“One Day at a Time” Brings Even More Heart and Humor and Gayness to Season 2

Carmen: When I pitched this idea, I told my editors that one of my favorite parts about watching One Day at a Time’s first season was watching it with you. I felt like, as a queer Latina who was a teen feminist, who went to Catholic school, who was raised by my Latina single mother in a Caribbean Latinx household — we’re Puerto Rican, not Cuban — there was a lot of connection. And I felt like watching it with you in particular, it gave us insights about each other.

So, I wanted to have a conversation with you about season two. What did you think about this season?

Mamí: I liked season two! I like how they’re advancing the characters this year. I particularly loved how they expanded the grandmother character and Rita Moreno’s work.

Carmen: For people who don’t know, you are a really big Rita Moreno Fan.

Mamí: Yes! I have loved Rita Moreno since I first saw her in West Side Story when I was a child.

Carmen: We don’t have to tell everyone how old you are, but that was a long time ago.

Mamí: Haha! Well, you know, I was a girl when for the first time on the big screen I saw this larger than life, feisty, Puerto Rican woman who was patterned along the same lines as the women I knew in my life. I had never seen that before, in cinema. So, yes, I fell instantly in love with her. I fell in love with her strength, her pride at being Puerto Rican.

Carmen: We were watching an episode this season and I heard you — I don’t know what face Rita Moreno made — but I watched you be taken aback and say, “My god she looks like my mother.” That really touched me, because ‘Bueli (abuela, my grandmother) died when I was a young girl. And I always saw a bit of ‘Bueli in Rita Moreno as well. So I think, just having that physical recognition…

Mamí: Oh yeah, physically, especially as my mom got older, she looked a lot like Rita Moreno’s character on the show. My mother didn’t have an accent, but she still had that deep passionate pride for the island — the language, the food, everything. We did not grow up in a Westernized or Americanized household. For us, it was a big deal to have spaghetti or hot dogs — because my dad ate rice and beans every day.

Carmen: Oh yes, every day! Every day!

Mamí: In the last episode, when Penelope tells the story of her mother not being there when she left to go the army [at 18 years old]— I have a similar story of my mother not being there when I left to go to college.

It was very painful for me to watch that, because it was so raw, so real… so viscerally real. I lived it. I remember that whole trip, and my father taking me, on a train, because he didn’t drive. Eight, ten hours. He was extremely supportive, he always had been. My mother also loved me, so much. But the thing that struck me was, at that moment, at that time in my life, I made a decision to not to ever be that kind of mom. I kept telling myself, “I will never do that… No matter what. If I have children, no matter where they decide to go, or what they decide to do, I will support them.”

Because here it is, 45 years later. And it still hurts.

Yeah, there are… there are… a lot of truths going on in this little show. A lot of truths.

Carmen: I think one of the ways that Justina Machado’s Penelope reminds me of you, is the way that she loves her kids.

We’ve talked about before how deeply protective and loving she is of them. But in particular, watching Elena and her interact remind me a lot of me and you when I was a teenager. And you know, I wasn’t a teenager in Donald Trump’s America, but I was a teenager in George W. Bush’s America, and I remember distinctly almost getting suspended from school for protesting the Iraq War. Seeing Elena in her Catholic uniform, with her protest signs — it makes my heart just leap because I remember that. A lot of Elena’s role in her family reminds my role in our family. Elena is nerdy, and she cares about politics, and she can be an outlier sometimes. But, they love her anyway.

Mamí: You always had that— you passion, your commitment to change, to have an impact. You saw things and you felt things very deeply, and you wanted them to be different. I think you are very much like Elena in other ways, too. You talk about her nerdiness, her passion for her books, for learning. And how different that makes her from everyone in her family. But at the same time her family, particularly her mother, recognizing that’s what “makes her special.”

With you… it was evident you were different, but we loved you. I knew that the majority of our family would simply accept you as you presented yourself. The way I dealt with it, was to have candid conversations with you about how you were different.

We would have those conversations, even when you were a child — a young teen — navigating very difficult waters. And I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but that you would find a way through it that would allow you to be whole. So I think we did a good job, getting through “How do I remain myself, in a space where there’s a lot of pressure to conform.”

Carmen and Mamí

Carmen: And I think that’s what why One Day at a Time reminds me of our relationship!

But also, I guess when I was a teenager, I didn’t think a lot about how tiring it must be to be a single mom. So, I think the show has been very eye-opening about that for me. And I think that’s where I see you and Penelope together. Because you both just… you know, you’re making it work. You got out there everyday, and you made it work. And you made sure your kid felt loved. And you made sure your kid felt protected.

Mamí: Yeah, [when you’re a single mom] you’re responsible… for everything. You know? The challenge of raising a child, and in her case children, as a single mom is daunting. You do have to get up everyday and put on your armor and fight the fight. Because you have no one else to fight the fight for you. You don’t get to stay home, or be sick, or sleep in. That’s just not an option in your life. You get to used to that. For me, I think that made you a more resilient person. And I may be biased, but I think the children of single mothers can grow up to be more self-reliant and well-rounded, because they are forced to be at a much younger age.

Carmen: I think one of the things we were both were moved by, right at the first episode, was the show’s conversation about race. Papito — Alex — he get’s told, “Go Back to Mexico.” And it turns out he’s been called a “Beaner.”

Mamí: Mhhhmm, I think they chanted “Build a Wall.”

Carmen: But I think, one of the things we were struck by, or at least I was, was that at the same time that they are talking about how white people are viewing them, with Alex being talked to as if he’s a threat, with white people seeing their Latinx family as a threat — was the way the show also approached that Elena doesn’t have to deal with that day-to-day overt racism. Because of her white privilege. It felt like you were really invested in that.

Mamí: Oh I loved, absolutely loved that they decided not just to look at externalized racism, but to also look at our own internalized cultural racism. Which is constantly punctuated throughout that episode by Rita Moreno’s line, “But mostly white…”

Carmen: Yes! So, Penelope says “Cubans can be anything.” And then Abuelita says,

Together: “… But mostly white!”

Mamí: And that is a comment that I heard my entire life. Because Latinos from the Caribbean do cut the swath. We can be black or brown or white. We have internalized those same cultural beliefs, the ones that say that the lighter you are the prettier you are, or the more accepted you will be, the better your job opportunities. We still privilege whiteness, even within our own community, at the same time that we are discriminated against by others for not being “white enough.”

Elena makes a comment that she hasn’t experienced any [racial discrimination]. And her family has to tell her, it’s because you look white. And unlike her grandmother, she doesn’t have an accent. So, they finally give her a pet name, Blanquita. Those kind of personal loving nicknames, they reminded me of our own family as well.

Carmen: And I kinda love that they didn’t explain it. There wasn’t a stop to the audience that says, “Blanquita is a diminutive of “Blanco”, which is Spanish for “white.” They just expect that you are going to catch up.

Mamí: And then Elena owns it! She becomes “Blanquita dot com” or whatever, the gamer!

Carmen: Yes! She makes the nickname her handle in the gaming episode! There is a pride. At first she felt a bit separated from her family because of her privilege, but then she finds a way to connect to her Cuban heritage through that. The ways we understand racism and racial privilege internal to the Latinx community — the writers really found a way to talk about it and translate that so beautifully to television. That was really striking for me.

Mamí: Yeah, that was a really complicated conversation. And I thought they handled it so beautifully and insightfully. They shed light in a way that allowed people to understand things, without necessarily being on the defensive.

Carmen: So, flipping this around a bit. There’s a lot about One Day At A Time that we have in common, we have those mother/daughter connections, and our Latinidad, but one of the things that I love about the show is that it is multilayered. So where you and I may connect on certain things, there is also space for learning experiences.

What I’m leading into is the conversation about pronouns. One of the other Autostraddle Staff Members, Valerie, tweeted that One Day At A Time let her have a conversation with her mom about pronouns and that’s why representation matters. I laughed and tweeted, “Me too!” You and I actually stopped the episode to talk about pronouns when it happened. I wondered how that felt for you, to be able to watch it and have a learning experience about LGBT culture and explanations of difference.

Mamí: It’s interesting. I knew there was a conversation about pronouns going on — you know, out there in the world. But, it had not walked in to my house directly. The TV show did that. It brought it front and center. It made me curious, it allowed me to have an educational conversation with you that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. And that doesn’t happen very often in the sitcom world, I think.

Carmen: I agree! I don’t know if I’ll ever really get to see a lot of shows that reminds me so much of our culture —  We’re Puerto Rican, but their inside jokes are often specific to Latino or Caribbean culture — and still allow us to have a conversation about gender and sexuality that we maybe otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I think that’s what makes the show so special.

So, then the last question I had… and this is a bit harder for me, but we haven’t yet talked about what was the most difficult part of the series for me, which was when Penelope was dealing with her depression. I cried throughout that entire episode. I’ve talked in little bits about my depression on Autostraddle, but not in a significant way yet, and I guess one of the things that got to me was watching you watch Rita Moreno’s character navigate how she can best help her daughter.

I was reading, and one of the things that the One Day at a Time writers discussed was their feeling that in Latinx communities, we still don’t talk about depression. I think that’s true — I think that’s true for a lot of people of color. And I know it’s not something that I always feel comfortable talking about. But… I guess I wanted to take their bravery as a moment to be brave myself, and say that’s a part of the show that really connected for me — as a Latina, who’s in my 30s, who struggles with depression. And as the parent of an adult child with depression, you often have often had to help me deal with that. I wondered how that episode felt for you?

Mamí: That’s very hard for me to talk about. It was a really hard episode, for me. Yes, we don’t talk about it as a real, life altering, entity in our community… definitely we don’t talk about it enough. I think that when people do talk about depression or anxiety, it is perceived as weakness. And sometimes I feel like it’s my role to protect you from that.

I connected with the mom… who is just trying to help her child.

That episode gave me a lot to think about. I am still thinking about it. I don’t have any answers. But, it was a very, very good catalyst for me to start thinking about what we need to do as a family to help each other through.

Carmen: Ok, we’ll stop here. I want to thank you for doing this with me. I love you, Mamí!

Mamí: I love you, too.

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Carmen is Autostraddle's Associate Editor and a black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but has left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, MI, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow at night. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 114 articles for us.