The bilingual Netflix comedy-drama series Gentefied, which premiered February 21, follows the Morales family, owners of taqueria Mama Fina’s Tacos in the gentrifying Boyle Heights neighborhood of East LA. (The show was also filmed in Boyle.) The mostly Latinx cast features immigrant patriarch Casimiro “Pop” Morales (Joaquín Cosio) and his four grandchildren, who all struggle with living up to the American dream while battling the social politics of their shifting community. At the beginning of the show, Pop’s grandson Chris Morales (Carlos Santos) works at a fine dining LA Arts District restaurant, the fictional Mangia, where he and Mexican line cooks assemble tweezer-food dishes for a chef they refer to as “the white devil.” The Michelin-starred restaurant’s rigid workplace contrasts Mama Fina’s homey ambiance, and eventually Chris gets fired from Mangia and helps his cousins and Pop revamp Mama Fina’s.
First-time TV show creators Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez originally formed Gentefied as a web series — it didn’t air — and sold it to Netflix as a 10-episode show. They brought America Ferrera aboard as an executive producer, and she directed two episodes. Like the characters on the show, Lemus and Chavez are first-generation Mexican-Americans — Lemus grew up in Bakersfield and lived in Silver Lake and East Hollywood, and Chavez grew up in Norwalk, California but spent a lot of time in Boyle — and drew upon their own experiences: Chavez named Mama Fina’s after her own grandmother, Delfina, and Lemus named Pop after his girlfriend’s grandfather. Food, naturally, is the fulcrum of the show: Instagrammable tacos, burritos, and tamales appear in every episode.
“When we talk about food in the show, it definitely has a lot of sentimental feel to it,” Chavez told me. “You see it in Episode 3, when Mama Fina in a flashback says ‘Food is love.’ It’s very true of our families and the core of how we function with each other, especially Mexican families — we always joke about how our moms and our grandmas are like, ‘You’re not going to leave until you finish your whole plate.’”
To prepare for their roles, Santos, J.J. Soria (Erik Morales), and Cosio took cooking classes and Soria and Cosio learned to make tacos from a local on-set taco truck that production rented. “In Episode 9 [“Protest Tacos”], when they’re doing food prep, there’s a shot of J.J. fanning tortillas,” Lemus said. “It looked so weird to me. I was trying to get it out of the scene, and he was like, no, that was something the taco truck taught him, to fan them out and get them spread and ready to work with. I had no idea that was a thing. That’s so awesome. They knew details I wasn’t even aware of.”
Akin to a lot of family-owned businesses today, the Morales’s have a difficult time paying the escalating rent and must learn to adapt to change or risk closure. Though Mama Fina’s is fictional, it was partially filmed at Boyle staple La Ronda Restaurant and based on restaurants Chavez and Lemus dined at growing up. “We’ve gotten so much audience reaction of people who actually have those lives, who are telling us, ‘That’s me, that’s my restaurant with my mom, that’s my restaurant with my dad, and we always have to come together and keep things afloat,’” Chavez said.
Near the end of the season, Chris — who constantly gets called a “guero” because he seems white — and his cousins overhaul the menu. They replace Mama Fina’s sacred handwritten menu for a more modern chalkboard menu featuring fare like $15 shrimp and calamari ceviche tostadas; $11 avocado, quinoa, and tomato ensalada; watermelon radish carne asada; and a chicken tikka masala taco, which Chris invents but Pop dislikes.
“Chris is bringing in a very Americanized way of doing things that can feel like such a threat to our way of being, because we’re coming to this country where we’re already being told that we’re not enough and that we’re bad guys [Note: Episode 3 is named “Bad Hombres”] and our culture is less than,” Chavez said. In one scene, Pop takes Chris’s taco and seasons it the way his loyal customers would like it. “That’s him saying: I know my people, I know what they love, and I know what’s valuable to us. I’m going to figure this out, and I can make this work,” Chavez said. “I think there’s power in that.” The higher-priced artisanal menu also comments on how people sometimes assume Mexican food should always be cheap. “For a long time I came from that space of ‘I’m not going to pay more than $1 for a taco,’” Lemus said — but that mentality taps into how Mexican culture can be denigrated.
As the show progresses, so do the neighborhood clashes. It all comes to a head in “Protest Tacos,” in which Ana Morales’s (Karrie Martin) activist girlfriend, Yessika (Julissa Calderon), protests a “Bite into Boyle Heights” food tour because it brings outsiders to Mama Fina’s, creating a riff between the couple: Through the tour, the family earns enough money to pay rent, but at what cost?
“The entire show is about exploring what you’re compromising,” Lemus said. “When it comes to gentrification and trying to maintain a business, we wanted to explore what you have to compromise in order to survive. There’s that line in Episode 4 with [business owner] Lupe saying, ‘Life isn’t just about survival. If you work smart you can thrive.’ We didn’t go into the show seeking any answers or trying to make any judgments.” However, as Lemus puts it, in making concessions and chasing opportunities, “We move from the oppressed to the oppressor, and we wanted to explore the duality of it and how it’s a double-edged sword.”
Netflix has yet to announce a second season of Gentefied — the season ends on a few cliffhangers, so we definitely need a second one — but no matter what, Lemus and Chavez have already left a remarkable dint in the TV food landscape. “For us, even being able to create a show about Latinos as business owners, as artists, as chefs, as people who have dreams and love things that aren’t just the stereotypes that we’re so used to seeing, especially in a East LA neighborhood... the whole thing is us trying to work against the narrative that’s being painted against immigrants and brown people in general,” Lemus said. “It all comes from a place of love. But I’d say it’s a radical love.”
Garin Pirnia is a freelance arts and culture writer, and author of the books The Beer Cheese Book and Rebels and Underdogs: The Story of Ohio Rock and Roll.