"Beautifully represented" or
an attack on our culture?
Netflix’s Gentefied and
the struggle over Latinidad/es

by Richard Mwakasege-Minaya and Juri Sanchez

The day Netflix released Gentefied (2020-), February 21 of 2020, user @juliexplores, a Latina fan of the show, tweeted,

Just as this viewer had done, Latinxs gave rave reviews of the show.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Working-class, LGBT+, and Black Latinxs were among the most supportive and spoke of feeling “represented” and “seen.” Despite this response, however, a smaller yet vocal group of Latinxs expressed outrage. One comment that, in this case, focused on Chicanxs read:

“This show is an attack on CHICANO culture and way of life with its SJW [social justice warrior] and Pc [politically correct] nonsense, that is a white man’s philosophy” (his emphasis).

Collectively, this group believed Gentefied was a vehicle to attack not only Chicanxs (as seen above) but Latinxs in general and was perpetrated by outsiders serving their political agendas. These two remarks are representative of the two major evaluations of Gentefied by Latinxs: empowering representation or an assault by outsiders. For this reason, Gentefied’s reception has contributed to the ongoing debate over Latinx representation (Beltrán 2017), which is intrinsically linked to the discussions over Latinidades (varying iterations of “Latinness”).[2]

This article explores the contentious discourse prompted by Gentefied and how it constitutes a struggle over Latinidades. The show’s online reception provides a site for an ongoing, in-group struggle over the contours of being Latinx, as well as questioning if Latinidad is multifaceted or monolithic. Supporters of Gentefied have posited and indirectly endorsed a notion of “Latinidades.” They praise the ways the show depicts the racial, socioeconomic, and sexual complexity of Latinxs as a population. In particular, Latinxs with more than one marginal identity celebrated the show’s varied representations of Latinxs because it gives them oft-denied visibility in popular media.[3] Recently, Latinxs scholars have explicitly encouraged the use of Latinidades because it allows for—one might say, demands—a recognition of the complexities and diversity within the Latinx population (Aparicio 2017). In their own way, Gentefied’s fans have done so by celebrating Latinx marginality while using it as a driving force in their media interpretation.

We contend that Gentefied’s devotees express what we call marginal Latinidades; this is a framework to understand how the margins of Latinx communities evaluate and create Latinx representation in fan discourse. This framework—which builds upon other works (Aparicio 2017, 2003; Báez, 2007; Goin, 2016)—is informed, guided, and animated by the media interpretations of Latinxs with multiple marginal identities. Indeed, this is what we found with Gentefied’s fans and also some of its creators.

It is also a response to a call by Frances R. Aparicio (2017):

“I exhort to Latina/o studies scholars to reclaim [Latinidades] and deploy it in ways that allow our communities and others to exert agency and more control over the public definitions of who we are” (113).

Thus, critically understanding marginal Latinidades also offers a set of interpretative strategies to understand media—here acknowledging how working-class, queer, and Black Latinxs are expressing a profound sense of feeling “seen.” This is largely so because they face a lack of visibility in the media (Goin, 2016; Jiménez Román and Flores, 2010; Tallaj, 2019). Thus, the public interpretations of their seldom acknowledged images as members of in-group marginalized Latinxs prompts political commentary. In fact, interpreting and publicly responding to media is often a political act (Amaya 2010; Bobo 1995; Everett 2001; Robé 2010; Staiger 2005). Knowing or unknowingly, the fact that marginal Latinxs express elation when using social media platforms is a way of asserting themselves and their oft-excluded identities in Latinidades.

Opposed to Gentefied’s fans, detractors criticize the show’s representations of Latinxs, which indicates an attempt to keep Latinidad unified and monolithic. They rhetorically expel or reify divisions with marginality (and its political views) so as to keep the notion of Latinidad singular and pure.[4] For them, dominant culture has used Gentefied as a vehicle to impose political agendas on Latinxs that are far outside of their community and culture. For instance, it has seemed that white liberal Americans imposes queerness onto the Latinx community, and “leftist” propaganda from “white Hollywood” imposes the show’s critiques of capitalism—not Latinxs.

Ironically, the show’s critics are not themselves monolithic. Some are anti-racists and anti-imperialists, some believe in a colorblind meritocracy, while others do not believe Gentefied has gone far enough with its inclusivity, namely for Central Americans and Afro-Latinxs. Some scholars may regard these critics as reactionaries; however, if taken seriously, they add to a rich legacy of Latinx film criticism that dates back as early as the 1910s (Gunckel 2015; Limón 1992; Noriega 1993; Serna 2006, 2014; Serna and Gunckel 2019).

Gentefied’s negative and positive reception participates in an ongoing resignification of Latinidades. Latinx, as a category, is “a site of permanent political contestation” “rather than merely [a] descriptive category” (Beltrán 2010, 9). As the supporters and detractors of Gentefied debate what is and is not Latinidades, they perform and embody Latinidades. It is from this poststructural standpoint that we can see Gentefied’s supporters not as apolitical admirers, critics not as reactionaries, and their dispute not as a petty quarrel over entertainment, but rather all as participants in an ongoing struggle over Latinidades.

Gentefied  prompts Latinx audiences to resignify Latinidades largely because the show’s production, narrative, and paratexts also participate in this process. The show offers criticism of a commodified form of Latinidad and gentrification by Latinxs, thus suggesting characters’ exclusion from Latinx identity while it also explicitly traces marginal identities’ inherent intersections with Latinidades. For example, Ana Morales’ (Karrie Martin) artworks are visual examples of these political views. The show’s title alone can provoke a discussion over Latinidades, considering that it highlights class differences among Latinxs and suggests ethnic betrayal. The word “Gentefied” is a combination of the English word “gentrification” and the Spanish word gente “people” (read: Latinx people); thus it suggests disloyalty by wealthier Latinxs against working-class Latinxs. Latinx viewers with similar or oppositional views have been emboldened to respond about social conflicts set up within the show.

For Latinx media scholarship, media reception is of growing interest. For example, work about Latinx audiences has recently expanded thanks largely to Jillian Báez (2018, 2017, 2014), and by others (Casillas 2014; Molina-Guzmán 2010; Rojas 2004; Valdivia 2000, 2007; Vargas 2009). The same is true of the historical work on reception among specific national Latinxs groups: Mexicans (Gunckel 2015, Serna 2006) and Cubans (Mwakasege-Minaya 2020). Within this body of work, we hope to contribute by exploring the media reception and viewership of intersectionally marginalized Latinxs and the intra-community polemic over Latinidades. In the following sections, we will provide background information on Gentefied and its place in the media industry. We will then offer a close analysis of Gentefied, its positive responses from viewers, and its production practices, as well as criticism of the show.

Setting the scene

Netflix’s Gentefied is an U.S. comedy-drama series created by Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez, adopted from their web series Gente-fied (2017). The Netflix TV series was shot on-location in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, California, and follows the Morales family. This non-nuclear family is comprised of three cousins Ana, Erik, and Chris, and their grandfather, Casimero, affectionately known as Pop. Audiences watch as they struggle to save “Mama Fina’s,” the family restaurant and their livelihood, from gentefication. Playing the Latinx gentrifier is the aptly named Rob (Wilmer Valderrama), the suit-and-tie-wearing owner of the building who is threatening evictions. Not only is “Mama Fina’s” the main source of income for the family, but it also honors its namesake, Delfina, Pop’s departed partner and grandmother to the three cousins. After much debate, the Morales family decide to increase profits by accommodating gentrifiers (in this case, the wealthy and oft-white renters living in gentrified areas); however, their actions cause some members of the community to accuse them of gentefication or facilitating the gentrifying process. Among themselves, the family members argue how best not to “sell out” or stray from tradition while staying economically afloat.

Pop’s right-hand is the uncompromisingly loyal Erik Morales, played by Boyle Heights native Joseph Julian Soria. Erik is doing his best to win back his ex-girlfriend Lidia Solis (Annie Gonzalez) and prepare for their unborn child. Ana Morales identifies as a queer Latinx artist who incorporates what she describes as “brown love” into her artwork, while also critiquing gentrification. Ana must divide up her time apart from pursuing her artistic passion; she is simultaneously caring for her sister, seeing her partner, helping out with “Mama Fina’s,” and berated by her overworked mother for not securing a practical job. In a cast with multiple Latinx origins, Ana is played by Honduran actress Kerri Martin from New Orleans.

In this scene, Ana Morales’ self-proclaimed aesthetics of queer “brown love” is mirrored by Gentefied in a self-reflexive moment. Ana blindfolds her partner, Yessika Castillo, and unveils her newly completed mural: two masculine Lucha Libre wrestlers (Mexico’s professional wrestlers) kissing passionately. Gentefied then mirror’s this same kiss with Ana and Yessika, thus, also celebrating queer “brown love.”

Chris stands out among his cousins, with his more affluent background and aspirations of attending Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris. For this, he is nicknamed Güero (white guy) and even given a “Mexican test,” shown in a hilarious montage. Chris studied business in Boise, Idaho, but recently moved back to Los Angeles. He is played by the Puerto Rican-born Carlos Santos. Pop, played by Joaquin Cosio, is the patriarch of the family who cares deeply for his grandchildren. Cosio is a Mexican actor born in Nayarit and is known for his role in Narcos: Mexico (2018-), a detail excitedly pointed out by fans.

After being made to feel not Mexican enough, Chris takes a “Mexican test” to prove himself among his Latinx coworkers.

Family friend and Ana’s partner, Yessika, is Afro-Dominican and a fierce community activist and organizer working with the advocacy group Hermanas Poderosas (Powerful Sisters). She is a consistent source of what Jillian Báez (2007) calls “Latinidad feminista—moments of female agency among and between Latinas” (112), with Ana often being the beneficiary. Yessika is played by Julissa Calderon, an Afro-Dominican from the Washington Heights section of NYC, a neighborhood comparable to Boyle Heights.

Another unofficial member of the Morales clan is Lidia. Lidia is Erik’s on-and-off girlfriend now carrying their first child. She is described by her father as a feminista who, according to Erik, is allergic to toxic masculinity. Lidia is played by a native of East Los Angeles, Annie Gonzalez. Finally, we have the queer Salvadorian Norma (Brenda Banda). She is an employee at “Mama Fina’s” and displays a sharp wit. For example, when Erik asks her, “Can you keep a secret,” Norma replies, “I come from a long line of Salvadorian guerrillas. We invented secrets.” Her joke (a reference to the brutal armed conflict in El Salvador and Central America) is also an example of Gentefied’s dark cultural humor. 

Gentefied and the history of Latinx images

The uniqueness of Gentefied lies in how it causes a stark divide in Latinx reception, which reflects a wider discourse surrounding representation. The debates surrounding “positive” Latinx portrayal continue among scholars and advocates and within popular discourses, all the while favoring middle-class professionalism (Beltrán 2017). In this case, the show and its positive responses stand in the face of scholars and activists who have traditionally criticized (Noriega 1993), even dismissed, working-class Latinx images as negative.

That more traditional form of film and media criticism would likely conclude that the show’s characters are new iterations of longstanding stereotypes; Gentefied’s characters could be deemed new-aged bandidos and Latina spitfires.[5] They are loud, boorish, and, as one viewer suggested, “uncivilized.” Many are laborers, lack “class,” have heavy accents, and (some may argue that) the Latina characters are hypersexualized. However, intersectional analyses of media representations and studies on reception complicate oft-simplified notions of “negative” portrayals (Bobo 1995, Gates 2018), particularly when the media-makers hold the same marginal identities as their characters. Despite these complexities in the show, however, critics of Gentefied drew from a history of negative depictions condemned by Latinx film criticism.  

Images of Latinx produced by a white-dominated industry have long used mediated stereotypes, since the silent era, for example, with the “greaser” and later with el bandido (Rodriguez 1997, Ramirez Berg, 2002). Films favored the lower classes in those portrayals, which persist today with Latinxs cast in minor roles as domestic servants, service workers, and criminals (Negrón-Muntaner 2014). Products of entrenched Hollywood storytelling conventions, racialized stereotypes in U.S. media are well-documented. Latinx film criticism challenged these images in Spanish-language newspapers, like La Crónica from Laredo, Texas (Limón 1992, Noriega 1993, Serna and Gunckel 2019). Media activism of the social movement era in the later third of the  20th century forced the media industry to incorporate Latinxs and increase their visibility, and later activists have learned to adapt to drastic changes in media regulation and technology (Gutiérrez 2019, 2020; Jiménez 1996; Montgomery 1989; Noriega 2000; Perlman 2016). In the following decades, activists’ substantial gains did not exactly continue on but permitted a form of Latinidad to enter the mainstream.

In the post-social movement era, the U.S. media, music, and advertising industries (in cahoots with the Latin American media industry, so to speak) shaped a commodified Latinidad in their attempts to cash into a growing Latinx population and their perception of Hispanics’ buying power (Báez, 2007; Dávila, 2001; Levine, 2001). In doing so, the culture industry has constructed a monolithic understanding and image of Latinxs.

“Media studies scholars have focused on a commodified Latinidad to explain how mass media industries, especially advertising, construct a homogenous conceptualization of Latinidad, thus erasing the specific histories and cultures of specific national groups within this panethnicity” (Báez, 2007, 110).

Moreover, the media industry has epitomized its homogenization of Latinxs with the “Latin look”—dark-hair and light, or olive, skin—which privileges those in higher strata and excludes most Latinxs.[6] Positive representations of Latinx characters are often endowed with “respectability,” which means middle-class values, professional aspirations, strong family values, and adherence to hetero-cisgendered norms. These restrictions have been challenged along the way, most recently with Latinx-based shows like Gentefied, Vida (2018-2020), and On My Block (2018-). Among them, Gentefied (and its Latinx reception) stands out by criticizing commodified Latinidad and foregrounding working-class, LGBT+, and Black Latinxs.[7]

In the place of commodified Latinidad, Gentefied and its supporters offer expressions of marginal Latinidades, the literal and conceptual pluralization of “marginal Latinidad” (Goin 2016). This term was originally intended to conceptualize Afro-Latinxs' erasure in media. Here, we build on this framework to include the many Latinx identities left on the periphery of media visibility. Our use is also in agreement with many Latinx scholars’ preference for pluralized Latinidades (among other terms) over singular forms (Aparicio 2017, Castañeda 2020, Roque Ramírez 2007, Rúa and García 2007). This process of speaking in the plural is in keeping with Latinxs’ diversity, complexities, and transformations. It also builds on the concept of “Latinidad feminista,” which “transgresses historical representations of Latinas in U.S. cinema in offering Latina subjectivities that are hybrid, fluid, and complex” (Báez 2007, 109; Aparicio 2003).[8]

If we seem to use a saturation of intellectual terms from Latinx scholarship, it is in large part because the notion of Latinidades is not only difficult to pin down but in constant flux; it is persistently debated over, reified, and reshaped. It is being pulled in different, sometimes opposite directions. For some authors, the debate over Latinidades is a major part of Latinidades (Aparicio 1999b, 10).  

For our purposes, we offer marginal Latinidades as a set of interpretative strategies through which to make sense of media objects. It is also a set of frameworks through which to analyze media objects and examine the interplay between media interpretation and media-making by marginal Latinxs.[9] What follows is our analysis of Gentefied, which is informed by its reception by Latinxs, its production practices, the history of Latinx and U.S. media, and our own lived-experience as a working-class Latina and Latino (Salvadorian and Dominican, respectively).