News Column

Who Killed Ruben Salazar? PBS Special

April 28, 2014

Broos Campbell -- HispanicBusiness.com

Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle, a new documentary by Phillip Rodriguez, airs Tuesday on PBS
Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle, a new documentary by Phillip Rodriguez, airs Tuesday on PBS

A new documentary about martyred chicanismo journalist Ruben Salazar lays some questions to rest and raises some new ones.

"Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle," produced and directed by Phillip Rodriguez, takes a look at the life and sudden death of the former Los Angeles Times correspondent who became a martyr to the Chicano movement when he was killed at an anti-war protest in 1970.

"Like most Mexican-Americans of a certain generation, I was familiar with a version of the Salazar story," Mr. Rodriguez told HispanicBusiness.com. "That version depicted him as a cause, as a martyr for a movement."

However, he says, "That story was loaded with pieties and half-truths."

The bare bones of the matter aren't in dispute. The Chicano Moratorium and March antiwar protest in East Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 1970, drew a crowd of 30,000. Tempers rose. L.A. sheriff's deputies moved in with billy clubs and tear gas. The gathering became a large and bloody riot.

And when the smoke cleared, Mr. Salazar was dead.

A deliberate target?

What has been the center of controversy for 44 years, however, is whether deputies deliberately targeted Mr. Salazar. There was plenty of reason to think so, as Mr. Salazar had angered more than one cop with his reporting.

The sheriff's department refused to release its files on the incident till the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) filed suit. In December 2012, the department and Los Angeles County handed over a trove of original film, photos and documents.

Players in the drama have now spoken up as well, notably Deputy Thomas Wilson, who fired the first of two tear gas canisters into the Silver Dollar Caf where Mr. Salazar and other reporters were taking a break.

That projectile struck Mr. Salazar in the head, killing him instantly, according to a February 2011 report issued by the L.A. County Office of Independent Review.

"It wasn't that difficult" to get people to talk on the record about such a potentially explosive subject, Mr. Rodriguez said. "People want to be heard, want to be understood."

Others appearing in "Man in the Middle" include Guillermo Restrepo, a KMEX colleague who was with Mr. Salazar when he was killed.

"Only one person, a former colleague of Salazar's, refused us," Mr. Rodriguez said. "He felt that the Chicano version of Ruben was fundamentally dishonest and believed that it was my intention to be loyal to that narrative."

Reporting on Hispanics for Hispanics

Part of Mr. Salazar's mystique lies in how he came to be associated with the Chicano movement.

While working as Mexico City bureau chief for the L.A. Times, he was called home to cover the Mexican-American high school movimiento in East Los Angeles.

He was reluctant to take a step down from a promising career track, but he soon found a calling in writing about Hispanics for Hispanics, something he was unable to do fully at the Times. He switched to part time at the paper and went to work as news director at KMEX, a small Spanish-language TV station.

In many ways, Mr. Salazar was the perfect bridge between white Los Angeles and the rising chicanismo. He lived in conservative Orange County, had an Anglo wife and raised his kids to speak English only, giving him perspective into both worlds.

His findings didn't sit well with many people, however. Members of the Chicano movement called him a sellout, and the cops thought he asked too many questions.

Mr. Salazar and his KMEX colleagues were investigating alleged misconduct by Los Angeles police officers and sheriff's deputies at the time he was killed.

When then-L.A. District Attorney Evelle Younger declined to press charges on the grounds that he'd found no evidence of malice or criminal neglect, and the L.A. Sheriff's Department announced that the case was closed, somebody smelled a rat.

Whether those suspicions were correct may be answered in the telling.

But in a story as complex as Mr. Salazar's, said Mr. Rodriguez, there are "lots of fascinating ideas, anecdotes, facts that we had to leave out for the sake of a more coherent and dramatic narrative." The filmmaker has put some outtakes on the film's website, rubensalazarpbs.org.

Of course, the pressing question is whether Mr. Salazar's death was an accident, manslaughter or murder.

"For those interested in that answer, I'd suggest you tune in to your local PBS station on April 29 at 9 p.m.," Mr. Rodriguez says. "Check local listings."

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"Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle" premieres Tues., April 29, at 9 p.m. ET as a special presentation of Voces on PBS.

Mr. Rodriguez invites viewers to join the Twitter conversation using @RubenSalazarPBS and #RememberSalazar.

Meanwhile, here's a trailer:




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