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Netflix’s ‘Gentefied’ is a Much Needed Dose of Latinx Culture While Explaining Gentrification
In 10, thirty-ish minute episodes, Netflix’s Gentefied, produced in part by America Ferrera, introduces you to the Moraleses—a Mexican-American family who runs a taco joint amid a change in the neighborhood. The change? Gentrification. The culprit? The usual suspects.
There are a lot of successful pieces to Gentefied, a portmanteau of “gentrification” used by more affluent members of the Latinx community. The series manages to seamlessly blend comedy with drama, English with Spanish dialogue, and cultural criticism with physical humor, using the complimentary nature of one to highlight an aspect of the other. But in all of its successes, Gentefied is smart because it manages to covertly ask its viewers how much they’re willing to see themselves in the problem.
Early episodes introduce viewers to three cousins, Chris, Erik, and Ana, who live in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, a community being whitewashed by incoming developers. Each cousin has a hand in continuing the success of their family-owned taco shop. Chris, a chef who leaves home to pursue professional goals, has returned to Boyle Heights and is branded as a sell out. Erik, a Boyle Heights lifer, is trying to figure out how to become a better man for his soon-to-arrive child. Ana, a queer artist, spends most of the series torn between a desire to create authentic art and the opportunities afforded to her through the aid of a wealthy white man looking to “spruce up” the neighborhood.
Though the series primarily focuses on how each cousin handles and potentially aids the process of gentrification, Gentefied subverts the television norm and uses its white characters as walking punchlines. Early in the series, one recurring character notes, “They may love our shit, but they don’t love us.” The series takes no reservations in driving that point home either. In its blunter moments (and at times, the series can be quite blunt), Gentefied presents its white characters as haughty bankers and real estate developers and art dealers, so far removed from common decency that one hires Ana as an artist for a rave and then refers to her as a “gift” to those attending. Those moments elicit a bit of a cringe-laugh because we know those people—blindly woke, ill-intentioned white folk who insist on putting an accent on every vowel in cilantro. It’s an effective joke, even if you think it’s a tired one.
But its most impressive moments are more subtle. At one point, the series introduces a roving collection of hipsters who ignorantly appropriate Mexican culture with sombreros, deeming the taco shop their new stop on “Taco Tuesdays.” One woman entering the shop is delighted because she believes she and her friends are helping the shop make a name for itself. Their white influence might just save this little “start up,” and it’s that earnest moment of ignorance that really punches you because the series then explores what happens when a community is infiltrated. As well-intentioned as it may be, these small, innocent moments kick off a series of events: a viral news story on the taco shop draws interest, interest draws in buyers, buyers are the white people with money. You know the rest.
The series takes a moment to breathe halfway through with a standalone episode focused on a homeless mariachi singer and his son. Rent prices have gone too high, and while some parts of Mexican-American culture are a “welcomed novelty,” the mariachi music he performs has seemingly been deemed uninteresting to the white patrons he performs for. The episode chronicles his experience, eventually revealing that he and his son are living out of his van, ultimately leaving Boyle Heights for a less expensive city. As their van leaves, a series of butterflies move across the screen. Initially, I considered how smart the butterflies were—a possible reference to forced migration, or maybe a nod to the idea of a “butterfly effect,” but when I looked up butterflies in Mexican culture, it stated that they often represent the return of deceased loved ones. A subtle, thoughtful move.
Gentefied takes all of these moments and packs them into a season that is less than five hours long, and yet, the nuance interlaced into the series is incredible. On the surface, it’s a moderately-funny dramedy that examines a piece of the world that a lot of white America hasn’t seen before. For those hellbent on believing there’s something to fix, they ask, “What can I do?” But when you really sit with the series, the better question is: what should I stop?
The answer to that is already embedded in the series itself. Created by Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez, Gentefied is predominantly written and directed by a line up of Latinx creatives. It stays in the family, from top to bottom. The art that Ana creates was commissioned by a Mexican-American artist. The series’ most thought-provoking episode, “Protest Tacos” was co-written by trans activist and writers’ assistant Camila María Concepción, whose death racked the staff of Gentefied on Thursday.Lemus said in an Instagram post, “When Linda and I met you, we knew you were the most special, raw talent we’d ever fucking met.” Gentefied has managed to not just identify talent and underrepresented narratives, but uplift them, creating a family in the process. You don’t do that with magic or chance—you do it by giving those with something to say a platform to do so.
Netflix gave this series the space and representation it needed to tell a story that tells a compelling narrative about Mexican-American culture without turning it into tragedy for a white audience. It breaks open power dynamics. It plays with generational divides and gives a subtle explanation of how gentrification dismantles communities. It explains what happens when those with power veer out of their lanes. But most importantly, it asks its viewers to stop talking and listen.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.