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PBS Documentary Examines Ruben Salazar's Life And Death


A new documentary explores the life and death of Ruben Salazar. He was a journalist. He's considered one of the founders of the modern Chicano movement and by many a martyr. He was killed in 1970 while covering an anti-war demonstration in East Los Angeles. He was shot with a tear gas canister. His death added to the urgency for Mexican-American civil rights in Southern California.

A documentary on his life airs tonight on PBS and Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR's Code Switch Team has more.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez says it's ironic that, after his death, Ruben Salazar's face became the icon on posters at Chicano rights demonstrations, because he was a not a protestor, but an establishment kind of guy.

PHILLIP RODRIQUEZ: He was a silent generation man, a kind of Mexican-American Don Draper.

BATES: Salazar was an Army veteran, a married man, a father and a homeowner who eyed the early Chicano movement with skepticism. But, says filmmaker Rodriguez, he made a very handy martyr for movement leaders.

RODRIQUEZ: They didn't have anyone else visible and that actually died for the cause. And so, he was a convenient figure to appropriate.

BATES: The film traces Salazar's life and career. When he was an infant, his parents migrated from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso with sharply different goals: His fair-skinned mother identified with white America and wanted young Ruben to do the same. His browner father hoped he would remember his Mexican roots. After his Army service, Salazar worked as a reporter in various Texas and California cities, before moving to Los Angeles to work for the Los Angeles Times.

On camera, his former editor, Bob Thomas, told Rodriguez Salazar resisted one particular beat.


BOB THOMAS: He did not want to be confined to Mexican affairs and he fought for that. And I thought he was probably right to do that.

BATES: He got his wish and became a busy general assignment reporter. Salazar kept a rigid division between his professional and private lives. He married an Anglo woman, raised children without reference to their Mexican roots, and lived in an all-white enclave in Orange County. But after working outside the country, first in Vietnam, then as the Times' Mexico City bureau chief, Salazar's view of his country - and of Mexican Americans' efforts to become part of the white mainstream - began to change.

An actor in the film reads from Salazar's journals.


BOB NAVARRO: Ruben changed. He felt something deep inside. Something woke him up.

BATES: Friend and colleague Bob Navarro says the mainstream was no longer so attractive to Salazar. He became the first Chicano journalist from an important paper to cover East Los Angeles, a Mexican-American part of town long ignored by the powers that be. His observations on social inequality became more political, says filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez, and people at the Times noticed.

RODRIQUEZ: I think, for many of his colleagues, there was this shock. Someone was reported to have said: What happened to good old Rube.

BATES: Good old Rube wasn't so interested in mainstream acceptance anymore. He resigned from his prestigious Times reporting job to become news director at KMEX, a Spanish-language station in its infancy. He contributed a regular, pointed column to the Times, often focusing on L.A.'s Latino community. He died while covering an anti-war protest, the largest Chicano demonstration L.A. had ever had, on August 29th, 1970 - and became an immediate legend.

The Sheriff's refusal to release coroner's records only fueled speculation that Salazar had been assassinated.

Filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez.

RODRIQUEZ: Speculation over time became tales and tales became myth. And the myth became kind of the cornerstone of Chicano identity.

BATES: The finally-unsealed records showed a more prosaic reality: Ruben Salazar died because of a deputy sheriff's incompetence. But tonight's film shows how in death, Salazar pushed Chicano rights to the national forefront more effectively than he could in life.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.


INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.