Remembering Ruben Salazar, pioneer Latino journalist

Remembering Ruben Salazar, pioneer Latino journalist
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Fifty years ago, journalist Ruben Salazar, 42, set off to cover an anti-war protest in East Los Angeles and never returned.

The march, known as the Chicano Moratorium, drew over 25,000 people on Aug. 29, 1970. It was a largely peaceful gathering until law enforcement moved in, drawn by reports of looting. Then the rally descended into chaos and violence. By the end of the day, hundreds had been arrested and three people were dead, including Salazar. He died after being struck by a canister fired by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy.

On the anniversary of his death, Salazar’s legacy deserves to be remembered and celebrated. He was a pioneering Latino journalist whose impact is still felt today. His killing was a seminal moment in the Mexican American civil rights movement. And the issues that he cared about matter now as much as they did half a century ago.

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Salazar was born in Juarez, Mexico, in 1928 and grew up in El Paso. In an age when opportunities for Latino journalists were extremely limited, he carved out an exceptional career. He was a foreign correspondent and one of the first Latino reporters at the Los Angeles Times. He interviewed President Eisenhower, Cesar Chavez, and Robert F. Kennedy. Later he became news director for a Spanish-language television station, while continuing as a columnist for the L.A. Times. He illuminated the lives of Latinos for his readers, explaining in a 1970 column that “A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself.”

The circumstances around Salazar’s death have long been viewed as suspicious among activists of his generation. Prior to his death, he had confided to his friends that he was worried about being targeted by law enforcement. But the 1970 coroner’s inquest did not result in any criminal charges against the deputy who killed him, and a 2011 review of Salazar’s case by an independent watchdog agency found that Salazar’s killing was neither intentional nor targeted.

Fast-forward 50 years: Police violence against Latinos continues to be a significant problem. Research from the Washington Post has found that, since 2015, Latinos are the second-highest demographic killed by police, after African Americans. Just this year, James Porter Garcia, 28, was killed by Phoenix police in July as he sat in a parked car; Andres Guardado, 18, was fatally shot in the back by a Los Angeles County Sheriff‘s deputy in June; and Carlos Ingram Lopez, 27, died while being pinned down by police officers in Tucson in April. Like Salazar’s case, none of these incidents has received sustained national attention. So Latinos have much to learn from the Black Lives Matter movement about amplifying the need for justice in our communities.

Salazar forged his career before the concept of “diversity” existed. Yet even as the U.S. Latino population has grown to nearly one-in-five Americans, Latinos remain under-represented in the media. A 2018 Pew Center report found that newsrooms were 77 percent white. Ironically, the lack of Latino representation continues to be an issue at the L.A. Times, where Salazar once worked. In July, a caucus of Latino employees wrote an open letter to management calling for better community coverage and representation.

Salazar’s death is also relevant because Americans are living under an administration that is generally hostile to Latinos, immigrants, and journalists. The ideals that Salazar believed in, like freedom of the press, seem under siege. Consider that Latinos were among the many journalists who reported experiencing excessive police force this summer while covering the George Floyd protests. Or that President TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away MORE has labelled the news media “the enemy of the American people.” 

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True, Salazar likely would never have seen himself as a martyr for a cause. He was not a political figure or an activist. But his reporting on immigration, racial profiling, and Latino identity was ahead of his time. He achieved success despite his facing discrimination. His death led to the formation of a professional organization for Latino reporters in California, which paved the way for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. It’s no wonder that he was known as la voz de la Raza, the voice of the people.

Ruben Salazar was dedicated to seeking the truth and to accurately depicting the Mexican American experience. His story is a reminder of how far Latinos have come in the struggle for visibility and justice – and how far our community still has to go.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.