This Is What Happened When 5 Cubanas Sat Down to Watch Netflix’s ‘One Day at a Time’

Photo: Michael Yarish. Courtesy of Netflix

This year’s Golden Globe Awards are not only noteworthy for handing over a statuette to Tracee Ellis Ross for her performance in the TV comedy Black-ish (the first black woman to win in that category since 1983) and to the creative team behind the weird, yet critically-acclaimed series with an all-black cast Atlanta, but also for simultaneously shutting out Latinos. Three of our own received nominations this year (Gina Rodriguez, Gael García Bernal, and Lin-Manuel Miranda) along with the Chilean drama Neruda, but we got zero wins.

It’s proof that we still don’t have enough roles for Latino actors on television or in films. But, Netflix’s new show One Day at a Time will undoubtedly change next year’s awards season. Rising out of the ashes of the Latino sitcom graveyard (RIP Cristela and Telenovela) and already outdoing the glowing reviews Jane the Virgin pulled in after its premiere, this Cuban family comedy is guaranteed to garner loads of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for its dynamic leading ladies.

Set in East Los Angeles and starring Rita Moreno as a flirty abuela who never leaves the house without a full face of makeup on, it shines a spotlight on Cubans living far away from the exile community in Miami. Detractors have questioned the choice to set it in Echo Park, a neighborhood often thought of as a gentrifying Mexican barrio, but the area’s Cuban ties go back 50 years. In the sixties, after Castro’s revolution turned Miami into an overcrowded makeshift refugee camp, the US government began a voluntary resettlement program. It’s estimated that 14,000 Cubans moved to California. Soon after, bakeries selling pastelitos and restaurants serving ropa vieja began sprouting up nearby.

It’s not by accident that in the opening episode single-mom Penelope (played by Justina Machado) carries home a bag from Porto’s, the famed bakery that’s been serving Cuban pastries and delicacies to hungry Southern Californians for more than forty years. It’s those small moments that offer a peek into the showrunners’ commitment to authentic details. It’s Cuban-American writer and producer Gloria Calderon Kellett‘s insights that lend such specificity to the show.

After joining up with Mike Royce to rework legendary showrunner Norman Lear’s classic sitcom, she and Royce hired a team that could dream up storylines that resonated with non-Cuban Latinos. In a roundtable interview last week, Calderon Kellett broke down the demographics of their writing room. “Well, half of our room is Latinx. So it was really fun because we’re different [kinds of] Latinx. So it’s Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Cuban, Mexican. As you’re telling stories you’ll remember things. You’ll remember little moments and go, ‘Oh, we have to do this.’” It’s these same discussions amongst the show’s scribes that help them decide when to sprinkle Spanish words into scripts. “Basically what would happen is, if me or one of the writers would pitch something in Spanish and the room of non-Spanish speaking writers would laugh we’d say, ‘Why’d you laugh? Oh, because it means this, right?’” But how would Netflix viewers, who’ve shown their aversion to Spanish-language content, react?

Calderon Kellett took it one step further in the subtly subversive decision to not translate the Spanglish dialogue. It’s a way of normalizing the Latino experience, of un-otherizing a culture seen as foreign to many in the United States. She explains: “It was a creative choice not to have subtitles. I mean when I was growing up I didn’t know what a Bar Mitzvah was until I saw it on TV. And then I went to my Encyclopedia Britannica and looked it up.” It’s her hope that viewers will be motivated to research words they don’t understand. “We took pains to make sure that there wasn’t so much [Spanglish] that hopefully it would not alienate people but would make people perhaps, dig even deeper and have a two-screen experience and maybe do some Googling as they’re watching,” she said.

One Day at a Time‘s creators sought to write a series that reflected the unique experience of Cuban exiles in the US, while still appealing to a heterogenous Latino audience, and to land jokes that would make any viewer (Latino or not) laugh. It’s a lofty goal. What better way to test out if their formula worked than a focus group? I assembled a group of Cuban-American women to watch the first three episodes and chat on Google Hangouts. Here’s what happened.

Meet our Cubana Focus (Chisme) Group

Alex Alvarez i’m alex. i used to work at buzzfeed and mitu, and am now freelancing. and i’m very excited to meet/talk with you all! i’m cuban from miami, currently in los angeles.

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez I’m Carolina! I’m a student at Barnard College and I use to be the editorial intern for Remezcla. I grew up in Miami and both my parents are Cuban.

Yara Simón I’m Yara. I’m the trending editor at Remezcla. I’m half Cuban, so I’m really interested to hear what you all have to say about this show. I grew up in Miami. I’m also half Nicaraguan.

Cristina Garcia I’m Cuci, I write/play music in a band called Afrobeta and grew up in Miami and still based in Miami. Both parents are Cuban and went to Cuba for first time this year. we played some shows there and are making a doc about our journey

Monica Castillo Hello all, I’m Monica and am a film writer for the New York Times. I’m originally from Tampa, FL and both my padres are Cuban, dad came in the ’60s and mom in the 80s.

Vanessa Erazo I’m Vanessa, the Film Editor at Remezcla. I’m not Cuban, and am just here to moderate the discussion. I’m Mexi-Salvi and grew up in the SF Bay Area (in case you were wondering).

Screenshot of ‘One Day at a Time’
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The Opening Credits Gave Them the Feels

Alex k, already crying

Cristina Garcia Pastelitos and a very american latin song

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez very gloria estefan

Vanessa Erazo Do the opening credits remind you of photos your family had?

Monica Castillo Very Gloria haha

Cristina Garcia yes totes gloria yes, def have those pics

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez Yes! i have pictures like that all over my house back home

Alex i kind of wish the show explained echo park’s cuban history, even for a moment. it has one, it’s just sort of eroded over the years.

Monica Castillo so much to clue you in on their family, the location. I think it’s so well assembled.

Monica Castillo Oh, didn’t know Echo Park’s background!

Alex yeah! there’s a marti statue in echo park!

Yara Simón i saw some comments of people who wondered why this wasn’t based on a mexican family if it took place in echo park

Alex yeah the echo park cubans have definitely moved out over the years. i wouldn’t call it a cuban neighborhood currently by any means. which is a bit confusing on the show.

Courtesy of Netflix
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On How the Set Felt Just Like Home

Alex i spy goya products in the pantry lol. what did you guys think of the set in general, btw?

Monica Castillo Show of hands: were all the art on the walls of the house you grew up in made up of family photos, including family members you never met before?

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez YES!

Alex they needed a framboyan painting for sure!

Monica Castillo Because I had to consult with my grandmother to name all of the Cuban cousins I never met.

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez i like how in abuelita’s room there were those old photos from cuba like how it was in my house

Yara Simón there is a cross by the book shelf I think and Bustelo on top of the fridge

Cristina Garcia i feel like it works.

Monica Castillo Love it, although since my family came a little later, there wasn’t as much religious stuff around.

Yara Simón I saw two crosses and the Virgin Mary.

Monica Castillo But it works, and there’s family pictures everywhere

Yara Simón yeah, lots of black and white pictures

Monica Castillo Always strange in TV show homes when it looks like no one lives there.

Courtesy of Netflix
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On Loving That Cubanisms Go Unexplained

Yara Simón ropa vieja was like a must-eat in my home, i didn’t even know it was cuban growing up. my mom isn’t cuban, and she always made it

Alex i love that they mentioned ropa vieja and didn’t explain it

Cristina Garcia yes ropa vieja a fave

Monica Castillo oh yeah, no explanations on any of the dishes on the show. :insert Cubanisms here:

On the Lack of Cuban Accents

Monica Castillo “You make me sound like I have an accent!” Literally my mom.

Alex i think her accent is mostly pretty accurate when in doubt, lose a few consonants

Cristina Garcia the mom sounds like a new yorker

Monica Castillo Yeah, I feel like it goes in and out for me.

Alex the mom = penelope?

Yara Simón Elena’s Spanish didn’t sound noticeably Cuban

Cristina Garcia ya sorry i don’t know the names

Alex yeah, agree. i think lydia’s accent is pretty cuban-sounding most of the time. penelope doesn’t sound particularly cuban to me.

Monica Castillo Well, Elena’s supposed to not be able to speak Spanish. 3rd gen, right?

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez yes!

Monica Castillo I do like how the show plays with who can make fun of Cubaness and who can’t.

Cristina Garcia im not expecting major authenticity bc it’s hollywoooodddd…also a kid would still have the cuban accent and american-ish learned spanish accent

Alex yeah. i think the accents didn’t bother me too much because i assumed penelope + her kids would be more americanizados

Monica Castillo that too

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez The little brother talks like a Cuban kid from Miami

Alex omg YES the little boy sounded “super pero super” miami

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez SUPER. haha

Monica Castillo Pero forreal

Courtesy of Netflix
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On Puerto Rican Actors Playing Cubans

Vanessa Erazo Justina Machado, (the actress who plays the mom, Penelope) is from Chicago in real life and her family is from Puerto Rico

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez Wait so both the abuela and the mom are Puerto Rican

Vanessa Erazo Yeah, Rita Moreno & Justina Machado are both Puerto Rican

Alex i think most of the actors are puerto rican, no? tbh, that didn’t bother me too much. i would have preferred cubans, obviously, but i think they did a good job regardless.

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez Agreed!

Yara Simón I don’t mind it either

Alex plus rita moreno is an icon!

Monica Castillo I didn’t mind, but talking with a relative about it she said it made her hesitant to see a show about Cubans starring Puerto Ricans.

Yara Simón yeah, I approve of anything that gives me more Rita Moreno

Alex do you think people who aren’t latinx see or know the distinction?

Monica Castillo lol. no

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez I don’t think so

Monica Castillo I’ve gotten the “but your flags are so similar!” answer from someone before.

Alex yeah, same. i feel like any way that the cuban story / issues are brought into american households, it’s a win for me. (like the pedro pan storyline later in the series)

Monica Castillo 10/10 need more Cuban stories where we can.

Courtesy of Netflix
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On How the Show Tackled Mental Health Issues

Alex i love that they handled therapy and medication in this show. and different generations’ attitude towards it.

Monica Castillo Yes!

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez Yes yes yes! I think it gave a real perspective on how mental health is treated in the Cuban (and latinx) household

Alex agree

Cristina Garcia full tears rn

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez same!!

Monica Castillo I’ve never been able to talk to my family about therapy. In my experience, Lydia’s mindset is the dominant attitude towards mental illness, which is if you’re strong enough, you’ll overcome it. I turned into a puddle at least once an episode. And that talk about having a partner was my moment here.

Alex yeah. it’s handled in a way that feels really natural for the characters, too. i feel like it could have easily felt forced.

Monica Castillo I loved this mother-daughter talk.

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez For one episode they do a really good job of intermixing different aspects of cuban culture. just in 30 minutes like wow

Alex i do wanna know where you can find a 4-bedroom apartment in echo park tho. i need to learn from this family’s wisdom.

Monica Castillo I’m 100% on Team Elena calling out every time something goes into stereotype territory.

Monica Castillo I’m about to hit my 2nd cry, brb.

Vanessa Erazo The spooning is so good. Rita Moreno is like so my dad. And I’m like eeew, get your leg off me

Alex yeah i love that the family is super affectionate

Courtesy of Netflix
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On Rita Moreno’s Character Always Wearing Makeup

Yara Simón did your mothers tell you you shouldn’t leave home without makeup?

Cristina Garcia no not my mom. but my friend’s mom would yell at her “Pintate!” i thought it was awful

Yara Simón I have always seen that as a “Latino” thing, but that never happened in my home

Monica Castillo I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup until after my quinces.

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez Yes!!!! My mom bought me my first makeup kit when I was in 8th grade!! She was always on me about wearing make up and would just ask “Not even mascara?”

Alex neither my mom nor i leave the house without makeup. but i think it’s just because we really like it. i didn’t feel pressure from her to wear any. (but leave the house without earrings or perfume? she’d throw a fit.)

On Latinas Getting Their Ears Pierced at Birth

Monica Castillo Ohhhh, so that earring line had me laughing. Freaks people out that I’ve had my ears pierced since I was a few days old. My Cuban doctor did them when my mom asked.

Yara Simón My mom pierced my ears!

Vanessa Erazo How old were you all when you got your ears pierced?

Alex this mansplaining/repeating storyline is too real

Yara Simón a few weeks old, I think

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez I was probably like a couple of months old

Alex i think i was, like, born with earrings on

Monica Castillo If I’m not mistaken, about 2 days old? I thought it was weird my classmates had this big ordeal story about going to Claire’s to get their ears pierced, and I couldn’t remember.

Yara Simón I learned people didn’t pierce their ears as kids from Full House

Alex haha same

Monica Castillo haha

‘One Day at a Time’ photo by Michael Yarish. Courtesy of Netflix
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On Why This Latino Sitcom Is a Winner

Alex this moment is so cute. i love this family

Yara Simón I really liked it. I obviously don’t have the same ties as you guys do, because I was raised in a primarily Nicaraguan household. But I think it’s relatable for someone like me. I do have to keep reminding myself that their version of Cuban-American is different from what I saw in Miami, because they’re on the west coast.

Alex you know, i was really planning on approaching it with cynicism. i think we’re all used to being disappointed by media representation at this point. but i found it so lovely and smart and well-done.

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez i felt the same way!

Alex it feels like a really thoughtfully put-together show

Yara Simón yeah, and I also saw people reviewing it and saying great things about it, but I wondered if they weren’t of the culture, if I could really trust what they were saying.

Vanessa Erazo I think you are right, we are so used to being disappointed with a show about Latinos. We come in apprehensive. It’s hard to get a show like that right, to get the cultural references, generational differences, and then on top of that to land the jokes and have it be actually funny

Yara Simón It’s just nice to see Latinos on screen and not feel frustrated, and I really enjoy Jane the Virgin, but she’s supposed to be so flawless that sometimes it’s not relatable

Alex yeah. it did a good job of being culturally specific to cubans and to a distinctly latinx experience while also being universally relatable in so many ways. it’s inviting anyone into this story.

Carolina Dalia Gonzalez I agree! Yes!