JJ Soria of "Gentefied" in Los Angeles, Feb. 4, 2020. Image Credit: NYT

On a crisp afternoon in Boyle Heights, just weeks before the Feb. 21 debut of the new bilingual Netflix series ‘Gentefied’, the main cast gathered at Santa Cecilia in Mariachi Plaza, a restaurant named for the patron saint of musicos. Mexican actor Joaquin Cosio, best known in these parts for playing a wisecracking narco in the cult hit ‘El Infierno’, sat dressed in a grey sport coat over a plain black shirt as the plates were passed around. He smiled wide.

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GENTEFIELD Image Credit: Kevin Estrada/NETFLIX

The younger cast members of ‘Gentefied’, who play his four grandchildren, call him by his character’s name, Pops, even in real life. This day was no exception.

“This is the strength of ‘Gentefied’,” he said in Spanish. “Each character is so well-defined that it feels like we are actually a family sometimes.”

Carlos Santos, who plays Chris, one of the grandchildren, agreed. “It’s that feeling of that you want to belong,” he said. “You want to be a part of something.”

From left: JJ Soria, Joaquin Cosio, Karrie Martin and Carlos Santos of "Gentefied" in Los Angeles, Feb. 4, 2020. Image Credit: NYT

That spirit of belonging was one the creators, Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chavez, had worked hard to cultivate for ‘Gentefied’, a comedy that makes gentrification a central theme. But making sure the community felt like part of the project, too, had been challenging. At its core, gentrification is about what it means to belong. And few places in Los Angeles are more hotly contested in those terms than Boyle Heights, the mostly Hispanic neighbourhood where the series is set and was filmed.

Reminders were everywhere. Lemus and Chavez got one last month while walking down a nearby block of First Street, drinking cafe de olla from polystyrene cups. It was a chilly morning for Los Angeles, and they were geeking out because their official trailer had just dropped. Soon they were standing a few steps from the coffee shop where they had written the original pilot.

Except that the coffee shop had been squeezed out; in its place, a large pink building was fenced up for construction. A homeless man slept out front.

Carlos Santos of "Gentefied" in Los Angeles, Feb. 4, 2020. Image Credit: NYT

“At least I heard this is going to be a new Mexican spot,” Chavez said.

Had they written this moment into the pilot, it might have felt contrived. Instead it underscored the challenges of creating a series that will bring underrepresented voices to the screen but also more attention to a community already besieged by rising rents: Can a show about gentrification be funny? And who gets to tell the story of Boyle Heights?

“Everybody’s trying to figure it out — all we know is that we love our people and we don’t want them to be hurt,” Chavez said.

The challenge, she added, was to determine how to “create something that shows their humanity” but also pushes viewers to ask, “’How the hell am I impacting things with gentrification?’”

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GENTEFIELD Image Credit: Kevin Estrada/NETFLIX

Few shows depict the Hispanic experience in the United States from a Hispanic perspective, which seems to place an extra burden of responsibility on those that do. Reboots of the family drama “Party of Five” and the sitcom “One Day at a Time,” both of which swapped out the white families of the original versions for Hispanic ones, have centred on heavy issues like racism and immigration. The Starz series “Vida” tackled gentrification in its first season — and was boycotted by activist group Defend Boyle Heights for making one of its lead characters a member.

In ‘Gentefied’, a family-owned taco shop faces a rent hike that may shutter the business and break apart the family. Meanwhile, the family itself is being pulled in different directions by its members’ needs and ambitions.

It’s a tension common to immigrant clans, including those of the creators, both children of Latin American immigrants. (Lemus is originally from Bakersfield, California; Chavez is from southeast Los Angeles County.) It also complicates the picture of gentrification, which is often oversimplified: The show’s title — a play on the English word “gentrified” and the Spanish word “gente,” for people — refers to when educated and affluent Hispanics return to their old neighbourhoods and wind up negatively affecting existing residents.

“That was what we try to explore with every single character in the show,” Lemus explained. Chris is an aspiring chef with bourgeois tastes who gets grief for being “too white” or not “a real Mexican.” The other grandson, Erik (J.J. Soria), wants to get his life together and build a family in a changing Boyle Heights.

Joaquin Cosio of "Gentefied" in Los Angeles, Feb. 4, 2020. Image Credit: NYT

“Some characters really are ride-or-die for the community,” Lemus added. “Some are a little more about self.”

The granddaughter, Ana (Karrie Martin), embodies both impulses. A queer artist with an insatiable appetite (literally and figuratively), she wants to become famous and travel the world. And she wants to help her grandfather. And she wants to please her girlfriend, a community organiser who equates art galleries with gentrification.

The show itself has had a complex life, too. Pitched in 2015 as a series of web shorts, it drew attention early from Emmy-winning actress America Ferrera (‘Ugly Betty’, ‘Superstore’), who read and loved the original pilot.

“When I dig deeper into the gentrification as a metaphor, it feels so personal to my experience growing up,” she said in a phone interview. “That kind of push and pull between being rooted in history and ancestry and that mission to progress: It’s a very complicated conversation.”

Ferrera signed on as an executive producer and appeared in a cameo, and by May 2016 the web series had wrapped production and released a trailer. (“No cartels, no guns, no drugs,” an interstitial text reads. “Maybe a little weed.”) It was clear there was an audience right away.

“The trailer dropped, and that went viral,” Chavez said. “People were loving it.”

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GENTEFIELD Image Credit: Kevin Estrada/NETFLIX

The shorts debuted at Sundance the next year, around which time, Lemus said, they received six offers to produce a network version. But the team went with Netflix because they believed it would have the widest distribution. (The original web series never appeared online.)

“I want my little cousins who live in, like, the hood of Bakersfield with their stolen passwords to be able to watch it,” he said. “We wanted everyone to watch it.”

Ferrera, who directed two episodes and was born in Los Angeles to Honduran immigrants, said she was “more than certain there are millions of people like me who would love to see the world that Marvin and Linda created.”

Karrie Martin of "Gentefied" in Los Angeles, Feb. 4, 2020. Image Credit: NYT

True as that may be, feelings were complicated in Boyle Heights, where some activists have accused the producers of trying to profit from their plight.

“As we started to learn more about the bigger struggles in Boyle Heights and the community members who fight so passionately for it,” Chavez said, “we started to realise: ‘OK, how are we contributing or complicating this issue?’”

In response, Lemus and Chavez made efforts to involve people from the neighbourhood, eventually winning some of them over. They met with community leaders and recruited locals to act in the original trailer from 2016. Even an activist from the group Defend Boyle Heights praised ‘Gentefied’ during a public event at the time, although the group has been more critical of the show since.

Lemus admits he has at times felt guilty about not being from Boyle Heights. But ultimately, he and Chavez decided it was good for Hispanic creators to tell Hispanic stories.

“Every show or every film that’s been done about us for the longest time were only told through this poverty-porn mentality,” Lemus said. “It’s always like, we’re riding down a dusty road in the back of a truck. And I’m like, we’re American. We wanted to make something American.”


Don’t miss it!

‘Gentefied’ is now streaming on Netflix.