Gentefied (on Netflix)

As with most things I write in relation to the arts, this is not intended to be a review or a critique. Though I may be speaking as an adult, beneath it all there is a happy child who is asking the adult to express his joy for him. I will try not to fail him. However, I will also speak for the adult.

Gentefied is by no means a perfect show. It is, however, a show with so much heart that it moves me to that place where smiles and tears live together as friends. The show feels like home. It reminds me of my grandparents and my life growing up with them. It reminds me of how my Latinx clients (especially my Mexican or Mexican-American ones) and I slide between English and Spanish (“Spanglish” for “pochos”); how certain words are cozier or simply mean more in your first language (even if you’re comfortable with your second one). I did not grow up in a lower socio-economic neighborhood (that is one difference) but my extended family did, and weekend visits to them were the only vacations my family ever took (literally EVER took). Everything feels familiar.

There are so many ways to sum up a show, all of them imperfect. But I think one of the things that stands out for me is the way it focuses on how a Mexican family tries to survive a world in which they have no say in the rules–not even within their own community. They are put into a position where they have to adapt to survive but to adapt often means giving something up that they hold close to their hearts: an ideal; a value; a piece of their cultural identity. The taqueria at the center of the show works as the center piece for this. Their traditional Mexican food and their lower socio-economic clientele can’t cover the increasing rent prices as the neighborhood grows increasingly gentrified. It is not just the restaurant that is being threatened: it is their legacy, their values, the way the restaurant is a hub for the local community. What does one do with this? Turn the taqueria into a hipster fusion joint with higher prices? Maybe. But what does that mean for one’s identity? How would it make one feel to suddenly price out your friends and family and community? All of these are tied to a bigger question: What does it mean to be a “true Mexican” in this country? These are the nuanced questions the show deals with even if on the surface it seems like a cozy and simple show.

In terms of representation this might be the most important show that has ever been created about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans because it is not trauma-centered. Historically a show or film that has Mexicans at its center is going to focus on the brutality of their community, on crime or imprisonment–on how hard it is to stay on the “right path” in a world that disdains you. It is as though our pain is the only thing deemed interesting to the wider community. These stories are important. I have nothing against them. But it’s also important to see Mexicans represented like everyone else: decent folk doing their best with their day-to-day lives. The focus here isn’t on gangs or crime but rather on lovely but imperfect restaurant owners and artists and chefs and musicians, etc.

When the character Erik is first introduced, my own internalized racism arose: I thought he was going to fall into the role of the Mexican-American young adult who is respectful at home but is involved in shady shit on the side. He speaks with an edge. He has tattoos everywhere. Instead Erik ends up being a sensitive, intelligent kid who stayed out of trouble by staying close to family and becoming an avid reader. He ends up creating a reading library at the restaurant: a horrible business plan to be sure, but a heart expanding reminder that this hard-on-the-outside young man cares deeply about the children in his community. Chris is the character who is often teased for being “white-washed”–his dreams involve going to Paris to become a chef. He is more traditionally handsome. He is college-educated. He is the readiest to adapt and change–to eschew some of the traditional values for Americanized capitalist ones. But look closely and you will see his internal struggle: his awareness that he holds privilege over many of the other Mexicans in his life and how that puts him in a lonely limbo: teased by the Mexicans and rejected by the whites (this character most closely resembles my own experiences with my culture growing up). Then there’s Ana: the lesbian artist who is torn between staying true to her roots while realizing that the only way she might make a living is to be exploited by white hipsters who want to show their progressiveness through their investment in her. It is not just that the show is not trauma-centered, it is how matter-of-factly it shows these characters as they are. In other words, even their path to where they have ended up is not part of the narrative. These are not “the special Mexicans” that stayed out of trouble. They are an actual representation of MOST MEXICANS.

Just because the show is cozy in many ways does not mean that our community is presented in an idealized or perfect way. Issues like the homophobia and anti-blackness in the Mexican community are right there alongside the values that are beautiful. These are the ways that our community needs to evolve and grow, not to survive the majority culture, but to improve itself.

I promised I would speak for the kid and not just the adult. The kid feels relaxed. He pretends that the grandpa on the show is his grandpa. Because the show is not trauma focused it helps him remember the good things about his childhood and not all of the painful ones. It also gives him an opportunity to feel proud of his Mexican-ness (something he struggled with in his actual life), to look back with pride. The kid watches enraptured with his dinosaur toys alongside of him and a smile on his face.

If you are not Mexican or Mexican-American this show will probably not feel as cozy or speak to the kid in you. It may, however, show you the beautiful and challenging sides of Mexican culture. It may (I hope) give you an appreciation for it. It may, if you are honest with yourself, allow you to look at your internalized prejudices. But I also hope it allows you to identify with people different from you. One of the paradoxes of looking at our differences with an open heart is that it somehow brings us to a grounded sense of our commonalities (that paradox has proven true for me time and time again). I hope it forces you to look at what how the USA’s version of capitalism is broken and how the “American dream” is a load of bullshit.

Okay, I lied: this is a review. The kid in me gives his verdict: Yay!!!! There it is, this show gets a “yay”. What more do you need to watch it?

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