Que Pasa U.S.A.? Why Abuelo Can Be Himself
I’m starting to watch Que Pasa USA, a show that was on PBS when I was a little kid. It was the first bilingual sitcom on TV in the United States, and focuses on the cultural clashes and experiences felt by the Cuban exile community after the first waves of immigration in the 60’s and 70’s. The show itself is a product of education funding provided during Jimmy Carter’s administration (a beloved tv show for the Cuban American community that may have only happened under his kind of presidency… so much irony).
The show is a fascinating time capsule. While many people of Cuban heritage that are my age can find parallels between the Peña family and our own, our experiences came decades later in a much different Miami and America than the Pena family experienced.
The characteristics and attitudes of each generation in the Peña family are those which are common for our families, even decades later. A younger generation that grew up in the United States, their parents who are bilingual and speak accented English, and the grandparents, who barely understand a word in English and get through the day grumbling and joking about how silly Americans are.
But the Miami of the 70’s was not the Miami of the 90’s. These questions of identity and cultural clashes felt back then were less frequent and not as significant later. The bands of dark espresso were still swirling around in that small cup along with freshly poured milk. By the time I was a teenager this was a smooth and finished cafe con leche. Miami’s culture had emerged. And we grew up in this bubble, not realizing that we spoke an accented English even though it was our native langage, or that grocery stores in the rest of the United States kept our common household items and brands in something called an “ethnic [or hispanic] foods section”.
This little bubble was possible because of the attitudes of Cuban immigrant generations before us. They insisted on keeping traditions and made their choices on what compromises they would make with Anglo-American culture. Watching this episode I linked to, you can see the different attitudes each generation has towards language; their attitudes towards culture are really well represented by that, too. The scene where abuelo thinks the Goodwill pickup guy is the dishwasher repair man demonstrates the ordinary and common attitude that Cubans of that generation have had towards Americans, and culture in the United States.
To those of us who grew up in that Miami bubble, abuelo’s attitude seems quite ordinary and charming in its familiarity. Those of us who have never examined the United States outside of that bubble won’t understand how significant this attitude is, though. He is the immigrant, and he is treating all the Americans as if they are the ones who need to learn his way of life. He considers himself to have at least equal standing with them, if not more. People in the bubble don’t realize that this is strikingly different from what a lot of other immigrant groups have experienced.
The unambitious mind may chalk this up to a Cuban “can-do” attitude , or something like that. The belief that we are a special group of people in our ability to succeed, or that we work harder than everyone else. Some may also say that this attitude is what sets us apart from other immigrant groups. There are a lot of Cuban Exceptionalists out there that would explain abuelo’s attitude and the success of the exile community with any answer that boils down to: “it’s because we’re better”.
Bullshit. I love my heritage. We’re awesome, but that’s like me telling you I have a cat that is so much better than yours because I think he’s awesome. Of course I think he’s awesome. I have affection for him, he’s my cat.
Abuelo is under no pressure to change. He isn’t experiencing a heavy dose of racism, he isn’t experiencing a consistent and discriminatory period of economic hardship. He has strength in numbers because of all the exiles that poured out of Cuba into the same city at the same time. He has the benefits of whatever wealth emigrated from Cuba along with all those exiles into the same city; wealth owned by people like him who will invest in him and other exiles. He benefits from being part of a community of exiles of which many were highly-skilled and highly-educated workers, who can—thanks to the investments from the wealthiest of exiles—create wealth that stays within the exile community. He also benefits from being part of a community that, while mixed in various skin colors, is mostly light skinned enough to get a pass on that, too. The icing on this sweet, sweet cake is the support given to the Cuban exile community by the United States government. How can anyone even begin to compare that with the experience of Mexican immigrants, for example?
On a personal, one on one basis, I have plenty of reason to believe that Anglo-America treats Cubans with the same disregard and apathy as they do any minority groups. In the big picture, they rigged the system to impersonally give us a pass here or there and a leg up in establishing our exile community. Not because we’re special and they like us, but because the Cold War was happening. Cubans fleeing en masse to the U.S. from scary, communist Cuba was a great pro-capitalist propaganda opportunity that couldn’t be missed.
Some might be quick to point out various instances when the Cuban exile community has been hurt by U.S. policies and decisions. That isn’t evidence of us NOT getting preferential treatment from the United States, but it is evidence that Anglo-American society doesn’t have any more affection for the Cuban exile community than they do for any other minority. I would argue that they’d have done worse if the Cuban exile community wasn’t viewed as a valuable political tool.
So why go through all these thoughts about the Miami bubble and etc when I had originally been writing about an old TV show? Because we were originally noting why abuelo’s attitude towards America is so significant. I had written earlier that the Cuban exile community made their own choices about what compromises they would make with Anglo-American culture. "Made their own choices". It’s not like we were the only people to ever think of that. Come on. It’s that we happen to have had the POWER to do that.
Thanks to that power, abuelo is mumbling about how stupid Americans are for not understanding him instead of being on his best behavior. His family is allowed to feel like they are getting what they deserve for their hard work instead of needing to organize for worker’s rights. He gets to make his grandkids speak Spanish, instead of tell them to speak English only and struggle to make sure they fit in.
I’m finding that in between moments of endearing familiarity and moments of blatant corniness, this TV show provides some food for thought on the attitudes and questions of identity that created the Cuban exile community currently in existence today in Miami, of which I am a product.