Editor’s Note: This review has spoilers, but that is a good thing.
Whenever there’s a new show that features a predominantly Latino ensemble, I get happy, but then, as the natural skeptic I am, a feeling swoops in and makes me think, can it be good? I hope it’s good, we can’t afford more stereotypes.
With that in mind, when Gentefied dropped on Netflix a few days ago, I beamed. The Latino community wants a show that’s funny, smart, and full of heart. But again, as the natural 28-year-old cynic I am, I had reservations. But still I tuned in, hoping for the best and bracing for the worst.
Gentefied embodies the current experience of many Latino communities trying to fight in keeping their heritage alive amid the ever growing looming threat of gentrification. Through humor, heart-warming relationships, and fearlessness to address the pain of everyday struggles, Gentefied renders a compelling narrative, which ultimately says, we see you, we know you’re here. Let’s get to work.
The show centers around the Morales, a Mexican-American family trying to keep Mama Fina, their taco business, afloat in the gentrifying Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. At the head is the patriarch Casimiro, or more commonly referred to as “Pop” (masterfully played by Joaquín Cosio). Completing the family nucleus is the trio of cousins: bookworm Erik (J.J. Soria), the artist Ana (Karrie Martin), and aspiring chef Chris (Carlos Santos). Then there’s also the youngest cousin Nayeli, Ana’s sister, played by the hilarious Bianca Melgar. In the first couple of episodes, the cousins come off as prototypes seen in countless comedies, but as the series progresses, they slowly unravel and become more nuanced, albeit not entirely three-dimensional characters, but the potential for that is completely there.
One could argue Pop is closest to Erik, whom he raised from a young age, and that might be the reason he seems to be the toughest on him. He wants him to be more motivated to get a job and build a healthy relationship with Lidia (Annie Gonzalez). On the contrast, he has a soft spot for Ana, perhaps because she’s one of the younger ones or perhaps because he appreciates how passionate she is with her art. But if there’s a “favorite,” although never explicitly said out loud, is Chris.
There’s a great scene when Chris comes back home late drunk and Pop just tells him to be careful not to trip and then just waves him goodnight. Erik interjects saying if that’s all he’s going to say to which Pop remains silent. Not one to ever hold back, Erik points out aside from not paying rent, Chris can just come and go as he pleases. He then adds that if the situation was reversed, Pop wouldn’t be too understanding. Pop doesn’t say anything because he knows it’s true.
But why does Chris get a free pass? He has big dreams of going to Paris and studying at the best culinary school. He’s moved away to pursue his dream before and he’d do it again. In many key scenes, he prioritizes career ambitions over family. He’s a little snarky, at times condescending, but ultimately he means well.
It’s his attitude and life choices that make his family and coworkers view him as not only “not Mexican” enough. Latino colleagues at work challenge him to prove his Mexicannes on a silly test, which he accepts but fails to pass. Nayeli even calls him “white boy.” Ana says that he sure loves to assimilate. Lines like those suggest that the entire family sees him as an outlier, perhaps even an outsider.
Throughout the series, Chris has brief and heated phone conversations with his dad, who seems to think that working to salvage the family taco business is beneath Chris. But aside from differing opinions, it seems that their relationship is tainted by something more than just the taco shop or Chris’ aspirations.
A striking observation is that none of the cousins have particularly positive relationships with their fathers, and in the case of Ana, there’s no mention of a father at all. The estranged relationships with fathers is something that I want the series to explore more and if we go by what the show did in its first run, it seems like a possibility.
One thing the series does exceptionally well is the exploration of Ana and Yessika’s (Julissa Calderon) lesbian relationship. The script treats it as a sweet yet fully adult relationship. They support each other until differing ideologies put their relationship and love to the test. The way the show develops their relationship is definitely one of the series highlights. It’s gratifying to not only see queer love, but an Afro-Latina actress play such a strong character, one with uncompromising convictions. She’s not going to budge for anybody.
Though at first you might think the show is a traditional light comedy, Gentefied hits a more serious tone in its latter episodes.
A clear standout is episode 5 titled “The Mural.” Ana is hired by a white real estate owner Tim to paint a mural on the naked wall of Ofelia’s convenience store, which is his newly acquired property in the neighborhood. As a badass queer woman, Ana decides to portray two male luchadores in a passionate kiss. The people who frequent the convenience store aren’t too happy with it and threaten to boycott the shop. Ofelia wants the mural erased, arguing that it hurts her business. Of course Tim has more leverage and the mural remains. But in a very candid conversation Ofelia tells Ana that the mural content isn’t the problem. It’s people like Tim who stride into the neighborhood just to see people like her gone and succeeding at it. Ana is faced with her first real dilemma and it’s a snapshot at the writers’ ability to humanize her.
Despite not centering around its main characters, I would argue that episode 6 titled “The Grapevine” is the most heart-wrenching installment in the entire series. It stars recurring mariachi musician Javier (Jaime Alvarez) and his son Daniel, who secretly holds a crush for Nayeli. We follow Javier as he struggles to make ends meet—he collects a very slim tip at a brunch spot, with most gentrifiers not even noticing him in the first place.
His wife, who’s since moved to Mexico due to lack of resources, urges him to find another job, but that would mean renouncing his passion for music. His colleague suggests changing up their playlist by resorting to covers of well-known songs. Javier is completely against it at first but ultimately agrees. Towards the end of the episode, we see father and son waking up in a car since that’s their current home. Despite Vicente’s efforts, despite Daniel’s wishes to remain in Boyle Heights, they have to relocate to Bakersfield. This chapter serves to show that ultimately some families may be lucky to remain in their neighborhoods, but others must abandon what they hold dear and start over just to try to make it. It shows the depressingly sad impact of gentrification and the harrowing sacrifices of families who must upend their lives because of it.
But if there’s an episode that encapsulates the spirit of Gentefied is episode 8 titled “Women’s Work.” We see Ana’s mom, Beatriz, sewing under harsh conditions for a senile factory owner. Until then the relationship portrayal between Ana and her mom was either hot or cold, amiable or explosive. Throughout this episode, we got a thorough character study of Beatriz, who we see struggle between the unfair treatment at work (being denied a bathroom break) and the overwhelming demand trying to raise her daughters. It’s that same overwhelming demand that makes her rely on Ana to help out and the root cause of their rocky interactions.
In a climactic scene, they both air their respective grievances about their condition. They each have expectations for the other, and most of the time, those aren’t met. There’s some resentment, not necessarily for each other, but toward their economic condition. It’s a bittersweet moment, one that highlights the strong hardships of the American Dream in 2020. It was superbly acted and meticulously written to showcase the complexity around both female characters.
Marta Cunningham and Aurora Guerrero (director of now queer Latinx classic film Mosquita y Mari) were the directors of the above episodes. Female directors producing the show’s best episodes. Coincidence? I think not.
A defining thread in the series is the reluctance to change in a system that seems to strip Latino communities off of their heritage to repackage it as it sees fit. In the case of the Morales family, Pop battles with the idea of changing and adapting to salvage the taco shop, which is a symbol of the love of her late wife Delfina. What happens if he caves in and starts to appeal to the arriving gentrifiers? Will he be a “vendido?” If he lets the taco business go down, would that mean that he didn’t fight hard enough to keep the only tangible memory he has of Delfina?
And most crucially, what role do Latinos, be it first generation or second or what have you, have on the impacts of gentrification? How to navigate the really fine line of existence and displacement? How to reconcile your ideals for the greater good of a whole community? Gentefied doesn’t offer easy answers, if any at all. It’s complicated and that’s why it’s so effective.
Now it’s up to Netflix to keep delivering the goods and not come out and say they have to cancel the show because nobody watched it…
Editor’s Note: Futuro Studios, the original programming division of Futuro Media Group —which also produces Latino Rebels— worked on Netflix Con Todo’s Brown Love podcast, an audio series that accompanied the premiere of Gentefied.