Growing up in the Rexdale neighbourhood of northwest Toronto, like many kids Vera Santamaria loved watching TV. Unlike many kids, though, she had no bedtime curfew and her otherwise strict parents let her watch whatever she wanted.
"I was watching Three's Company when I was 5, and Married With Children and The Golden Girls," she says, laughing. "I just grew up on that stuff rather than kid's TV."
All those hours spent in front of the TV taught her one thing - everyone was either black or white; there was no in-between.
"I did a project on it in high school and learned - this is going to sound so nerdy - the only way to get diversity onscreen is to get diversity behind the screen," she says. "And that's when I thought, 'Oh. I will be one of those behind-the-screen types.' I wanted to show people we are more same than we are different."
Her analysis certainly paid off. Along with industry veterans John May and Suzanne Bolch, Santamaria, 32, is a co-creator of the series How to Be Indie - a YTV hit now in its second season in tween prime time, alongside the likes of Hannah Montana. (New episodes are starting to air again Thursday after a mid-season production break.) The show centres around 13-year-old Indira Mehta, better known as Indie, and a theme most Canadian immigrant children can relate to - being caught between all the fun her school friends are having and the old-school values of her South Asian parents. Nevertheless, armed with charisma and a sense of humour, she manages to find an "Indie" way out of each sticky situation.
Now based in Los Angeles, where she is a co-producer on the NBC sitcom Outsourced (about culture clashes that ensue when Kansas City native Todd Dempsey is shipped off to India to manage a call centre selling novelty items such as whoopee cushions), Santamaria was recently in town to visit her family - including her on-set family. (Santamaria's parents are from the Indian state of Goa, colonized by the Portuguese, which accounts for surnames such as hers.)
As she made her way around the west-end Toronto studio where How to Be Indie is shot, cast and crew members enveloped her in bear hugs, while cameras rolled for a scene featuring Indie (Melinda Shankar, also seen in Degrassi: The Next Generation) and her best friend Abi Flores (Marline Yan).
In more ways than one, this space is a home away from home for Santamaria. Much of the show is borrowed from her life - the characters, the set, even the school assignment that started off the series.
In her final year at Ryerson University's Radio and Television Arts program, still struggling to find direction, she had to hand in a script for her writing class. A fan of The Wonder Years, she wrote her own spin on the popular dramedy and based it on an experience from elementary school - Culture Day.
"Everyone had to bring in a dish from their culture, and my school was predominantly Italian," she says. "And so all the kids brought in pasta, and desserts - tiramisu and gelato. And my mom decided to send in a [South Asian]delicacy - jalebis. They're bright orange, deep-fried, doughy pretzels. And they just sat there. Not one person, not even the teacher, ate it. And I just remember being so devastated at the end of the day, taking these jalebis home. And we didn't even eat jalebis! I don't know why my mum sent it."
As part of the assignment, Santamaria needed to get the script vetted by industry professionals. One of them was John May, co-founder of the Heroic Film Company, which specializes in programming for kids and tween-age audiences.
"We see a lot of writers, and this was just a point of view that was unique and fresh," he says. "Yes, it was from the point of view of a South Asian kid, but it was funny. It was something you want to see on TV."
May offered Santamaria a job as a script co-ordinator on the CBC-TV show Our Hero. At the same time, Santamaria, May and Suzanne Bolch worked on developing two episodes of How to Be Indie for CBC. Despite initial interest, however, CBC didn't buy in.
While her creation languished, Santamaria rose up the ranks to work as a writer on shows such as Degrassi and Little Mosque on the Prairie. In 2008, May pitched How to Be Indie to YTV and the series got the green light.
It was important for Santamaria not to sugarcoat the immigrant life as an exotic adventure. She was insistent on little details: The Mehtas' house is modest, crammed with mismatched furniture; Indie does not have a cellphone; Indie's friend Abi works in her mother's restaurant and comes from a single-parent family.
"When you are first-generation, your life is a meld of the two [cultures]" says Santamaria. "You don't necessarily wear saris all the time. In our neighbourhood in Rexdale, I often see women in wintertime, in their saris, snow boots, Blue Jays tuque and a down coat. And I just love it. I think that's Canada, right there."
Today, the TV landscape is greatly changed since Santamaria was a teenager, as networks make some steps toward representing the diversity of their audiences, and Santamaria is glad to have played a small part in making that change.
"It was important for me to have kids see themselves on TV," she says, to let them know "you're valued. Your stories are just as funny. I have nephews, and I love that they will grow up in a world and not be self-conscious about their colour."
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