The Trailblazer : Ruben Salazar was a man of many firsts who paved the way for other Latino journalists.Now, 25 years after his death, his beneficiaries and a book honor him.
A Chicano is a Mexican American with a non-Anglo image of himself. He resents being told Columbus “discovered” America. . .that Chicanos are “culturally deprived” or that the fact that they speak Spanish is a “problem.”
To his readers, journalist Ruben Salazar was la voz for la Raza, the voice for his people, a pioneering reporter who once said of himself, “Someone must advocate a community that has been forgotten.”
That community was Chicano.
That voice was silenced Aug. 29, 1970. Juarez-born Salazar, the first Mexican American newsman to write for a mainstream English-language daily, was fatally struck when a sheriff’s deputy, answering a report of a man brandishing a gun, fired tear gas projectiles into a cafe where the 42-year-old Los Angeles Times columnist had gathered with other journalists after spending the afternoon covering the Chicano Anti-Vietnam War Moratorium in East Los Angeles.
But Salazar’s trailblazing career is once again getting notice with a new book, and his legacy is very much alive among Latino journalists.
The soulful writer who explained all things Latino to a largely Anglo audience--amid threats from law enforcers not to “stir up the Mexicans” with his writing--can be found in “Ruben Salazar, Border Correspondent: Selected Writings, 1955-1970” (University of California Press). Out this month, the book, edited by Mario T. Garciia, is a compilation of Salazar’s writing over a 15-year career that ended with his column at The Times. Earlier, from 1965 to 1968, Salazar was a foreign correspondent heading the Mexico City bureau and covering Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and Cuba.
His start was in 1955 at the El Paso Herald-Post, where he worked the police and Juarez beats.
Ken Flynn, who has been at the Herald-Post for 36 years, knew Salazar and stayed in touch after Salazar left the Herald-Post for The Times in 1959.
“I was a young reporter and I tried to emulate him,” Flynn says.
“First of all he was a good journalist. And he was a personable man. He was always for the underdog, and he had a tremendous winning personality,” remembers Flynn, who says he became the paper’s next resident “Chicano” because he was the only Spanish speaker at the time of Salazar’s departure.
Salazar also “was a daring kind of reporter,” Flynn says.
“Ruben got himself arrested for intoxication in order to get into the city jail to show the inhumane conditions of the jail, and the authorities didn’t realize it was him. He wrote a blistering account.”
“Salazar was an aggressive reporter interpreting his community’s reality as he saw it,” says Zita Arocha, executive director of the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ).
Adds Ruben Martinez, an editor with Pacific News Service: “Ruben Salazar’s story is the classic American story, the story of the struggle on his part to strike out alone.”
Salazar was 8 months old when his parents moved from Juarez to El Paso. There, he became a naturalized citizen, attended high school and the University of Texas at El Paso, then known as Texas Western College. He wrote for the campus newspaper, El Burro, an experience that led to a journalism degree and a career of many firsts in the mainstream press: the first Latino reporter, the first Latino foreign correspondent, the first Latino columnist.
And his topics, especially during the height of the Chicano movement in 1969 and 1970, were firsts: the educational alienation of Chicanos, urban problems, tensions between Mexican Americans and African Americans.
Salazar was “advocating the Chicano community in the same way that the general media advocated the Anglo power structure,” Garciia writes in the book.
“I think we, as minority journalists, are still struggling in trying to explain to our white colleagues why it is important to diversify our newsrooms,” says Carol J. Castan~neda, vice president of print media for the NAHJ and national reporter for USA Today.
“A newsroom has strength and power when you have people of different cultures, when you can touch on stories that nobody even thought of,” says Castan~neda, pointing out that Salazar was a champion for his community--one he believed had been denied a forum in the English-language press.
Today, she says, Latino journalists make up 2% of the work force of newspapers across the country, a far cry from Salazar’s time. Still, she says, there is much room for improvement. According to the NAHJ, a professional organization dedicated to the progress of Latinos in the media, about 2.5% of Latinos hold management positions. More disappointing, Castan~neda says, is that almost 50% of all newsrooms in the country have no people of color on staff.
She and others contend that many a battle still need to be fought to convey Latino life and views in the mainstream press.
For Los Angeles-born Martinez, author of “The Other Side: Notes from the New L.A., Mexico City and Beyond,” (Vintage, 1993), that means claiming his duality in the Latino and Anglo worlds in order to explain his community to readers.
When he writes about Latino issues and “how we see the world,” Martinez says he gives his broader audience of Anglo readers a basic Latin American studies lesson, doling out historical and cultural information, explaining the elements, the essence of being Latino.
Why is that necessary?
“Maybe,” he says, “because the American mainstream still doesn’t want to deal with Latinos.
“If there wasn’t a Proposition 187, if there wasn’t Mexico bashing, if we didn’t see police abuse, if there wasn’t a fight for affirmative action, if there wasn’t a congressional movement to stop bilingual education, if all these things weren’t going on, I would like to be traveling,” he says.
“Sure, it’s encouraging that there are more visible Latinos in newsrooms,” he says. “It’s not quite as bad as it was in the days of Ruben Salazar, but overall, we have to be realistic and admit we are virtually invisible.
“I can’t tell you how many times I am communicating with publishers and editors on the East and West Coasts who really don’t get it, editors who I have to basically walk through on what it’s like to be a Latino in America today.”
Nancy San Martin, a former staff writer for the Miami Herald and now immigration reporter for the Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., says the Latino culture--both in and out of the newsroom--should be an asset, not a hindrance.
“I think that your culture always is a banner, a proud banner,” she says. She also works to educate her bosses and co-workers. Recently, San Martin tried to get editors to stop using the word alien when referring to illegal immigrants.
“I pointed it out,” she says, but to no avail. So armed with the stylebook of the Chicago Tribune Co., owner of the Sun-Sentinel, that suggested not using the term, she spoke to a managing editor. “I explained that the term is offensive to many people, including myself.”
The policy was changed.
The credit she gives to Salazar.
“He was before my time. But Ruben Salazar has helped me not be afraid of speaking my mind, of taking a stand.”
At the Dallas Morning News, Hispanic affairs reporter Frank Trejo says the majority of the paper’s readers are not Latino and not bilingual--more reason to write about his community and bridge the information gap.
When writing about a quincen~eara, he explains that the celebration is similar to a “sweet 16” party. He explains the difference between Cinco de Mayo and Sept. 16, landmark celebration days in Mexican and Mexican American culture.
And when he thinks there has been discrimination, he points it out. A recent article was about the absence of Latino speakers at Ross Perot’s United We Stand America political conference in Dallas earlier this month.
Not everyone is happy with Trejo’s coverage of the Latino community, which stands at 22% of Dallas residents. Trejo, who has been in the business for 18 years, says he is experiencing a backlash against such stories.
Among his colleagues, “I’ve been noticing the attitude of, ‘Gee, we are getting too many of those stories in the paper,’ ” Trejo says.
“Readers have asked, ‘Do you think the paper can be fair because you’re a Hispanic reporter covering a Hispanic-oriented story?’
“People think identifiable populations are treated differently and that includes reporters. They think that we have these jobs because we are Latinos or that the only reason we do these stories is because we are Latinos with an agenda,” he says.
Not so, say Trejo and others who agree that they are journalists first and do not appreciate being pegged as the “barrio reporter.” They invoke the name of Ruben Salazar, who was reluctant in his day to be labeled and once remarked angrily: “I’m a journalist who happens to be a Chicano. Don’t you ever call me a Chicano newsman.”
Staffers at the Dallas Morning News agree that much of the credit for the paper’s coverage of Latinos goes to Gilbert Bailon, assistant managing editor and NAHJ president.
Bailon, who has sensitized top management about Latino stories--from subject matter to display on the page--says doing so “helps the mainstream society understand our community and tells the mainstream that we are a part of the mainstream.”
A case in point was the death recently of Texas-born singer Selena, popular with Latinos in the United States and Mexico. The story was neglected by many newspapers.
Says Bailon: “Our state desk editor came to me and said, ‘Selena just got shot.’ I said, ‘This is huge.’ He immediately mobilized people and did the right thing.
“People are rooted in American culture. But non-Latinos are not as familiar as they might need to be with Latino and Latina writers, artists, musicians, educators and policy-makers,” he says. “As Latino journalists we can be a bridge.”
But Bailon cautions that Latino reporters “do not become lap dogs” for the community; they not only write about the good, but also the bad and the ugly, legitimate stories.
“There is an expectation by Hispanics that we are going to put the Hispanic community only in the best light,” he says. “We can never lose sight of good journalism and that means asking the hard questions of everybody, including Latinos.”
“Like Ruben Salazar, we are cultural interpreters,” says Arocha, the NAHJ executive director.
“Oftentimes, we run up against brick walls, against the attitude of, ‘Why don’t you stop talking about your culture and your people?’ ‘Why don’t you just shut up and assimilate?’
“Just because there are a few more of us out there carrying the torch, I don’t think it is easier for us than it was for Ruben Salazar,” she says.
Still, whatever the story, “the greater society is going to be immeasurably richer by reading our perspective and hearing our voices,” says Arocha, who helped organize a tribute to Salazar at the NAHJ conference in El Paso two months ago.
“We dedicated our conference to him because that was important for us to do. We needed to make that statement. We have to honor people like him. He is a role model we can all adopt.”
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