To give the traditional Hollywood "big family holiday comedy" a Puerto Rican flavor, the producers of "Nothing Like the Holidays" had to search high and low for actors to play the sons, daughters, priests and parents. They couldn't be "Puerto Rican" picky. They cast the Colombian-American John Leguizamo, the Spanish-Brit Alfred Molina, and Cuban-American Elizabeth Pena. "Latin" would have to do.

"Years ago, if they had dared to make this movie at all, there might not have been people of Hispanic heritage in these roles," said Pena, a 30-year Hollywood vet, famed for her work in films from "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" to "Lone Star." "The fact that the movie got made, that we're portraying a Puerto Rican family as just like any other family, is a miracle."

Pena is only 47, too young by decades to be Leguizamo's mom, "but I begged them, begged for the heavy makeup, the harsh lighting." Her decades of good work and rave notices ("uncommonly fine" Rolling Stone called her in "Lone Star") and changing Hollywood demographics doesn't mean that she's turning down good work. But Pena, who grew up in New York "in a crazy family of artists," had a lot to learn about Puerto Rican Christmas traditions.

"We celebrated Nochebuena [Christmas Eve] in our house. My mother would make the traditional pork, and the four of us would just go out to a movie. That wouldn't make a very elaborate movie, though."

The film, which opens today, was set and shot in Chicago's Humboldt Park and takes the big family headed by Edy (Molina) and Anna (Pena) on a traditional neighborhood caroling stroll (parranda), dropping in on a Nochebuena party, traditions common all over the Spanish-speaking world.

"I grew up in New York," Pena said, laughing. "There are no parrandas in New York!"

She brought what she knew from her own childhood to her character, a matriarch who cooks too much, dotes on her kids and is determined to leave her inattentive husband. But some of what Pena "knew" she didn't really know, she freely admitted.

"Anna, my character, comes out and serves everybody hot chocolate and she gives them a pastry with it. I was talking with the prop guy and saying, 'You know, she would have baked all this stuff in advance.' I told him, 'Go get a pastel,' and he comes back from the bakery with something. 'That's a tamale. I need a pastel!' Three times he goes to the Puerto Rican bakery and brings back the same thing.

"I have to tell him, 'A pastel has guava and cheese in it.' And they tell him, 'No, that's a CUBAN pastel, not Puerto Rican!'

"So you watch a movie, you learn. You make a movie, you learn, too." *