Much like the relationships between the native-born children and their Mexican immigrant parents in the new Netflix series “Gentefied,” many of the actors in the series grew up under similar circumstances.
“I’m first-generation born here. My mom speaks English fluently and perfectly because she was actually born in the Dominican Republic but moved to New York when she was young,” said actress Julissa Calderon (“Revenge”). “We would respond in English because we knew she knew English, but she would still talk back [in Spanish]. And that’s how we communicated.
“The show is a perfect depiction. It literally depicts so many households like that.”
“Gentefied” (pronounced “hen-tuh-fied”) showcases the trials and travails—often hilarious—inside the Boyle Heights taco shop run by the paterfamilias (Joaquín Cosio) of the Morales family, his children, grandchildren and extended family. Times are tough for the business financially while, at the same time, the younger generations struggle between maintaining the family business or venturing out on their own.
This is precisely what happens for Chris, portrayed by Carlos Santos (“Booze Lightyear”), who initially eschews the family business to pursue a college degree and, as the show opens, is working in a restaurant run by a Gordon Ramsey-esque screaming chef. Not only does Chris catch continual flak from the British chef, but the Mexicans working in the kitchen mock him for not speaking adequate Spanish or being autentico.
Santos, who initially auditioned for the web series that became “Gentefied” but couldn’t take the job at that point, said he feels a certain kinship with Chris’s feelings of being an outsider.
“I was always the youngest in my family…and that’s where Chris is coming from. He left Boyle Heights when he was young and is now coming back and wants to be really accepted,” Santos said.
Santos, a Puerto Rican native, himself left the island commonwealth at eighteen for the mainland, and says he often feels like a stranger in either place.
“When I moved [to the mainland I], looked for [any] version of family. So I felt [the show] wasn’t too far from my [own] experience when I came here for college,” Santos said of his connection to Chris, who, as the series continues, has to choose between his career and going back to the family taco shop and “making changes” to help them stay afloat.
Santos’s costar JJ Soria (“Animal Kingdom”) said that he could relate to his character, Erik, in that he has a gently ribbing relationship with his cousins and siblings, just as Erik does on “Gentefied.” And his fictional family now practically is like a real one.
“I feel now like Carlos is a brother to me. Same thing with Ana, played by Karrie [Martin considering] the banter is [similar to] how me and my cousin talk.
“The relationship between [Erik] and Pop, played by Joaquín, was a relationship I would have loved to have had with my grandfather, who passed away when I was young. He was a father figure to me,” Soria said, adding that his biological father has not been present in his life.
Cast member Annie Gonzalez (“Comedy Kids”) is a fifth-generation American, and says she spoke no Spanish at all until age eighteen, partly due to the fact that her elders had once been threatened and even struck physically if they spoke the language.
“They were encouraged almost to not [speak it] and not to teach the next generation. They were taught to assimilate,” said Gonzalez, who then gestured to her co-stars Calderon and Martin. “These girls are schooling me in Spanish. I’m like ‘claro que si!’
“It’s cool to experience it. I’m more embedded in my culture.”
Martin portrays Ana, the feisty daughter of the family who not only doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind but also is bucking the family’s strict religious traditions by being in a same-sex relationship with Calderon’s character.
“Hispancs are ‘conservative,’ but even our own parents, it’s fun to see them grow with what they see their kids are doing on TV,” Martin said.
Martin grew up in southern Louisiana, where her family was among the community’s only Hispanic members. She said that filming “Gentefied” in Los Angeles has offered her an opportunity to become more immersed in the greater Hispanic American culture that she missed out on growing up in the bayou.
“It was so special to see such a rich culture there and to really get the feel of the people, the ‘gente,’” she said. “Coming from a non-Hispanic community in southern Louisiana, it was really cool to see.”
Although the scripts for “Gentefied” are filled with high-quality writing and humor, any project needs to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Luckily for showrunners Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chavez, “Ugly Betty” star America Ferrera came onboard as an executive producer—and thus translated the show from its humble web series beginnings to a home on Netflix.
“It is important that we [get] people that are similar to us [who] can vouch for us,” actor Santos said of “Gentefied” getting Ferrera’s imprimatur. “It’s more palatable for people to enjoy new things if it comes from someone they already know.”
“[Audiences] recognize America and know of her work. She has a name, so that’s what brought peopels’ attention,” added J.J. Soria, the actor who portrays Erik.
All of the cast members of “Gentefied” say it’s more important that the characters they play on the show aren’t so much positive as “authentic,” i.e., Hispanic and Latino characters that transcend one dimension and come across as fully-realized persons.
“More people will relate to these characters, specifically Latins, [because] they’re more relatable than the ones we’re accustomed to seeing on television,” said Soria. “More people relate to the hard-working Latino—not the criminal, not the gardener [but] these people who have ambitions.”
“We haven’t really gotten a chance to be seen in a certain way or we’re only ‘allowed’ to be seen a certain way,” added Santos. “And When you crack it open with a show like ‘Gentefied,’ it shows that we can be amazing.”
And autentico to boot.
“The community of Boyle Heights is tuning in [saying], ‘I know that street; I know that mural!’” said Soria. “It’s really cool.”
The first season of “Gentefied” is now streaming on Netflix.