HOLLYWOOD -- Actress Bertila Damas is proud of her Cuban heritage, but it grates her to be considered only for 'Latin' parts, or 'Latin' or 'Hispanic' at all.
Cuban women -- considered in particular, as they should be -- are not really fiery Lupe Velez-type explosive spitfires, Damas explains quietly and cooly.
Damas appears with Dan Aykroyd and John Candy in 'Nothing but Trouble,' and co-stars with Jimmy Smits and Greta Sacchi in 'Fires Within,' to be released in May.
Although born in Cuba, Damas was 3 years old when she moved with her mother to Florida. She is now an American citizen and she insists on making a distinction between Cubans and other Caribbeans and South and Central Americans, all of whom are commonly lumped into one category -- Hispanics -- by many North Americans.
'I think it is important for me to be allowed to retain my ethnic identity,' she said in an interview. 'At the same time, I don't believe I should be thought of only for 'Latin' parts.'
Damas is part of a growing Cuban community in Southern California, a close-knit group who hang out socially whenever possible.
'I know the best of the Cubans who work in Hollywood,' she said happily. 'I don't know why, but we're very clannish, something like the Italian and the Jewish communities -- very responsive to each other.
'Originally, 'Fires Within' was called 'Little Havana.' It's about Cubans in Miami. We shot part of it in Florida and part of it here. It wasn't about the Cubans who came here 30 years. The characters are a younger generation, Marielitos, named after the area they left Cuba from.
'The picture was a wonderful opportunity for Cuban actors and other Cubans who worked as extras and bit players. The same thing happened on locations in Miami.
'There is a growing group of Cuban-born performers working here. I can think of Elizabeth Pena and Maria Conchita Alonso and, of course, Andy Garcia. We also have agents, directors and producers coming along that nobody really hears about.
'One of the most important is Cynthia Cidre, who wrote the screenplay for 'Fires Within.' We became friends on the picture.
'I play the best friend of a woman who is married to a political prisoner who is about to be released. The wife is played by Greta Sacci. '
Despite emerging Cuban-American movie talent, Damas laments the lack of opportunity for them in mainstream films, a common minority complaint.
Before coming to Southern California she studied at the Circle in the Sqaure Professional Workshop in New York and with drama coach Stella Adler. She made her Broadway debut in Joseph Papp's Shakespeare Festival playing Juliet in 'Romeo and Juliet.'
She first gained recognition in 1987 as the leading lady in 'Angelica Mi Vida,' a soap opera in Spanish for the Telemundo network. She still is recognized by viewers.
'What is difficult for most people to understand about Cubans is that we are a culture, not a race,' sh7g 'There are all kinds of Cubans. We have Chinese-Cubans, Arab-Cubans, Jewish-Cubans. I'm a Mediterranean-Cuban, born in Havana.
'I'm not sure why, but there doesn't seem to be as much discrimination against Cubans in America as there is toward Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Maybe it's because we didn't come to this country for the same reasons.
'Most Cubans didn't leave home to escape poverty, but to get away from political oppression. A lot of us were exiles, welcomed as visitors all over the world.
'The Cubans who arrived in the last 10 years or so are regular middle class people. It didn't reflect well on Cubans when Brian De Palma made 'Scarface.' Cubans didn't like that picture. Sometimes moviemakers should try to be a little more fair.
'Cubans are ambitious and industrious. Wherever you find a lot of us, there is usually plenty of activity. Miami is a good example, a city that provides political asylum for Cubans, and now South Americans too.
'Realistically, I know there aren't going to be a lot of movies made about Cubans, so I have to count on playing roles that have no nationality.'
It helps that Damas speaks faultless English. And while her looks are far from Nordic, she can play any role that calls for an American female.
'We'll see what happens,' she said. 'I hope to be acting for the next 30 years in this country. I sure don't want to return to Cuba to live.'NEWLN: