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Twenty-two years ago I was sitting in a classroom at Goldenwest College in Huntington Beach. It was a Law class at the Criminal Justice Training Center on campus and the Instructor was a retired LAPD Officer who opened the class, as he usually did, with some interesting anecdote or piece of trivia. On this particular day he told us the story of an event that had taken place twenty years earlier.
It was the height of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights and Women’s rights movements were in full swing and at the time more identity movements were on the rise. Notable among them was a growing Chicano movement. He explained how there was had been a large demonstration in East Los Angeles known as the Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War. He was a young Police Officer at the time and could remember the racial tensions and divisions between the police and the communities they worked in. Those tensions spilled over during this event and clashes with police occurred. Police called it a riot, citizens who witnessed the events called it a “Police Riot.” Taking a break at a local bar before the real trouble started was former Los Angeles Times reporter and KMEX Television Commentator Ruben Salazar. Shots were fired, the smell of tear gas was in the air, people were running in all directions and at the end of it all this respected journalist was dead. Our Instructor explained to us the official story. Salazar had been hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired from outside the bar by a Deputy of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. He explained that this journalist had died exactly twenty years to the day, August 29, 1970. Already engrossed in the story (he had many) I was particularly intrigued as it happened to be my 20th birthday. So this man was killed on the day I was born. At the time I was really intrigued by that tiny connection. Today I still am.
He was 42 years old, the age I am as of today, so rather than pick some round year anniversary I thought I would take a moment to remember him today. I am not the only one. His name is on High School and College Campuses, murals have been painted of his image and there is even a painting recreating the events that led to his death. In 2008 a commemorative stamp was issued in his honor. He became a symbol for many, particularly in the Mexican-American community, as a journalist of integrity and mission who wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. So who was he before he became something of an icon?
Ruben Salazar was born in Mexico in 1928. He later moved with his family to Texas. He served in the US Army and later earned a degree in journalism. He worked at several small papers in Texas and then in California before he earned a job with the Los Angeles Times. He went to Vietnam as a Correspondent as well as the Dominican Republic. He was Bureau Chief in Mexico City and eventually returned to Los Angeles in late 1968.
He began to focus his attention and coverage on East Los Angeles and the Latino community. He was a unique figure at the time as one of the only Mexican-American journalists operating inside the “mainstream media.” His pieces were often critical of Los Angeles Officials in general and the LAPD in particular especially with regard to their treatment of Latinos.
In 1970 he left the Times to work for KMEX the Spanish language television station. He was asked during a television interview why he would trade a career with a large mainstream newspaper with an international reputation to work on a small Spanish language station. He quietly replied, “I wanted to really communicate with the people about whom I had been writing for so long. And at the Times I was doing, I think, a job that had to be done, and that is, communicating with the establishment about our problems. But I wanted to try my hand at communicating with the Mexican-American community directly and in their language.” Three months after the interview aired, he was gone.
To this day, 42 years later, there are still unanswered questions surrounding his death. It has been called everything from a tragic accident to an outright assassination. There are plenty of sources to review the facts and questions of the case. Just last year the Office of Independent Review investigated the case and came to the conclusion that the death was an accident. Other groups and organizations have pressed Officials to release more information on the case. We may never know all of the facts about his death but we can know a great deal about his life and work. Felix Gutierrez of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism summed up Salazar’s legacy. “He was somebody who was really bringing people together and bringing understanding. And I think we’re much less, in terms of mutual understanding today, because of his loss, than if we had the benefit of his work over the last forty years.”