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If you can’t beat them, join them — that’s the stance toward gentrification that the Latinx characters of the new Netflix comedy Gentefied decide to take when the family’s taco restaurant is in imminent danger of folding. Still, it’s not an easy decision. Aging Casimiro (Joaquín Cosío) is wedded to the memory — and recipes — of his dead wife, whose name graces the decades-old taqueria in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood. And Casimiro’s 20-something grandchildren Erik (Joseph Julian Soria) and Ana (Karrie Martin), who work in the kitchen, are loathe to cater to the encroaching white hipsters and repulsed by the idea of selling out Mexican culture.
But what is culture, and what is just tradition? Erik, in love with his progressive, career-focused ex Lidia (Annie Gonzalez), listens to podcasts about ridding oneself of toxic masculinity in the hopes of proving himself worthy of her. And proudly queer Ana, a struggling artist who depicts “brown love” in any number of permutations (while making fun of the “Etsy hacks” still iconizing Frida Kahlo), is certainly on the bleeding edge of Latinx identity. How much can one change a culture — even sell pieces of it — while maintaining ties to one’s roots and community? And when it comes to a “coconut” like Chris (Carlos Santos), a haute-cuisine chef who wants to introduce chicken tikka masala tacos and vegan options to the local taqueria, to what extent is he adapting or innovating Mexican cuisine, and to what extent is he exploiting it?
AIR DATE Feb 21, 2020
These are the heady questions asked by creators Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez, the latter of whom grew up in Boyle Heights, which has seen massive gentrification in the last few years, along with massive pushback. They are also questions asked by writer Tanya Saracho in her searing (and superior) Starz drama Vida, also set in Boyle Heights. Both series center on “gentefiers,” economically ascendant Latinxs with hipster tastes accused of gentrifying the neighborhoods where they grew up or have settled into, not least through their ability to pay higher rent than the working-class long-timers. In other words, these shows focus less on oppression than the far thornier issue of complicity.
Ironically, the 10-episode Gentefied is closer to the derivative Kahlo kitsch it derides than an original vision — it’s a palatable rendition of something much rawer and spikier. Which isn’t to say the show’s existence in itself isn’t notable. It contributes to the still paltry canon of depictions of Mexican-American daily life on television, particularly those that illustrate the diversity and complexity within Chicano communities. And within the confines of the broad family sitcom, it addresses topics as wide-ranging as anti-black racism, homophobia, cultural appropriation, L.A.’s housing crisis and workplace abuses (at the garment factory where a supporting character works) — all while embracing Spanglish more than other shows about Latinx-American families like Vida, Jane the Virgin and One Day at a Time ever did.
But Gentefied feels significantly less polished than those shows, too. (The early episodes are especially rough.) The pacing is stop-and-start, taking several episodes to establish the obvious premise of Chris coming to renew the floundering taqueria, then zooming through the first six or so months of his shaky efforts to update the restaurant. The jokes are often more allusive than funny — more in the vein of “I get that reference!” — and the stock characterization is incompletely rounded out by the high-energy but depthless performances. The exception — and thus the cast’s standout — is veteran actor Cosío, who lends soul to his character’s perfunctorily scripted grieving widowhood and fervent wish to leave something substantial to the younger generation.
But the biggest disappointment here is the show’s ultimate flattening of the issues at stake, the complications of which it initially acknowledges. After the restaurant’s rent is doubled, making his previous business model financially untenable, Casimiro is forced to raise prices, thus alienating his regulars. But if he brings in the kinds of customers who can afford his new prices, he himself contributes to the very gentrification that led to his rent increase. Similarly, Ana finally finds a white patron (T.J. Thyne) — a gay man with whom she shares a qualified queer solidarity — but her choice quickly becomes one between actually supporting herself as an artist while dealing with tokenization and burn-it-all-down authenticity. Is there a way to compromise without completely selling out and hurting others in the process?
Gentefied‘s most compelling character is the one that gets too quickly dismissed: Idaho-raised Chris, whose Mexican-ness is forever questioned by his cousins at home and his fellow kitchen workers at a fancy restaurant, the latter undocumented immigrants who lack the luxuries of his refined palate, his ease with English and his prestigious aspirations. Even the Venezuelan kitchen worker is considered more of a “real Mexican” than he is, despite Chris’s deep knowledge of the culture.
The character of Chris questions the very idea of authenticity that so many of these gentrification questions hang on, and is the closest that the show comes to acknowledging that “Mexican-American culture” isn’t always synonymous with “Mexican culture” (which is itself variable by geography and ethnicity, among many other factors). But by the end of the season, the class and racial anxieties that the series explores get too neatly, and unconvincingly, assuaged. In taking up pressing, contemporary issues, Gentefied could fiercely challenge its audience on its core assumptions. It merely comforts.
Cast: Joaquin Cosio, Karrie Martin, Carlos Santos, Joseph Julian Soria
Creators: Marvin Lemus, Linda Yvette Chavez
Showrunner: Monica Macer
Premieres: Friday, Feb. 21 (Netflix)
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