Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Prominent Voice Silenced: Ruben Salazar

Ruben Salazar, 1955
Courtesy of USC Special Collections

Ruben Salazar (1928-1970) is recognized as the most prominent Mexican American journalist of the twentieth century. Through his work for the Los Angeles Times from 1959 to 1970 and at KMEX-TV (the first Spanish-language television station in Los Angeles) in 1970, Salazar was an outspoken advocate for the Mexican American community and the first mainstream journalist to cover the Chicano Movement; he opened doors for Latina/o journalists in other major newspapers.

Salazar shocked readers with his coverage of issues that still resonate today: discrimination, race relations, freedom of the press, state surveillance, inferior schools, lack of political representation, and police abuses.

On August 29, 1970, during the largest anti–Vietnam War protest in Los Angeles’s history, L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies aimed their weapons at the open door of the Silver Dollar bar in East Los Angeles, where inside, Salazar and his colleagues from KMEX-TV were taking a break from covering the rally and the chaos outside. The tragedy that occurred next is well known. Salazar, seated at the bar, was struck in the head and killed instantly by a ten-inch tear gas projectile. Was it a horrific accident or a premeditated assassination? For many, these questions have never been satisfactorily answered.

Coverage of Ruben Salazars August 29, 1970 murder at the Silver Dollar bar in La Raza, September 3, 1970; cover photos by Raul Ruiz 
Courtesy of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Records on the Homicide Investigation of Ruben Salazar, USC Libraries, Special Collections 

What is certain is that Salazar’s untimely death was a defining moment in the history of the Chicano Movement. More broadly, it reminds us of the importance of our First Amendment rights—freedom of speech, the press, and peaceful assembly—and the continuing struggle for equal rights and inclusion for minorities and immigrants in twenty-first-century United States.

Public viewing Salazar's casket at the East Los Angeles Mortuary
Courtesy of Lisa Salazar Johnson

On September 1, 1970, several thousand Chicano and Mexican American mourners attended a public wake in East Los Angeles. The community Salazar had reported on for many years for the Los Angeles Times and KMEX-TV showed an outpouring of admiration for the man they embraced as one of their own.

Otis Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, delivered the eulogy at the funeral. He noted that Salazar “was a fighter, a firm believer that all men, regardless of color or language barriers, could, in the end, live together peacefully and productively in our city. He devoted himself to try to bring about this sense of comprehension through the medium of communications.”

American burial flag draped on Ruben Salazar’s casket at his funeral, September 2, 1970
Courtesy of Ruben Salazar Papers, USC Libraries, Special Collections 

This American flag was folded according to military protocol and given to Salazar’s wife, Sally, and their three young children. It offers a glimpse into Salazar’s identity as Mexican and American: he immigrated with his parents to the United States from Mexico, served in the U.S. military, graduated from a Texas college, became a naturalized American citizen, and was honored with the flag in death as an American veteran.

History Keepers: Eleven Stories That Moved Los Angeles

Ruben Salazar’s story is represented in History Keepers: Eleven Stories That Moved Los Angeles on view at the El Tranquilo Gallery on Olvera Street at El Pueblo National Monument in Los Angeles from August 4, 2017 to October 1, 2017. Contributing institution to History Keepers: Eleven That Moved Los Angeles: Boeckmann Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies, USC Libraries, Special Collections. 

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