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Salazar Is Symbol of Struggle

July 26, 1990|LYDIA RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Except for a sign bearing his name, there is no trace of the rioting that erupted 20 years ago at this East Los Angeles park and resulted a mile or so down the fire-ridden boulevard with the death of Ruben Salazar.

Few of the youths who play baseball here even know that Salazar Park was once known as Laguna Park. Fewer even know who Salazar was.

But for millions of Mexican-Americans in Southern California and the Southwest, Salazar was a powerful voice for the Chicano community through his columns in the Los Angeles Times.

"He blossomed as an interpreter, not only of his own feelings but of the collective feelings of outrage and injustice that Chicanos were experiencing," said Felix Gutierrez, a former USC journalism professor and dean and now the Gannett Foundation's vice president of education. "He showed a human side to our community that had never been shown before."

The 42-year-old reporter, born in Juarez, Mexico, covered his last assignment on Aug. 29, 1970. He was news director for KMEX, the Spanish-language TV station, at the time and had been writing a weekly column for The Times.

It was a hot August Saturday when an estimated 20,000 Chicanos marched from Belvedere Park up 3rd Street to Atlantic Boulevard and west on Whittier Boulevard to Laguna Park in protest of the Vietnam War and the disproportionate number of Chicanos being drafted and getting killed there.

The National Chicano Moratorium March was to be the last of several similar demonstrations nationwide.

It was not the first Chicano march Salazar had covered. And it didn't seem to be the most dangerous situation he had faced. Salazar had covered the 1965 Dominican Republic revolution and reported from Da Nang during the Vietnam War. Later, he headed The Times' bureau in Mexico City.

With Salazar on the day of the protest was Guillermo Restrepo, then a reporter for KMEX. After rioting had erupted at the rally, Salazar, Restrepo and two other friends surveyed the situation on Whittier. They dropped into the Silver Dollar Cafe, at 4945 Whittier, to use the restroom and then ordered beers.

The ensuing sequence of events is not clear, but one result is certain: Salazar was killed by a 10-inch-long tear gas projectile that was fired into the bar by a sheriff's deputy.

According to Los Angeles County sheriff's officials, deputies had been told that two armed men had entered the bar.

At a coroner's hearing, Deputy Thomas Wilson said he fired the projectile into the bar after giving warning and calling for those inside to come out with their hands raised. The survivors inside the bar later said they did not hear any warnings.

Twenty years later, many still find it hard to believe that Salazar's death was an accident.

Charlie Ericksen, a longtime friend of Salazar's, is one of those who refer to his death as a murder.

At the time of Salazar's death, Ericksen was working with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. "He called us a few days before his death telling us that he was concerned that the police were out to get him. He was murdered," said Ericksen, who now heads a Washington, D.C.-based news service, Hispanic Link.

"He certainly did not think the police were out to execute him, but would do something to discredit him, like plant a marijuana cigarette in his car," Ericksen said. "He called the commission so that we'd have it on the record."

After a 15-day coroner's inquiry, which was televised live locally, the jury delivered a split and confusing verdict. Three jurors ruled that Salazar died by "accident" when struck by the projectile; four jurors concluded that the death occurred "at the hands of another person."

Then-Dist. Atty. Evelle J. Younger decided not to press charges against the deputy.

In 1973, Salazar's widow, Sally, and her three children were awarded a $700,000 out-of-court settlement in the wrongful death suit they had filed against the Sheriff's Department.

The 1970 incident--from the rioting and charges of police brutality to the coroner's hearing--pointed a spotlight on the issues facing Mexican-Americans.

These were the same issues at the heart of Salazar's reporting and commentary.

Columns such as "Who Is a Chicano? And What Is It the Chicanos Want?," "The 'Wetback' Problem Has More Than Just One Side," and "Chicano Reminds Blacks They Are Not the Only Minority," sought to drive home his message of understanding, cooperation and reconstruction of society's views of the Latino community.

Explaining why some Mexican-Americans don't call themselves Americans, Salazar wrote, "Chicanos are trying to explain why not. Mexican-Americans, though indigenous to the Southwest, are on the lowest rung scholastically, economically, socially and politically. Chicanos feel cheated. They want to effect change. Now."

With these ideas and perspectives, Salazar became highly respected and even revered among Mexican-Americans. Raul Ruiz, whose photos of the Silver Dollar Cafe incident were widely reprinted by the media, agrees on Salazar's communitywide impact.

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