Latinos Who Think It's Better Now Should Reread Salazar

Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

On Wednesday, it will be 31 years since my friend, mentor and former Times colleague Ruben Salazar was killed. Salazar was the first Mexican American journalist to write for this newspaper specifically about Latino issues, and he did it with such prescience that his work is still quoted.

Salazar died Aug. 29, 1970. His head was shattered by a bullet-like tear gas projectile fired by an L.A. County sheriff's deputy. The lawman was one of hundreds of officers who descended on East L.A. that hot, smoggy afternoon to control the city's worst riot since Watts had exploded five years earlier.

The deputy fired the projectile into a small bar on Whittier Boulevard, the Silver Dollar Cafe, after being told that a man with a rifle was inside. There was no gunman, we now know, only some frightened bar patrons, a news crew from Spanish-language TV station KMEX and Salazar, who was KMEX's news director as well as a regular Times contributor.

In the final weeks of his life, Salazar had been writing about--and having KMEX reporters cover--egregious cases of police brutality. He was so aggressive about it that his superiors at both KMEX and The Times were pressured by local law enforcement officials to rein him in. For him to die at the hands of a local cop, whatever the circumstances, was a coincidence too incredible to be easily accepted.

Although a coroner's jury concluded that Salazar died "at the hands of another," none of the deputies involved was charged with a crime. Once Salazar's family settled a lawsuit against the county, the matter was laid to rest. Or so local authorities hoped.

Instead, Salazar became a larger figure in death than he had been in life. Much to the chagrin of many cops--and more than a few reporters who preferred to remember Salazar as the hard-boiled newsman he was--Salazar became, to the activist Chicanos he had reported on, a martyr.

Today, the Eastside park where the 1970 rioting broke out after police broke up a Latino protest march bears Salazar's name. So do schools, community centers and scholarship funds.

Yet I sense among a new generation of Latino activists a tendency to assume that what happened in 1970--not just to Salazar, but to the community he covered--can't happen again. Some even seem to think it isn't relevant to their more prosperous and better-educated generation.

I can understand their confidence. With Latino population growing across the nation, Latinos are in powerful positions everywhere. The L.A. County sheriff is Latino, as is Los Angeles' city attorney and the president of the City Council. A Latino came very close to being elected mayor recently.

Little wonder that some people assume that the issues Salazar wrote about are ancient history--and that anyone who brings them up is a crotchety old Chicano who should get on with life.

They need to reread some of Salazar's columns about bad education, illegal immigration and, yes, police brutality. Many could have been written today.

Or doubters can drop by the place Salazar died, at 4945 E. Whittier Blvd. It's still called the Silver Dollar, but has been turned into a cultural center by Ricardo Lopez, one of those crotchety old Chicano activists. For the next month, Lopez is featuring an exhibit of photos taken the day Salazar died. He's also produced a fictional play telling the story, which will be performed there through Sept. 16.

If only it had been fiction. Because it wasn't, every police officer in the Southwest carries a special burden to this day. So do the Latino political leaders who are in positions to hold officers accountable when they treat Latino barrios as territory to be occupied rather than communities to be served.

As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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