By Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez
For close to 40 years, my memories of journalist, Ruben Salazar, have been of smoke, fire, riots, rampaging police, and his premature death in East L.A. on August 29, 1970. Seared into my memory is running home every day to see the Inquest held into his death. What is actually seared is not the fact that he was killed by a nine-inch tear-gas projectile, fired into the Silver Dollar Café by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy, but rather, that no one was ever brought to justice. Neither was anyone brought to justice for the deaths of Angel Diaz or Lyn Ward, who also died on that day.
After years of memories of injustice, I instead choose to remember him this year on his birthday: Feliz cumpleaños Happy Birthday, Ruben. On March 3rd, this pioneering journalist from Juarez-El Paso should have gotten 80 candles. Instead, on April 22, he will get a belated birthday present his own 42-cent U.S. postal stamp. Also being honored are four other journalists Martha Gellhorn, John Hersey, George Polk and Eric Sevareid.
Lost in the controversy over his death and the violent repression of the National Chicano Moratorium rally (attended by 30,000 people) against the Vietnam War was the historic nature of his journalism. Clearly, he was a journalist before his time and what he reported in the El Paso Herald Post and the Los Angeles Times, from 1955 through
1970, still seems relevant to this day. He covered an unpopular war; Vietnam. He also covered Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the upheaval in Mexico in the 1960s. He also wrote about the anti-war movement, black-brown relations, police repression, the border, the inhumane treatment of migrants, the trouble in the lettuce fields, and social and educational inequalities. In his last interview, he even complained about a meddling vice president who was attempting to stifle press freedom.
While not an activist, his journalism brought the emerging Chicano civil rights movement to the nation’s attention. He defined for the nation in language that mainstream society understood what it meant to be Chicano. On Feb 6, 1970, he wrote: “A Chicano is a Mexican American with a non-Anglo image of himself.” Activists to this day cringe at that description; for activists, a Chicano/Chicana was more than an image, but an unapologetic social and political rebel.
The issuance of a U.S. Postal stamp is a fitting tribute, yet, a stamp is not large enough to convey his life’s work, nor the impact that his death has had upon an entire generation. The lack of prosecution of anyone over his death (or Diaz or Ward) accelerated what anthropologist Victor Turner refers to as a “primary process” or a massive volcanic political eruption. In this case, Mexicans through the organizing efforts of the national moratorium rebelled against years of living a dehumanized existence. It is similar to the process that exploded during the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution and also during the Mexican Independence movement 100 years before against a brutal Spain.
In California, this process can be traced to the East L.A. Walkouts of 1968 and to the even earlier strikes and boycotts of the United Farm Worker’s Movement throughout the country. And yet, it was his death that completely unleashed this process or movement nationwide.
Those seeds of injustice created an instant martyr. Ironically, a primary process can be both an explosive time and a time of intense creativity. Such has been the case in regards to Salazar, though that political activity and cultural explosion which had actually brought him to the protest that day has been mischaracterized by historians as a nationalistic and separatist impulse. My experience tells me quite the reverse; that it was a rehumanization project in response to an ultranationalistic impulse in which Mexicans were not always welcomed or treated as fully human.
Nearly 40 years after his death, I have begun to develop a journalism class on his life’s work. As I have been perusing over archives of the Media, Democracy and Policy Initiative, the group responsible for promoting the issuance of the Salazar stamp, I am in touch with a very special history. Included in the archives are his early work, notes, photographs, letters, FBI files, the coroner’s report and most special, the actual typewriter he used to write with. I get a feeling of frozen time. Yet truthfully, as I speak with his family, friends and colleagues, what strikes me is that he has not been forgotten and that his death is still an open wound. His memory is living history.
While many of us will always seek answers and justice, after a generation, it is also now time to remember him for the contributions he made, both to the journalism profession and to the world we live in.
Rodriguez, PhD.,who grew up on Whittier Blvd. in East L.A., is a long-time journalist-columnist and the author of “Justice: A Question of Race” a book that chronicles his own police brutality trials in East Los Angeles. He is currently a faculty fellow at the Mexican American Studies and Research Center at the University of Arizona. He can be reached at: XColumn@gmail.com or go to the website for the Media, Democracy and Policy Initiative at: http://mdpi.arizona.edu/index.php