‘Gentefied’ Is for All the Latinx Kids Who Never Fit In
I’m a Brown woman adopted by a White family — and the new Netflix show helped me realize I am Latina enough
When I first heard about the Netflix show Gentefied, a bilingual comedy produced by America Ferrera of Ugly Betty fame, I clicked that Add button so fast I almost dropped my phone.
Created by two Latinx writers, Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez, Gentefied focuses on three cousins who come together to try and keep their grandfather’s popular taco shop in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, from succumbing to neighborhood gentrification. The trailer immediately pulls you in with comedic flair, but it’s the cast that made me add the show to my Netflix queue. It’s the only American show other than One Day at a Time that I’ve seen on my Netflix suggested page that focuses on a brilliant cast made up of Latinx folks like me. But even more importantly, the show’s Morales family gave me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a typical Latinx family — especially because I’m a Colombian woman adopted by a White family.
I grew up in the suburbs of New York surrounded by mostly White people. The food, music, and clothing seen on Gentefied is vastly different from the array of pasta and chicken parm my adopted Italian family raised me on. The closest I got to having a Latinx mother were the times when my father-in-law and his Venezuelan girlfriend stayed with my husband and me for a few months.
Her dinner table of daily arepas, plátanos, and an array of spices has since inspired me to learn more about my culture beyond the food. When she left, I found myself yearning to hear Spanish chatter within the walls of my house and see more cultural elements in my small home in rural Pennsylvania.
The day Gentefied debuted on Netflix, my binge-watch began between feeding my toddlers and changing diapers. We meet Chris Morales (Carlos Santos), one of the three cousins, who’s working in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant. He’s surrounded by Mexicans who look just like him, but he’s the only one who has trouble understanding the chef’s instructions in Spanish. He’s mocked by everyone in the kitchen for not being able to pick up the language — they end up calling him Forrest Gump.
Chris is seen and treated as “other” from the very first episode. I could feel myself bonding with this cousin more than the others because I, too, was the gringa in my life. My father owned an Italian restaurant with primarily Latinx staffers in the kitchen, and I was stuck in the middle: Brown enough to be talked down to by customers, and White enough to be liked by the servers.
“Lo siento, I don’t speak Spanish,” was the entirety of my Spanish vocabulary. I failed the test. I wasn’t Latinx enough.
Meanwhile, the kitchen staff talked to me in Spanish, while they spoke to the other waitstaff in English. My parents had only spoken Italian and Portuguese at home, so just like Gentefied’s Chris, I struggled to understand. My difficulty only elicited teasing and sad looks that made me feel like I failed at being Latina.
One day my father asked me to ask one of the dishwashers to help me get something from high atop the storage shelves, but they refused to help unless I asked for it in Spanish. At that point, I had known I was Colombian for barely a year, and had never studied the language aside from bits and pieces I heard while working. So when I had to repeat “el popote” until I pronounced it correctly, cheeks burning red, I had to fight the urge to run away.
“Lo siento, I don’t speak Spanish,” was the entirety of my Spanish vocabulary.
So when Chris took the “Mexican test” the other chefs created to prove his identity, I broke down. He put all of his heart into answering rapid-fire questions about the Spanish language, dancing, telenovela trivia, and candy taste tests. But he failed. His friends only laughed more, chanting, “You’re not Mexican! You’re not Mexican!” Tears fell from my eyes. I, too, have failed that test, over and over.
I’ve been stuck in the middle; no matter what I said or did, I didn’t fit. When I started calling out racism to my friends and family, they told me that racism didn’t exist. But when I began to assimilate into the Latinx community around me, I quickly learned that the language barrier was more critical than I thought.
The reality was that by growing up with my White family, I was afforded certain privileges like Chris that protected me from racism endured by the Latinx community. He didn’t code-switch like his cousins. People felt comfortable enough around me to make jokes about workers not having their papers, or how many children the pizza man had. They told me I wasn’t like “those people.”
Since I passed as White for most of my life, my behavior and the way I spoke all led people to believe that I was just a darker-skinned Italian girl. Heck, even I believed it for the first 19 years of my life — until I found my adoption papers and learned I was Colombian.
My ensuing identity crisis only got more confusing the more I started to dig into my Colombian roots. I thought things would be more comfortable with people who looked like me, that I would find a community I belonged to, but all I heard was more negativity: “You don’t speak Spanish? You’re not a real Latina. What’s wrong with you?!”
It used to be hard to see a reflection of myself in any mainstream media. Popular television shows are filled with lots of White faces that match my adoptive family — just not the Brown ones. And in the few American shows that did offer a cast of primarily Latinx characters, like George Lopez and Jane the Virgin, I found myself missing once again because I didn’t grow up in a predominately Latinx family.
I finally found a piece of myself in Gentefied. I saw myself as Chris and his cousins, who answered their Spanish-speaking relatives in English. I saw my journey in Chris as he tried to learn how to fit in with his family members, and as he stumbled with not just the language, but the barriers and challenges facing his community. When he punched the chef who threatened to call ICE, I remembered every conversation I had with my adoptive father about Trump’s support of racism against Latinx people like me — his own daughter.
The show helped me learn to accept my duty to call out microaggressions, gentrification, and outright racism. And what’s more, it also allowed me to laugh and cry at the beautiful depiction of a Latinx family trying to survive changes in America.
Gentefied is a show for all Latinx people: the ones who speak Spanish fluently and the ones who don’t, the ones of all shapes and colors, and even the adopted ones like me, who are trying to figure out their place in the world. By watching Chris’ experience, I know that all of the learning is worth it.