Gentefied, Netflix’s new series about a Mexican-American family from Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, is a painstakingly crafted love letter to that specific Latinx community. Described as a rich tapestry of the neighborhood by its creators Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez, Gentefied was originally an anthology-style web series following seven different characters struggling to navigate the gentrification of Boyle Heights. When the two took it to Sundance roughly three years ago, it made a big splash in the Shortform Episodic Showcase. But unlike most web series, that version of Gentefied was never uploaded for the world to see. Instead, with the help of executive producer America Ferrera (who has a brief cameo and directs in the upcoming season), the creative team behind Gentefied sold the show to Netflix, with one major change: Gentefied would now be a half-hour series with narrative season-long arcs.
The characters from the anthology format came together to form the tightly knit Morales family. The series focuses mainly on three American-born cousins and their immigrant grandfather as they try to keep their taqueria, Mama Fina’s, afloat after their landlord doubles their rent in an effort to price them out. Each member of the Morales family has a different plan to survive gentrification, and the series’ strength is in making room for all of them.
Chris (Carlos Santos), who was born in Boyle Heights but was raised in the whitest parts of Idaho, is a professional chef who believes the only way Mama Fina’s will survive is to cater to new (read: white) clientele willing to pay high prices for things like seasonal ingredients. Erik (Joseph Julian Soria), who has lived with the family’s grandfather his entire life and co-runs the restaurant, wants to find ways to increase their regulars from within the community. Casimiro (Joaquín Cosío), the patriarch of the family better known as Pops, is desperate to find a way to leave his family some financial security for their future but doesn’t want to lose his connection to his late wife, the original chef of the taqueria. Ana (Karrie Martin) is a Boyle Heights-born-and-raised artist who hopes to make it big one day, but for now is scrapping to help her mother put food on the table, but is torn between supporting the improvements her family makes with the business and her activist girlfriend who is doing everything possible to keep wealthy cultural tourists out.
It’s from these different visions of the immigrant dream that Gentefied tackles the idea of authenticity. The series is significantly more interested in examining the sliding scale of complicity within the community and who gets to define culture than it is in oppression. Make no mistake, there is oppression — from eviction notices for the restaurant to Ana’s rich art benefactor — and while many characters on the show express rage over these events, the big question of Gentefied is what to do about it. Is putting a chicken tikka masala taco on Mama Fina’s menu a betrayal of the chef who taught Chris how to cook? How can Ana positively impact a community in which older generations often ostracize her for being queer, while dating an Afro-Latinx woman on top of that? Can Erik provide for his family without following exactly in Pop’s footsteps?
In what might be a frustrating move for some viewers, Gentefied doesn’t offer concrete solutions to these questions. The series might feel like it’s alternately start-and-stop, speeding through important developments at the taqueria while making time for extended scenes of silence over the breakfast table. But to most immigrant kids this pacing will feel familiar. The practicalities of life often bring spirited idealism to an abrupt halt. The Morales family doesn’t have the answers for how to find a balance, but when they band together to try, Gentefied becomes an intimate portrait of hope, one that’s hard-won. This family has already weathered tragedy, yet episode after episode is filled with brown joy that shines especially bright when anchored by this stellar cast. (Cosío in particular is a standout as the long-widowed Pops, struggling to thrive instead of just survive.)
There are a few points over the course of the season that play a little corny, scenes that tie up storylines too neatly, but Genetified builds to a gutting season finale that will make you wish you could hit play on Season 2 immediately. At turns hilarious, scathing, and sweet, Gentefied follows in the tradition of shows like One Day at a Time, Jane the Virgin, and Vida as a series with undeniable heart. It’s kind of impossible not to fall a little in love.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Gentefied premieres Friday, Feb. 21 on Netflix.