¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? Gets a Modern Update for the Miami Stage

The original Peña Family on the set of ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?
The original Peña Family on the set of ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? Courtesy of South Florida PBS and Loud and Live
Say hello, America, we are part of the new U.S.A. People. Listen, people. Let us share what we have today.”

So go the opening lines of the theme song for ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? — words that are as relevant today as they were when the beloved TV series debuted in 1977.
Produced by WPBT Miami, the PBS series was created with funding from a federal grant to teach Cuban exiles how to speak English. The nation's first bilingual sitcom lasted four seasons, but it was more than just didactic entertainment. Over time, its 39 episodes became a cultural phenomenon. English speakers also used it as a tool to learn Spanish. (The title translates to "What's Up, U.S.A.?")

The show documented the life of the Peña family, political refugees from Cuba starting a new life in America. The script reflected the nuances of cultural exchange through hilarious sketches that highlighted a common humanity between Cubans and gringos. Art imitated life — the neighbors in the fictional version of Little Havana were working-class folks doing their best to get by, and their portrayal was heartwarming.

Miami changed irrevocably after the first wave of Cubans arrived, and Qué Pasa captured all the awkwardness of assimilation through scenes that are still funny today. If you haven’t seen Qué Pasa, you might be familiar with its lasting legacy of endearing tropes in more recent pop culture: Jenny Lorenzo’s abuelita character, Hialeah’s Juleisy y Karla, the Sh*t Miami Girls Say video series, and #305Cafecito, Miami’s official coffee hour, celebrate Cuban-ness in America, built on the foundation Qué Pasa laid out decades ago.

The original series is coming back to life at the Arsht Center in May 2018 as the stage adaptation ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? Today... 40 Years Later, produced by Nelson Albareda, CEO of Loud and Live. The Cuban-American Grammy- and Latin Grammy-winning producer has been working on the revival for four years. In the contemporary version, writer Patrick H. Pino brings us to the present, 40 years later. The abuelos are gone, the kids are parents themselves, and the parents are now grandparents to the future Peña generation. Tradition continues on the set: Pino understudied with Luis Santeiro and Pepe Bahamonde, two writers of the original series, and some original cast members also have roles in the new production.

Nelson, who is codirecting with Gonzalo Rodriguez, says PBS cooperated fully in the revival of Qué Pasa as a major contribution to Miami’s Hispanic community. “It’s part of the fabric of the culture,” Nelson observes. “If you lived in Miami, at some point it touched you. I thought it would be great to bring it back.”

A first-generation Cuban-American who is raising a kid in Miami, Nelson has lived to see many things change — yet stay the same. “There are still many universal truths for three generations,” he adds. “I still don’t want my daughter to go out without a chaperone. I’m 41, and though my dad doesn’t ask me to call him, he now asks me to text when I get home.”

And the new Qué Pasa still trades on timeless themes based on a unique moment in Miami’s history. “Today most people working at restaurants are recent-arrival Cubans,” Nelson observes. “It's still the same immigrant story, still acclimating to a new country, trying to strive. Our aim is to recapture the magic of Qué Pasa and what it means today.”

¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? Today... 40 Years Later. May 17 through 20 and May 24 through 26, 2018, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; Tickets start at $29.
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Miami native Maria de Los Angeles currently journeys in northern latitudes but is a correspondent for the Magic City. A community advocate, she pens stories about art, culture, good folks doing good things, women's issues, and only-in-Miami moments.