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Netflix's 'Gentefied' feels real — because Latinx creatives are behind it

Ivana Rojas as Sarai, Carlos Santos as Chris, Joaquin Cosio as Pop, and J.J. Soria as Erik.
Courtesy of Netflix
Ivana Rojas as Sarai, Carlos Santos as Chris, Joaquin Cosio as Pop, and J.J. Soria as Erik.

Heads up: This story contains spoilers about the new season of Gentefied.

Casimiro 'Pop' Morales is live on the national news.

"I am tired of sharing all the good things I have done in this country, to make you feel bad for me? ¿Pa' qué? To convince you? That I am ... a person?"

Morales, played by Joaquín Cosío on the Netflix show Gentefied, is an undocumented small business owner and grandfather fighting possible deportation. On the show, Morales has gained an audience for his bravery, thanks to his granddaughter's advocacy on social media.

It's a scene that gets to the heart of the new season of Gentefied, a show created by Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez that's based in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles as it faces gentrification.

Generations of the Morales family are rooted in Boyle Heights, where last season viewers saw cousins Ana, Erik and Chris try to save their grandfather's taqueria from the changing community. That was before Pop, the patriarch, was detained in ICE custody. Season 2 picks up as he's released, skipping over what the creators call "trauma porn."

This scene, Chávez told NPR's Michel Martin, is about empowerment.

"We didn't want to see another story depicting an immigrant, as you know, sad and in misery and detention and going through nothing but pain," Chávez said. "The reality was, this is a man who's been a mainstay of his community for 30 years. He had formed a whole family."

There's no shame in our families or who we are, Chávez said. "We belong here — whether you like it or not."

(L-R) Carlos Santos as Chris, Joaqui­n Cosio as Pop, and J.J. Soria as Erik in <em>Gentefied</em>.
/ Courtesy of Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix
(L-R) Carlos Santos as Chris, Joaqui­n Cosio as Pop, and J.J. Soria as Erik in Gentefied.

A personal storyline

Lemus and Chávez are both first generation Chicanos who come from immigrant families, like the main Mexican characters in Gentefied.

The story for season two became clear when Lemus received news that his mom got her citizenship after being a green card holder for about 15 years.

"It was such an emotional day for me, and I had no idea I would have that reaction to it," Lemus said.

It sparked a huge conversation for Lemus and the writer's room on why the experience was so emotional.

"We find love. We find humor and every day we're chasing our dreams and we're building relationships and building careers," Lemus said. "But in the back of your head, there's always that worry."

All those feelings and questions set the stage for the new season.

The characters on screen had already earned the show creators and writers praise in the first season for depicting a varied Latinx experience. Chris is seen as whitewashed, Erik sacrifices everything for his family and Ana is a working artist trying to navigate her love life. But the cousins have their beliefs shaken in the new season.

"We want to capture that sense, that tone, that dark cloud that is always kind of overhead, even while you're still in your joy," Lemus said.

"I'm an example of how the tide is turning"

Last month, UCLA's annual Hollywood Diversity Report showed that people like to see themselves reflected on their TV screens in prominent roles. That's why shows with majority-minority casts like Gentefied were highly rated for Latinx audiences in 2019-2020, according to the report.

Despite that, Hollywood is failing Latinx people — even though the group is one of the fastest-growing communities in the country.

Meaningful representation on Gentefied only happens when people behind-the-scenes look like and can speak to the issues on screen, said Francisco Cabrera-Feo.

He's a Venezuelan writer who co-wrote an episode of the new season, and said being in a writers room filled with Latinx storytellers is the "most empowering thing in the world."

"Because you're like, 'Oh, I'm part of TV history now, I can actually fix those tropes from inside the writers' room'," he said.

Cabrera-Feo said when you work on a show like Gentefied, you're able to bring every part of yourself to the forefront. He sees the show as a guiding light for Latinx representation.

"I could be bilingual, I could be an immigrant, I could be queer, I could be all these things in this room," he said. "I know that there's so much work left to be done. But I feel like I'm an example of how the tide is turning."

Julissa Calderon plays Yessika Castillo on <em>Gentefied</em>.
/ Courtesy of Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix
Julissa Calderon plays Yessika Castillo on Gentefied.

Julissa Calderon, an actress on the show, said if Hollywood wants to tell authentic stories, it has to start with the executives and people behind the scenes.

"If you want to tell true stories and you want to tell true Latinx stories — that has got to be the people behind the scenes," Calderon said. "They have to know this world, so that it can be written correctly and that it can be displayed correctly."

Calderon plays Yessika Castillo, a queer Dominican activist. The part of Yessika was always meant for an Afro-Latina — but for someone who is Mexican and from East Los Angeles.

Born in New York and raised in Miami, Calderon's accent did not fit that description.

"I remember them telling me to dial back on my accent because they wanted me to sound like an East L.A. girl because obviously Gentefied is based in Boyle Heights," Calderon said. "And I was like, 'No, no, I don't even know how to do that. I am not a person that's good with accents'."

In the end, Yessika's part was re-written to fit Calderon's Dominican identity. She said it was that simple — and that others in the industry should take note.

Calderon said Gentefied is showing Latinx characters in a new light.

"These are human stories," she said. "It just doesn't matter if we speak a different language or we have different dialects or if we're Brown ... Regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity, [audiences] can turn on this show and see that it's a real story and it's authentic storytelling. And to me, that's the most beautiful part of it all."

NPR's Kira Wakeam produced Michel Martin's interview with Gentefied's creators for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mia Estrada
Mia Estrada is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow. She will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR, including the Culture Desk, National Desk and Weekend Edition.