way all Latinx people aren’t defined by theirs. “The submissions for this, they don’t have to be like Super Latinx Stories. It can just have Latinx leads … We don’t get to see our community in a rom-com.” she explains, before broadening her claim to reveal that, “We don’t get to see our community,” period. When Calderón Kellett is reminded that we haven’t gotten a coming-of-age story about, say, a second-ish-generation, middle-class Afro-Latina growing up in the extremely white, Republican suburbs of New York, she lights up, exclaiming, “Where is she? Let’s hear that story. That’s a case in point.”
You don’t put the burden on people of color or Brown queers or women to be like, 'Let me also educate you.'
As Calderón Kellett and Saracho wait to decide who will actually win the first Latinx TV List, they must deal with a crisis no one could have seen coming: the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shutdown of Hollywood. Saracho admits the Untitled Latina Project wanted to throw a mixer for the finalists as a way to officially usher them into Hollywood production. Before quarantine, this is when a group of buzzy upstart talents could easily mingle with prospective managers, agents, producers, executive bosses and, hopefully, the journalists who will one day cover their content. Such a populated event is no longer possible, but one-on-one conversations are.
“The 10 writers who get listed, we want to sit down with them and ask, How can we share our experience with you? And maybe there’s a manager that I can introduce. We’re not guaranteeing anything, but that’s part of opening doors,” Saracho says. Calderón Kellett, who scored her first TV credit back in 2004 with FOX’s Quintuplets, agrees, saying, “I want to get to know them and see what their journey has been. It’s interesting to hear from this next generation what the roadblocks have been for them so we can clear them out. I don’t really know what the roadblocks are anymore.”
As the pair aims to bring down those roadblocks for writers, they have their sights on much more within their community. “We’re thinking of doing all these other things, amplifying not just writers because we’re writers, but we’re trying to hire Latinx editors, directors, cinematographers! We’re trying to gather all the Latinx who are working,” Saracho explains. (Men too). This way, when a network exec says they “can’t find” a Latinx person for a job — which Saracho says she was told through the grapevine just the other day — anyone can point to cold, hard proof to refute such laziness.
That’s why Calderón Kellett is marching into the future more determined than ever, even in the face of COVID-19: to help uplift the community she loves so much. As she says, she has suffered “a billion,” slights over her 13 straight years of churning out TV content as a Latina writer. But, she continues, “I will tell you, this is really the truth — there’s a billion and I don't think about them any more.”
“I’m not putting flame on that fire. I’m not putting gas on that fire. Because the negative doesn’t help us. What helps us is the conversation moving forward towards positivity. I think we are responsible for saying, We don’t need to participate in this. We can say, I’m going to put forth voices that I want to see.”