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Donde Muy Pocos Latinos Han Ido* : 'Star Trek': After 30 years, a Latino is first officer--one small step, but hugely welcome.

March 19, 1995|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is deputy editor of The Times' editorial pages

How do you say "Beam me up, Scotty" in Spanish?

I ask only half-jokingly. Because word is getting out among Latinos who are also fans of "Star Trek"--like me--that we're finally a big part of the science-fiction universe envisioned by the late Gene Roddenberry.

I have been a loyal Trekker ever since the very first "Star Trek" TV series in the late 1960s, but I confess that it was sometimes a bit painful to note how the racially mixed crew on the original Starship Enterprise hardly ever included Latinos.

Jesus Salvador Trevino, a veteran screenwriter and director, wrote to The Times' Calender section some years ago that he was still waiting for the "Star Trek" episode that would explain how all the Latinos in the universe had been "wiped out by some horrible intergalactic disease."

Luis Reyes, author of "Hispanics in Hollywood: An Encyclopedia of Film and Television," made the same point in discussing his authoritative new book. " 'Star Trek' was supposed to be the future and there were no Latinos," he said in a Calendar article. "Now what does that say about us?"

In fairness to Roddenberry, who died in 1991, and the many other creative people who have continued his endeavor, Trevino and Reyes were overstating things--but not by much. I can recall a pivotal episode in the original NBC series where Mr. Spock, the science officer from the planet Vulcan, is court-martialed and the presiding officer is a Starfleet commodore named Mendez. Ricardo Montalban played a villian in the old TV series--the renegade scientist Khan. And there were references in the more recent TV series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation," to a Starship named Zapata, apparently in honor of a hero of the Mexican Revolution.

So it's not like Latinos were invisible on "Star Trek." But they had no continuing role until the premiere in January of the new series, "Star Trek: Voyager." Robert Beltran portrays the starship's first officer and the chief engineer is named Torres. So finally Latinos are on a par--if not exactly of the same rank--with Capt. James T. Kirk, the macho American who commanded the original Starship Enterprise, and Capt. Jean Luc Picard, the erudite Frenchman who took over the bridge on "The Next Generation."

Some TV reviewers noted that the "Voyager" crew, with a female captain, a Korean communications officer and a black Vulcan, may be the most politically correct since the cast of the original "Star Trek" series. That crew had a Japanese navigator, a Russian helmsman, a ship's engineer with a thick Scottish burr (Scotty, of the oft-repeated gag line) and an African communications officer named Uhuru.

At this point, fellow Trekkers are probably thinking that I am making too much of the Latino presence on "Star Trek: Voyager." After all, Roddenberry's idealistic vision was of a future where humans overcome their racial, ethnic and nationality differences to make peace on Earth and move on to explore the stars. But these things do add up in their small way. No less a fan than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once told actress Nichelle Nichols that her continuing role as Uhuru was an important milestone for African Americans.

If an actor named Beltran and a character named Torres give some Latino kids the idea of having a career in space science--or even science-fiction--they will represent a breakthrough that

Gene Roddenberry, who once worked as a Los Angeles cop and knew this city's tough barrios, would surely have appreciated.

* Where Few Latinos Have Gone Before

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