Tonatiuh on Vida & Being Male, Queer, & Latinx
It is a rainy Wednesday, November morning in Los Angeles but the sun still manages to pierce through and bring some warmth to the chilling and damp street of Fairfax Avenue. I am meeting with actor Tonatiuh Elizarraraz to discuss his supporting but pivotal role in the Starz network series Vida. As we wait for our pancakes, we begin our conversation on the intersectionality of being male, queer, and Latinx.
A study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California found an immense lack of Latinx media representation on film. Over the past 12 years, Latinx actors represented roughly three percent of lead or co-lead roles in top-performing movies. Those on film made up 28% of Latinx talent that were depicted as lawbreakers, while only 4% were depicted as high-level occupations involving STEM careers and 9 were depicted as high level/educated professionals. Across the 100 top-grossing films from 2018, 98 of them do not include any LGBTQ characters. Latinx representation is also undermined behind the camera. Of the 3,616 Produced by credits, only 3% were held by Latinos. Seventy-eight of those credits were held by Latinos and 19 were held by Latinas.
In analyzing the statistics the article states,
“A stronger pipeline for Latino creators should result in more authentic storytelling, particularly those focused on the Latino community… As the number of directors, writers, and producers from these communities enter the industry, the multidimensional nature of Latinx identity should increasingly become part of the fabric of popular storytelling.”
That is where we find the Starz network series Vida, a show that is unapologetically brown, queer, and Latinx.
The series follows the lives of Emma and Lyn, two Latina sisters returning to their East Los Angeles neighborhood after their mother’s death as they struggle to run and operate a bar as they face gentrification. Themes of family and sexual identity run throughout the series. Showrunner Tanya Saracho works with a majority Latinx female crew to ensure that these stories extend beyond the screen to create familiarity.
Tonatiuh who was born in Boyle Heights first heard of Vida through his agent and originally auditioned for the roles of Carlos and Tlaloc, but the actor never received a callback. At the time he was also starring in Boni B. Alvarez’s ‘Fixed’ by Echo Theater, a play that deals with love and identity centered in the drag ball culture. Tanya Saracho came to one of the final performances and the two met and briefly connected after his performance. Then as Tonatiuh was filming for his part in Stargate Origins: Catherine, he received a message on Instagram from Tanya. She wrote him apart.
Tonatiuh plays the role of Marcos, a queer Latino male who lives in the same building complex as Emma and Lyn. But his character exceeds the stereotype of the gay best friend as the complexity of his identity is well written into the script. While he grounds the more naive Lyn he also exists outside of their relationship. He is college-educated but is also not removed from the issues facing his East Los Angeles community. Marcos is very much aware of who he is and where he comes from.
Even though there are some similarities between Tonatiuh and Marcos, the two are radically different. Building the character was very much a collaboration between the actor, Tanya, and some of the crew members, as this is especially evident in the way Marcos presents himself. It was crucial for Tonatiuh that Marcos appears both feminine and masculine throughout his looks as it gives context to where the character is coming from. His appearance acts as a form of armor in navigating the community he is in.
“I am taking responsibility for this character. So how he presents to the world is important. He grew up as a kid in Boyle Heights in the 90s and to be effeminate especially during a time where gangs are very much prevalent you have to know how to survive. As much as he’d like to let his plumes out he can’t live there forever.”
After having read the description of the character, the head of the makeup department wanted the actor to shave his facial hair for the role. He dejected as that what not who he had envisioned for the person he would be portraying. They talked it over with Tanya to which she gave him the freedom to decide over his appearance. They all worked together to inform each other on who this character truly is.
When asked if he felt any pressure to get Marcos's story right, Tonatiuh had the most honest answer.
“It’s funny that you use the word pressure because that’s a choice. I feel that there is a responsibility that I and everyone else at Vida feel to be as authentic as possible. I may not be who Marcos is exactly but some people are. And this may be the first and only time that they can be seen. But humans are messy and flawed and I don’t think we’re going to get anything quite right because there really isn’t”
Tonatiuh just wrapped season 3 of Vida and revealed a little of what to expect from Marcos. Lyn will be going on her journey of self-discovery which will affect her relationship with him. But also this season will bring more so the realities of Marcos's character. His life isn’t as perfect as it has been almost made out to be and the audience will be able to see more of his heart and creative side.
And as for what other projects are next for the actor, he revealed that he does not want to play another queer character for a while. He appreciates bringing those stories to life but does not want to limit his creative expression.
“I want to have a more effective dialogue with people to be seen wholly. Because I’m not just me, I am the product of everything I came from. I am my mother who immigrated here, I am my grandmother. There are different facets to my personality and to who I am and I want to showcase that in a way that makes me human.”
Tonatiuh’s work as a storyteller is rooted in humanizing people and stories. His role as Marcos is both an insider and an outsider depending on the context that he is in. He represents both strength and vulnerability and it is how he chooses to use those dynamics that give him power in a narrative that has often excluded him. Do you know a Marcos or do you recognize certain characteristics of his in others or even in yourself? I do, and it’s one I believe we all strive for regardless of labels, it's authenticity.
Season 3 of Vida is expected to premiere next spring on Starz. You can catch the first 3 episodes of the first season for free here.
Follow Tonatiuh on social media @iamtonatiuh