No, Ricardo Montalban wasn’t Indian. He looked more like my Nana and her brothers and sisters, olive skinned and dark haired, spoke like them in a softly accented English. He looked more like the Gonzalezes, Almeidas, and Reals that fill the roots of my family tree than a Singh, that is true.
But television casting, like most other racial matters in the late 60s, was beyond problematic. Yes, Montalban was asked to play a South East Asian man. But what was extraordinary was that Roddenberry, after casting Montalban, imagined this villain to be brilliant, mercurial, and charismatic, and a man of color. And a man who had become pigeonholed by the limited roles offered to Mexican actors became one of science-fiction’s most iconic characters.
Being a Latina sci-fi fan is to be a bit of a stranger in a strange land. I love the Walking Dead, but the only Hispanics we’ve seen have been typical gangbangers, however well-meaning. Star Trek has had one lone Latina character, B’elanna Torres. The people with brown skin in the Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones aren’t exactly people you want to be. We’re exotic or swarthy or lazy or thuggish or stupid, and after a while you just give up hope of seeing someone who defies those stereotypes at Phil Coulson’s side or in science blue or on SG:1 or as a tribute in the Hunger Games.
So yes, Ricardo Montalban was Mexican. Yes, his parents were Castilian. Just know for some of us, it doesn’t make this any easier.