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PERSPECTIVE ON LATINOS : Salazar: a Pioneer, Not a Martyr : The late Times columnist is best remembered for bringing professionalism to news on Spanish- language television.

August 27, 1995|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

It has been 25 years since one of my mentors in the news business, Ruben Salazar, was killed during a riot in East Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 1970. And while it's gratifying to see him finally getting his due as a groundbreaking journalist, it's disappointing to note how incomplete many of the commemorative retrospectives of his work are.

That was probably inevitable, because the retrospectives are mostly being done in English and understandably focus on the work Salazar, who was 42 when he died, did in his 15 years as a reporter, foreign correspondent and columnist for The Times and other newspapers in Texas and California. (A good compilation of that work is "Ruben Salazar, Border Correspondent," by UC Santa Barbara professor Mario T. Garcia, published by UC Press.)

Yet some of the most powerful journalism Salazar did was in Spanish. It was his Spanish-language journalism that most irritated Los Angeles' power structure--even frightened segments of it--in the weeks leading up to his untimely death. And unless you take his Spanish-language work into account, you really can't understand why Salazar is more revered by Latino activists than by his fellow journalists.

Salazar did that work as news director for KMEX-TV, Channel 34, the city's first Spanish-language station. This fundamentally important fact of Salazar's career is often overlooked. Although his weekly column on The Times' Op-Ed page was influential--indeed, some of his columns were downright prescient--it was just a sideline.

The job that really gave Salazar a sense of power was at KMEX. There he oversaw a staff of just three reporters and one cameraman. But that small staff did local reporting that was every bit as significant, in Salazar's mind, as anything he wrote for The Times. He sent his KMEX news team into East L.A. and other barrios to cover stories that the English-language media ignored. He made sure that his crew covered most, if not all, of the protest demonstrations held by Chicano activists--no small thing in an era when the schools, police and even the Roman Catholic Church were the targets of such protests.

None of the events the Salazar team covered was more controversial than the fatal shooting of two unarmed Mexican cousins by Los Angeles police in July, 1970. In a tragic case of mistaken identity, Guillermo and Gildardo Sanchez were killed in their apartment when officers burst in looking for a criminal suspect. Their tactics were so questionable that seven LAPD officers would later be indicted on federal charges of violating the victims' civil rights. The officers were ultimately acquitted.

The killing of the Sanchez cousins stirred a major outcry in the Latino community back when the LAPD was not accustomed to being publicly criticized. KMEX's reporting on the case was largely responsible, which is why LAPD officials called on Salazar "to express their concern" about KMEX's coverage, as he wrote in a column afterward.

Despite the LAPD's concern, Salazar did not let up on KMEX's aggressive news coverage. A month later he was dead, his head shattered by a bullet-shaped tear gas projectile fired by a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy at the height of a riot along Whittier Boulevard. Seen in this context, it is understandable why more than a few Latino activists are convinced to this day that Salazar's death was no accident. I have never shared that view, but I don't expect the controversy over his death to ever be fully resolved.

As much as anything he wrote, the circumstances of Salazar's death made him a martyr to the Chicano movimiento , a role no one would have found more ironic than Salazar himself. For above all, he was a principled journalist who saw his job as reporting the news, not making it. And one of his most important, if most overlooked, contributions was bringing high standards of journalism to the Spanish-language media just as they were beginning to proliferate in this country. Some Latinos claim KMEX news has never been as good as it was in Salazar's day.

Perhaps. All I know is that it was so good that I even wanted to work there. The last talk I ever had with Salazar was over the telephone, the day before he died. I told him that my summer internship at The Times was ending, and asked if I could spend a few days at the KMEX newsroom before going to journalism graduate school. I wanted to see if I found journalism in Spanish more edifying than at The Times, which in those days was not always a comfortable place for minority reporters.

Salazar said I was welcome to visit, but warned that he would try to talk me into staying at The Times. This newspaper also had an obligation to report on Latinos, he said, so that Anglo society would better understand the barrio and its problems. I told him we needed to talk more.

We never talked again, of course. But I knew that Salazar had won his point the very next night, when I stood on a burned-out Whittier Boulevard and watched his body being loaded into the coroner's hearse.

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