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Remembering the life of Ruben Salazar

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the death of journalist Ruben Salazar, the first Latino journalist to bring the issues of the Chicano community to mainstream America in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Salazar was the first significant foreign correspondent of Mexican descent, and in 1969 became the first Latino columnist for a major newspaper. Salazar is seen by many as a martyr for the Chicano movement and a popular folk hero in the Mexican American community, but he was first and foremost a journalist who understood the power of the
media.

Salazar was born March 3, 1928, in Juarez, Mexico. He and his family moved across the border to El Paso, Texas, when he was 8 months old. They all became naturalized citizens. After graduating from El Paso High School, Salazar served in the U.S. Army in Germany from 1950 to 1952. He then attended Texas Western College (now known as University of Texas at El Paso) where he majored in journalism.

Salazar was initially interested in becoming a cartoonist but that changed when he was in school and learned of a football game in Texas where the captain of one of the teams was not allowed to play because he was Black. In an editorial printed Nov. 8, 1947, entitled “One American Won’t be There,” Salazar questioned whether in the event of a war whether the U.S. military would refuse to allow the Black player to serve. “How many draft boards would tell Tempe’s football captain: ‘Sorry, but you can’t participate in this war; it is being fought exclusively by whites’? He would have been 19 years old when he wrote that.

Salazar’s first newspaper job was with the El Paso Herald-Post. There he wrote investigative stories on the filthy and uncontrolled conditions of the jail, and the drug trade in El Paso. In the mid-1950s, Salazar moved to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and then to the San Francisco News. He then moved to Southern California where he worked for the Los Angeles Herald-Express, and then, in 1959, joined the Los Angeles Times.

At The Times, Salazar began writing about Mexican-American political and social issues and on the U.S.-Mexico border. In 1965, Salazar got his first foreign reporting assignment to cover the U.S. military intervention in the Dominican Republican, and then later that year was sent to cover the Vietnam War. In the fall of 1966, Salazar left Vietnam and became bureau chief in Mexico City. He returned to Los Angeles at the beginning of 1969 to again cover the Mexican American community, which by now had become more militant.

The Times wanted Salazar to explain Chicanos to Anglos and Anglos to Chicanos. But as the only Chicano reporter at The Times, and one of only a handful of Latinos working in mainstream media at the time, Salazar fought to avoid the mundane to focus on more serious issues facing the Chicano community. He told Newsweek magazine that his editors kept asking for stories explaining Chicanos to white people, but Salazar responded, “When you’ve been a reporter this long, you go for more significant, hard-hitting stuff than telling why people eat enchiladas.”

In April 1970, Salazar left The Times to become news director of KMEX-TV, the then-fledgling Spanish-language TV station in Los Angeles. Not wanting to completely sever their ties with Salazar, The Times made him a weekly columnist for the paper. At KMEX, Salazar produced stories on police abuse in the Chicano community and wrote columns for The Times that were critical of the police. Salazar told friends at the time that he had been threatened by the police and sheriff’s department for “stirring up the Mexicans” and that he felt he was being followed by law enforcement.

On Aug. 29, 1970, Salazar covered the anti-Vietnam War Chicano Moratorium March in East Los Angeles. The march became violent after sheriff’s deputies tried to end the rally by going after protestors and dispersing tear gas. Salazar stepped into the Silver Dollar Café on Whittier Boulevard to momentarily escape the goings-on. While Salazar was inside the bar, a sheriff’s deputy knelt on the street in front of the bar and fired a 10-inch tear gas projectile through its curtained door. Several hours later, Salazar’s body was found inside dead after being struck by the projectile.

Salazar was 42. He left a wife and three young children. An inquest into the shooting found that Salazar died “at the hands of another,” but no criminal charges were ever filed against the deputy who fired the deadly shot or the sheriff’s department. The Justice Department also refused to investigate Salazar’s death.

Forty years later there are still a lot of unanswered questions, in part because the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department continues to refuse to make public eight boxes of records related to the shooting.

In 2001, CCNMA established the Ruben Salazar Journalism Awards to recognize stories that demonstrate journalism excellence while contributing to a better understanding of California’s Latino communities.

Salazar proved that a journalist can be an advocate for empowering a community while still maintaining journalistic integrity. As the Los Angeles Times eulogized him, Salazar was “sometimes an angry man as he observed the inequities around him, yet he spoke with a calm vigor that made his words all the more impressive and influential.”