July 28, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

How ‘Gentefied,’ ‘On My Block’ show Latino L.A. differently

Vida,” which premiered on Starz in 2018, made Boyle Heights’ gentrification woes central to its storyline: Two sisters (“In the Heights’” Melissa Barrera and “Riverdale’s” Mishel Prada) return to the neighborhood to deal with the aftermath of their mother’s death, including a debt-ridden bar she co-owned that’s in the sights of an unscrupulous real estate developer.

Despite having grown up in the area and being of Mexican heritage, the sisters butt heads with locals, including an antigentrification group based on actual activists. In one scene, a member of the group spray paints “F— White Art” near Nicodim, a real-life art gallery, since relocated, that was a target of antidisplacement efforts.

Then “Vida” itself became engulfed in the conflict. Local protests against filming in the area drove creator Tanya Saracho to shoot parts of the show in Pico-Union, another historically Latino neighborhood.

After seeing all that unfold, why did “Gentefied” co-creators Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez think it would be a good idea to film another show in Boyle Heights?

They’re in love with the place.

Lemus, the son of Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants, spent the bulk of his youth in Bakersfield — a place, he told The Times, he’s only recently grown to love.

It was different with Boyle Heights.

His fiancée introduced him to the neighborhood, taking him to places like Casa 0101, a performing arts center founded by “Real Women Have Curves” playwright and co-screenwriter Josefina López, and Espacio 1839, the curio shop and bookstore that’s home to the community radio station that hosts “Órale Boyle Heights.” She also took Lemus to Eastside Luv, a wine bar whose owner was born in the area and proudly refers to himself as a pocho, a typically pejorative term employed by Mexicans to describe members of the Mexican diaspora in the U.S.

“I’d never felt more at home or complete,” said Lemus, recalling his first visit. Then he learned that some locals thought Eastside Luv was “part of the problem,” one of the businesses catering to interlopers.

“To be honest, I was initially taken aback by that,” said Lemus. “I thought: ‘If you can’t open a business in your own neighborhood, where the f— do we belong?’”

But the nuance of the conflict appealed to him, and he thought it was worth digging into onscreen. He soon tapped Chávez to join him because he wanted a Chicana screenwriter, he said, “who was from L.A. and understood the community.”

Chávez grew up in Norwalk, a suburb in southeast L.A. County. For her, Boyle Heights and East L.A., where her parents first arrived when they migrated from Mexico, are “like Ellis Island,” the place “where we all arrive, where we all go out from.”

Her extended family now covers large swaths of Southern California: “They’re all spreading farther and farther out,” said Chávez — mostly in search of affordable housing. “But, if you meet them, because of the way they act and the way they speak, you’d be, like: ‘You grew up in East L.A.’”

Though heavily rooted in Boyle Heights, “Gentefied” hints at the Latino world beyond. For instance, when Ana and Erik are scrambling for money to bail their grandfather from jail, someone out in Fontana steps up to help.

“We made a lot of references to those places because we wanted to honor the fact que estamos en todos lados, that we’re everywhere,” said Lemus.

Karrie Martin as Ana Morales in a “Gentefied” scene at Mariachi Plaza.

(Netflix)

Even so, the show’s efforts to cement itself as an authentic representation of Boyle Heights are painstaking, with scenes shot in front of Benjamin Franklin Branch Library, White Memorial hospital and the kiosk and Metro stop at Mariachi Plaza. Characters don shirts advertising Libros Schmibros, the bilingual library and hang-out spot that celebrates its 10-year anniversary in July. They also name-drop local artists like Ernesto Yerena, who crafted the poster used by the Los Angeles teachers’ union during its 2019 strike.

The neighborhood’s activism is what most appeals to Chávez. The “Gentefied” creators even had Boyle Heights’ mariachis play at the premiere of the digital predecessor to their Netflix series, as a nod to the musicians’ 2017 protest against rent hikes at Crescent Canyon Management company’s “Mariachi Crossing” building.

“They came on stage and said: ‘Just so you know, we’re from the community, and we’re being booted out of our homes,’” said Chávez.

“On My Block,” another Netflix series set in the Los Angeles area, takes a different approach.

The show is set in the fictional city of Freeridge, based on co-creator Eddie González’s upbringing in Lynwood, some 15 minutes south of downtown Los Angeles. The community, like his growing up, is composed of hard-working Black and Latino families, and the protagonists’ chief concern is navigating gang-related violence.

Two teen boys drink out of paper bags on a porch.

Jason Genao, left, and Brett Gray in Netflix’s “On My Block.”

(John O Flexor / Netflix)

Creating Freeridge, González told The Times, gave his team “the freedom to expand the mythology of the story.” In the series, the city is under siege due to a decades-long gang rivalry. González knew that Lynwood residents would demand accuracy about its history, which he respects.

The show, however, does include real places, like Brentwood, an upscale neighborhood on Los Angeles’ Westside.

This too was deliberate, said González, a way to speak to the socioeconomic chasm between the show’s main characters, who come from working-class homes, and one of the characters’ parents, who abandons her.

This divide appears throughout the L.A. Latino film canon, from the bridge that the father in “My Family” crosses to do landscaping for homes in “el pinchi Westside” to the nightlife in “Vida”: In one scene, a drunk young man vomits on the pool deck during a party in the Hollywood Hills, which someone yells out to the Latina maid to clean up. And in “Gentefied,” one character struggles to make a living as an artist without contributing to the displacement of longtime residents, including her own family. This as her patron works to draw artists from West Hollywood and Santa Monica to Boyle Heights.

A group of teenagers sits around a dining table eating sushi.

Netflix’s “On My Block” sets scenes on L.A.’s Westside to contrast with its main location, the fictional city of Freeridge.

(Netflix)