“Tacogate” is what actor Mishel Prada calls it. Thanks to the way Prada’s character, Emma, eats a taco in the very first episode of the STARZ show Vida (2018), the series immediately caused a stir. In a scene set at a Mexican restaurant in the East LA neighborhood Emma grew up in but has long not visited, she douses her carne asada taco in Valentina hot sauce and brings it to her mouth straight on, rather than tipping her head and biting it from the side, letting pieces of meat fall all over the table as she tears the tortilla with her teeth and then with her fingers. Her way of eating and especially her choice of condiment took people to Twitter to share memes of shock and disapproval. Valentina, they say, does not belong in a taco. The series creator, Tanya Saracho (who says she eats Valentina on chips or fruit), initially explained away the character’s unsanctioned way of eating as a reflection of her disconnect with her roots after having lived far away from her Mexican neighborhood for years. The excuse, however, just as the criticism, comes from the normative idea that there is a right way to engage with culture and traditions — something Vida challenges when it’s most successful. As a show centering Chicanx characters and the conflicts they navigate around race, ethnicity, sexuality and belonging, Vida invites an intersectional approach that defies essentialist definitions of identity. Therefore, instead of reading Emma’s relationship to food in the show through her alienation from Mexican culture, I read it through her queerness, focusing on how food can be a vehicle for the reconciliation between her sexual and cultural identities.
Queer desire is a central theme in Vida and an important aspect of the events that set the series into motion. The first episode begins with the death of bar owner Vidalia, prompting prodigal daughters Emma and Lyn to return to East Los Angeles for her funeral. There, they learn a secret: their mother had been married to a woman, Eddy, for the past two years. Emma is particularly enraged, calling her mother a hypocrite, since upon discovering a young Emma with a neighborhood girl, Vidalia had sent her away to live with her grandmother in Texas. This early rejection led Emma to become estranged not only from her mother but also from the Mexican community she grew up in. The distancing is deliberate, as she constructs her identity to reject everything they represent. Lyn, whose relationship with both Vidalia and Mexican culture is also complicated but more permeable, is a foil to the ways Emma tries to set herself apart: while Lyn’s clothes are flowing and bohemian, Emma dresses in sleek and subdued outfits from her corporate wardrobe; Lyn worries about the undocumented tenants in their mother’s building and Emma wants to sell to developers; and while Lyn can only speak the Spanglish of her mother and other locals, Emma prides herself on having learned “real Spanish.” In all these cases, Emma’s refusal to participate in the local community translates into subscribing to hegemonic forms of normativity, such as those of purist language politics, neoliberalism, and mainstream Anglo-American society.
Ana Castillo argues that light-skinned, middle-class Mexican-Americans who are more assimilated into white-Anglo society have an easier experience asserting their lesbian sexuality, while working-class, politicized women-of-color give precedence to racial and class struggles of the Chicanx movement, often coming into their sexuality only later in life. A white Latina, Emma claimed a space of privilege by going up the corporate ladder at her job in Chicago and seemingly leaving her Mexican heritage behind. While her early experience of homophobia reflects the compulsory heterosexuality Gloria Anzaldúa identifies in Mexican culture, through her whiteness and assimilation, Emma circumvents the conflict between lesbian identity and belonging to Chicanx culture that Carla Trujillo presents as “two worlds, neither of which is readily accepting.” Emma’s eventual decision to stay in East L.A. and run Vidalia’s bar with Lyn, means she finally must contend with these contradictions.
It is not a coincidence, then, that food plays a big role in Emma’s character development in the series. Kathleen Batstoneargues that cooking defies binary classifications due to the border-crossing nature of food — it is nature and culture, it is transformed by the body in digestion and becomes and transforms the body too. This makes food a particularly apt bridge between the different aspects of lesbian Chicana identity, something many have explored in their poetry: in M. Álvarez’s “La Enchilada,” the poem’s speaker likens her female lovers to different kinds of chile peppers, and Alicia Gaspar de Alba plays with the reclaimed slur “tortillera” in “Making Tortillas,” conflating the preparation of traditional Mexican food with lesbian sex. Julia Ehrhardt argues that these poets subvert heteronormative food practices by “appropriating foods that represent the cornerstones of the Chicano diet and its most sacred heterosexual rituals to represent queer sexuality,” noting that the lesbian Chicana is portrayed not only as food preparer — as women would be in a heteronormative household — but also as eater, presenting her as “a woman with appetites that deserve to be satisfied.”
In the scene that incited the taco polemic, the camera shows Emma and Lyn sitting at a restaurant as people pass in front of the lens — the point-of-view suggesting that the viewers are observing them from a neighboring table. Emma is unfazed by the gaze from the camera and from Lyn, who is not eating and looks at her sister’s big bites disapprovingly. She speaks with her mouth full and picks pieces that fall off on the table with her hand and eats them. Emma’s carefully curated, sleek-haired, blazer-wearing persona is left behind as she unapologetically delights in the food, emitting moans of pleasure that further connect the acts of eating and of sex. As an early moment in the first episode of the series, this scene offers a glimpse of how Emma will reconcile her sexuality and cultural identity.
Emma is certainly a character who attends to her appetites, and this is not only shown through her eating but also through her confident sexuality. The queer sex scene that opens the series’ third episode — graphic in the way STARZ is known for — portrays her as dominant as she throws her partner to the floor and sits on their face. Her refusal to reign in her sexuality through labels also mirrors the way she chooses to enjoy the pleasures of food without subscribing to gendered or cultural prescriptions, opening a way for her to start moving beyond her assimilationist strategies and break with normativity through her hunger for both sex and food.
In the second season, Saracho responded to the Twitter critics by giving voice to their complaint through the character of Nico, Emma’s new love interest. When the two get tacos together and Nico asks incredulous “Valentina? On a Taco?” Emma gets her chance to respond: “All my life I’ve been policed for being the thing I already am. Why can’t it be a Mexican thing if a Mexican is putting Valentina on a taco?” Her frustration seems to echo the rejection she received for her sexuality, being removed from the community for it. But here, and through food, she is able to find her own way without resorting to Anglo normativity. She claims her Mexican-ness as not contingent on adhering to normative models of what that heritage is supposed to mean, creating instead space for her queer desires within it.
As a story that represents the complex and multifaceted experience of Chicanx lives in particular, Vida dwells in the borderland between the US and Mexico, approaching questions of belonging from the hybrid position of its characters. While the Twitter discussions about Emma’s eating choices reflect a concern with authenticity in the face of the gap in representation the show wedges itself into, with its all-Latinx cast and writers’ room, an essentialist and normative approach to cultural practices undermines the potential of hybridity, enforcing instead binary notions of identity to predicate belonging. The queer approach taken above in reading Emma’s relationship with Mexican food practices offers another avenue, one already taken by Chicana lesbian poets, which makes it possible to overcome dualist thinking and to make space for hybrid subjectivities.