This article contains spoilers for “Gentefied.”
It’s a tug of war familiar to many Latinos.
“Do you want tradition or innovation?” Chris asks Casimiro, or “Pop,” on the new Netflix series “Gentefied.”
“What I want is a taco!” Casimiro says, in Spanish.
There are several contrasts at play in this exchange, as Chris tries to come up with ways to revitalize Mama Fina’s, his grandfather’s struggling restaurant, like making a chicken tikka masala taco. It’s old versus new, communalism versus individualism, family versus outsiders. These are familiar tensions, ones that a lot of first-generation Latinos, like myself, feel.
Both of my parents emigrated from Mexico, and I was born in the United States. My Mexican heritage is an important part of who I am, but I feel deeply American. We struggled to make ends meet growing up, and now I am middle class. And while I love barbacoa, I also have a soft spot for artisanal tacos — I would eat that chicken tikka masala taco.
The streaming era has given us more representation with shows like “Vida” and the “Party of Five” reboot, which also address gentrification and intergenerational conflict from the Latino lens. It’s a refreshing change of pace. But it’s the way “Gentefied” portrays its characters’ personal struggles and tackles serious issues with humor and nuance that I find so relatable. For some of us, “Gentefied” is a microcosm of the world we experience — complex, challenging and, yes, even funny.
The show is set in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which is facing looming gentrification. I was raised in rural South Texas — not exactly a hotbed of gentrification — but I lived in Austin after graduate school, where affordable housing and displacement of people in historically Latino and black neighborhoods on the city’s east side continue to be major issues.
Gentrification irrevocably changed the area, and yet I’ve been there, sipping a craft cocktail, not unlike the hipsters you see in “The Grapevine,” the sixth episode of “Gentefied.” It takes a closer look at Javier (Jaime Alvarez), a mariachi who plays gigs at local restaurants. He can’t find an apartment he can afford and he debates leaving Los Angeles altogether so he can reunite his family.
When Javier performs for the brunch crowd, they are initially reluctant to open their wallets until he belts out a version of the ’90s pop hit “I Swear.” He hates that he has to change his musical style, but he doesn’t have much of a choice. Yet the tips are not enough.
At minimum, Javier and his son can get the occasional free meal at Mama Fina’s, thanks to a program like Pizza Hut’s Book It!, where Chris’s cousin Erik gives tacos to neighborhood kids who complete a book from his library. Those types of support systems are crucial for immigrants on the margins. My family relied on public housing and food assistance for much of my childhood, until my parents saved enough to buy a home, though things were still tight.
We see bartering of services for food throughout the show, including when Casimiro (Joaquín Cosio) visits Ms. Cruz, a pro bono lawyer played by America Ferrera, to discuss Mama Fina’s lease. Casimiro hands her carnitas as a way of saying thanks. I can’t tell you how many dozens of tamales my mother gave away to express gratitude. I can still remember those warm, tin foil packets.
A mother’s tough love
The relationship between Ana Morales (Karrie Martin) and her mother Beatriz (Laura Patalano) is especially poignant. Ana is a queer Latinx woman who dreams of making a living as an artist. While her family supports her goal, it isn’t without some chafing from Beatriz. She is overbearing, and can come off as homophobic. But her anger is the result of something larger.
Their shared responsibilities — making rent, putting food on the table and taking care of Nayeli, Ana’s little sister — are often at the center of their quarrels. Beatriz, who toils as a seamstress at a garment factory, thinks Ana is supposed to help alleviate the financial stress. But that is in conflict with Ana’s desire to make art and spend time with her girlfriend. She isn’t happy that she has to make these choices.
Ana gets her first solo art gallery show with the help of her benefactor, Tim, a wealthy gay white man and gentrifier who provides Ana with financial and moral support. But the show turns out not to be what she expected after some dispiriting chitchat with his friends. Dejected, she walks away and sees Beatriz, who has unexpectedly shown up. Beatriz is staring at a vibrant painting of herself — she appears jovial, almost as if she were caught mid-laugh.
She turns to Ana and flashes a smile. “I thought you would have painted me angry and yelling,” says Beatriz in Spanish. “I can hardly believe all of this is for you.”
Ana replies, “Es para ti tambien Amá. Todo es gracias a ti.” She grips her mother’s hand. “So this is our show. Our success. Together.”
It’s a tender moment for the women, whose relationship had been filled with bitterness. It’s when Beatriz realizes what the painting and time away meant. For Ana, it’s the acknowledgment that her mother sacrificed heavily for her to be able to have choices. Their relationship mirrors the one I had with my mother. Ana is always going to have her mother’s back, but she has to do it her way.
The papa problem
For Ana and her cousins, Erik and Chris, letting down la raza is the ultimate sin.
Chris, played by Carlos Santos, is an aspiring chef with a business degree, and he’s returned to L.A. with the hope that an apprenticeship under a chef with a Michelin-starred restaurant will pave the way to culinary school. His father, labeled El Cucuy (the Boogeyman) on Chris’s phone, insists that he put his degree to better use.
His family and fellow kitchen workers routinely chastise him and his apparent lack of Mexicanness. They call him güero. But when someone wants to turn the knife, they call him papa. Potato — brown on the outside, white on the inside. It’s the word everyone hates being called, and he spends a lot of energy trying to prove it isn’t true.
Despite this, Chris is self-aware. He knows that making changes at Mama Fina’s could drum up business by attracting new customers — gentrifiers. He’s willing to sacrifice the neighborhood and his dignity among la raza if it means helping his family.
Erik, played by J.J. Soria, prefers for things to stay the same. But his on-and-off girlfriend Lidia (Annie Gonzalez), an independent feminist, is pregnant with their first child. Keeping the shop alive and caring for Pop have been Erik’s top priorities, but with Lidia demanding that he grow up, change is a requirement. It could mean that, for once, he can’t keep it real.
Evolution is necessary if the characters want to survive in this world, but they hold on dearly to their roots. It’s a reminder of what Latinos have to balance: Their families, themselves, their countries of origin, their Americanness, their successes, their failures.
But who are you without this tension? It’s why we can’t stop luchando.