From Bakersfield to Netflix, local Latinx writer takes class struggle from streets to the screen

April 10, 2020 /

Born and raised in Bakersfield but baptized in East Los might be the way to describe the artistic upbringing of Marvin Lemus, co-writer and director of the new Netflix Latinx dramedy “Gentefied.”

Originally planned as a limited web series taking viewers through the historic east Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, where the fight over gentrification rages among longtime residents, activists and business developers, the project was pulled before airing. (The 2017 trailer can still be found on YouTube as “Gente-Fied.”) Luckily, Netflix picked up the show for a full 10-episode season, which premiered on Feb. 21, featuring a new cast and bigger production but same heart and neighborhood.

Lemus is still pinching himself about the opportunity to create a show with collaborator Linda Yvette Chavez and executive producer America Ferrera, who also directed two episodes and had a small role.

“We’re very lucky that we’re in a time right now, especially since the start of the year,” Lemus said during a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “There’s so many more Latinx shows coming out and more opportunities because of how many platforms there are.”

Not another fish out-of-water or wild narco shoot-’em-up drug tale, Lemus says “Gentefied” is meant to show the struggles and joys of Latino American life, the family ties that bind us and, of course, the humor required to keep those ties from breaking loose.

“In my family, we talk a lot of smack,” Lemus said. “That’s just my family, always cracking jokes at each other.”

But it’s not all fun and jokes, as the show follows the lives of three cousins — aspiring chef Chris (Carlos Santos), artist/activist Ana (Karrie Martin) and young father-to-be Erik (J.J. Soria) — and their grandfather, Casimiro aka Pop (Joaquin Cosio), who owns Mama Fina’s, the taco shop at the heart of the show. Each episode weaves its way through relatable situations Lemus says are partly pulled from his own nomadic life.

Pictured above from left, Bakersfield native Marvin Lemus, producer America Ferrera and show co-creator Linda Yvette Chavez on the set of “Gentefied.” Photo courtesy of Kevin Estrada

“We moved around a lot. Most of my family on my mom’s side is all in Bakersfield, which is home. I must have attended 12 or 15 schools,” said Lemus, whose immigrant parents would pull up stakes, moving the family wherever work was available.

“My parents have an amazing story. When I was born, they were undocumented. My mom’s from Mexico, my dad from Guatemala. My mom was cleaning houses and my dad was doing landscaping. By working hard and having a little bit of talent, they ended up breaking into their own careers.”

Lemus’ mother, Sylvia, became a Spanish radio personality, while his father worked for both Intel and Micron, leaving son Marvin to find ways to fit into new surroundings.

“I grew up in radio stations most of my life, bobbing back and forth from being low-income to middle class, a little insecure.”

Lemus moved permanently to Bakersfield with his mother, enrolling at Liberty High where he graduated in 2007. Looking to nurture his creative side, Lemus enrolled in The Art Institute in Los Angeles to study filmmaking a month after receiving his high school diploma.

“I packed up, moved and I’ve been here ever since. It was a year-round program, so I locked in my bachelor’s in about three years. Then I just got to work. My first job in the industry out of school was as a personal assistant on a reality show trying to figure out what I wanted to do. It was cool, paying the bills, but I wanted to write and direct movies.”

When he wasn’t on set, Lemus worked weekends in his apartment developing his own viral content on YouTube, landing side jobs to sharpen his skills, and maxing out credit cards for gear.

Along the way he would cross paths with director Justin Simien, the creator of “Dear White People,” who at the time was making the film version of the future Netflix series of the same name. The two became friends and colleagues.

“I started tracking his journey, asking him questions,” Lemus said. “When he was promoting the theater release of the film, they didn’t have much of a budget, so they wanted to do an all-digital campaign and he asked me to direct and produce all of the viral videos.”

Along with a boost to his resume, the life-altering opportunity helped spark the show’s idea.

“That was one of the first things that helped me get closer to narrative storytelling and not just sketch comedy,” Lemus said. “Being around that project made me realize I had to tell my story of being the ‘new kid’ most of my life, especially moving back and forth between worlds: the white, suburban area where I didn’t feel American enough, then going back to east Bakersfield and not feeling Mexican enough. I had to learn how to make friends quick and crack jokes. I was just like, ‘This has to work, I can’t move back to Bakersfield.’”

The show’s title is the combination of two words — “gente” (Spanish for people) and “gentrified” — that, according to Lemus, you’ll understand if you watch the show.

He said, “I wanted to do a Latino ‘Do the Right Thing,’ and that’s what led to ‘Gentefied.’”

On the recommendation of another colleague, he teamed up with co-writer and native Angeleno Linda Yvette Chavez and said the collaboration could not have been more ideal.

“I was sent one name (Chavez). I read and loved her work and we connected coming from such a similar background. We were both first-generation, had immigrant parents, grew up fairly low-income and had film school backgrounds working in digital. We hit it off right away.”

After a brief festival run with the original web series, plans were pulled by the team to push for broader development and opportunity. Their tenacity paid off with a series order from Netflix early last year taking them back to Boyle Heights, the neighborhood that helped Lemus both find his cultural identity and develop a higher sense of self-love.

“When I started to learn about gentrification, I started learning about my identity and to be proud of being Chicano, and I use that in a political sense. I was so enamored with what Boyle Heights was doing in terms of gente-fication. Go out to First Street and see all the businesses that are Mexican and American. I had never been in a physical space that had captured all of my identity in one place, the community organizations and the organizers who love their home and their community so much that they’re fighting tooth and nail to fight and keep it alive. That’s something I had never experienced growing up.”

Since its premiere, “Gentefied” has been well-received by critics as well as fan groups, who are rallying viewers online to push it to the streaming channel’s top 10. Lemus says the response is a sign that audiences are hungry for more inclusive programming, with representation minus the damaging stereotypes.

“I think the main thing we need to focus on is writing roles that are very authentic and reflect our community in a way that we haven’t seen before. Linda and I are very adamant about mentoring and reaching back out to the different artists and different creators. Not just in film, but in all marketing we’ve done.”

Lemus says that while there are a number of storyline jabs referenced from his bittersweet upbringing in Bakersfield sprinkled into stories, he hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“Bakersfield made me, I grew up on the east side. With all the moving I’ve done, someone has always been there — my mom, my grandmother, my family. There are reminders that I love Bakersfield with all my heart, my dreams are right here. How am I going to honor and come back home as somebody ‘who did the damn thing’? I gotta make this happen.”

Lemus hinted there may be some hometown love dropped in should Netflix order another season.

“I had a troubled relationship with you for a long time, Bakersfield. I crack a lot of jokes at your expense, but please know I love you.”

For now, catch up on the debut season.

Featured photo: Photo courtesy of Netflix, From left: Karrie Martin, Carlos Santos, J.J. Soria in a scene from the Netlfix dramedy “Gentefied,” which was created by Bakersfield native Marvin Lemus.

*This article was originally published April 2 in The Bakersfield Californian.

Kern Sol News is a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in under-served communities across Kern. For more stories by South Kern Sol, head to southkernsol.org.

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Matt Munoz

Matt Munoz

Matt Munoz is Project Coordinator and Reporter at Kern Sol News. He may be reached at matt@southkernsol.org.