It is not every day that we have the opportunity to celebrate a colleague whose work for this newspaper stands the scrutiny of history. Journalism, by its nature, tends to focus on the immediate. Only a few of any generation leave a bold enough mark to be visible over generations. One such journalist was Ruben Salazar, whom we honor today as the United States Postal Service issues a stamp to commemorate his life and work.
To many, Salazar is recalled largely for his death. He was killed at the age of 42 by a tear-gas canister fired by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy during a Chicano antiwar protest-turned-riot in East Los Angeles in 1970. It is right and important that we remember Salazar’s death. His clear-eyed, unflinching journalism impelled him to places of danger and made him enemies, some in law enforcement. But his contribution exceeds his sacrifice. In the 11 years that his work appeared in these pages, Salazar was a voice of the people -- la voz de la Raza, some called him.
Salazar was an early and eloquent explorer of the Mexican American experience. He chronicled that experience around the world, reporting from Mexico, of course, but also the Dominican Republic and Vietnam. His greatest work was done in Los Angeles, where Salazar refused to accept the pathologies of immigrant life. He covered schools and police-community relations. He rightly complained about a system of political representation that denied Latinos any place on the City Council or county Board of Supervisors. He refused to accept that Mexican immigrants, whose contributions were forming the city we now inhabit, were to be treated as somehow outside it. He wrote from the ground up, which is why he found himself in the Silver Dollar Cafe on Aug. 29, 1970, as the rioting churned through the neighborhood and as that deputy fired the canister that killed him.
Much has changed in the years since Salazar died. He would surely be pleased to see a Mexican American mayor and other elected leaders; he would welcome the signs of political cohesion among Latinos. But he would find Los Angeles schools painfully familiar, and he would have no trouble recognizing the often shrill debate over illegal immigration. As Los Angeles enjoys “Ruben Salazar Day,” we, his proud former colleagues, rededicate ourselves to the city that he imagined, one where we recognize and celebrate our varied heritages and set aside those differences in order to build a society together.
For a sampling of Salazar’s work and stories about his life, death and the Chicano movement, go to latimes.com/rubensalazar.