Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “This Is It,” the theme song to Netflix’s reboot of One Day at a Time. Sung by Gloria Estefan, this update of the 1975 original urges us to remember that life “is the one you get so go and have a ball.” It encourages us to “enjoy the view,” to “keep on doing what you do,” to “hold on tight” to each other and “muddle through.”
That message reminds me of one of Celia Cruz’s last singles, “Rie y Llora” (“Laugh and Cry”), a song about enjoying life in the moment. What’s good today may not be good tomorrow. If a moment is valuable, then it is the perfect present. If an opportunity comes, then hold on tight and don’t let it go:
Lo que es bueno hoy
Quizás no lo sea mañana
Ten ahí el valor del momento
Ten ahí el presente perfecto
La oportunidad de llegar
Tu verás si te montas en el ya
Y ya no te sueltes
Sound familiar? In the second season of the new One Day at a Time, it seems like everyone in the Cuban-American Alvarez family faces a crisis of their own that reminds them to hold on to each other. Single mom Penelope (Justina Machado) has some trouble getting her groove back with a hot tall dude from her war days in Afghanistan. Teen daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) must learn to find a groove when flirting and dating a cute nerd. Her younger brother, Alex (Marcel Ruiz), is almost too charming, but not enough to dodge racial slurs in the age of Trump. Abuela Lydia (a flawless Rita Moreno playing a generation younger than her age) is as Cuban as ever, especially when, with the assistance of the family’s landlord, Schneider (Todd Grinnell), she follows Penelope’s boss, Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky), to the opera to spy on his date with another woman. Lydia says the doctor is “just a friend,” but her actions suggest she’s much more than casually attached.
None of the characters face these problems alone. The Alvarez family rallies together for tearjerkers and celebrations alike in ways both universal yet distinctively Cuban. When the first season premiered last year, it felt unreal to me at first to watch jokes about la bandera, piercing our ears when we’re babies, dousing ourselves in violet-scented “Agua de Violetas,” or our Cuban nicknames for all Netflix subscribers to see. The show quickly became a way I could get my cultural fix while away from my family, like traveling to Union City, New Jersey, for a solid plate of lechon and a bag of fresh galletas cubanas.
Of course, no community’s always perfect, and ODAAT does a wonderful job of calling out Cuban prejudices just like everyone else’s. We’re imperfect, but we’re family. Sometimes we’re too honest for our own good. Luckily, the show’s never too honest for its own good. Two episodes really stood out this season for their ability to go beyond the culture comforts and heartwarming lessons. Each addressed a serious health concern in the Latino community: mental health and strokes.
The episode on mental illness is remarkably candid. In the first season, Penelope received a prescription for antidepressants for her war-related trauma and began going to therapy. Already, that’s remarkable. Many Latinos who benefit from those services might face the reaction Lydia serves when she finds out that Penelope is on medication. The old-school abuela becomes scandalized, denounces them as “drogas” and accuses her daughter of being a junkie. It’s no wonder, then, that in the second season, when things are going well for Penelope, she becomes self-conscious of having to tell her new boyfriend about all this — and decides to cut off her meds and therapy.
That comes with dire consequences, like an emotional crash that brings her spirits down. Eventually, she finds a good friend, the not-always-with-it Schneider, to listen and help her see hat she needs to go back to taking care of herself despite the shame surrounding the medication. For too many people, Latinos included, even getting to the point of admitting you need help is a sign of weakness. The prevailing belief is that you would only go to a mental-health specialist when you’re noticeably sick, like one visits a doctor. This makes the conversations Penelope shares with Schneider and Lydia more than just plot points. This is entertainment as example: Those talks become a kind of road map for others to broach the subject with their families. They help to break the sense of taboo around mental illness.
If the Alvarez family can deal with it, then mental illness must not be so serious, right? Despite all of the heartaches, problems and fights on the show, there is always a one-liner or awkward situation to break the tension. It’s a heightened sense of finding the silver lining during tough times — a family that picks you up when you’re feeling homesick or down. That upbeat balance keeps the show from going into melodrama and pulls us back from burning out on the story’s more emotional notes.
The same can be said for this season’s finale.
Set entirely in a hospital, the episode picks up after Penelope found out Lydia had a stroke. She’s now had surgery and lies in a coma while every main character in the show — daughter, grandkids, landlord and “friend,” Dr. Berkowitz — visits to speak to her. High blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes are terribly common in almost every Latino family I know, mine included. The conversation in my family didn’t change until my mami became proactive with improving her health. Now she shares vegetarian recipes with my grandmother, emails me random health articles and tells me to try new vegetables in the hopes of keeping our blood pressures in check. It’s never too late to help each other.
It’s not farewell for Lydia, either, thank goodness, but her illness puts her daughter in a tough spot. Penelope had fought with Lydia before her stroke, and much of Penelope’s monologue is about how she can’t leave things like that. Cubans (and pretty much most Latinos) are very particular about our goodbyes. We never leave a person we care about without a hug, kiss and a parting saying. It doesn’t matter if it takes you an hour to leave a party; you say goodbye to all your friends, tías, tíos, cousins and abuelos. What if something were to happen and you never see them again? We live constantly with the thought that we can’t take tomorrow for granted. We love and enjoy things to the best of our abilities because we believe we might not come back. Generations of Cubans in the diaspora are forever marked by the loss of the homeland, and those scars are passed down to children in different ways. One is the belief that you might as well enjoy things while you can and while your loved ones are still here. We could be separated at any moment.
I laugh and cry so much when watching this show. It brings back memories of family gatherings, where we swap stories trying to get everyone at a long dinner table to laugh the loudest. We’re not done until my dad starts clearing the plates, unamused by our screaming, laughing and crying. My mami, abuelos and cousins don’t leave until we’ve cried through a paper napkin or two. For me, watching One Day at a Time feels like being at home in someone else’s house. Its stories are not exactly my Cuban stories, but they are, in a collective way, ours. We either have had those conversations or wish we could have the conversation on the show. Be they about health, upholding our traditions or complaining about the long lines at the local Cuban bakery (in the show’s case, Porto’s), these are conversations I’m glad we’re sharing with outsiders and distant Cuban cousins alike — and that we’re enjoying them now rather than waiting for another tomorrow.
One Day at a Time streams on Netflix.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 22, 2018