It’s easy to mistake Melissa Barrera for her onscreen character, Lyn, of Starz’s television series Vida, now in its second season. “But I’m not Lyn!” the actress insists, mainly as a plea to fans to stop conflating them on social media.“I love her, but she’s a hot mess.”
In fact, Barrera, 28, who hails from religiously conservative Monterrey, Mexico, initially wasn’t even going to audition for the role since it called for full nudity. But she was a longtime admirer of creator Tanya Saracho’s work as a playwright, and the premise was just too good to resist.
The first prime-time cable show with queer Latina protagonists, Vida follows Lyn and her polar-opposite sister, Emma (Mishel Prada), who return to their East Los Angeles hometown after their mother’s death. While Emma focuses on handling their inheritance, a rundown housing complex and LGBTQ-friendly bar, Lyn turns her attention to her lustful former beau. The show portrays its diverse, fully developed characters—including Barrera’s vapid party girl, Lyn—with an all-too-rare humanity. “We’re always the stereotypes,”she says of typical Hollywood depictions of the Latinx community. “The narcos, the drug dealers, the gang members, thehelp. But on Vida, we’re just human.”
Two years ago, Barrera moved to Los Angeles from Mexico City, where she’d been a telenovela mainstay. Vida was her third audition. But when Saracho offered her the part, Barrera couldn’t accept, as she didn’t yet have a working visa. (“It was a horrible process, and the stakes were so high,” she remembers.) Fortunately, Starz agreed to postpone the filming in order to include her.
Next up, she’ll play a Latina manicurist, Vanessa, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, a big-screen adaptation of his early-aughts musical. “I’m so lucky to be where I am,” Barrera says, attributing much of her success to the fact that she’s always had people fighting for her. She wants to pay it forward, particularly when it comes to increasing Latinx representation in film and television. “There are so few shows on TV made by Latinas for Latinas,” she says, bemoaning Netflix’s decision to cancel its critically acclaimed sitcom One Day at a Time. “It just feels like a punch in the gut.” The setback was heartbreaking, but it emboldened Barrera to press on. “I want to produce things, and help people the way I’ve been helped,” she says. “Whenever I can give people opportunities, I’m going to do that.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of ELLE.