Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
When I wrote about the series Party of Five (2020), I talked about the recent, Latino-American wave on television. The wave was specifically a wave of remakes that took old, TV ideas and invigorated them with predominantly, Hispanic or Latino-American casts. This wave could be argued to have started seven years back with more original ideas like Orange Is The New Black (2013) and East Los High (2013), which weren’t remakes. If you look at the greater group of TV shows that feature Latino-American casts or Latino-American leads, they’ve mostly been sitcoms like One Day at a Time (2017) or comedies like Jane the Virgin (2014), which is a telenovela spoof. Serious dramas like Party of Five or Mayans M.C. (2018) are rare. This series, created by Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez, could be considered somewhere between, a dramedy as it were. It’s probably more akin in tone to On My Block (2018), but instead of focusing on teenagers, this series is more for Latinos over the age of 20.
Joaquín Cosio (Narcos: Mexico and The Strain) stars as Casimiro Morales, a Mexican man in his late 50’s or early 60’s. He’s grandfather to three adult children who refer to him as “pops.” Casimiro owns and operates a taco shop in Boyle Heights, which is a neighborhood in east Los Angeles that is mostly a Hispanic area. Casimiro is a widow. His wife passed away some time ago, but his taco shop is named after her. It’s called Mama Fina’s Taco, and it’s certainly a staple in the community, but the shop is in financial trouble. This series isn’t unlike Party of Five in that regard. Instead of a taco shop, the family in Party of Five has a larger Mexican restaurant with a wider menu. Casimiro similarly struggles to keep the shop in business, as well as hold his family together and that means for him keeping his grandchildren together, close to him.
Joseph Julian Soria or J.J. Soria (Animal Kingdom and Army Wives) co-stars as Erik Morales, possibly the eldest of Casimiro’s grandchildren. He works for Casimiro at the taco shop. He perhaps has the appearance or the stereotypical look of a gang-banger, or as a member of MS-13, but, in reality, instead of hanging out on the corner being a thug or a drug dealer, he’s more likely to be at the public library, reading and educating himself. His cousin nicknames him the “Li-Bro” because his cousin thinks of him as like a brother or “bro” but the word “libro” is Spanish for book.
It’s through Erik and the other characters that this show tries to shatter some of those stereotypes, while at the same time celebrating Mexican and Latino culture. It always goes back to a sense of place. That place is Boyle Heights, which like a lot of areas in many cities is being gentrified. The title of the series in fact comes from that word, “gentrified.” However, the word “gente” is Spanish for “people,” and for those who live in Boyle Heights, there’s a feeling that the people are under attack from those who want to push them out or certainly push out their culture. Many don’t want things to change in that regard. At the same time though, there are those who are trying to change things from within.
Carlos Santos also co-stars as Chris Morales, possibly the middle child in age of the three Casimiro grandchildren in question. He’s called a “poor man’s Mario Lopez.” He’s as handsome as Mario Lopez who is probably one of the most famous Mexican American men. Chris doesn’t aspire to work in Hollywood though. Chris wants to be a chef. He currently works at a fancy restaurant under a celebrity chef. Unfortunately, that chef is a bit racist, as he mistreats his all kitchen staff who are all Latino.
People call Chris a “coconut,” meaning he’s brown on the outside, white on the inside. Yes, Chris’ family accuse him of acting white and denying his Mexican heritage. Yet, he just wants to better himself and his station in life. He also wants to do so at Mama Fina’s. He offers suggestions like from things he’s learned from his white celebrity chef, but his family and friends just say he’s not being any different than those bringing gentrification to the neighborhood.
Karrie Martin also co-stars as Ana Morales, the youngest of the three Casimiro grandchildren in question. She’s a lesbian artist who wants to be a well-known painter. She starts out with painting a mural in her neighborhood. Because of the queer image she invokes, many in her neighborhood don’t embrace her work. She tries to go to a gay benefactor who will put her work in an art gallery and get her connected to more wealthy benefactors, but some of those benefactors also want to gentrify and tear down her neighborhood. For Ana, she’s probably like many who feel stuck in between two worlds, not quite accepted in either.
Of course, there are a lot of beautiful things about the neighborhood. Most of those beautiful things again go back to the “gente” or the people in it. The show does a great job of reminding us of that. Episode 6 for example focuses on a mariachi musician named Javier, played by Jamie Alvarez. He’s not a member of the family. He’s a supporting character at best, really tangential. Yet, the series stops the narrative with Casimiro and his grandchildren to tell Javier’s story with such empathy and heart.
It’s not uncommon nowadays for a TV series, particularly a series on a streaming platform, to do an episode that’s not about the main characters, diverting on some side character. Master of None on Netflix and Forever on Amazon Prime did the same thing. It’s either an attempt to fill out a 10-episode order and the writers feeling like they need to stretch out the series to be long enough. Here, I feel that’s not the case. Here, I feel the creators are trying to reinforce this idea of the “gente” being the most important thing and exploring the various people in this neighborhood, not being so myopic and showing the struggles of a range of Latinos here.
Running Time: 30 mins. / 10 eps.
Available on Netflix.