Reviewed by Judy Silber
Judy Silber is the executive producer of The Spiritual Edge, a homegrown radio series out of San Francisco’s KALW Public Radio (91.7-fm). She’s also a proud and grateful member of the Double Arrow writing group
My husband and I are always on the lookout for new Spanish language television shows. He’s from Honduras, and his preference for Spanish language entertainment tends to dominate what we watch. I don’t mind. Spanish is a connection to my husband’s Honduran self, the one he can’t always express so well in English or at home with his American wife. He takes great pleasure in noting the varieties of words and expressions found across different Spanish-speaking countries. That nuance of his culture is not something that will come out if we watch, say, “The Office.” The problem is Netflix’s options are limited, especially once you eliminate drug cartel telenovelas. So when the icon for Gentified appeared several weeks ago, I got excited. “Look,” I told him. “We could watch this.”
In the first season of Gentified, the Morales family is struggling to keep a hole-in-the wall taco shop open in an increasingly gentrified Boyle Heights. Against this backdrop, a cast of multi-generational characters navigate their loyalties. There’s the tension of family versus individual dreams, and that between an instinct to defend the barrio versus an embrace of inevitable change.
Abuelo,” also known as “Pops” started the taco shop after crossing the desert from Mexico decades ago. His grandson Eric is an angry, but good hearted bookworm who defends the taco shop’s prices, clientele and authenticity, even when that means they can’t pay the rent. Eric’s cousin Ana is under pressure from her mother to work two jobs, but she protects her time for her girlfriend and her art. Meanwhile, a third cousin Chris, dreams of attending culinary school in Paris. His cousins and Mexican co-workers call him a coconut, insisting he’s not a real Mexican. It’s Chris who pushes Pops to update the menu for the neighborhood’s newer, wealthier arrivals. These sympatheticcharacters are prone to self-destruction. likeable because it’s easy to understand how they might cave when you consider what’s a stake: survival, not only of self and family, but also community and culture.
As my husband and I watched the pilot episode on our iPad, I could feel his frustration growing. “I don’t get it,” he told me, referring to the way some of the younger Morales’ speak only English, even to their Spanish-speaking elders. (Which of course, means this is not strictly a Spanish-language show. It goes back and forth between English and Spanish, depending on who is talking.) The evidence of language erasure caused my husband to project into the future. His sister and her eight-year old daughter are his only family here in California. I suspect he felt pained to think of a time when his niece might stop speaking Spanish. It would deny him a small, but important pleasure—the joy of sharing his native tongue.
For centuries, America’s super power has been to assimilate the many cultures who joined her. The result is that many of us no longer know where we come from, nor to what past we belong. Perhaps the un-felt longing for such knowledge has put much of the country on the defensive, and angry at any black or brown person who expresses a strong cultural identity. But I divert. Kind of. The tussle between old and new, between the dignity of a community adapting at its own pace versus one forced to change or die is at the heart of Gentified. There’s probably no good answer to the existential problems it poses. But it’s worth watching Season 1 of Gentified to better understand the dynamics and consider the stakes.