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Bringing Back an L.A. Hero : Ruben Salazar gave a passionate voice to city's Chicanos : BORDER CORRESPONDENT: Selected Writings, 1955-1970, By Ruben Salazar . Edited and with an introduction by Mario T. Garcia (University of California Press: $28; 283 pp.)

September 03, 1995|Ruben Martinez | Ruben Martinez is an editor at Pacific News Service and the author of "The Other Side: Notes from the New L.A., Mexico City and Beyond" (Vintage)

On the 25th anniversary of Ruben Salazar's death, UC Santa Barbara history and Chicano studies Professor Mario T. Garcia has completed a task that should have been undertaken long ago: exhuming from the ashes of a not-too-distant history the memory of the man who became the martyr of the Chicano Moratorium anti-war protest of Aug. 29, 1970, when he was killed by an L.A. County sheriff's tear-gas canister in the midst of the pandemonium in East Los Angeles.

Despite the fact that he was the best-known Mexican American journalist to write for a major metropolitan newspaper in the '60s, Salazar today is an unknown to most Angelenos, including many Latinos who were either too young or not yet in the country at the time of the tumultuous events that led to the moratorium. This fascinating collection of Salazar's journalism, along with Garcia's lucid introduction, will, I hope, help resurrect this unjustly forgotten figure.

Born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and raised across the Rio Grande in El Paso, Tex., Salazar lived and died in the midst of what Garcia calls a "border experience." He was the first Mexican American reporter to be hired by the Los Angeles Times and as such was a crucial link between Chicano East L.A. and the rest of the city, which was then--as it is now--astonishingly ignorant of the whys and hows of Chicano Los Angeles. At the time of his death, he was news director of local Spanish-language TV station KMEX.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 8, 1995 Home Edition Book Review Page 10 Book Review Desk 3 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
First reporter--In our review of "Border Correspondent: Selected Writings, 1955-1970" by Ruben Salazar (Sept. 3, 1995), written by Ruben Martinez, we claim that Salazar was the "first Mexican American reporter to be hired by the Los Angeles Times." Reader Garber A. Davidson of Long Beach writes that the first was, in fact, "Rudy Villasenor, a Mexican American . . . who was hired by the Times in 1935 to cover the courts in the old Hall of Records. He worked for the Times for 37 years, retiring in 1972. He died in 1990."

Like many other Latino writers and journalists, he worked in perpetual ambivalence: He loathed being called a Chicano writer, believing that the moniker unfairly typecast him, but at the same time he clearly sympathized with--and, in the months before his death, passionately advocated--the community and culture he was very much a part of. As such, he struggled to prove himself a writer in the fullest sense, eschewing both the harder rhetorical line that Chicano militants demanded and the more dispassionate mainstream tone that his editors surely expected.

And a writer in the fullest sense is what Salazar was: a talented and consummate professional. Aside from his comprehensive coverage of Mexican Americans in the Southwest from the mid-1950s to the time of his death, he also worked as a foreign correspondent for The Times, sending dispatches from Vietnam, the Dominican Republic and Mexico City. By Aug. 29, 1970, at the age of 42, he'd matured into a writer who had found his voice and found a way to be fair and objective in his reporting and a persuasive advocate in his news analysis. Salazar's reportage and editorial writing, in the words of H.L. Mencken, comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.

Reading through Salazar's writings 30 years and more after the events he covered is both fascinating and depressing. These, after all, were the first accounts of Mexican Americans to appear in The Times that were free of the prejudice and anti-Mexican sentiment that tinged earlier journalistic attempts. His reports were carefully crafted and, in many ways, startlingly prescient. If one changed the dates and the names, they could easily pass for stories written today:

Stories about how the drop-out rates for Mexican American students were nearly twice as high as those for Anglos. About the constant specter of police abuse in the barrios. About the tensions between organized labor and agribusiness in the picking fields and the tragic enmity between Mexican American migrant farm laborers and their immigrant counterparts. About the decades-old dream coalition between blacks and Latinos that never materialized because of bickering and cultural misunderstanding. About the fight over bilingual education in the public schools.

Again and again, Salazar drives home the point that Mexican Americans are unique in their cultural experience, different from European immigrants both for their proximity to their home country and for the fact that their home country once governed what is now the American Southwest.

I have written for both mainstream and alternative newspapers and magazines for a decade, covering these very same stories. What is depressing is that the story hasn't changed. In this sense the book reads like a tragic eternal return: 1994's Proposition 187, aimed at restricting the rights of illegal immigrants, is the Operation Wetback of the '50s is the Repatriation of the '30s is the Greaser Laws of the late 19th Century. A depressing history, to be sure, but one that, if studied, can help us build a fairer society.

In bylines dating to the mid-1950s, Salazar gives us all the characters of the the modern drama in Southwestern America, from the militant Chicano nationalists espousing cultural separatism to the more centrist Mexican Americans doing their best to redress historic wrongs through the system; from do-gooder white liberals who patronize minorities to racist hotheads and their sometimes murderous designs.

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