Film Explores Mysterious Death of Activist/Journalist
KUED will hold a free film screening of a new documentary about a Hispanic journalist-turned activist who died under suspicious circumstances. Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle will screen Friday, May 9 at 7:00 p.m. at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 S. West Temple.
The film will be followed by a panel discussion featuring: Cristina Flores, KUTV anchor and reporter; Lisa Carricaburu, The Salt Lake Tribune managing editor; Richard Wolfgramm, former editor of Ano Masima News; and Jennifer W. Sanchez, former Salt Lake Tribune reporter.
Featuring material from recently released files obtained by the filmmaker, Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle removes Salazar from the glare of myth and martyrdom and offers a clear-eyed look at the man and his times. The film, produced and directed by Phillip Rodriguez, includes interviews with Salazar’s friends, colleagues, and family members, and Salazar’s own words culled from personal writings.
“Ruben Salazar is such a well-known name in Latino history and yet, until this film, the man himself was an enigma," says Latino Public Broadcasting Executive Director Sandie Viquez Pedlow. "By examining the complexities and contradictions in Salazar’s life, the film tells a universal and very American story about the struggle between ethnic identity and assimilation.”
Born in Mexico and raised in El Paso, Salazar got his break with The Los Angeles Times in 1959, at a time when the staff was nearly 100 percent white. But Salazar was not out to correct society’s evils against Mexican Americans; he just wanted to be a top-notch reporter and refused to be pigeonholed as the “Mexican reporter.” Between 1965 and 1968, Salazar worked as a foreign correspondent in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam, then as bureau chief in Mexico City.
But while abroad, a new and increasingly vocal Chicano power movement was growing back on the streets of Los Angeles. For years, the city’s Mexican Americans had put up with inferior schools and social services, and virtually no political representation, but in 1968 thousands of Mexican-American high school students walked out to protest their inferior education. Salazar was the Times’ obvious choice to cover the movimiento, but when asked to leave his prestigious Mexico City gig, the reporter balked — he didn’t want to lose his place in line on the foreign desk to cover a bunch of long-haired kids in East L.A.
Despite his protests, he was summoned back to L.A. and began writing about police discrimination against Mexican Americans, relations between Chicanos and African Americans, and the young radical groups. Soon his articles not only translated the movement for white readers but legitimized some of its claims. The more Salazar reported, the more he struggled with his role as neutral observer. Although he had little in common with the Chicanos in the barrio, something about the movement tugged at him. Because the Times editors showed little interest in the nuances of the beat that they had assigned him to cover, he left his full-time reporting gig in April 1970 for a job as news director of KMEX, a fledgling Spanish-language TV station, staying on at the Times in the new role of part-time columnist.
Salazar’s KMEX position allowed him to provide news about Latinos for Latinos. Meanwhile, Salazar’s column at the Times gave him the opportunity to address the paper’s largely white readership with a freedom that had long eluded him. In both roles, Salazar acted as a bridge between the old ideology of assimilation and the new chicanismo. In an era when the LAPD routinely used excessive force on unarmed citizens, Salazar pulled no punches when chronicling their actions. Unhappy with his reporting, LAPD cops warned him off and Salazar came to believe he was being monitored and followed by law enforcement.
On August 29, 1970, a crowd of 30,000 attended the Chicano Moratorium antiwar protest, the largest Mexican-American rally to date. After an incident sparked chaos and looting, sheriff’s deputies moved into the park, wielding billy clubs and firing tear gas. Salazar was covering the day’s events with a fellow KMEX reporter. With the riot raging, they ducked into the dingy Silver Dollar Cafe. Deputies quickly surrounded the building and, by their account, ordered the occupants to come out. The dozens inside would later testify that they never heard any such commands. Meanwhile, Deputy Thomas Wilson, interviewed here for the first time, fired the first of two tear gas projectiles into the bar. Amidst chaos and choking smoke, the customers crawled out. Everyone except Salazar.
Was the 42-year-old journalist’s death an accident or was he targeted?