By Sandra G. Leon
The California Chicano News Media Association presented its latest annual award for journalism print to the Publisher of La Prensa San Diego, Arturo Castañares.
Castañares, 49, was one of three finalists for the prestigious Ruben Salazar Award for Excellence in Print Journalism, along with Nadia Lopez of the Fresno Bee, and Stephanie Mendez of the Los Angeles Times.
“We follow a lot of stories that a lot of the media here in San Diego ignore,” Castañares said upon receiving the award. “We get a lot of criticism because we speak truth to power, and we think that is a very important thing we as journalists have to do, especially in underserved communities.”
Although the annual awards are usually presented at a dinner event in Los Angeles, the presentation was held during a live online presentation because of COVID restrictions.
The award is named after Ruben Salazar, a Los Angeles Times reported killed in 1970 during a Chicano anti-war protest in Los Angeles.
An estimated 30,000 people had gathered for the rally (pictured above) but police later arrived with riot gear and began using force to disburse the crowd.
Salazar, 42, went into the Silver Dollar Cafe to get away from the police activity when he was struck in the head by a tear gas grenade fired by a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy. Salazar died from the injuries which were ruled to have been an accident when the stray projectile fired from the street went into the restaurant, but some community members argued the deputy knowing fired into the cafe.
Born in Mexico and having emigrated to the US as a young child, Salazar grew up in Texas and first reported for the El Paso Herald-Post before joining the LA Times in 1959. Salazar later became the News Director of Spanish-language television station KMEX-TV, the first Latino columnist for the LA Times, and their first international correspondent and foreign bureau chief.
Among his many high-profile subjects, Salazar interviewed President Dwight D. Eisenhower and then-Attorney General and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.
Salazar was a hard-hitting reporter who wrote about issues affecting the Latino community that had been mostly ignored by the media of the day. Salazar received an award for a 1963 series where he examined problems that disproportionately affected Latinos, including low-performing schools and high dropout rates in predominately Latino communities, and a lack of political power of the growing Latino population.
In 1965, Salazar traveled as an LA Times international correspondent to the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and Mexico.
In an effort to expand his coverage of Latino issues, Salazar left the LA Times to become the News Director KMEX, but then began to write a weekly column on Chicano affairs for the newspaper. Salazar changed his writing from reporting the news to advocating on behalf of Mexican Americans during a tumultuous time when the Chicano movement started to advocate for more fair treatment of Latinos.
Salazar had expressed to friends that he sometimes feared for his life because he wrote articles critical of police tactics against Latinos, even saying he believed police were following him around.
Since his death, Salazar has become an inspiration to Latinos throughout the country. Parks and schools have been named in his honor, including a high school in the Los Angeles County city of Pico Rivera and an elementary school in Chicago.
The CCNMA, founded in 1972, has presented the Ruben Salazar Award each year to journalists for work that “demonstrates journalism excellence while contributing to a better understanding of the Latino communities by portraying Latinos fairly and accurately.”
Castañares was nominated for an opinion piece he wrote on May 3, 2021, titled Will MTS Death Bring About Real Change?, about the death of Angel Hernandez at the hands of two private security guards working for the region’s Metropolitan Transit System.
Hernandez, 24, died on October 15, 2019, while being detained by the armed security guards who chased him down after suspecting he was standing within the boundaries of a trolley stop without having a valid ticket. The guards were called in response to an abandoned backback, but then started to questions Hernandez, who ran away
The two guards handcuffed and laid on top of Hernandez for more than nine minutes, with one of the guards using his knee on Hernandez’s back to hold him down.
A few minutes into the incident, two San Diego Police Officers arrived on the scene, and one of the officers told the guards to “keep him on the ground.”
During the last few minutes of the incident, two SDPD officers arrived on the scene, and one of them told the guards to “keep him on the ground”. Hernandez struggled to breathe and eventually stopped breathing all together.
One of the police officers asked, “did you kill him?”, and the security guard with his knee on Hernandez casually asked, “Angel, you still alive, dude?”
Hernandez did not respond and was pronounced dead after paramedics arrived.
The official autopsy ruled the death as a homicide and listed the cause as cardiopulmonary arrest.
Hernandez had died seven months before George Floyd was killed under similar circumstanced in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
But unlike the subsequent murder conviction of police officer Derek Chauvin in Floyd’s death, no charges were brought against either of the security guards who caused Hernandez’s death.
San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephen declined to filed any charges in the case, and the transit agency eventually approved a $5.5 million settlement with Hernandez’s family.
The transit agency also instituted changes to its security polices to prohibit carotid restraints, chokeholds, and knee pressure on the neck, throat or head, and also require that “use of force to be proportional to the seriousness of the subject’s offense, a duty to intervene if witnessing excessive force by another employee; requiring de-escalation tactics when feasible; and requiring a warning prior to the use of force.”
Castañares wrote that the changes were welcomed, but overdue, and that the public was deprived of information on the case for nearly 18 months until the legal settlement was reached.
“After-the-fact police reforms are a good response to officer-involved deaths, but preventive measures to ban deadly choke holds, prone detainment, and knees on necks should happen now before even one more person is killed,” Castanares wrote, “And complete transparency of reports, autopsies, and especially, police videos, should be mandated immediately. Police should not benefit from hiding information from the public at anytime, anywhere,” he concluded.
Castañares, a San Diego native born of parents who emigrated from Mexico, became the Publisher and Editor-at-Large of La Prensa San Diego in September 2015 after more than 25 years of work in politics and business.
Before joining La Prensa San Diego, Castañares was a staffmember in the California State Legislature for more than 13 years, ending his tenure as the Chief of State for the senior-most state senator. A veteran of dozens of political campaigns, Castañares has a wide range of political and public policy experience that helps inform his writing on a wide range of topics.
“Journalism that covers politics and government should prod and poke and question our leaders to make sure the public knows what is truly happening -and why- and how it impacts their lives,” Castañares said. “We are all about accountability through transparency, and we take that charge very seriously at La Prensa San Diego,” he added.