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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?!”?
December 11, 2007 By Tere in  | 18 Comments

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Related Categories: Movie Reviews

Tere is a Miami native and local writer. She writes about her life in general at A Mom, a Blog and the Life In-Between; Tere also shares news, events and the occasional rant about the City Beautiful at the Coral Gables Blog.

See more articles by Tere.

See more articles by Tere

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18 Comments on

"Learn About Cuban Culture By Watching “¿Qué Pasa, USA?”"

Esto no pasaba en Cuba says:

You forgot to mention that Ana Margo was co-host of ‘La Feria de la Alegria’ on Telemundo circa late 80’s.

Posted on 12/11/2007 at 7:01 PM

Maria de los Angeles says:

Hey Tere, what an awesome survey of one of my favorite shows evar!  It really was a model sitcom—so special to its time, but timeless.  As you know, it was so well-written, those low production values just didn’t matter.  In fact, I think the kitschiness is what makes it special. 

I heard that it has been very popular in other countries, but wonder if it had to be dubbed in *two* languages.  My mom told me this, do you know if that’s true?

Steven Bauer act was in the kick-ass movie Traffic (2000).

Posted on 12/12/2007 at 12:27 PM

Jeff R. says:

“Que Pasa USA” was much like its more celebrated contemporary “‘All in the Family” in style, content and even quality. In some ways Que Pasa’s accomplishment was even greater, given the show’s tiny budget, its unsung and often raw talent, and its bilingual scripting. Wonderfully well produced, written and acted. An American classic, no matter how you hyphenate it!

Posted on 12/13/2007 at 3:25 PM

... says:

I absolutely loved Marta, her wigs and her puteria but Violeta’s charm bracelet was the best!!! 

I don’t know why but I always associated the area around Flagler and St Michael’s school/church as their neighborhood…

Posted on 12/13/2007 at 4:12 PM

Hilda says:

I too loved this show and lived that life!  It really is amazing how good the show was given its low budget and limitations. 

The acting was wonderful, particularly “los abuelos”.  Both Oquendo and Martinez were well-respected actors in Cuba and in Exile - but Velia Martinez was amazing, her facial expressions were worth a thousand words. 

Great job Tere!  Thanks for the memories…:)

Posted on 12/14/2007 at 9:29 AM

Scott says:

Loved this article, Tere!  I felt like I’ve entirely missed out on this show, having never seen it.

There was this British show (which I will never remember the name of) that I watched as a kid in Saudi that really captured some of the more subtle nuances of living in multi-cultural environments.  ¿Que Pasa, U.S.A? sounds very similar to it.

I hate that I missed seeing this show!  Really making me want to see it!

Posted on 12/14/2007 at 11:30 AM

Gus says:

Scott, if you want to watch the show, YouTube has many complete episodes.  Here are some links to the first episode of “¿Qué Pasa, USA?”, parts 1, 2, and 3.

Hay muchas demostraciones de la TV en YouTube, y la TV con Google Translate es una excelente manera de aprender Inglés.

Ciao amigos y amigas!

Posted on 12/14/2007 at 11:53 AM

Maria de los Angeles says:

I think one of the local tv channels does reruns, Scott.  Check the local listings.  Pity, it was on last night on Channel 2, but as part of a fundraising telethon.

Posted on 12/14/2007 at 2:34 PM

Matt says:

Wow. I had heard of this show but never had seen any of it before that clip at the top. Hilarious. Does this show exist at all on DVD?

Posted on 12/16/2007 at 8:21 PM

Tere says:

Yes! The whole series is sold at http://www.quepasausa.org. It’s $100 and totally worth it!

Posted on 12/17/2007 at 5:49 PM

Alex says:

I am from a different generation(I was born and raise in Cuba in the early 80s)But when I got to Miami and it is great, very similar to a Cuban household. I used to watch the show everyday on channel 2
I just met Ana Margo today in the Cuba Nostalgia fair and my dad met Steven Bauer last year when selling him a mattress.

Posted on 05/19/2008 at 12:26 AM

Barry says:

I used to watch this show on PBS in San Diego, CA as a teenager.  Although it has fun with ‘Espanglis’, it does a great job of teaching both languages - infinitely more valuable as a teaching aide than the crud my Spanish teachers used to make us endure.  Kudos to the writers.  Of course, I also watched because Carmen was a hottie smile

Posted on 11/02/2008 at 5:04 AM

Martha Portal says:

I loved QUE PASA USA.  I wished there would be more comedies like that. The actors were all Great. Those were the days my friend.

Posted on 11/13/2008 at 10:01 PM

Hildy Toohey says:

I was saddened to read that the grandparents passed away.  They to me were the show.  I loved the episode when the grandmother thought she was being sent to a nursing home but the parents were just going to the “nursery” to buy roses for the garden.  Grandma had me lol.  Miss the show although I don’t speak Spanish, but if you come from a home of immigrants you relate.

Posted on 11/15/2008 at 4:55 PM

Burger Beast says:

I just recently got the box set and it’s well worth the $100. It brought back some good memories of my family sitting around the tv in the last 70s and early 80s watching the show after dinner. If I remember correctly it was on the same night as Mork and Mindy, possibly Thursdays. If you’ve never seen it, you really don’t know what a great show you’re missing out on.

Posted on 04/13/2009 at 4:43 PM

Octavio Ricardo De La Roz says:

I’ve had the collection now for a couple of years. I think that we have seen all episodes over 1000’s of time. Each time we watch it, it brings back wonderful memories of our youth. We have lived in Miami over 41 years. Que Pasa U.S.A. clearly depicts how my family grew up and lived in a multi cultural city. I loved the abuelos, they were the best!!! Que Pasa U.S.A. is priceless. It is an icon, in the wake of the Cuban American Experience.

Posted on 10/24/2011 at 9:49 PM

jorge says:

this program is the mirrur image of how the cuban family really lived in those days every time i see one of the actors on tv.makes me think back to how my whole family sat around the tv.watching it

Posted on 05/30/2012 at 11:25 PM

Armozec says:

This was a funny show. I used to watch it more than 10 years ago.
I would mostly watch it because of carmen and sharon.
Violeta and marta were funny as hell.

Posted on 10/26/2013 at 12:33 AM

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