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Truths Unsilenced: The Life, Death and Legacy of Rubén Salazar

Rubén Salazar with former President Eisenhower, San Bernardino, CA, 1961| Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
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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.

Rubén Salazar taken on the 39th annual commencement for Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
Rubén Salazar taken on the 39th annual commencement for Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections

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.

Rubén Salazar with former President Eisenhower, San Bernardino, CA, 1961| Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
Rubén Salazar with former President Eisenhower, San Bernardino, CA, 1961| Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
1/5 Rubén Salazar with former President Eisenhower, San Bernardino, CA, 1961 | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
Rubén Salazar, US Army Base, Saigon, Vietnam, 1965 | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
Rubén Salazar, US Army Base, Saigon, Vietnam, 1965 | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
2/5 Rubén Salazar, US Army Base, Saigon, Vietnam, 1965 | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
Rubén Salazar in Zocalo, the Plaza de la Constitucion (Constitution Square) in Mexico City, 1966-1968 | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
Rubén Salazar in Zocalo, the Plaza de la Constitucion (Constitution Square) in Mexico City, 1966-1968 | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
3/5 Rubén Salazar in Zocalo, the Plaza de la Constitucion (Constitution Square) in Mexico City, 1966-1968 | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
Rubén Salazar with Robert Kennedy, Los Angeles, CA, 1960 | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
Rubén Salazar with Robert Kennedy, Los Angeles, CA, 1960 | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
4/5 Rubén Salazar with Robert Kennedy, Los Angeles, CA, 1960 | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections
Rubén Salazar and wife Sally greet Chandlers at Mexico City Airport, Mexico City, ca. 1968 | Rubén Salazar (1928-1970) Papers, USC Libraries Special Collections