‘Gentefied’ Showrunners On Creating A ‘Mexican Kennedys’ Moment
This story contains spoilers.
“Gentefied” co-creator Marvin Lemus is on his own journey of identity just like the characters on his series. Both he and co-creator Linda Yvette Chavez are Chicano/Mexican American, but there is another part of his identity he’s been exploring. “Mexican Guatemalan American,” he adds on a joint video call with HuffPost. “I always forget.”
Without missing a beat, Chavez — who, like Lemus, serves as showrunner and executive producer on the Netflix dramedy that centers a Mexican American family in the gentrifying Boyle Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles — jokingly says, “It’s like a child he forgets about.”
Kidding aside, Lemus has only recently begun to explore this other portion of himself. “The real is, it’s on my dad’s side,” he explains. “I didn’t grow up around my dad. I came late to the party. The first time I ever left the country was to visit Guatemala. I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t Mexico.’”
It’s these kinds of lighthearted yet earnest reflections on Latinx families and cultures that have been at the heart of “Gentefied,” which humanizes issues like immigration, colorism and gentrification primarily through the perspectives of three cousins in the fictional Morales family.
There’s Ana (Karrie Martin), a painter determined to preserve the essence of her neighborhood through her art; Erik (J.J. Soria), a new dad who worked the counter at Mama Fina’s, the family’s taco restaurant that becomes a casualty of gentrification; and Chris (Carlos Santos), a chef who grew up in Idaho and first moved to Boyle Heights to work at an upscale restaurant.
For Lemus, the show comes down to the question of identity in a neighborhood that is changing before them, one that has shaped who they are as a people. “Where do we belong?” he asked.
Now in Season 2, Chavez and Lemus take a closer look at what that means for each cousin, as well as their extended loved ones, as new challenges throughout their romantic, professional and social lives shape who they become. They also do everything they can to help their cherished grandfather, Pop (Joaquín Cosio), who is undocumented and detained.
“They were going to have to grow up a little bit,” Chavez added. “Letting them have that experience was a big thing for us.”
In this HuffPost interview, Chavez and Lemus discuss creating “The Mexican Kennedys” moment this season, how their own experiences helped them “zoom in on the characters” even more, and the battles they fought to make Season 2 of “Gentrified” even better than the first.
This season of “Gentefied” touches on what you’ve shared, Marvin: the complexity of fatherhood and identity. Erik, Chris and Pop always had an interesting dynamic. Now, Chris’s biological father, Ernesto [Manuel Uriza], reappears and further complicates that. What went into that storyline?
Marvin Lemus: Ernesto was an obvious one with Pops in the detention center. Clearly, Chris’s dad has got some money. We were like, “He’s going to fly in. He needs to be there in some capacity. He’s going to be trying to save the day.” Then I think from there, we organically just started to get into, What about Ana’s dad? What about Erik’s dad? How do we pull those threads back?
I think when it comes to that question at the center of the story — Where do we belong? — and how different each of the cousins are in terms of their journey right now, all of their identities have been challenged. They’re all trying to figure out, “OK, what does this look like now as I’m getting older, as I’m moving through a new phase of my life?” Having to go back to where you came from is, I think, a big part of figuring out how you’re going to move forward.
Linda Yvette Chavez: We realized that it was a season of fathers. There were a lot of daddy issues that organically came out of Pop being detained, not being in limbo around his immigration status. This is their patriarch who’s been the center of their world for so long. I don’t know what it was like for you, but for me growing up, a father that stayed in the family or didn’t do something crazy was a rarity. I had one of the only fathers who stuck around. I love him to death, but he was not perfect. In communities of color, we often have very fractured relationships with our fathers.
We want to show that fracturing — and for Ernesto, in particular. He was the son who ran away from his roots because he was so embarrassed of them. You get to figure out why Chris is the way he is. You see in the Thanksgiving episode so much of the reality of what he went through with his father. It’s one thing to be the child who’s dealing with a parent who’s undocumented, it’s another thing to be the grandchild who’s dealing with that. We wanted to explore what we saw in our own family.
Did you feel pressure to match or top the first season?
LYC: You know what — the pressure came from ourselves [Laughs]. Because we’re children of immigrants and hella perfectionists, everything has to be the very best of the best. In the first season, we had an amazing time. But it’s your first ride at the rodeo. Is that what white people say?
I believe so?
ML: That is a white-ism, yes.
LYC: We just really poured ourselves into the storylines, knowing that we were coming off of a season that was much more comedic, but ended in a more dramatic place. Pop was detained. You’re not going to come out of that bouncing off the walls with jokes and laughing. We knew that this was a season where our characters were going to have to mature.
And I think another piece of the — I wouldn’t call pressure — but [was] the responsibility to the community. Both of us grew up in immigrant families and mixed-status families. It’s such a big part of the narrative in our communities. We wanted to really honor that narrative because we have Pop, who’s undocumented, in the season going on this legal battle, being in this limbo. We felt the responsibility to tell a piece of that story that we haven’t seen before. What is it like to be in this legal battle? We didn’t want to spend time in the detention center because we’ve seen that. We don’t want to do the trauma part. Our communities don’t really want to see that.
That is so true.
LYC: We want to see what is the toll on a family that’s being separated or potentially separated. Part of that is life goes on. You have Halloween and Thanksgiving. Then, you have this thing looming overhead that you don’t even realize is taking such a toll on you until the relief comes. That’s something that you see at the very end of the season.
One of my favorite scenes is that moment Pop walks out of the courthouse and the whole family comes together to hug him. I forget who holds out her hand to Melinna [Melinna Bobadilla], the lawyer, and brings her in. It’s just something that we feel and see in our community all the time. How do we tell a story that’s empowering about a person who is an immigrant, who’s undocumented? How do we give him and his family dignity in a way we haven’t seen before?
Another beautiful moment is the beach scene in the finale. Chris and Pop have a heart-to-heart, which is intercut with Lidia and Erik confronting the new obstacles in their relationship with the baby. What inspired that particular sequence?
ML: One of the most important elements that we really fought for, that kept trying to get changed because it was such a logistical nightmare, was shooting on the beach and seeing a Chicano family on the beach. In the scripts, that moment when Pop and Ernesto are walking back towards the family and they’re all playing football on the beach, we called it “The Mexican Kennedys.” Latinos, we’d be at that beach fucking all day, from sunrise to sundown with the grill. And I said, “We never get to see ourselves in cinema in that way.”
I think this beautiful Chicano family just enjoying that for themselves — and to see it on Christmas just felt like such a California thing to do. It was important to us to do that. Lin and I put our foot down. We were like, “It’s happening on the beach, guys. It has to happen. You’ve got to figure this out.” We ended up shooting it at Dockweiler Beach, literally right underneath LAX having fucking planes flying overhead every five minutes.
It was the worst for all these intimate dialogue scenes on the beach with the waves coming in, but it ended up working out. When we first watched those cuts, we were just like, “Holy shit.” It’s just such an emotional thing to see, such an indie cinema thing to see a character contemplating on the beach. I’m just like: “Why not Pop?” Just that little subversive move of being able to implant an immigrant character into that same storyline. This ranchero standing on the beach, trying to figure out, What am I doing? What’s next?
ML: It’s that American cinema aesthetic. It’s also that French new wave. It’s that old-school shit. I just want to see this ranchero man standing on this fucking beach with his family. It’s a moment of joy. It’s a moment of sadness. It’s a moment of bitter sweetness. It’s those little details that can easily be like, “Let’s just put this on in the park somewhere in Boyle Heights. Let’s do it in the backyard.”
We fight for that stuff because it means so much to be able to see this image, to put ourselves places where, typically — because of budget, because of schedule — we don’t get to have that privilege. For a lot of folks, if you’re not in it and if you see yourself constantly, you don’t understand how important and powerful that imagery can be.
Absolutely. I’m so glad that you guys did fight for that.
LYC: I co-wrote that episode too. Marvin knows how in love I am with that episode. I feel like it’s really special and poetic. Just being able to be in the emotion with the characters and live this experience. It’s also that idea of limbo that we were talking about. I felt like [it was] the quintessential way to really communicate that feeling we’ve experienced the whole season.
That’s also true about some romantic relationships this season: Lupe and Pop, Sarai [Ivana Rojas] and Chris, as well as Lidia and Erik. But Ana chooses herself this season. Did you always know she would not get back with Yessika [Julissa Calderon]?
LYC: Marvin, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think we ever fully knew. I think we always imagined that she’d go back and forth. Who knows what the future holds? I think that for this season, we definitely felt like the two of them fell in love at a very young age. We all know love comes and goes from our lives for different reasons, to teach us different things. There’s growth within that time frame. Sometimes love is seasonal. I think the two of them had each other at very important times in their lives. In Episode 5, the Halloween episode — Ana seeing the two of them as little girls — you understand what significance Yessika had in her life in terms of being there when her father passed away, and the way they supported each other. Ana was there for Yessika when Yessika moved to LA from the East Coast.
But ultimately, all of us are on journeys to understand who we are in this world. For Ana, it’s trying to figure out her art and her dreams, how important they are to her. What we wanted for her was to really end with also appreciating Yessika and what Yessika has brought into her life.
That’s why we had a lot of moments of her expressing her gratitude towards the end, and understanding that there is no Ana without what Yessika brought into her life, which is true for so many of us and the people in our lives. Sometimes we can have ups and downs with them, but at the end of the day, we’re all crafting each other. We’re all a part of each other’s journey. I think it made sense that they would go their separate ways to grow individually. Yessika also has a right to grow into her own person.
ML: There’s something that Pop says that I remember putting in when they’re saying goodbye to the shop: ”Just because it ended, doesn’t mean it was a failure.” I remember that was relationship advice I got at one point that just always stuck with me. I was like, “It makes sense in the shop.” It’s just like another piece of the family, or this thing that you can feel is ending and it feels like you fucked up and you didn’t get to make it go all the way.
I think that’s the same thing going on with Yessika and Ana. I think that theme repeats itself too. It’s such an interesting place to get these characters, especially when you’re young and in love. We’re taught the Disney form of love, which is happily ever after. That’s just not real.
[Linda and I] always end up getting into this conversation of — for Chicana women, for First Gen women—there’s the ideals [placed on] having a relationship at times. I think it’s just the old-school way of thinking. We are always trying to buck that trend. We went back and forth trying to figure out are they going to end up together, or are they not.
Since becoming showrunners and directors, what have you tried to be conscious about in order to create a safe and inclusive space for the many different colors, cultures, experiences and identities within the Latinx community?
ML: Even from the beginning, it’s something that’s so important to us because we’ve been on the other side of it so damn long. Mentorship is important to us. And constantly being able to learn and grow through it to be like, Where else can we be showing up better as we go through this? For me, my first thought goes to casting. One of those things that I always try to hold at the forefront is the question of why not? Yes, we wrote a man for this character, but why not a woman or a trans actor? Could they be Black? Could they be Asian? What does that bring to this role? Can we just stay open to all the possibilities?
It’s great being able to have a partnership where we’re able to check each other, and be like, “Could we be bumping into bias here? Is there another [way] that we could be [make] this stronger, better — that we could be more inclusive?” We have this tiny slice of power on our show now. We’ve had the folks that have done it for us that are holding the door open and constantly being like, “Yo, we’ve all got to get in.” I think we’ve been lucky to have folks that have modeled it for us — like Lena Waithe, Justin Simien, Gloria Calderon-Kellett and Tanya [Saracho]. To constantly stay conscious of, “Yo, we have the utmost responsibility here because if it’s not us, who the fuck else is going to do it?”
LYC: Yeah. It’s really, for us, from top to bottom, behind the camera and in front of the camera. We work so hard to try to get access to folks from different backgrounds for roles. I think people don’t realize the amount of real battles and work that goes into trying to get someone with few credits through the door to do something like directing or [being] a department head.
We’re working within a system that’s really outdated and fucked up because there’s so many people who can be in these roles. Then you have that barrier to entry with union fees and things like that. We’ve learned so much and there’s so much that’s systemic. Every victory is such a huge one. But Marvin and I tend to be those people who will fight real hard for things and we’ll hold our ground. Because I think we feel like we don’t have anything else to lose, at the end of the day. We want to be the ones who can open as many doors as possible.