Miami’s most culture-defining, groundbreaking TV series is coming back as a stage show. No, not Miami Vice. It’s Qué Pasa, USA?, the bi-lingual story of a multi-generational Cuban immigrant family that made legions of Cuban-Americans – and hyphenated immigrants after them – feel at home in their new country.
Now Que Pasa, created and broadcast by South Florida PBS affiliate WPBT in the late 70’s, returns next May as a live theater show at the Adrienne Arsht Center.
The project was created by Grammy and Latin Grammy winning producer Nelson Albareda, who’s produced Cuban heritage events including major commemorative concerts for singer Willy Chirino and mambo and descarga inventor Cachao.
Though much has changed since Que Pasa’s 1977 launch, from widening bonds between Miami and the island and successive waves of immigration from Latin America, Albareda hopes the show’s updated version will captivate new generations of Cuban arrivals – as well as the Venezuelan, Colombian, Nicaraguan, and other Latin American immigrants that keep renewing Miami.
“The story of an immigrant or an exile 40 years ago is basically the same as it is today,” Albareda said Thursday at a press event at the Arsht Center, which is co-presenting Que Pasa USA? Today with Albareda’s company Loud and Live. “You come to a new home, new country, new culture, new language. The other thing that is very important for all Hispanics is family. Que Pasa USA? was based on three generations – the grandparents, the parents and the children. It doesn’t matter if you’re Cuban, Nicaraguan, Colombian – you resonate with that.”
Judging by the line of TV cameras lined up to cover the announcement, and the reporters excitedly posing with original Que Pasa actors like Connie Ramirez, who played Violeta, best friend of the Peña family daughter, and Barbara Ann Martin, who played American neighbor Sharon, there still seems to be plenty of interest. In this new version, parents Pepe and Juana are now the grandparents, and kids Joe and Carmen are the parents. Tickets go on sale Nov. 20.
The original Que Pasa broke ground in all kinds of ways, some of which are only apparent now. In the 70’s, as shows like All in the Family and The Jeffersons were breaking political and racial barriers on television, it brought a realistic Latino family, with all their Spanish/Spanglish/English mis-steps, miscommunication, and cultural clashes between stubborn grandparents and frustrated Americanized teenagers, across the country. (Que Pasa aired on PBS nationally.) It was So Miami long before the notion of this city’s particuliar character became a hip meme. Thousands of newly arrived and first generation exiles learned English watching the show, and experienced the shocked ‘hey, that’s me’ delight of recognizing themselves in American media.
That experience continues. New cast member Jeffry Batista, 30, came to Miami from Cuba in 2005, with Que Pasa as his guide to high school.
“I said ok, I need to do some studying,” Batista said at the Arsht. “My aunt wouldn’t let me watch TV in Spanish. So the closest to Spanish I could watch was Que Pasa. I related to the characters – it was a Cuban family, it was bilingual. I loved the show.”
Que Pasa USA? Today also capitalizes on a new kind of Cuban nostalgia. It’s not the yearning of exiles for pre-Revolutionary Cuba, but the longing of their children, now well into middle age, and even their grandchildren, for a distinctive Miami-made Cuban-American culture – the cafecito ventanitas, the quinces, the Spanish-flavored suburban enclaves, the sense of a community apart – suffused with a powerful wistfulness and pride.
Whether the live show will approach the impact of the original is very much an open question. The Arsht has presented plenty of programming targeting Cuban exiles, like the off-Broadway musical about the life of Celia Cruz in 2008, and of course the Gloria and Emilio Estefan hit Broadway bio-show On Your Feet! But the only original project it has produced has been the musical Miami Libre in 2008, whose ambitions (and fine score by Tiempo Libre) couldn’t transcend the simplistic sentimental and political themes that made it so appealing to its target audience.
With millions more Latino immigrants in the United States and the mainstreaming of Latino culture, from Despacito to Jane the Virgin, there are plenty of possibilities for a new Que Pasa. But Albareda won’t say what their plans are – yet.
“We are giving it everything we got,” he says. “One of the reasons we’re doing that is that there are endless possibilities.”
Tickets for Qué Pasa, USA? start at $29 and go on sale Nov. 20 at (305) 949-6722 or arshtcenter.org