Cultural details are sprinkled throughout Netflix’s One Day at a Time. Abuelita’s cafetera (coffee maker) and her salsa-playing alarm, the quinceñaera photo album, Penelope’s guayabera shirt, and even Echo Park, where the Cuban-American family lives. But there is perhaps no moment more Cuban than when neighbor and landlord Schneider walks into the Alvarez family’s apartment sporting a Che Guevara T-shirt.
“Do you have any idea what this come mierda did?” In one line, Penelope (Justina Machado) calls Schneider (Todd Grinnell) out for unknowingly offending the family and uses one of the most popular curse words in Cuban Spanish to do so. (Literally, come mierda translates to “shit-eater,” but its actual meaning is closer to something worse than asshole.)
“Viva la revolución!” Schneider cluelessly says. As Penelope — and the rest of the family informs him — this is akin to him wearing a shirt with Hitler’s image on it in a Jewish family’s home. The polarizing Argentine Marxist revolutionary served as Fidel Castro’s second-in-command during the revolution that toppled the Cuban government in 1959. “He burned books, personally he banned music, he personally oversaw executions, he’s a mass murderer!” adds the 14-year-old Elena (Isabella Gomez). After Guevara left Cuba and was executed in Bolivia in 1967, he gained a martyr-like status in some countries, which explains the popularity of his image.
But never for Cuban exiles.
“We live in a world where people can have opinions and spread things about something they don’t know anything about,” says co-showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett, whose own family is the foundation for the revival of Norman Lear’s ‘70s hit show. “There is a danger to that, and it seems like such a ripe opportunity for us to laugh and make fun of something but also talk about something real. You see these shirts a lot. It’s interesting that people are putting things on their bodies without knowing what it represents.”
In cities like Los Angeles, Che Guevera merchandise is everywhere. Calderon Kellett wanted to address that in the show because of something that occurred when she and a friend stopped at a Cuban coffee shop, and El Che shirts were on sale.
“My friend went off on the owner or attendant: ‘What the hell? You’re not Cuban obviously!’” she recalls him saying. “It was so empowering to be standing there and seeing this man who is so smart and articulate break it down, because when I see these things, I get so emotional that I shut down. When we were doing the show, somebody made a joke at some point that made me think, How could we not touch on this?”
The scene is the cold open of “Viva Cuba,” the poignant ninth episode, which reveals that abuelita (Rita Moreno) left Cuba under Operation Pedro Pan, a program that provided safe haven in the United States for children without their families. (About 14,000 children left Cuba under the program.) “The character of Schneider is one of those well-meaning bobos so we decided that, especially for the episode that ends up being about Cuba from a different point of view, we’d start off with this,” Calderon Kellett explained.
Even some of the writers working on the show were surprised to learn how Cubans react to mentions of Che Guevera. “So many of them did not know!” Calderon Kellett said. “In fact, we watched a lot of videos online and there were was one where some teachers were on strike and they were wearing Che Guevara T-shirts. And somebody asked them if they know what that means and they said, ‘Yeah, revolution!’”