He Taught Us All
The life and death of Ruben Salazar continues to reverbrate in the community
A colleague on the Los Angeles Times staff in the '60s left us forever in the Silver Dollar Caf? in East Los Angeles 32 years ago on August 29. I remember him well.
Published on LatinoLA: August 26, 2002
The memories came alive again when I ran across an essay by Chrissie Castro, which she called "Yo Soy Chicana" written two years go and published on LatinoLA.
Chrissie struggled to define her identity and herself. She quoted from an article written by Ruben Salazar in the same year as his death from a deputy sheriff's firing of a gas cannister into the Silver Dollar She found her answer:
"A Chicano," she wrote, quoting Salazar, "is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself . . ." And she went on to recite Ruben's account of the noble ancestry of Chicanos, elevating them to their deserved recognition in the society they live in.
His legacy is that the exploding population in the United States of Latinos who have long been citizens to immigrants from all Latin American countries can call themselves "Chicanos" with heads held high.
Ruben toiled in the vineyards to reach his desk at The Times. At the time it was a newspaper that was newly awakened by its then-publisher, Otis Chandler, to minorities -- Chicanos and Blacks -- long ignored by the the major communications media.
"Hey, this is a good job!" Ruben would insist as we compared notes -- and difficulties -- of getting accounts of the then minority communities we covered onto the pages of The Times.
Born in Juarez in 1928, Ruben grew up in El Paso and got a degree of journalism from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1954.
It was during a stint as a reporter on the El Paso Herald Post that Ruben sharpened his awareness of the second-class citizenship of Chicanos, covering stories and comparing them with the police "blotter" of what had been reported to have happened.
Following seven years of maturing as a reporter on The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and The San Francisco News, he joined the L.A. Times in 1959 for a long valedictory to his career and his dedication to "la causa."
The newspaper opened opportunities for Salazar to range beyond his home turf. As bureau chief of the newspaper's Mexico City bureau, he got his initiation into war correspondence, covering the U.S. troops' move into the Dominican Republic.
Later, Jack Foisie, the bureau chief in Vietnam, summoned him into a bigger war, where his by-lines back home gave him increased insight and reputation as a reporter, no matter where his assignments led him.
La Voz de Aztlan, in their "Heroes of La Raza Series" two years ago, wrote that after returning from Vietnam, Ruben was reporting on the election of Arnulfo Arias as president of Panama when "he was captured and briefly held by terrorists who accused him of being a CIA agent or a puppet of the U.S. State Department."
In late 1969, he spread his horizons farther, taking over as news director of KMEX-TV in Los Angeles while still writing a weekly column for The Times and covering the rise of protest in the Chicano struggle.
It was on a sweltering day in August of the next year that Ruben was covering the National Chicano Moratorium's march in East Los Angeles in protest of the war in Vietnam.
Taking a break at the Silver Dollar Caf? he had ordered a cool beer when deputy sheriffs arrived at the door, presumably looking for perpetrators of alleged violence.
But accounts differ.
A tear gas projectile burst into the barroom, striking the correspondent, who had survived covering wars of nations elsewhere. He died instantly when the missile struck him in the head.
A coroner's jury found only that he "died at the hands of another," but the deputy who fired the weapon that snuffed out Rubin's life was never charged with a crime.
The official position of the Sheriff's office was that it was a "mistake" -- a missile fired when the law was searching for alleged rioters. The County, however, settled a suit by the Salazar family for $700,000.
Ruben's legacy for his enlightenment of a prejudiced society can never be measured in dollars. Paeans of honor have been heaped on him from organizations of journalists, the Chicano press, and university scholars in the humanities. Memorial fund-raising continues on websites listed on the Internet. Schools and parks have been named after him, and monuments put in place. Artistic renderings of the fatal shooting are in national galleries.
But memories are getting vague in the world outside. On Nov. 19, 1999, Robert J. Lopez, a Los Angeles Times staff writer, told of the newspaper's relentless pursuit of government documents about Ruben's violent death.
"The Salazar documents, which include previously classified material," Lopez wrote, "were released (Tuesday) in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed more than five years ago."
Twelve of the 277 pages had been withheld from their report, the FBI said, and some portions of the released documents "were blacked out often," Lopez reported, "often for what officials cited as national security reasons."
Lopez went on to detail the questionable surveillance of the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover's eye on alleged "subversives."
Will the truth ever be known? Most of his colleagues and many of the fading elders in the Chicano community who still remember harbor their own suspicion of what happened on that day in August 32 years ago.
But, Chrissie Castro, we know that you can be proud to say, "Yo Soy a Chicana."
Ruben taught us all.
Paul Weeks was employed at The Times after its afternoon newspaper, The Mirror, ceased publication in 1962, where he was its Washington, DC correspondent. He can be reached at email@example.com