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The Day Latinos Lost a Voice

On Saturday, I stopped at the Silver Dollar, the East Los Angeles bar where journalist Ruben Salazar died 20 years ago today.

I’d been walking down Whittier Boulevard that morning. My aim was to meet up with the marchers commemorating the day when Salazar and two others were killed during a Latino demonstration against the Vietnam War. By chance, I passed the Silver Dollar and went in for a beer.

A few men drank from long-necked bottles of Bud. Two pool tables filled the center of the dark room, just as they did on the day of Salazar’s death. A poster with Salazar’s picture was on a wall, advertising the play about him, “The Silver Dollar,” performed at the bar evenings and some afternoons by Teatro Urbano. A taped X on a bar stool marked the place where Salazar sat when he was hit in the head by a tear-gas missile fired by a sheriff’s deputy.

I’d known him slightly. A friend of his sat next to me when I was a beginning reporter at the Oakland Tribune and regaled me with stories of Salazar, then a young star at the old San Francisco News. I finally met him in 1970 when I got a job at The Times, where he’d reported from Los Angeles, Vietnam, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. That year Salazar left The Times news staff to become news director for Spanish-language television station KMEX, and, at the same time, a columnist for the paper. I remember being pleased that someone from our rough Bay Area newspaper world had gone so far.

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Salazar was covering the anti-war demonstration for KMEX the day he was killed. The event had begun peacefully enough with a march of about 20,000, but a disturbance at a liquor store brought in sheriff’s deputies. They scattered a crowd in a park with clubs and tear gas. As the demonstration turned into a rebellion, fires broke out on Whittier Boulevard. Salazar’s cameraman, Octavio Gomez, told me that Salazar wanted to check out a fire at the Mode O’Day apparel store. He looked at the fire, then ducked into the Silver Dollar for a beer.

In the confusion outside, deputies said they were told that a man with a gun was in the bar. They fired tear gas inside, and one of the missiles struck Salazar.

The county said the deputies were following proper procedures, and Salazar’s death was purely accidental. But many in the barrio believe the tear-gassing of the Silver Dollar was a violent overreaction by racist deputies. Some say Salazar was assassinated. The answer may never be known. Four members of a coroner’s jury ruled that Salazar died “at the hands of another” and the other three jurors said his death was an accident. The county paid a $700,000 settlement to Salazar’s widow and children.

Ironically, in the months before his death, Salazar had warned in his Times column there might be violence in East L.A.

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With the freedom of a column, he’d become a powerful and disturbing voice in Los Angeles journalism. He was an intellectual leader to the increasingly politically aware and militant barrio and a gutsy advocate for the Latino community. The Times--and the town--had never had anyone like him.

To Latinos, he spoke of the need for political organization. “Ah, Chicanos,” he wrote in disgust when too many Latino candidates split the vote, costing a promising young Chicano an election. And he punctured the Anglos’ complacent image of Mexican-Americans being content with their poverty. He warned them that the barrio was in rebellion against brutal law enforcement, the dismantling of late ‘60s social programs and the Vietnam War, which was claiming the lives of a disproportionate number of Latinos and blacks.

“This mood,” Salazar wrote on June 19, 1970, “is not being helped by our political and law-and-order leaders who are trying to discredit militants in the barrio as subversive or criminal.”

If Salazar were alive, the cynical old newsman in him wouldn’t be surprised to learn that his successors are still writing about the same problems. The county, for example, is still paying big settlements to victims of sheriff’s deputies’ rough tactics in East L.A. But he would undoubtedly be pleased that there are many more Latino elected officials, doctors, lawyers, merchants, teachers and reporters than in his day.

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Most satisfying to him, I guess, would be the way his work continues through others. It does in the performances of “The Silver Dollar” and in another play about Salazar, “August 29,” at the Los Angeles Theater Center. And certainly the inspiration of Salazar lives every day, throughout the country, in the work of the Latino reporters and editors who have followed him.


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