Netflix’s newest comedy Gentrified dropped this past Friday and if you haven’t watched it you need to. And I don’t mean add it to your queue or say “I’ll watch it eventually,” you need to watch it now.
Gentrified sets itself in the predominately Mexican-American Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Created by Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez the show aims to showcase the realities of gentrification by following, mainly, a Mexican-American family who runs a local taqueria. But the series also spreads outward to focus on other members of the Boyle Heights community who are dealing with the realities of gentrification.
Truthfully, when I saw the trailer for the series I thought the show was solely going to focus on the Morales family and their taqueria. However, as I started my binge, I realized that Gentrified was going to be so much more than just another dysfunctional family comedy.
At its core, the show is about gentrification, as the title suggests. However, it goes about exploring this theme and problematic idea in interesting and unique ways. Especially, given its ability to extend beyond its core cast and give other characters stand-alone episodes of their own.
One of the ways the show showcases gentrification is with the beloved family taqueria, Mama Fina’s. Mama Fina’s is owned by Pop (Joaquín Cosío) who runs the place alongside his grandson Erik (Joseph Julian Soria), who has a baby on the way with his on-and-off-again girlfriend Lidia (Annie Gonzalez) and eventually, his other grandson Chris (Carlos Santos), who was away getting a business degree despite aspiring to be a Michelin Star chef.
Mama Fina’s is struggling to make ends meet in a changing Boyle Heights. Pop and Erik both want to keep their regulars happy by charging low prices and not charging for extra sides. However, with rent increasing and a landlord looking to sell the taqueria to developers, something has to change.
Enter Chris, the Morales cousin who is a privileged and shall we say, white-washed, in regards to his other cousins. Chris gets fired from his job after he calls out his boss on his racist remarks and ultimately, punches him in the face. With nothing else going for him, Chris decides he’s going to help Mama Fina’s survive and start making a profit. The only problem is, in order to make a profit Mama Fina’s has to give in to the gentrification process.
As much as Erik and Pop try to fight it, there’s no way around it. If the locals won’t pay higher prices and eat new-flavored tacos (curtsey of Chris’s “superior” palate) then they have to find people that will. And that’s where the white-wealthy citizens of Los Angeles come in.
What’s interesting about this move is that in order to save themselves from the gentrifying Boyle Heights, they must self-gentrify to survive.
Does that make them part of the problem or part of the solution?
Unfortunately, the series doesn’t get to explore that question as much as I would have liked given its 10-episode season. We do get a sense that it’s somewhere in the grey area though. Chris’s decisions are constantly being met with backlash from Pop and Erik and the rest of Mama Fina’s loyal clientele. Ultimately though, Pop and Erik side with Chris and his decisions; in fact, they even come up with a few ideas of their own to keep Mama Fina’s afloat. After all, it’s the only way to keep Mama Fina’s open and isn’t that what everyone wants?
On the other side, you have Yessica Castillo (Julissa Calderon) who is the girlfriend of Pop’s eldest granddaughter Ana (Karrie Martin). When she learns that the taqueria is participating in a Food Tour, where “hipsters” parade around and try out “authentic” food, she stages a protest. Part of the Boyle Heights community ends up protesting outside Mama Fina’s because they feel the taqueria is selling out by catering to non-Latinx and non-Boyle Heights people.
It’s a complicated situation the Morales family finds themselves in and one that is all too real for many family ran stores and restaurants in big cities. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer other than putting an end to developers buying out local shops to build massive apartment complexes and luxury shopping experiences, but that’s a bit harder to stop.
At the end of the day, something has to give. Either the local community needs to understand that rents are rising and thus, prices have too. Or else, their beloved shops and restaurants are going to be turned into apartment complexes they won’t be able to afford or the clientele is going to have to change to one’s that accept the higher prices.
And even those moves won’t stop the gentrification process from happening either. We saw in Gentrified that even though Mama Fina’s started making money and was paying the rent on time, their landlord still chose to seek buyers for the property.
Moving away from Mama Fina’s, let’s look at Ana.
Ana is the only Morales cousin, other than her much younger sister, that doesn’t work at the taqueria. Instead, she aspires to be an artist who specializes in showcasing her people, brown people, happy and in love.
When Ana gets approached by Tim (T.J. Thyne), a self-proclaimed white woke man and landlord, to paint a mural on the side of a local liquor store in Boyle Heights she jumps at the offer. Not only will it give her art the exposure it needs but it will also get her mother off her back about bringing in a useful paycheck. She’s so excited about the idea of being paid for her art she doesn’t even consider asking the store’s owner for approval, instead, she trust Tim blindly.
Ana paints a mural of two masked luchadores kissing and embracing each other romantically. And while the mural is beautiful, it doesn’t sit well with the older generation of Boyle Heights citizens. Instead of helping bring in new clients to the shop, Ana’s mural drives out loyal customers. When Ana realizes this she hires a bunch of people to come in and clear the store out but the people are white and the shop owner doesn’t like this.
It’s clear that Tim is using Ana to help “beautify” the neighborhood by trying to keep it authentic while still making it modern. Unfortunately, Ana doesn’t make this discovery until it’s too late.
Ana’s story is interesting because like Mama Fina’s she’s self-gentrifying, except she has no idea that she’s doing it. When she discovers she is she’s horrified because she’s against the gentrification of Boyle Heights just like the rest of her community.
Her nativity and her excitement over getting paid to do art blind her from the devastating reality of what’s going on. If we’re lucky enough to get a season 2 I want to see how her realization not only affects her but also her art.
The Morales family then showcases what the gentrification process can look like within one’s community. Even though it’s clear they’re against their changing neighborhood, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place and ultimately must choose to self-gentrify to stay afloat.
Another example of the idea of self-gentrification comes in the form of local musician Javier (Jaime Alvarez). Javier is part of a local Mariachi band who regularly gets hired to do parties. As Boyle Heights continues to welcome new neighbors and businesses, Javier’s band begins to struggle. They’re just not making enough in booking fees and tips playing traditional songs.
When one of the members of the band suggests covering popular songs that will get them more tips, Javier is opposed to it. He doesn’t want to give in to the gentrification and become a self-gentrifier, but ultimately, he is given no choice and is outvoted. The band performs non-traditional songs and makes a sizable profit from the tips. But, the money isn’t enough for Javier to convince himself to gentrify. Instead, he chooses to relocate himself and his son to Bakersfield to take on a manual labor job that will pay.
Javier’s story puts the idea of self-gentrification against oneself in a different way. For the Morales and Mama Fina’s adapting to a changing neighborhood was worth it if it meant keeping Mama Fina’s beloved small business alive. Javier’s decision argues the opposite point, that no amount of money is worth losing your cultural identity and traditions.
While the show doesn’t have a storyline explicitly about how gentrification occurs thought a community, we see the gentrification methods through characters like Tim and the Mama Fina’s landlord. Their motives are woven into the rest of the stories we see to showcase what this idea is doing to the Boyle Heights community.
Mama Fina’s wouldn’t have to create a new menu and raise prices of their food if their landlord wasn’t raising their rent and threatening to evict them to sell the land. Javier wouldn’t have to leave Boyle Heights and his dreams if the community still appreciated traditional Mariachi music. And maybe, Ana’s art could have been accepted in her community if she showcased with approval of the businesses she was painting on.
Some have argued that the show might be gentrifying itself and the community it’s trying to represent. Many critics were worried about further changes that Boyle Heights would undergo when the series hit the air. The fear is that Hollywood is using their neighborhood to tell these stories that are supposed to represent the Latinx community and do good but instead are displacing the very people they are trying to represent because of filming. Plus, most showrunners, despite how close their ties are to their Latinx culture, aren’t experiencing the hostile gentrification process in the same way the neighborhood communities are.
It’s not a question of who is right and who is wrong but rather a question of how does one want to survive in a world where gentrification seems to be here to stay.
While the show at large is about gentrification and the various way it occurs it’s more than that. Gentrified explores the idea of not being Mexican enough or being too white-passing. It tackles unfair labor laws and the lack of unions in factories where employees are being treated inhumanely. In the final episode, we see immigration take a stronger center point when one of the characters is detained. And while it doesn’t shy away from tackling those hard subjects, it also explores positive elements of these communities.
Through Erik, we see a character who is stepping up to fatherhood despite his insecurities. Beyond, that we see him trying to make the world a better place for the younger generation by starting his read a book, get a free taco campaign. And it works! Though Ana contributed to the gentrification of her neighborhood, she was just trying to showcase that brown people deserve love in all forms. Even though their relationship is rocky, we see two queer brown women in love thanks to Ana and Yessika. And yeah, Chris helped gentrify Mama Fina’s but he did it for a good reason. And through it, he was able to get back in touch with his Mexican heritage.
While Gentrified does focus on some heavy material, it still finds ways to be lighthearted and funny which is why it’s worth the binge. And, while the argument can be made that this series will do more harm than good, it also should be noted that it can open the eyes of people who previously haven’t understood how gentrification works.
At the end of the day, if we want more shows about Latinx communities than we need to support the shows being made. So please, watch and binge Gentrified on Netflix tonight.
For now, here’s the trailer:
Featured Image Source: Kevin Estrada | Netflix