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April 3, 2020 | °F in Baltimore

Gentefied delves into immigrant life in America

By KANAK GUPTA | March 5, 2020

Netflix’s monthly release of new movies and TV shows is here, and this month, it seems everyone’s new obsessions are Love Is Blind and The Circle. However, behind all the overhyped, guilty pleasure reality shows is a hidden gem that everyone needs to watch — Gentefied

As the name might clue you in (gente is Spanish for “people,” and the title is a play on the word “gentrified”), the show is about the Latinx community dealing with gentrification in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in L.A. The dramedy follows the lives of three Mexican American cousins, Erik, Chris and Ana, as they struggle to save the taco shop that their grandfather, Pop, opened with his late wife, Delfina, when they immigrated to America. 

The show is a tender depiction of the many facets of life in America as an immigrant. The writers, producers, directors and actors (with the exclusion of a few white actors) are all people of color, which is represented in the Spanglish dialogue and the deeply authentic cultural representations of the show. 

It is also an equally biting commentary on gentrification, with hilariously satirical portrayals of white people trying to be “woke” by going on “food tours” to explore and connect with the authentic neighborhood, essentially exoticizing Hispanic culture while using their admiration as cover for invading brown spaces. 

While the show has a very poignant and pointed social message, it is driven by the Morales family, through whom we experience and learn the different and unpredictable ways in which gentrification affects everyone. 

Casimiro “Pop” Morales (Joaquín Cosío) is the endearing patriarch and linchpin of the family, who, even years after his wife’s death, remains utterly devoted to her and her legacy: Mama Fina’s taco shop. We watch him struggle with the reality of either losing his shop or changing and compromising his wife’s dream to keep up with the rest of the neighborhood. We also see his warmth and humor keeping the family together, giving them strength in their weakest moments. 

Erik (J.J. Soria), Pop’s oldest grandchild who grew up in Boyle Heights, seems at first a man with no prospects. Yet, with each episode, he grows exponentially as he strives to become a more responsible man for his baby that is soon to be born. His character is given dimension through his love for literature, and we start to really see him when he begins a literacy program for children at the taco shop, lending his books to children and quizzing them in exchange for free tacos. 

Then you have Chris (Carlos Santos), the “potato” of the Morales family, who grew up in Idaho, removed from all Mexican culture. In stark juxtaposition to the rest of his family, Chris works as a chef in a fine dining establishment called Mangia, where his British head chef treats him better than the rest of the cooks because of his distinctly white accent. His identity crisis is put under pressure as he must choose between pleasing his white boss to get a recommendation to Le Cordon Bleu, his dream culinary arts school, and speaking up for his mistreated coworkers and embracing his Mexican heritage. When he chooses the latter, he is blacklisted from the world of fine dining and chooses to help save Mama Fina’s.

Finally, there’s Ana (Karrie Martin), a talented queer artist struggling make ends meet. She is discovered by a “woke” patron of the arts who seems like her ticket to actually being recognized and paid for her work. In the episode “The Mural,” her patron commissions her to do a mural on one of his newly acquired buildings in the neighborhood, a building he wants to cultivate into a modern arts hub. 

Ana delivers with a beautiful mural of two luchadores (Mexican wrestlers) kissing passionately in a depiction of brown love. However, it is not received well by the natives of the neighborhood, especially the owner of a liquor store in the building, who, Ana later learns, no one sought permission from. The owner begins to lose her regulars and Ana’s attempts to make up for them only seem to exacerbate the problems. This complicated conflict between Ana’s queer and Latina identities is explored amazingly, as is her character’s struggle between being recognized for her art and becoming the “colonizer’s” token “queer Chicana from a low-income community artista.”

The 10-episode season also devotes two episodes to peripheral stories that delve deeper into the Mexican American experience. The first, called “The Grapevine,” follows Javier (Jaime Alvarez), a mariachi singer, dealing with homelessness with his son as his art form becomes less desirable, and he must compromise his integrity by singing pop songs to earn tips from the brunch-going crowds. 

Another, called “Women’s Work,” is about the life of Ana’s mother, Beatriz (Laura Patalano), who works in a sweatshop where she and her coworkers are inhumanely exploited. Despite the tragedy of both of these episodes, they still end on hopeful notes, focusing on the little joys in the lives of the characters and keeping it from becoming white guilt porn.

The social commentary of this show is not only an exposé of gentrification but also an invitation to educate ourselves and question our own place in this hypocritical system. I personally loved this show and would recommend the whole five-hour binge experience. 

I would go so far as to especially recommend it to fans of the show Atlanta, because much like the beloved and critically acclaimed show, Gentefied excels in its genre-less narrative that mixes elements of comedy with tragedy and manages to portray satirically-heightened and absurd elements of society with a groundedness that makes it impossible to question the authenticity and truth of the stories being told. 

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