“Y Su Trabajo Es Ajeno”: Latinx Labor and Proximity to Whiteness in Vida
The first season of Vida (2018) met with critical acclaim for deftly handling complex Latinx identities, LGBTQ+ representation and the gentrification of Los Angeles. While critics rightfully praised showrunner Tanya Saracho and her writing team for crafting textured narratives, I want to take this opportunity to also examine one of the most poignant visual moments in the series. The shot in question is from the Episode 4, in which Lyn Hernandez (Melissa Barrera) takes a late-night bus back to her home in Eastside Los Angeles. There is only one other passenger on the bus: Aurora (Laura Patalano), an older Latinx woman who had been tasked with cleaning up after the attendees at a party Lyn had just attended in the Hills.
Lyn is one of two Mexican-American sisters who recently returned to their childhood home after their mother's death. The series establishes her as a bougie, self-centred woman who primarily lives on the credit of others. Like her sister Emma, Lyn left the Eastside and became upwardly mobile, only to return as a "white-tina" who represents the potential for gentefication.1 In this episode, following a fight with Emma, Lyn goes shopping with her deceased mother's credit cards and encounters a white (or white-passing) millennial named Jackson who invites her to a party in the Hills.2 Typifying a fashionable white millennial culture, Jackson primarily sees Lyn as an exoticised sexual object. He ogles her chest during their first encounter, mentions how sexy she sounds when she "rolls her Rs" and cannot stop staring at her Frida-like eyebrows.
When Lyn arrives at the party, Aurora takes her bags and the two speak briefly in Spanish. Lyn appears hesitant to do so, which speaks to her conflicted feelings about how (or if) she identifies with Aurora in this space. The party consists of mostly white attendees and Lyn is seemingly the only Latinx guest not considered "the help." Yet she is also not a typical guest. Instead, she functions as a sexualised object of attention for Jackson and as a literal vaping device for a white woman named Harper, who prefers to get her fix by kissing Lyn. Here Lyn becomes a brand to be consumed: the hot Mexican woman with great eyebrows and a foreign tongue.
As the party winds down, a guest vomits on the ground and Harper yells out for Aurora to clean it up. Harper admits to feeling bad about Aurora cleaning up after them, to which Jackson replies, "Don't. That's what she's here for." These comments serve as the transition moment that leads us into the featured shot. Lyn watches Aurora put on her yellow gloves to clean up the mess, while Harper's voice grows indistinct in the background. Viewers hear the shrillness of her voice as it turns into a soft squeal accompanied by a faint drum beat. That squeal then transforms into the sound of city traffic as the scene shifts to the interior of a bus on the street and the beat leads into the chorus of "María Landó" by Susana Baca.3 The song lyrics construct an auditory backdrop to the scene that makes the labour politics of the visuals explicit:
María has no time to lift her eyes,
broken from lack of sleep,
from walking around suffering –
because she only works.
María only works,
and her work enriches others.4
The featured shot is then established as the camera pans right to left, dwelling first on Aurora seated halfway back in the bus and then resting on Lyn across the aisle in an elevated section toward the back of the bus. After pausing on Lyn, the camera cuts to a raised view from the front of the bus, allowing us to look down upon the women as they stare ahead in silence.
These visuals demonstrate how proximity to whiteness can provide temporary access to class status but cannot erase the racialised labour prejudices tied to being a Latinx woman. At its most explicit, this shot foregrounds that Lyn and Aurora must ride the same bus home despite perceived differences in class status. Yet this shot is also constructed to preserve a certain asymmetry between them. Lyn occupies an elevated position in the back, inhabiting a space where she could literally look down upon Aurora. She is also positioned closer to the overhead lighting, which literally whitens her features. Even as this superficial whiteness creates distance between Lyn and Aurora, their shared confinement to the bus highlights how Lyn's access to whiteness remains tethered to (and perhaps dependent on) Aurora's labour. Moreover, no amount of whitening can prevent Lyn from travelling home on the same bus.
Both women are also seated with their bags held closely to their chests. The positioning of their bodies represents the need to secure belongings and to take up minimal space—a protective posture that also speaks to the gendered nature of their relationship to white society. Yet, even that detail highlights an asymmetry between the women. Lyn appears to be carrying a designer bag and her grip shows off a fashionable ring on her finger. Her bag is decorative accessory. In contrast, Aurora carries a tote bag filled with cleaning supplies, the tools of her labour. Still, even as these differences are highlighted, both women travel away from the Hills. With "María Landó" playing in the background, it is clear that both of them "solo trabaja" for whiteness.5
The "trabajo" (or work) that each woman performs is indirectly represented by their attire: Lyn travels in a yellow dress purchased before the party (representing her decorative status and how she benefits from the labour of others), while Aurora wears a simple grey sweater over her blue work shirt (representing her status as a blue-collar labourer). These colours open up additional interpretive possibilities when analysed alongside the interior of the bus, which is lined with bilingual stickers the same colour as Lyn's dress. Each sticker communicates instructions tied to safety, marking Lyn's own story as a cautionary tale – a walk of shame tied not to repressive sexual politics but to class-based attempts at racial and ethnic passing. The structure of the bus is mostly grey, including the seats and the floor. These elements mirror Aurora's grey sweater in a dehumanising reminder that her labour primarily benefits other people. In a white supremacist society, her perceived role is that of a support structure for white mobility.
This type of colour analysis is even more striking when we consider how the seat covers contain bold yellows that also reflect the colour of Lyn's dress. As a decorative fabric, these covers gesture to her ornamental role in white society. She is fashionable under the gaze of whiteness, but ultimately serves a support role much like Aurora. Aurora herself is covered in yellow when she dons the rubber gloves needed to clean up vomit at the party, perhaps foreshadowing similarities between the women. As the night ends, then, we might ask if Lyn should be read as a version of Aurora in a pretty dress. Despite her proximity to whiteness and perceived class mobility, Lyn – like her fellow passenger – "only works, and her work enriches others."