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Cuban-Americans have a special interest in new CBS series 'Cane'

When the new CBS drama ‘‘Cane’’ debuts Tuesday, fans of nighttime soaps will tune in to see a juicy family saga set in South Florida, starring a high-caliber cast led by Jimmy Smits.

So, too, will Cuban-Americans — but they are likely to hold the show to a higher and more complicated standard than other new dramas premiering on network television.

For one, the show is a rarity in prime time. As it follows the fictional Duque family, an upscale Cuban-American dynasty that runs a rum and sugar empire, ‘‘Cane’’ features the largest Latino ensemble on American television. Actors switch from English to Spanish and some Spanglish, with and without subtitles.

The series is also the first prime-time drama to focus on the Cuban immigrant experience. And that has local Cubans and bloggers divided over how well their community will be portrayed. The show has been one of the most searched new programs on this month.

Regla Gonzalez of Roslindale has watched the first episode and she doesn’t like what she sees.

‘‘Middle America is going to be exposed to this show showing Cubans as a generality. It’s going to be a show full of aggression, killing,’’ says Gonzalez, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1971. She viewed the episode courtesy of The Globe. ‘‘Cubans have been well known for helping not only Cubans in Miami but others. It’s very discouraging seeing un balsero [a rafter] stealing from another Cuban. It’s another ‘Scarface.’ ’’

Alberto Vasallo III of Revere has higher expectations.

‘‘My own particular reservation is how accurately they are going to represent a Cuban exile family, which is what I can totally relate to,’’ says Vasallo, whose father, Alberto Vasallo Jr., fled Cuba on a boat and founded El Mundo, a family-owned Spanish-language newspaper in Boston. ‘‘Will it be over-the-top Cuban or mildly Latino? With Cuban-American families, it involves family, food, music but undoubtedly politics. This is a lot closer to home.’’

Vasallo also watched the show’s pilot episode. He said he was surprised but impressed by how well the show captures the Cuban flavor. ‘‘They portray a very strong family patriarch, the food, the music, the big family — it was cool,’’ says Vasallo, who also related to the fictional father and son running the family business. ‘‘That adds another connection for me. It’s like a Latino ‘Dallas,’ when you become very involved in these people’s lives.’’

In the blogosphere, some Cubans are already criticizing the show for its casting, composed mostly of Puerto Rican actors such as Smits and Rita Moreno. Nestor Carbonell, who was recently featured on ABC’s ‘‘Lost,’’ is the only Cuban in the main cast.

‘‘What’s the matter CBS? Can’t find any good Cuban-American actors around,’’ wrote one Cuban-American blog critic who saw the first episode.

Smits anchors the Duque family as its members deal with internal and external power struggles. In the pilot, the Duque patriarch, Pancho (Hector Elizondo), learns that he is dying, as he fights off takeover bids by a bitter rival family. He decides to split his company into four, with 30 percent going to each of his three natural children and 10 percent going to his son-in-law — Smits — whom he adopted as an orphan. Because Smits’ character is married to one of the Duque children, he leads the company.

The show features three generations of the Duque family — the elder Duques, their adult children, and their grandchildren, who are teenagers in Miami. Settings range from sugar fields to glitzy Miami nightclubs.

Characters take breaks at work to drink Cuban coffee, or ‘‘cafe cubano.’’ They eat pastelitos, which are guava-filed pastries. They speak a lot of Spanish at dinner and family gatherings, which viewers don’t necessarily see on prime-time TV unless they are watching Univision or Telemundo networks.

A lot of the Cuban sensibility comes from the show’s executive producer and creator, Cynthia Cidre, who wrote the screenplay for 1992’s ‘‘The Mambo Kings.’’ Cidre, who grew up in Miami, is the Cuban-born daughter of a sugar chemist. She chose rum as the family business because of its Cuban connection.

‘‘[I wondered,] ‘What is the sexiest thing I know about Cubans?,’and rum came to mind,’’ Cidre recalls of her brainstorming process. ‘‘I always wanted to do a show about a rich Latino family.’’

She said she hopes viewers will be entertained by the show’s family story lines and not just see ‘‘Cane’’ as a Latin show. ‘‘I see the world through Cuban eyes. Everything I do will show that,’’ Cidre says. ‘‘I want it to be a fabulously entertaining show that is also really well done; that they are Cuban is almost incidental to it. I don’t want a show about Cuban politics.’’

Yet ‘‘Cane’’ arrives at a time when networks are exploring Latin-themed shows. ABC’s ‘‘Ugly Betty,’’ about a Mexican-American editorial assistant at a Manhattan magazine, was a top-20 show last season. Following suit, NBC is looking to Americanize another popular telenovela.

Media observers say the success of ‘‘Ugly Betty’’ is paving the way for programs like ‘‘Cane,’’ showing that Latin shows can reach a broad American audience.

‘‘We’re the final frontier in all areas, people whose stories haven’t been heard,’’ says Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. ‘‘Everybody wants a piece of us, but they don’t know how to dance with us. We’re good business.’’

Nogales saw the ‘‘Cane’’ pilot and found that the show carried a strong Cuban flavor, from the actors’ intonations to the tropical elegance of the cast’s wardrobes. ‘‘They look like the Cubano types that I see,’’ he said. ‘‘You couldn’t imagine them being Mexican-American because of the way they dressed, the way they spoke. It looked very authentic.’’

Alana Greer, a recent graduate of Boston College, where she was president of the Cuban-American students association, plans to tune in to the show. ‘‘I saw the previews, and I was like, ‘This has to be Cuban people,’ ’’ says Greer, who was born in Miami.

She hopes ‘‘Cane’’ will buck any stereotypes about Cubans being ‘‘rich, right-wing white people, that our political beliefs are one way or that we are automatically of high society in Cuba.’’ She also hopes people will realize that the show is pure fiction, entertainment.

‘‘I hope that other people will take it as that,’’ she said, ‘‘and not the story of what we all are.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at

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