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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Netflix’s Gentefied bounces a little too wildly between comedy and commentary

Joauín Cosío, Joseph Julian Soria, and Carlos Santos
Joauín Cosío, Joseph Julian Soria, and Carlos Santos
Photo: Kevin Estrada (Netflix)
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Three years after screening at Sundance, Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez’s Gentefied has found new life on Netflix. The multicultural digital series has been adapted and expanded for streaming audiences, with some help from executive producer America Ferrera. In its latest iteration, Gentefied succeeds as a love letter” to the Chicanx community in Los Angeles, highlighting the hybrid language, portions of history, and the (occasionally contentious) meeting of cultures. But the half-hour dramedy often struggles to tell a cohesive story across its 10-episode first season, hindered by hair-trigger turns from pointed commentary and life-or-death-stakes to broad humor. Like its characters, Gentefied doesn’t have to choose one domain over the other, but its heartwarming story would only benefit from evening out the balance of silliness and melodrama.

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Gentefied retains some of its anthological framework, splitting up the focus among the patrons of Mama Fina’s, a Boyle Heights taquería run by multiple generations of the Morales family, including grandfather Casimiro (Joaquín Cosío) and cousins Ana (Karrie Martin), Erik (Joseph Julia Soria), and Chris (Carlos Santos). But though we get the POVs of other residents, Casimiro and his grandchildren are as central to Gentefied’s story as the setting of Boyle Heights, the gentrifying neighborhood that also serves as the backdrop for Starz’s stellar half-hour series, Vida. Their family history reflects that of the changing neighborhood—the mix of cultures, wariness of outsiders, and fight for survival. And like Boyle Heights, the Morales family is sometimes divided against itself; Erik and Chris bicker over the stewardship of Mama Fina’s, while Ana, a queer artist and activist, cautions against selling out. Despite his age, Casimiro is more of a wild card than anything; he’s leery of the changes to his restaurant and neighborhood, but he begins espousing the need for adaptability after just one heart-to-heart talk with the owner of his local botánica.

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It’s not hard to see where Gentefied is going with these discussions of the individual versus the community, of how progress is a relative term, but the series still manages to defy expectations. Erik may be a man-child who smokes weed and still lives at home, but he’s also keen on self-improvement; the scene that introduces him and the neighborhood ends with Erik checking with his local librarian on the status of a book about love languages. Ana’s principled stands via her artwork, which promotes brown love in all its forms, turn out to be shakier than she’d like to believe. And Chris, the prodigal cousin who won’t accept his culinary dreams being deferred, is gradually revealed to be just as accurate a depiction of a multicultural millennial living in a tight-knit Mexican American community as any of his cousins or neighbors.

But these revelations have to be cobbled together from plot points scattered throughout the series and the subtler notes of Soria, Martin, and Santos’ performances. The premiere introduces Casimiro’s untenable situation—in order to keep up with skyrocketing rents, he’ll have to cater to a more affluent (read: mostly white, as well as non-Latinx) clientele, which means alienating his friends and neighbors. Then the show shifts focus to Chris, whose father moved their family to Idaho for some reason (it’s implied that he wanted to be someplace less… brown), and his dilemma: Stay in Boyle Heights where he’s needed, or continue with his plan to go to culinary school in Paris. That conflict between obligation and aspiration extends to his cousins, as well as most of their friends, customers, and acquaintances.

The interclass, intergenerational tensions quickly boil over in the first two episodes before being reduced to a simmer for much of the rest of the season. Gentefied then moves into slice-of-life portraiture, fleshing out the cousins’ backstories and offering insight into patrons like Javier (Jaime Alvarez, one of multiple cast members who appeared in the digital series), a mariachi who can’t bring himself to trade the Chente for some Beyoncé, yet is faced with uprooting his family’s life. This expansion provides some sweet and funny moments, though it takes far too long to take Ana’s mom Beatriz (Laura Patalano, also from the original series) from one-note harridan to multi-faceted human being. (Yes, Mexican and Mexican American moms are often the disciplinarians in the family, but that’s not all they are.)

Karrie Martin, Julissa Calderon
Karrie Martin, Julissa Calderon
Photo: Kevin Estrada (Netflix)
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Venturing into other Boyle Heights businesses and homes also helps paint the bigger picture of changing demographics and the fight against displacement; the latter movement gets a face and poignant voice in Yessika (Julissa Calderon), Ana’s Dominican American girlfriend. The ingredients for a show with messaging are all there, along with a hangout comedy and a family sitcom. But Gentefied never really settles into any of those grooves, which is why, when it suddenly swings back to just how precarious life is, especially for Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the U.S., the viewer can feel a little lost. Gentefied potentially works just as well as a neighborhood show, one that updates the colorful setting and improbable setups of shows like El Chavo Del Ocho (it’s probably not a coincidence that the series premiere is the same day as Roberto Gómez Bolaños’ birthday), as it does a coming-of-age story for younger millennials. Ultimately, the series is dealing with more of an identity crisis than its bilingual, bicultural chef.

Though it’s not quite as assured in its storytelling as Vida, Gentefied still represents just as significant a development in shows made for and by Mexicans and Mexican Americans—a roster that’s still woefully short. Lemus and Chávez have also introduced a new layer to stories of human migration, which they remind us is founded as much in desire as it is necessity. By telling such specific narratives, they’re broadening the definition of not just what it means to be Mexican or Chicanx, but what it means to be American. Gentefied may come up short on focus, but not purpose.

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