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‘Que Pasa, USA?’: Finding A Family In Your Family’s New Neighborhood

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 14, 2011

NPR has recently started a new series called “2 Languages, Many Voices: Latinos In The U.S.” Among the shows commenters asked about that didn’t come up in the timeline From Ricky Ricardo To Dora: Latinos On Television was a show many remember fondly called ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? NPR’s Lily Percy remembers the show as well from her own childhood.

My family moved from Colombia to Miami in 1986. At the time, none of us knew what to expect. Everything about the U.S. was a mystery. My brother and I were young (10 and 4, respectively) so our fears were not on par with those of our parents. While we missed our friends and family back home, for them the move brought a whole new set of worries, and they were all in another language.

My father had studied English in school, but the rest of us knew only Spanish. And although there was a Spanish-speaking community already deeply embedded in South Florida, the culture was still American and assimilating wasn’t easy. My mother was worried that the longer we stayed in the U.S, the more our heritage and customs would become a part of our past. And as much as my father tried, he couldn’t convince her otherwise.

That is, until he introduced her to the Peña family.

The Peñas were Cuban Americans who lived in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Pepe and Juana had two kids, Carmen and Joe, and they shared their small home with their parents, Adela and Antonio. Like our family, the Peñas were also struggling to find their place in the U.S. They spoke Spanish and English and worked really hard to retain as much of their Cuban heritage as they could. They were a caring and open family, and they were also incredibly funny.

The Peñas became our closest friends. We saw them every day for about half an hour, maybe more if reruns happened to be on. You see, the Peñas weren’t actually real. They were the fictional family at the center of ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?, the first bilingual sitcom on American television.

The show ran on WPBT, the PBS member station in Miami, from 1977-1980. Only 39 episodes were made, but over 21 years after the series ended, the reruns still air regularly on WPBT. In the ’70s, when the series was first created, Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? was intended to reach out to new Latino Immigrants, using the Peñas and their experiences as a mirror to reflect what was going on in the community then. In 1986, when my family immigrated to Miami, the show was still relevant, and ultimately guided us through those first few years. With the click of a dial, the Peñas became a part of our family.

Nearly twenty years ago, my father ran into Luis Oquendo, who played Antonio, the grandfather on the show. It was shortly before Oquendo died of a heart attack. He was at a local fruit stand, and my father approached him with confidence. He wasn’t nervous, and their conversation, my father says, was an easy one. Familiar. The kind you would have with a friend or old acquaintance … the kind you would have with your abuelo. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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