Meet America’s first Latino astronaut: José Jiménez (audio video)

Just around the time actual Latino astronaut José Hernández was born, actor and comic Bill Dana (not a Latino) got famous playing José Jiménez, a sweet but dimwitted astronaut with a thick Latino accent.

It was the beginning of the Space Race and astronauts were America’s new heroes, but the very idea of a Chicano in space was a joke.

Dana plays up the absurdity in this nightclub routine recorded at the legendary hungry i in San Francisco’s North Beach. (This clip seems to take a little extra time to load, but it’s worth the wait!) Dana never makes fun of Jiménez but rather uses Jiménez to make fun of the system. Jiménez is Everyman.

Times changed, though, and ethnic humor like Dana’s began to attract more scrutiny.

And don’t dis Bill Dana. The story has a happy ending:

Perhaps surprisingly, the character of José Jiménez caught on amongst the seven Mercury astronauts, and Dana became good friends with them. “Okay, José, you’re on your way!” Deke Slayton quipped as Alan Shepard’s famous first flight launched, in reference to the astronaut parody. For his role as José the Astronaut, Dana was officially made an honorary Mercury astronaut. (Ironically, there was a real test pilot named Bill Dana, who flew as high as 59 miles up and qualified for NASA’s Astronaut Badge.)

As time passed, Dana realized that such ethnic humor was becoming offensive, and Hispanic groups began protesting Dana’s portrayal of the dim-witted Hispanic character.

In 1970, Dana announced to ten thousand Mexican-Americans attending a cultural pride festival that “after tonight, José Jiménez is dead,” later holding a mock funeral for José on Sunset Boulevard. In 1997 Dana received an image award from the National Hispanic Media Coalition.