Gentrification, as depicted by pop culture, tends to be a conflict between strangers. But what if the line between the gentrifiers and the gentrified isn’t as clear as it seems? What happens when — due to differences in education, language, dreams, experience and responsibilities, as well as the complexity of hybrid identities — second- and third-generation immigrants end up in the middle of a war between their elder relatives and their white peers?
These are the central questions of “Gentefied,” a bilingual dramedy that follows three Mexican American cousins in the predominantly Latinx East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights as they scramble to help their grandfather, Casimiro Morales (Joaquín Cosío), save his taqueria. The show’s characters are hard-working immigrants and the descendants of immigrants caught between two worlds: the native culture they don’t want to leave behind and the new one filled with promise.
Erik Morales (J. J. Soria) is a sweet screw-up desperate to win back his career-focused ex, Lidia Solis (Annie Gonzalez). A pragmatist saving for culinary school, Chris Morales (Carlos Santos) works the line at a fancy restaurant. Ana Morales (Karrie Martin) is, to her mother’s chagrin, an artist, juggling her work with odd jobs and a serious girlfriend, Yessika Castillo (Julissa Calderon).
The community these characters call home is changing. As affluent people move into apartment complexes and open trendy businesses, they drive up the costs of rent, goods and services. Although “Gentefied” never picks a side in the gentrification debate, it deliberately shows the consequences of this type of social progress, all while being humorously heartfelt and introducing a fresh slate of impressive Latinx actors.
Boorish white people linger in the background throughout the 10-episode first season, walking into the botanica in yoga pants for some cultural tourism while ignoring the mariachi band hired to enhance the atmosphere of their boozy brunch. The real gentrification drama occurs, however, within Casimiro’s family and between other Boyle Heights natives.
Chris’s efforts to satisfy his boss, an abusive chef who could make or break his career, earn him the scorn of his Latinx coworkers; at the taqueria, his high-end menu marks him as a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside). Meanwhile, Ana’s ethnic identity, sexuality, politics and ambition come into conflict when a gay white man hires her to paint a homoerotic mural on a building he purchased in the neighborhood, and the older woman who operates inside it starts losing business. For these millennials, it seems impossible to make their dreams come true without selling out their heritage and their elders.
“Gentefied” makes its case for present-day Boyle Heights through imagery, character and dialogue. From the camera’s vantage point, the neighborhood radiates light and thrums with sharp energy: neighbors sit on lawn chairs on the sidewalk, a kaleidoscope of packaged selections is displayed at a bodega, a pepper is coaxed out of the earth in a backyard garden. The production feels connected to the place, down to the sidewalk and the soil.
The show’s voice is distinctive and assured, both figuratively and literally. It slips naturally between English, Spanish and Spanglish in the same way its stories slip between distinctive worlds — from the Boyle Heights streets to the gallery world, from immigrant women sewing piecework to immigrant line cooks chiffonading herbs.
In all of these stories, the climate for immigrants in the United States is keenly felt. A flashback to a scene in a jail waiting room, with Bill Clinton on television celebrating a crime bill, segues into another waiting room today, with Donald Trump touting his proposed wall.
The show’s dialogue impressively maintains a balance between its serious themes and the natural humor among the characters, managing to not feel forced. If at times a bit blunt, the show’s “gente-centric” approach to the realities of gentrification captures the Mexican American experience in a manner that is as strikingly personal as it is hilariously relatable.
“Gentefied” is currently available on Netflix.