The three judges survey a competitor as they scribble notes about his performance. The young man before them is sweating, having completed a series of grueling exercises; the anticipation reddens his face as palpably as the tequila shot an onlooker hands him does. And then, the ordeal is over. The smirking judges render their verdict in dramatic, unambiguous Spanish: “Fallaste. No eres Mexicano.” (“You failed. You’re not Mexican.”)
So ends a particularly amusing and revelatory satirical sequence in the new Netflix series Gentefied, which premieres tomorrow. One of the show’s main characters, Chris (played by Carlos Santos), has grown weary of his fellow line cooks cracking jokes about his ethnic bona fides, so he offers a solution: They can quite literally put his Mexican-ness to the test. As Banda music plays, the Los Angeles native Chris is given an array of tasks. Among other things, he must name five Mexican states, showcase his zapateado in the back alley, and list three soap operas starring the queen of telenovelas, Thalía.
Chris navigates his hurdles with varying efficacy, underscoring the ultimate message of these loopy, physical-comedy-heavy scenes: For many immigrants in America, and especially for their first-generation children, cultural “authenticity” is an impossible target. The line cooks’ points-driven gauntlet is the most literal way in which Gentefied illustrates this point. Though at times didactic or a little simplistic, the show is rooted in the family at its center and the people they care about; it is most enlightening when it tries to untangle the contradictions that Chris and his two cousins face as their predominantly Latinx neighborhood changes around them—and sometimes because of them.
First conceptualized as a web series, Gentefied takes its name and core theme from a term that was birthed in the same neighborhood where the show is set. In 2007, a year after opening Eastside Luv Wine Bar in East Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, the Mexican American proprietor Guillermo Uribe coined the term gentefication, a portmanteau of gente, the Spanish word meaning “people,” and, of course, gentrification. Speaking with Los Angeles Magazine seven years later, Uribe, whose bar still sits adjacent to Mariachi Plaza, said the concept emerged when he “started to see the potential of improving the community from the inside out. If gentrification is happening, it might as well be from people who care about the existing culture.”
Boyle Heights has indeed been experiencing rapid gentrification, which some attribute to the influx of upwardly mobile Latinx artists and professionals, including some who grew up there. On Gentefied, Chris is the most obvious avatar of this demographic. Having graduated from college in Idaho, he’s returned to the neighborhood with grandiose culinary ambitions for himself. That dream, and his work as a line cook at a high-end restaurant, shapes Chris’s belief that catering to a wider range of tastes could weaken the threat that gentrification poses to his grandfather’s taco shop, Mama Fina’s.
Like Chris, his cousins Ana (Karrie Martin) and Erik (Joseph Julian Soria) don’t want to let a development-hungry landlord evict their Pop (Joaquín Cosio). But while Chris believes that the solution to Pop’s troubles is a trendier menu that will attract new customers, Ana and Erik fear that kind of shift would rob the shop of its soul. More important, they worry that a revamped Mama Fina’s would endear Boyle Heights to outsiders whose arrival would further displace longtime residents. Gentefied homes in on this conflict among the cousins, as well as the rifts that emerge between them and other members of the community. Though the inevitable changes to Mama Fina’s don’t arrive until Episode 7, deflating some of the show’s narrative tension, the cousins’ different outlooks capture the conundrum of gentefication. (In portraying how that process affects Boyle Heights, the Netflix show joins the riveting Starz drama Vida.)
To be sure, many of Gentefied’s obvious culprits of gentrification are white, and the show sometimes slips into caricature to make a point about outsiders’ arrogance. (In one scene, for example, a white male landlord yells at a Mexican store owner because she dislikes the mural he commissioned: “This is my building, and I’m making it better for you!”) But the production devotes more attention and care to the moments when Latinx characters challenge one another about the stakes of their neighborhood’s changes and their own roles in them. In one such scene, Ana’s girlfriend, Yessika (Julissa Calderon), confronts Chris with a bright-yellow flyer advertising a food tour clumsily titled “Bite Into Boyle Heights.” The event, organized by LA Weekly (perhaps a nod to the once-venerable publication’s recent gutting), targets customers outside the Eastside enclave. Yessika excoriates Chris for having added Mama Fina’s to the list of local restaurants for (primarily white) participants to discover. “Welcoming outsiders en masse with open arms like this is pushing people out of their homes and into the tents around every corner,” she says, later asking if he thinks that his “only option is selling out [his] community.”
These aren’t subtle lines, but Gentefied seeks to convey the sense of betrayal that can accompany decisions like Chris’s; for Yessika, it’s a personal affront. Perhaps fittingly, Chris also serves as a symbol for the Gentefied creators themselves, the Mexican and Guatemalan American director Marvin Lemus and his Mexican American co-writer, Linda Yvette Chávez. As the America Ferrera–produced show nears its premiere date, some local residents belonging to the activist group Defend Boyle Heights have voiced their displeasure with the attention the show has attracted to their neighborhood. “Gentefied is clearly trying to latch onto the popularity the anti-gentrification struggle has countrywide,” one recent post on the group’s Facebook page reads. “Gentefied is not showing solidarity with the repression activists face, but romanticizing these protests and stripping them of what actually gives them power.”
Even (and perhaps especially) as young Latinx artists, Lemus and Chávez have attempted to wrestle with their own roles in Boyle Heights’ ongoing shifts, both as individuals and as Gentefied’s keepers. “We went into it with letting people know like, ‘Hey, first of all we’re not here to speak for you all,’” Chávez recently told the Los Angeles Times, in a piece that also notes the show’s writers and producers established a rapport with community groups through a nonprofit organization Ferrera co-founded. “The intention has always been telling a story that illuminates something most of us ignore.”
The slipperiness of that “us” is what animates Gentefied, which is at its best when pairing these weighty considerations with community-specific humor instead of leaning too heavily into its stated mission to teach audiences about a complicated social phenomenon. While direct references to the current political climate and scenes of protest against “colonizers” can feel clichéd, quieter reflections resonate because of their emphasis on the connections between characters. As in the case of the obviously absurd Mexican test, Gentefied can hold both warmth and critique in the same scenes.