Cast of 'Que Pasa, U.S.A.'
A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune of sharing a cafecito
with Luis Santeiro, the head writer for the most poignant and impactful television show I have ever watched, Que Pasa U.S.A
. In Santeiro’s subtle observations and soft-spoken mode lies the foundation of the earnest portrayal of the unforgettable Peñas, who 35 years and thousands of reruns later, still encapsulate the heart and soul of Cuban Miami.
Every time I see Luis, I ask what throngs of Que Pasa
fans often query, “What would be of Carmensita, Pepe, Joe, and Juana today?”
“I think they would have remained in Miami, maybe not Little Havana but certainly, in the area,” Santeiro said. “The one thing that is for certain is that through the trials and tribulations that they would have undoubtedly faced, the Peñas would have retained their dignity and proudly maintained their Cuban-American identity.”
In real life, Velia Martinez and Luis Oquendo, who formidably played the grandparents on Que Pasa,
have long since passed. However, like in many Cuban-American households, the imprint left by the abuelos
is palpable. “The memory of their sometimes quirky traditions and their steadfast beliefs and values still shape many Cuban-American families today — the Peñas would have been no different,” said Que Pasa’s
main scribe. And it is precisely this almost documentary quality of the show that made it the iconic Cuban-American staple that it became.
Like most Cuban kids growing up in Miami in the 1970s, I was doing my best to fit into American society. For me, the most important promoter of Americana was television. I grew up on Norman Lear sitcoms (All in the Family, Good Times)
, bad game shows and the hugely popular gumshoes like Columbo, Rockford and Mannix. Television viewing in my house was segregated. My parents and I watched programming in English, while my abuelos
suffered through the early days of Spanish-language television chock-full of over-the-top, Latin American telenovelas
(soap operas) and cliché-ridden variety shows; I guess not much has changed there.
Outside of sensationalized news from Cuba and/or a report of a threatening hurricane in the Atlantic, there were few situations where my entire family would gather in front of the tube.
This all changed one random weeknight in 1977 when my mom, based on a recommendation from a workmate who had watched the first few episodes of this new show, united us in front of the TV set to watch Que Pasa U.S.A.
To many Cuban families, like the Cardonas, the show had an uncanny, revealing feel to it — our Cuban-American Waltons or Jeffersons.
The brainchild of former Miami Dade College sociology professor, Manny Mendoza, Que Pasa U.S.A
. humbly originated from a Health Education and Welfare Department grant that Mendoza successfully applied for and received. Mendoza turned to Jose “Pepe” Bahamonde to produce the show. Bahamonde’s instincts for Que Pasa
were spot on — he is largely responsible for casting the Peña family and the hiring of Luis Santeiro as the lead writer.
Manolo Villaverde’s portrayal of Pepe Peña anchored the show. I remember chatting with Manolo a few years ago and getting emotional when telling him about the impact the program had on my life — particularly the citizenship show, which ends with Pepe telling his wife, Juana, that he will buy another bottle of champagne to celebrate her American citizenship but that the bottle he’s been keeping in the fridge for so many years “is for Cuba.” That episode, like so many, struck a familial chord.
That very conversation had occurred in my home. Interestingly enough, as I shared my story with Manolo, I subtly and embarrassingly tried to wipe my tears only to find, as I looked up, that Manolo Villaverde, was also crying. Que Pasa U.S.A
. represents more than a clever sitcom. It is an X-ray of the Cuban-American soul — a standing tribute to those who produced it, those who passionately portrayed the characters and to the man who took the words from our kitchen tables and immortalized them on television.