Watching Gentefied, I started off nervous. My social media feed has been full of shout outs for the show for months with the chatter only getting louder when it finally dropped Friday on Netflix. I so wanted this rare show created by and featuring Latinx to be good. Thankfully, Gentefied delivers.
A brown love letter, Gentefied puts the dreams of Latinx people front and center. In it, we’re doing what white characters so often get to do – figuring out how to get paid, make our relationships work, and express ourselves – while also dealing with the racism and scarcity of gentrification. So whether your love language is food, art, or money, Gentefied recognizes and affirms your struggle, making you laugh and think along the way.
It’s not that the show is perfect. In the beginning, it seemed full of cliches – the manic pixie artist, the back-from-school vendido – but by the third episode, I was hooked. As the show goes on, it complicates its characters, giving each one the interests, contradictions, and obstacles that make us human. Take, for example, Javier the mariachi. He starts off as comic relief, a silly customer at the family’s restaurant who rejects any updates to the menu. Yet in the sixth episode, we get to see the humanity behind the laugh lines. You see, Javier is a dad and a musician doesn’t want to stray from traditional mariachi numbers nor take a job in Bakersfield where the last guy lost his hand. Yet, his family needs a change with his wife living with her brother in Mexico and he and his son “camping” in his van. We see him give a little and play the “modern” song “I Swear” by All-4-One at brunch, earning a lot more in tips as the hipsters all look up from their bottomless mimosas. But it’s too little too late thanks to LA’s gentrification. He has to leave Boyle Heights.
The thing is Javier is a super skilled musician. It’s no small feat to adapt a song across genres like that, making a new arrangement that’s compelling and beautiful. It sucks that there’s more money to be made in risking his health than practicing his art. It sucks that he has to pick between having a roof over his head and using the talents God gave him.
That’s the tension at the heart of Gentefied – figuring out if you can achieve your ambitions against the hard rock that is racist capitalism – but don’t worry the show is anything but bleak. Most of the characters have more economic security than Javier, even if they’re also living on the edge. And the show validates their dreams, seeing the worth in an exquisite meal and a self-educated man even as it also understands the real barriers its working-class Chicano characters encounter when trying to pursue their goals.
Ana’s murals and paintings are beautiful and thought-provoking. I could taste Chris’s recipes as he described them, salivating in anticipation (let a Gentefied cookbook come next please!). When Lidia talks about her academic ambition, I felt the weight and the worth of it. Casimiro’s belief in the American Dream – that he should be able to build a business that provides for his family – is the real modern equivalent of Grapes of Wrath.
Yet for me, Erik’s journey is the most compelling. He just wants to be a good man and a good father, worthy of Lidia and the baby growing inside her. He doesn’t have Chris’s education or Ana’s talent. His passions and intelligence don’t get affirmed by the outside world, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Erik’s the type of guy who people mistake for a cholo but who can go to the library, check out law books, and then ask the pro-bono lawyer all the right questions. He starts a reading program at the restaurant after seeing a mother too scared to get a library card because they “ask too many questions.” Soon, he’s got kids of all ages excited about books (and free tacos) with their parents coming in for paid meals. His heart is big and so is his brain. Lidia imagines him with his own bookstore and I love that idea. Wouldn’t you want to go there?
Spending time in Gentefied’s Boyle Heights is affirming. Seeing people who joke and love and fight like my family on screen is rare and beautiful. Seeing their ambitions and the obstacles to achieving them taken seriously encouraged me, reminding me that a whole community is in this fight to be seen and valued with me. That I am part of them and they are a part of me.
Much will be made about Gentefied’s authenticity, how truthfully it represents the Latinx experience, and not every detail will ring true to everyone (no abuela I know writes down her recipes), but there’s truth at the heart of the series and it is the most important one: our dreams matter. Let’s achieve them together.