Twenty years ago this newspaper suffered a tragic loss when veteran newsman Ruben Salazar was killed covering a riot in East Los Angeles. But a far greater loss was sustained that day by the Mexican-American community for whom Salazar was “the most experienced and articulate Chicano writer in the whole country,” according to one Latino leader.
Salazar’s primary job when he died was as news director of Spanish-language television station KMEX. But the work for which he’s best remembered was as a columnist for The Times, writing of the frustrations and aspirations of Mexican-Americans, the nation’s second-largest minority yet also an often-overlooked community. Salazar helped change that, writing with such power and measured anger that his people could no longer be ignored.
To be sure, the violence surrounding his death also assured that the problems of Mexican-Americans would no longer be on society’s back burner. The East Los Angeles riot was the worst violence the city had seen since Watts exploded five years earlier. Dozens of businesses in the nation’s biggest barrio were put to the torch, hundreds of people were injured and arrested. And three persons, including Salazar, died.
The grief and sadness caused by his death was as great in the barrio as it was in The Times newsroom. Chicano communities as close as Lincoln Heights and as far away as his native Texas named schools, libraries and community centers after Salazar. Latino organizations to this day award scholarships in his memory, aiming to help young Chicanos pursue education. That’s important, because too many Latino kids still drop out of school before graduating, wasting the rest of their lives in gangs or dead-end jobs. And even the many Latino workers who are gainfully employed and contribute so much to this region’s economy face daunting obstacles in trying to earn more than a minimum wage and getting their families out of run-down housing in marginal neighborhoods.
For all the good that came of Salazar’s work--and it can’t be denied that things have improved in the Chicano community in the last 20 years--much remains to be done.