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The Trailblazer : Ruben Salazar was a man of many firsts who paved the way for other Latino journalists.Now, 25 years after his death, his beneficiaries and a book honor him.

August 21, 1995|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Chicano is a Mexican American with a non-Anglo image of himself. He resents being told Columbus "discovered" America. . .that Chicanos are "culturally deprived" or that the fact that they speak Spanish is a "problem."

--Ruben Salazar

*

To his readers, journalist Ruben Salazar was la voz for la Raza, the voice for his people, a pioneering reporter who once said of himself, "Someone must advocate a community that has been forgotten."

That community was Chicano.

That voice was silenced Aug. 29, 1970. Juarez-born Salazar, the first Mexican American newsman to write for a mainstream English-language daily, was fatally struck when a sheriff's deputy, answering a report of a man brandishing a gun, fired tear gas projectiles into a cafe where the 42-year-old Los Angeles Times columnist had gathered with other journalists after spending the afternoon covering the Chicano Anti-Vietnam War Moratorium in East Los Angeles.

But Salazar's trailblazing career is once again getting notice with a new book, and his legacy is very much alive among Latino journalists.

The soulful writer who explained all things Latino to a largely Anglo audience--amid threats from law enforcers not to "stir up the Mexicans" with his writing--can be found in "Ruben Salazar, Border Correspondent: Selected Writings, 1955-1970" (University of California Press). Out this month, the book, edited by Mario T. Garciia, is a compilation of Salazar's writing over a 15-year career that ended with his column at The Times. Earlier, from 1965 to 1968, Salazar was a foreign correspondent heading the Mexico City bureau and covering Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and Cuba.

His start was in 1955 at the El Paso Herald-Post, where he worked the police and Juarez beats.

Ken Flynn, who has been at the Herald-Post for 36 years, knew Salazar and stayed in touch after Salazar left the Herald-Post for The Times in 1959.

"I was a young reporter and I tried to emulate him," Flynn says.

"First of all he was a good journalist. And he was a personable man. He was always for the underdog, and he had a tremendous winning personality," remembers Flynn, who says he became the paper's next resident "Chicano" because he was the only Spanish speaker at the time of Salazar's departure.

Salazar also "was a daring kind of reporter," Flynn says.

"Ruben got himself arrested for intoxication in order to get into the city jail to show the inhumane conditions of the jail, and the authorities didn't realize it was him. He wrote a blistering account."

"Salazar was an aggressive reporter interpreting his community's reality as he saw it," says Zita Arocha, executive director of the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ).

Adds Ruben Martinez, an editor with Pacific News Service: "Ruben Salazar's story is the classic American story, the story of the struggle on his part to strike out alone."

*

Salazar was 8 months old when his parents moved from Juarez to El Paso. There, he became a naturalized citizen, attended high school and the University of Texas at El Paso, then known as Texas Western College. He wrote for the campus newspaper, El Burro, an experience that led to a journalism degree and a career of many firsts in the mainstream press: the first Latino reporter, the first Latino foreign correspondent, the first Latino columnist.

And his topics, especially during the height of the Chicano movement in 1969 and 1970, were firsts: the educational alienation of Chicanos, urban problems, tensions between Mexican Americans and African Americans.

Salazar was "advocating the Chicano community in the same way that the general media advocated the Anglo power structure," Garciia writes in the book.

"I think we, as minority journalists, are still struggling in trying to explain to our white colleagues why it is important to diversify our newsrooms," says Carol J. Castan~neda, vice president of print media for the NAHJ and national reporter for USA Today.

"A newsroom has strength and power when you have people of different cultures, when you can touch on stories that nobody even thought of," says Castan~neda, pointing out that Salazar was a champion for his community--one he believed had been denied a forum in the English-language press.

Today, she says, Latino journalists make up 2% of the work force of newspapers across the country, a far cry from Salazar's time. Still, she says, there is much room for improvement. According to the NAHJ, a professional organization dedicated to the progress of Latinos in the media, about 2.5% of Latinos hold management positions. More disappointing, Castan~neda says, is that almost 50% of all newsrooms in the country have no people of color on staff.

She and others contend that many a battle still need to be fought to convey Latino life and views in the mainstream press.

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