Learn About Cuban Culture By Watching “¿Qué Pasa, USA?”
So let’s say you live in Miami or South Florida, and you’re surrounded by many Cuban-Americans – are you confused? Frustrated? Wondering, “what's up with these people?!”?
So let’s say you live in Miami or South Florida, and you’re surrounded by many Cuban-Americans; or Americans born to Cuban exiles; or Cubans who arrived here as children; or old Cubans who came here as adults; or Cubans/Cuban-Americans who confuse Miami for Havana, or have made of Miami some kind of re-creation of Cuba (just like colonial Williamsburg, only spicier!) – are you confused? Frustrated? Wondering, “what’s up with these people?!”?
I am too! And I’m one of them!
But people, you have a code book to solve the Cuban-American puzzle! The answers are within reach!
Just tune in to any episode of ¿Que Pasa, U.S.A? and it will all make perfect, painful sense.
This TV show, produced through a federal grant in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, perfectly captures the reality of growing up (or living) in Miami in the wake of the influx of Cuban exiles.
Funded by the Emergency School Aid Act through the Office of Education, ¿Que Pasa, U.S.A? was produced by local public television station WPBT (Luis Santeiro was the head writer and Jose (Pepe) Bahamonde was the executive producer). It was groundbreaking in that it was the first bilingual TV show that (and this part totally blew my mind when I found out about it) aired throughout the United States on local public TV stations. A close friend of mine who grew up in Ohio (far removed from any kind of Hispanic group) remembers watching the program as a kid and thinking it was a hoot.
The show explores the lives of the members of the Peña family, as well as their that of their friends and neighbors, and how they struggle to hold on to their heritage and make sense of life in the United States and how at the same time they must accept the inevitable: that what is considered temporary exile has in fact become a new life in a strange land.
The grandparents, Adela and Antonio, are old-school Cubans: conservative and in the U.S. very much against their wills. For them, life will once again be good when they’re back in their homeland. The parents, Juana and Pepe, are working hard for a living and adjusting to life in America while holding on to their Cuban values. The kids, Joe (born in Cuba but emigrated very young) and Carmen (born in the U.S.), are caught between their two cultures and find themselves constantly butting heads with their parents and grandparents, because they just want to be like all the other (Anglo) kids.
The cast is rounded-out by an assortment of friends and neighbors who are both Cuban-American and Anglo-American (for my money, no one beat nosey neighbor Marta and BFF Violeta). The episodes are fairly simple and easy to follow; the basic premise is how normal, every-day matters get hopelessly, hilariously confused and convoluted when experienced through linguistic and cultural barriers.
For me, ¿Que Pasa, U.S.A? is hands-down the best television show ever. EVER. I’m a crazy fan who can recite whole episodes; I still remember the day my dad told me (I was around 10 years old) that “Pepe” was in his life insurance training course: I went wild and asked for autographs and pictures. (Didn’t get them. Am still upset about it.)
The thing about it is how - despite very modest production values and over-the-top acting (or perhaps because of?) - it so very accurately portrays the Cuban-American experience. I mean, for real, this is how it was in my house. Not exactly, of course; but yes, exactly. And I hear it over and over again, from people anywhere from 25 to 45 years old: that’s how it was in my house. The chaperones, the double standard between boys and girls, the expectations, the conflicts, the pull of both cultures - it’s all true and real. (In fact, I’ve had non-Cuban Hispanics tell me the same thing.)
I can relate so well to the instances where the parents just don’t get some aspect of American life and culture because it was that way in my house, too. I felt – so many of us, I dare say, felt – just like Carmen and Joe: wishing our parents and grandparents would just “get it” and “get with it” and stop making us feel so alien and foreign. It’s only as an adult that I’ve fully realized and accepted that I will always be a Carmen, always feeling the pull of both cultures and never really belonging anywhere.
Oh, and my house was just as cluttered with figurines and awesome furniture.
I’ll admit that people who are fully bilingual or who have a good grasp on Spanish are the ones who can best appreciate ¿Que Pasa, U.S.A? if only because so much of its fun lies in the language. And it isn’t just the usual cross-cultural language mix-ups: there are play-on-words and similar concepts tucked throughout the episodes that show a real work of writing and language genius.
Or does that just appeal to the nerd in me?
Either way, it is this that is ultimately so satisfying to me about ¿Que Pasa, U.S.A?: the more you watch it, the richer it becomes. There are all these hilarious, subtle lines and facial expressions that pop out or become clearer and funnier.
¿Que Pasa, U.S.A? is ultimately a reflection of a people and a time that forever changed (perhaps defined – for better or worse) Miami.
Also, awesome. It’s just plain hilarious and awesome.
What Happened to the Cast?
Don’t you hate it when you read about a TV show or movie or band that gave you a total (happy) flashback, and then the writer fails to tell you what the people in question are up to now? Well, I almost did that here to you!
But fear not: as a knower of all ¿Que Pasa U.S.A? trivia, I share with you: “¿Que Pasa, U.S.A?: Where Are They Now?”
Grandparents: Both passed away; Luis Oquendo, who played Antonio, around the time of Hurricane Andrew, and Velia Martinez, who played Adela, about a year later.
Parents: Mom Juana (Ana Margarita Martinez-Casado) has enjoyed a long career in theater in New York City, where she moved after the show ceased production. She was also the spokesperson for Humana Healthcare, until 1998, when her theater troupe performed in Cuba, a move that made Humana drop her and hard-line exiles talk crap about her. (Bonus: the guy who played the priest in ¿Que Pasa U.S.A? was her husband).
Dad Pepe (Manolo Villaverde), besides getting an insurance license in the mid-90’s spent a few years playing “Abuelo” on Nickelodeon’s Gulla Gulla Island. He still lives in South Florida and in recent years has performed in local theater.
Kids: Joe (Rocky Echevarria, now Steven Bauer) – come on now! Manny Ribera in Scarface! Steven could have gone far in Hollywood as a pre-Andy Garcia-type (I mean, he did marry and procreate with Melanie Griffith in the wake of his Scarface fame!), but an alleged addiction to coke kinda made him blow it (no pun intended! O.k., it was). Also: bad movie choices. Although he’s been steadily employed all these years, in the last few he’s made a come-back of sorts in movies like Traffic, The Lost City and through guest spots on popular TV shows like Law & Order: SVU.
Daughter Carmen (Ana Margarita Menendez, but she goes by Ana Margo) did guest spots on TV after production wrapped and in recent years has been active in local radio and theater. Interestingly enough, she’s also the PR director for a LASIK company called MedEye.
Others: Anglo buddy Sharon (Barbara Ann Martin) acted on and off until the early 1990’s, when she started focusing more on production. She has also worked in public relations and continues to live in South Florida. Awesome Violeta (Connie Ramirez) has for many years lived in the LA area. Patricia Jimenez, who played various characters (Patria, camera operator, boutique manager) lives in South Florida and was heavily involved in the “Viva Bush” campaign. I only know this because I used to get my hair and nails done at the same salon as she, and I met her and was all star-struck and started quoting her own lines back to her. You would think I would’ve been embarrassed, but I wasn’t. At all.
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"Learn About Cuban Culture By Watching “¿Qué Pasa, USA?”"