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COMMENTARY : The Day the Latino Beacon Died

The last time I had entered the Silver Dollar Bar in East Los Angeles, I stood and stared at the bloody remains of newsman Ruben Salazar. That was 20 years ago. I never went back for the same reason I’ve never visited my mother’s grave site. She’s not there; she did not die.

I was working as a reporter at KNXT Channel 2 (now KCBS-TV). My assignment was to cover a march and demonstration sponsored by the Chicano Moratorium, an umbrella organization for activists. The purpose of the march was to protest the disproportionate number of Latino casualties in Vietnam as well as to call attention to the other effects of racism that fall upon Latinos.

Salazar had had a long and brilliant career as a foreign correspondent for The Times, including tours in Vietnam and Mexico City. But on this hot, muggy Aug. 29 he was working as news director for Spanish-language KMEX-TV Channel 34. We were both excited and wary. Excited because of the huge turnout, but wary because we had both seen demonstrations turn violent, even deadly.

By the time this one ended, a good portion of East L.A. was up in smoke, and the beacon for the handful of Mexican-American journalists had been snuffed out. Salazar was killed by a tear-gas projectile fired by a deputy sheriff into the Silver Dollar Bar.

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A few days ago, I returned there to watch a play called “The Silver Dollar.” The play is a fictitious account of Salazar’s death, an inspired indictment of racism and violence written and directed by Rene Rodriguez. A few days later, I watched “August 29,” the Latino Lab’s collectively written play directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, which deals with the events that led to that fateful day.

But it’s the trip back to the Silver Dollar that still haunts. It took an act of denial to make me go in, and it took an act of God to keep me there. Time and again my eyes would slide over to that spot on the floor where the beacon came crashing down.

My mind kept replaying those last words between us as I left the march to go back to the station. “Be careful, Bob,” he said. “You be careful,” I replied, “I’m leaving.” And then there was the deputy who whispered in my ear that Salazar had been killed by “Chicano militants.” That broke my heart a little more. Now I could enjoy the possibility that one of our best had been killed by one of our own.

They say the Silver Dollar Bar has been remodeled. Well, maybe so, but as near as I can tell, the floor is the same one that was there 20 years ago. It hasn’t changed, and neither has much of anything else.


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