Editor's note: The following article has been updated to reflect the Rubén Salazar was not the first Mexican American to be employed at a major newspaper. Salazar was aslo not called back to Los Angeles after his Tlatelolco coverage. He was reassigned to the Metro desk in late spring and was scheduled to return months before the autumn olympics.
From the beginning of his career as an ambitious young reporter in El Paso, Texas to his death at the Chicano Moratorium in Los Angeles, California, Rubén Salazar had the FBI’s keen attention. They followed him through nearly the entirety of his career, taking special note of unfavorable depictions of police and their actions or critiques of powerful law enforcement figures. The FBI was so interested in Salazar, they even quietly surveilled his memorial services, noting people in attendance.
Salazar first caught the attention of the FBI (and his editors) when he penned an article about the poor conditions of El Paso jails and the neglect, if not abuse, that jailers inflicted upon inmates. Certainly, Salazar had been brazen in his approach — he’d feigned drunkenness with the intention of getting arrested and infiltrating a local jail. Soon after publishing this article, he managed to infiltrate a drug ring and meet a notoriously elusive dealer known as “La Nacha.” Again, the FBI took note and continued to expand his file as they followed Salazar as he quickly ascended in his career.
Nearly two decades later, minutes before his death, Salazar knew he was being followed. He repeatedly looked behind him as he and his KMEX colleague Guillermo Restrepo hurried through Whittier Blvd. The crowds were becoming agitated as the peaceful protest suddenly began escalating into full-on chaos. Restrepo asked Salazar why he kept looking back. “They’re following us,” Salazar said, and the two reporters ducked through the curtained doors of the Silver Dollar Café. Moments later, the police fired into the dark bar, and Salazar was found dead, his skull destroyed by an eight-inch tear gas canister.
While county and federal investigations have yielded no conclusive evidence of foul play or intentional wrongdoing by the police in the death of Rubén Salazar, at least two things remain true today: 1) Salazar was undoubtedly killed by police officers amid a police riot during what had started as a peaceful protest and 2) Salazar, a dedicated journalist, had been surveilled by the FBI for much of his professional life.
The Chicano Moratorium and the death of Rubén Salazar continue to reverberate today as communities of color speak out against police brutality and discrimination, and as journalists are once again targeted, attacked and undermined by government officials. There’s much about this moment with massive social unrest and push for reform that mirrors the uprisings of the Civil Rights Movement throughout the 1960s. Today, we find loud echoes of Rubén Salazar’s death in the killing of countless people of color at the hands of police all across the nation. The recent murder of George Floyd, choked to death under a police officer’s baton sparked the flame of civil unrest that spread like wildfire throughout the entire country and endures still in ongoing protests and demands to rectify centuries of injustices. Like Salazar, journalists have not been exempt from the anti-protest violence of the police or from the undermining attacks of politicians.
Rocking the Boat
Salazar’s career and the evolution of his identity with his politicization were shaped by unfolding worldwide events of the 1960s and into the 1970s. He would continuously explore questions of identity as the term “Chicano” emerged as a defiant alternative to “Mexican American” or “Hispano.” He turned his attention to key issues as they emerged as points of protest and demands for reform such as lack of access to public services, overall neglect of the barrios and excessive recruitment of young Brown men to the Vietnam War.
Born on March 3, 1928 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Rubén Salazar grew up in El Paso, Texas. There he attended college and immediately started publishing in the school paper, as he earned a Bachelors degree in Journalism with honors.
From the beginning of his career as a reporter for the El Paso Herald, Salazar demonstrated ambition and tenacity. On May 9, 1955 he published an astonishing investigative article entitled “25 Hours in Jail: I lived in a Chamber of Horrors” in which he reported how jailers failed to provide inmates with medical attention, basic sanitary conditions or even food. “Tank 6 is a disgusting combination of live and inanimate filth. The men are systematically killing themselves: some with liquor, the rest with narcotics. The cells are like pigsties,” he wrote. Only a few months later, in August, Salazar found his way into the home of “The Dope Queen of the Border” known as “La Nacha,” by posing as a drugee looking for a heroin fix. In the article, which must have been quite eye-opening for many readers at the time, Salazar describes not only the neat home of an infamous drug-dealer and mother, but also the agony of drug-addicts.
The El Paso division of the FBI immediately took note of both articles, thus putting Salazar on FBI and police radar. They too would also remain in Salazar’s attention as he would continue to report on law enforcement’s contentious relationship with the Mexican American community.
In 1959, the Los Angeles Times found in Salazar a talented reporter, but perhaps most importantly, an ambitious one with a well-attuned sensibility that was able to capture the shifting social and political landscape of Los Angeles. By then, postwar Los Angeles was a city transformed by the mass migration of new Black and white residents from the American South and East, as well as resettled Bracero program Mexicans, in addition to the already-burgeoning communities of long-rooted Mexican Americans.
At the cusp of the rising Civil Rights movement, change was undoubtedly transforming all aspects of American life, including its newspapers. Under the leadership of publisher Otis Chandler and editor Nick Williams, Salazar was hired at the L.A. Times where he worked from 1959 to 1963. During this time, Salazar immersed himself in the city’s rapidly-unfolding events as Mexican Americans became emboldened by the Civil Rights movement led by Black activists, and expressed their growing discontent for the abuses they’d also experienced.
In January of 1961, Salazar published a piece entitled “Mexican-Americans Move into a New Era of Political Awakening” in which he reports on the efforts to incorporate East Los Angeles and the growing participation of Mexican Americans in civic and political life. He quotes resident Lorenzo Marquez at a Board of Supervisors hearing on the issue: “I know nothing of Mexico, but I know something about East L.A. It’s my home and I want it to get better. If we make it into a city, we Mexican Americans will at last have a voice in civic affairs.”
Salazar also covered another essential part of the surge in advocacy and activism in the development of the farmworkers’ movement in the Central and Imperial Valleys and the emergence of enigmatic leaders such as Dolores Huerta and César Chávez.
Most notably, in 1963 Salazar published for the LA Times an unprecedented series of five articles called “Spanish-Speaking Angelenos” that covered some of the most pressing issues faced by Mexican Americans in L.A. Between February 24 through the 28th he presented a precise geographic and socio-economic portrait of the Mexican American community and made explicit connections between the conditions lived by Mexican Americans and the historical events of colonization. From the establishment of the California Missions to the Mexican American War’s Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the success and shortfalls of Mexican Americans were directly tied to history.
Salazar not only reported on the events as they unfolded, but he also took to heart the shifting political and cultural consciousness of the people he wrote about. In “A Culture in Search of a Name” he addresses Mexican American’s ongoing attempts to name their identity, as they also push back against terms that misrepresent and erase them. “The reason the Spanish heritage is propagandized out of proportion at the expense of Mexican-Indian heritage is the Anglo-American’s attitude toward the so-called white races,” he wrote.
An unwaveringly professional reporter, Salazar would also be changed by the events he wrote about. One of these important changes came as he served as a foreign correspondent for the LA Times from 1965 to 1968. In his last articles abroad, he reported on what would come be known as the Massacre of Tlatelolco in Plaza de las Tres Culturas. On October 2, 1968, President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz ordered Mexican police, military and secret snipers to quash the protest by inflicting full use of force on at least 10,000 college and high school students as well as sympathizers and local bystanders that had gathered in the Plaza. A peaceful protest shattered into chaos and terror as police used tanks and machine guns on the crowd. Viciously, students were not only beaten and shot as they tried to escape the Plaza, but were also chased into nearby apartment buildings where families hid them while fearing for their own lives. In the day following the Tlatelolco event, Salazar reported the official number of deaths, injuries and arrests, which counted only four deaths and 1,000 arrests. In later days, Salazar reported 29 deaths. However, ongoing investigations that finally yielded long-withheld government documents nearly four decades later confirmed what witnesses had long testified — that hundreds of young men and women were killed and disappeared.
The horrors of such events must have impressed themselves upon Salazar. Certainly, we can find chilling similarities in what would take place at the Chicano Moratorium. Already he had witnessed as a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, the Caribbean, Central American and, of course, Mexico, growing conflict and increasingly louder calls for social justice, often by students against repressive governments. Meanwhile Salazar knew that Los Angeles was no exception. Only months before Tlatelolco, thousands of Mexican American high school students had walked out of their schools in an unprecedented series of “blowouts” or “walkouts” to demand improved education and college preparation rather than a default path to war or low paid manual labor. Invigorated, the protests and actions continued to grow in number, size and complexity, Mexican Americans had found their voice as Chicanos.
Not long after his coverage of the Tlatelolco protests, Salazar returned to Los Angeles. L.A. Times editor Nick Williams had been eager to cover the series of events taking place across the Southwest, with Los Angeles as an important hub of activism and, since the spring, had asked Salazar to take up the task. Though reluctant, Salazar agreed to return with his family to Los Angeles where he became immediately immersed into a city entirely transformed by social unrest.
Salazar covered a whole spectrum of stories ranging from education to protests against police brutality and the Vietnam War. He again returned to questions of identity. At the time, the word Chicano had only recently been popularized and used as an affirmative term rather than derogatively as it had in the past. Though older, assimilation-oriented generations of Mexican Americans were uncomfortable with a term that had been used pejoratively, young people embraced it unapologetically. In “Who is a Chicano? And what is it a Chicano wants?” published February 6, 1970 Salazar writes, “Mexican Americans, the second largest minority in the U.S. and the largest in the Southwestern states, have always had difficulty making up their minds what to call themselves.”
But it wasn’t questions of identity that once again roused the attention of the FBI and law enforcement. As more Latino and Chicano journalists started covering events, they also found themselves targeted by the police. On March 13, 1970, Salazar writes of an unsuccessful, tension-filled meeting between Latino journalists and police: “Yet on that night, while waiting for the police chief to arrive, Latino newsmen talked about the growing disrespect between the police department and the Spanish-speaking community and voiced the opinion that they now understood [what is meant by] ‘police riot.’”
The following month, on April 3, Salazar wrote about a “police-community rift,” which like the previous publication, was also included in the FBI file.
Also, in April of 1970, just months before the moratorium, Salazar resigned from his position at the LA Times to accept a new position as news director at KMEX, the most prominent L.A.-based Spanish television station. In an interview with Bob Navarro for KNXT, Salazar said that he believed that his move from print to television news was necessary. “I was frustrated. I wanted to really communicate with the people I’d been writing about for so long. At the Times I was doing a job that had to be done…. But I wanted to try my hand at communicating with the Mexican American community directly and in their language.” Navarro asks if the government has a calculated philosophy toward the press. “Yes of course. They don’t want the press to rock the boat. And I think it’s the press’s obligation to rock the boat,” he stated.
The Chicano Moratorium on August 29, 1970 marked an important development in the Chicano Movement by standing as the largest mass protest and march in the streets of East Los Angeles. Notably, the Moratorium evidenced that the Chicano movement was not driven exclusively by militant students, but also by the general Mexican American community. With a defiant, yet festive spirit, entire families took to the streets to speak out against discrimination and the excessive recruitment of Mexican Americans to the Vietnam War, as well as to celebrate their history and culture. However, the Moratorium left unexpected scars. It is forever marked by the violent turn of events that transformed a peaceful protest into chaos in which Los Angeles Police would injure hundreds of men and women of all ages, and kill three, among them the journalist Rubén Salazar. So terrible was the turn of events of August 29 that it would cast a somber shadow on the movimiento. The radical and youthful zeitgeist of Chicanos across the southwest dimmed and turned away from radical action, to more strategic, political organizing. The murder of Rubén Salazar and the beating of protestors by police sobered the effervescent spirit with the realization of the brutal and undoubted power of the state enforced by officially and unofficially sanctioned police violence.
Though half a century has passed since the events of the Chicano Moratorium, legacy of the Chicano Movement as well as the life and death of Rubén Salazar are worth careful examination. The FBI’s persistent surveillance of Salazar as well as countless activists, should serve as warnings as journalists and activists continue to be tracked on dubious legal grounds, at best. As recently as June of this year, ProPublica reported on the surveillance of Black journalists and activists in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement despite a 1978 Consent decree barring surveillance of residents for political purposes. In 2019, it was found that Homeland Security was also actively tracking journalists and activists at the US-Mexico border as they observed and reported the condition of detention centers where undocumented immigrants, including children, continue to be detained.
In a special 1980 NBC report on the life and death of Rubén Salazar, Laura Lucio concludes with chilling words that continue to resonate with us today : “Twenty years after his tragic death, the articles that we read today remind us that what we print and what we broadcast will always remain alive because the truth can never be silenced.”
Top Image: Rubén Salazar with former President Eisenhower, San Bernardino, CA, 1961| Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections