¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? and the American Immigrant Experience

Those of us who lived in Miami between 1977 and 1980 are familiar with the bilingual sitcom ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? Produced by Miami’s public television station WPBT2, the series chronicled the lives and tiempos of the Peñas, a Cuban-American family who lived in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Though ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? has special meaning for those of us who are Cuban-American, its message is relevant to all immigrant communities.

“¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? was supposed to be a sort-of after-school special to help recently arrived Cubans and their first-generation children adapt to life in a new country with a bit of levity. Instead it became the “Modern Family” of South Florida on a fraction of a Hollywood budget. It was the first bilingual sitcom on television, built on a cast of professional Cuban writers and actors in exile,” according to Miami Herald reporter Carlos Frías. Velia Martínez and Luis Oquendo played Adela and Antonio, the stubbornly Spanish-speaking grandparents; Ana Margarita Martínez-Casado and Manolo Villaverde played parents Juana and Pepe, who struggle to adapt to American ways while remaining true to their traditions; and Ana Margarita Menéndez (Ana Margo) and Rocky Echevarria (Steven Bauer) played their children, Carmen and Joe, who are completely assimilated. Echevarria, whose Latin good looks made ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? popular with South Florida’s gay men, is the most successful member of the cast, using this show as a springboard to a successful movie career under the name Steven Bauer.

While the dialogue in ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? skips from English to Spanish (or Spanglish) and back, one does not have to be bilingual to understand what is going on. The Peñas must balance their loyalty to Cuban ways with life in a strange new world. While the abuelos are content to live in the past; and the kids are happy being American; the parents (especially Pepe) must struggle. Will Carmen be allowed to go out without a chaperone? Will Juana be able to improve herself by going to night school? Will Joe become an American citizen? This last one was a serious topic back in the seventies, a time when many Cubans, like Pepe, refused to become citizens, expecting to return to the island in the very near future. I myself could not apply for citizenship until I turned 18, thus free from my parent’s objections.

Though none of the Peñas were LGBT (that I know of), some of the episodes of ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? has some gay relevance. Like most traditional Cuban fathers, Pepe has a double standard that demands that Carmen remain a virgin but expects Joe to sow his wild oats. When Joe admits that he is still a virgin, Pepe worries that his son is “strange.” In “Juana Gets Smart”, Joe helps his mother by doing housework, wearing an apron. When a woman drops by to get signatures, she sees Joe with the apron and decides that he would not want to sign her petition. (This was a reference to Anita Bryant, who in 1977 led a successful campaign to repeal Dade County’s first “gay rights” ordinance.) In “Joe Goes to Heaven” Joe visits a then-popular Fort Lauderdale gay disco to research a school paper, leading his scandalized parents to think that their son is gay. (Though in those days many of us who were seen in a queer bar claimed to be “doing research,” in the case of Joe Peña this was actually true.)

¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? ceased production in 1980. Still, it remains one of WPBT2’s most popular programs, without period costumes or a British accent. WPBT is currently showing reruns on weekdays at 5 p.m. Meanwhile, according to Johnny Diaz of the Sun-Sentinel, ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? is returning to Miami as a live stage show: “A live stage production of the sitcom – to be called “¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? Today…40 Years Later” – will debut May 17, 2018, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.” This is news for some of the original cast members and creative crew, who forfeited their royalty rights to this “educational” show. Both Villaverde and Martínez-Casado have expressed their outrage that WPBT continues to profit from the fruits of their labor. “We’re well within our rights to do anything we want with it,” retorts Jeff Huff, Chief Operating Officer of South Florida PBS. WPBT uses the show, and its profits, to serve the arts in South Florida. To which I say, “ay caramba!”

Those of you who can’t get enough of ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? should visit the show’s delightfully-bilingual web site (www.quepasausa.org). There you can buy ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? La Completa Collection, a 5-DVD set with all 39 episodios. (I own a copy.) In addition to the regular series, WPBT2 produced a prime time special, The Best of ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?, which features some of this show’s most beloved episodes.

Jesse’s Journal
by Jesse Monteagudo


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