¿Qué Pasa, USA? Desde los 70 Hasta Hoy en Día

By Franklin Rodriguez |

We’ve all had moments in our teenage years where we wanted something really bad but our parents could not necessarily afford it, or where we were worried about being accepted by a group of kids who we thought were popular and cool. These moments can be glorious or bittersweet, and often teach us a lesson about life. In the episode titled “Fiesta de Quince,” of the PBS sitcom ¿Qué Pasa, USA?, these moments are hilariously played out on screen. Carmen Peña is turning fifteen and wants to have a customary grand Cuban Fiesta de Quince (more commonly known as a quinceañera) while her older brother Joe Peña is anxiously awaiting acceptance into the “super cool club” at his Miami high school.

Airing from 1977 until 1980 on PBS, ¿Qué Pasa, USA? was the first bilingual sitcom in American television history. It was also the first sitcom ever produced by PBS and was taped in front of live studio audiences in Miami, Florida. It was created by Manny Mendoza and written by the Cuban-American television screenwriter Luis Santeiro, who won a regional Emmy for his work on the show. Episodes were directed by Errol Falcon and Bernard Lechowick, who also won a regional Emmy for his work on the show. The show featured an entirely Cuban-American cast starring Manolo Villaverde as Pepe Peña, Ana Margarita Martinez-Casado as Juana Peña, Luis Oquendo as Antonio Peña, Velia Martinez as Adela Peña, Steven Bauer as Joe Peña, and Ana Margarita Menendez as Carmen Peña. The show focused on the Peñas, a Cuban-American family living in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, as they tried to adjust to their new American lifestyle.

The show featured an interesting dynamic of identity crisis, as there were three generations living under one roof, and the incorporation of the Spanish language. The show’s use of Spanish was intended to reflect the generational differences that many Cuban- American families faced in the 1970s. The grandparents, Antonio and Adela, speak entirely in Spanish and understand very little English. The parents, Pepe and Juana, speak predominantly in Spanish but are fluent in English albeit with a strong Cuban accent. The children, Joe and Carmen, speak mostly in English but are also fluent in Spanish, although, as many viewers have identified, “one of the running gags of the show revolved around their occasional butchering of Spanish grammar or vocabulary.”

In the episode “Fiesta de Quince,” Carmen is turning fifteen years old. As is custom in many Latin-American cultures, turning fifteen is a rite of passage for a girl into adulthood and is celebrated with a huge party. Cubans call the celebration “Fiesta de Quince,” which translates to “Party of Fifteen.” She, along with her Cuban friend Violeta, explain this to their white friend Sharon, who is humorously clueless when Spanish is being spoken. Carmen really wants to have a big celebration but is not sure her parents will throw one for her, mostly because of her father, Pepe, who is humorously described as tacaño, meaning cheap in Spanish. While in the middle of telling Carmen there is not enough money in the family budget for a Fiesta de Quince, Pepe is interrupted by his son, Carmen’s older brother Joe. Joe pokes fun at Carmen for wanting to throw such a celebration, telling her and their father that such traditions are not modern or cool and should thus be forgotten. Pepe, appalled by Joe’s comments, furiously stands up from the couch and tells Joe that he is wrong and proclaims there will be a Fiesta de Quince and it will be one to be remembered. Joe, on the other hand, is worried throughout the episode about gaining acceptance to the “super cool club” at school. It is determined the Fiesta de Quince will be held at the Peña residence instead of a ballroom. The whole family starts the preparations with Carmen’s grandmother, Adela, making her an amazing traditional Fiesta de Quince dress. The night of the celebration comes and it is a success for everyone except Joe, who is rejected by the cool club for being too “Spanish.”

Although the episode revolves around Carmen’s Fiesta de Quince, the key moment of the show comes at the end of celebration, when Joe is not allowed to join the cool club. Members of the cool club had stopped by for the celebration but mocked the event, calling it a “costume party” before rejecting Joe from the club for being too “Spanish.” This rejection hurts Joe and starts a scene where the whole family has a discussion about identity. The scene puts into perspective the whole idea and purpose of this sitcom. Joe says he is confused and doesn’t know whether he is Cuban or American because he is forced to be both and is seen as one or the other by different people. Joe joining the super cool club at school would thus have signaled his complete assimilation into American society. The members of the cool club are some of the most influential, popular and successful students of the school, all credentials Joe desperately wishes to have.

If you’re Latino, an immigrant, someone thinking about moving to America, or someone who wants to learn Spanish, I recommend watching ¿Qué Pasa, USA? You will learn how immigrants adjust to America from a generational point of view. If you’re an immigrant, you will get a glimpse of the impact moving to America will have on your family. If you’re Latino, as I am, and are struggling with identity this show can offer guidance. As for strictly entertainment purposes, watching this show will be tough unless you understand some Spanish. But if you’re looking to learn Spanish this could be something to watch as most phrases are more or less translated when the teenage characters, Joe and Carmen, are speaking. Being Latino, I found ¿Qué Pasa, USA? enjoyable to watch because I can relate to what the characters are going through and find the Spanish banter hilarious.

Franklin Rodriguez is an English major at Lehman College and a future technical writer. He is a big sports fan and loves reading comic books and playing video games.

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