Watching, Reading and Learning

I just finished the first season of the bilingual comedy-drama Gentefied (2020-2021) and cannot recommend it enough. For such a laugh-out-loud comedy, it also packs an earnest punch and is replete with content that should interest and impact any artist and educator. Many instances throughout the show have led me to meditate on its pertinent references to art and education as both a means of empowerment and exploitation. The show focuses on the community of Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. Boyle Heights is also known as Paredón Blanco, and is notable as a hotbed for Chicano culture and a vibrant Mexican-American community. The protagonists include the Morales family, who run a taco shop named Mama Fina’s. Casimiro “Pop” Morales is the family patriarch who started the restaurant with his late wife Delfina (the shop’s namesake). He has three adult grandchildren, Erik, Ana and Chris, who help out at the restaurant. The Morales’ are struggling to make ends meet business-wise, and face eviction. Each grandchild has their own ambitions (Chris wants to be a gourmet chef, Ana wants to be a working artist and Erik wants to be successful and a role model as a father), but they ultimately realize that balancing their passions with the harsh economic reality of “putting food on the table” and a “roof over their heads” is a tall order.

At first, Chris experiences an identity crisis. After getting a business degree, he started working as a line chef in a high-end Los Angeles restaurant and was ambitious about going to school in France to further his culinary aspirations. However, his affluent upbringing in Idaho separated him from the Mexican-American culture he grew up around. Chris feels conflicted, because he wants to be taken seriously as someone with Mexican heritage by his peers in Boyle Heights and also be recognized by the yuppie faction as a chef who makes elevated cuisine.

Erik has a very nurturing persona. He yearns to be able to support his family and community. As a father to be, Erik is deeply committed to Lidia, the love of his life, and takes great strides to improve his character so that he can be a good father and partner. As a lifelong Boyle Heights resident and avowed bibliophile, Erik starts a lending library within the Mama Fina’s for local youth. For every book one of the neighborhood children reads, they get a free taco. Erik’s passion for books and knowledge spurs a literacy movement in one of the most unlikely places.

Ana is a very talented painter, but has been unable to make ends meet as an artist. Her paintings combine the honesty of Realism with aesthetic forms and subject matter inspired by her Chicano and LGBTQ identity. Ana struggles to find ways of getting paid doing what she is adept at. She eventually meets a rich, white patron while working as a face painter at a children’s birthday party. The patron turns out to be a real estate mogul who is quickly buying up residential properties and taking over the leases of Boyle Heights’ mom-and-pop businesses. Ana’s work is elevated due to this encounter, but her newfound success comes at a cost. As a proud Chicana she faces a moral dilemma because her art depicting Mexican-American experiences is being repurposed and exploited to benefit the out of town interlopers, which in turn disenfranchises her family, friends and peers.

The scenarios in Gentefied are based on real-life examples of the gentrification of working class and immigrant communities. Unfortunately, the arts and educational fields are caught in the crossfire between prospective real-estate investors and longtime residents who are at risk of being displaced due to a transformation in the character of a neighborhood through the emergence of more affluent residents and businesses. Art is often used to attract new clientele and community members. Ironically, murals that signify the time-honored vibrancy and characteristics of the neighborhood are oftentimes more beneficial for the gentrifiers than the long term residents. In Ana’s case, she learns that sometimes even a work of self expression that is made in celebration of diversity and seeks to raise awareness of intersectionality in the community, can have negative consequences for the community she thought she was making it for. Public art is a sensitive matter for these reasons, especially when it attempts to represent a specific faction or elements of one very diverse community. There will always be people who object, either to its message or its physical placement.

Education also is used to lure opulent newcomers. Gentrifiers are drawn to neighborhoods because of the quality of schools. Because of this, there is demand for new schools that reflect the ideals and comforts of more affluent residents. This causes a divide between the public schools and new institutions such as charter or independent (aka private) schools. Studies have shown that having the latter types of schools in the vicinity increase the probability that the incoming families would opt out of the local public schools (Candipan, 2020). This causes a gap in equity and equality within a neighborhood. The public schools often suffer from lack of funding and segregation, which has overarching socioeconomic ramifications for the long term residents. It becomes a struggle for survival for marginalized communities, when in reality, the newcomers could easily contribute their resources to ensure that everyone is granted the same equitable educational experience in integrated public schools.

When schools are segregated, all students are at a disservice for not being able to learn from one another and develop cross-cultural understanding. Speaking from experience, one of the major issues of going to a predominantly white and affluent school is that you are not aptly exposed to critical texts and historical narratives centered around non-white communities. The only contemporary book that we read about individuals and communities that were the antithesis of life in my tiny suburban town, was Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quiñonez.

It is really easy to get into a comfortable routine with regard to the types of books we read, the art we view and films or television programs we watch. It is no surprise that people have strong opinions about these art forms. I have had several conversations where it has been mentioned that a person does not like a certain television show because it makes them uncomfortable. I believe that a work of art is most effective when it elicits strong feelings. The hope is that these emotions lead to real life transformational changes in how we think and respond to the issues that are expressed in works of art. I think that is definitely the intent that the showrunners and writers had when creating Gentefied.

As a white educator whose classroom experience has been in majority Black and Latino school districts, it is essential for me to understand the interests and backgrounds of each student both inside and outside of the school environment. Rather than impart a curriculum that centers around my ideologies and identity, it behooves me to learn from my students by letting them know they have agency to express themselves and centering their identities. If I am presenting a unit on a culture, race, ethnicity or gender that is different from my own, I look towards primary sources from individuals and groups whose experiences might also help me to connect better with learners. Artists, writers and other educators are a great group of knowledgeable people to get guidance from. Remember that if you are getting inspiration and insight from others, it is of utmost importance to credit them for their contributions. I love being in a position where I can share other people’s work, especially when it strikes the right chord with my audience.

The experiences of the characters on Gentefied got me thinking about other works of art that address similar topics. Coincidentally, I came across a blog post by Sarah Childs, an art student at Marywood University, who wrote about Travis Prince, whose work depicts themes within the Black community such as the importance of connecting education with identity and lived experiences. Prince’s paintings of Black men and women reading books by Black authors reminds me of the narrative arcs of Ana, Chris and Erik. Aesthetically, they are painted in a comparable type of Realism and color palette as Ana’s artwork. This might be a good time to mention that the actual artist behind Ana’s paintings in the show is Emilia Cruz, whose work portrays women of color in lush environments that are symbolic of their multifaceted identity. The content and concept of Prince’s paintings also reminded me of Erik’s literacy initiative. And lastly, the confluence of identities and interests Prince portrays in many of his paintings is reminiscent of Chris’ yearning to connect his heritage with his passion to be a high end chef.

Travis Prince, Amos Wilson, oil on canvas, 2018-2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Prince is a self taught artist and his paintings prompt viewers to learn about a multitude of Black experiences through depictions of diverse individuals reading books by Black authors. The publications span several nonfiction genres with titles such as Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, PowerNomics: The National Plan to Empower Black America and The New Jim Crow. Pairing art and literature was an “ah-ha” moment in Prince’s artistic and pedagogical journey. He notes he is an avid reader and scholar of literary works, but at one point it dawned on him that the books he was reading were mostly written by white authors, nor could he recall a significant list of Black authors. The realization inspired his ongoing “The Reader” series. These intimate paintings are both profound expressions of Black identity and educational references for viewers to learn more from a plurality of Black voices throughout the African diaspora.

Each image in the series feels both intimate and empowered. Being able to sneak a peek into what someone is reading nourishes our natural curiosity as human beings. Who hasn’t had the urge to shoot a quick glance over our shoulder toward the person sitting next to us on the bus/subway/park bench to see what it is they are reading? We initially feel like voyeurs to the transfer of knowledge being gleaned from the books read by the subjects; but in reality Prince is inviting us to be active participants through his painterly reading list. Every work of art is profound through both the elegance of the sitter and the content within the books they are engrossed in. We are only treated to the covers, so our thirst for inquiry will only be quenched by actually reading the books for ourselves. When the “The Reader” paintings were exhibited at the Everhart Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Prince provided a library-type installation where viewers could actually read some of the books featured in his paintings.

Prince’s art also provides social commentary through a combination of the subjects’ gestures and the juxtaposition of the book title with backgrounds and environments that extend or supplement the theme of the book they are reading. An example is Amos Wilson (2018-2022), a painting of a muscular man who stands aplomb with his arms crossed holding a copy of Amos N. Wilson’s Black-on-Black Violence: The Psychodynamics of Black Self-annihilation in Service of White Domination. Behind the man is a concrete wall with faded blue spray painted letters spelling out “Afrikan Identity: A Threat to European Dominance.” This quote along with the man’s assured posture, speaks to the context of Wilson’s text, which describes white supremacy and racism’s influence on the portrayal and criminalization of Black men’s bodies, and the perpetration of Black on Black violence. This particular image reminds me of a very moving quote from author James Baldwin who said: “you think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people” (quoted in Popova, 2017).

An empowered community that takes care of its own, values its diverse identity and resists exploitation is a threat to oppressive hegemony. Prince’s paintings are honest and transformative in the way they represent the essence of Blackness. The readers are beautiful, powerful and informed, and we can learn a lot from them too.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press.

Anderson, Claud. 2000. PowerNomics: The National Plan to Empower Black America. MahoganyBooks.

Candipan, Jennifer. “Choosing Schools in Changing Places: Examining School Enrollment in Gentrifying Neighborhoods,” Sociology of Education, 2020.

Childs, Sarah. “The Reader and the Learner,” Where Creativity Works, 30 January 2023.

Popova, Maria. “The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are: James Baldwin on the Empathic Rewards of Reading and What It Means to Be an Artist,” The Marginalian, 24 May 2017.

Wilkerson, Isabel. 2020. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. New York: Penguin Random House.

Wilson, Amos N. 1990. Black-on-Black Violence: The Psychodynamics of Black Self-annihilation in Service of White Domination. Brooklyn: African World Infosystems.

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