It certainly took a lot for Cesar Chávez to finally garner the recognition he deserved in this country. But the fact that Rubén Salazar, a contemporary of Chávez, remains largely unknown outside university Raza Studies programs attests to just how far we still have to go before non-Anglo Americans’ experiences are finally truly integrated into our collective historical consciousness.
Rubén Salazar: Man in the Middle, a new documentary premiering in San Francisco thanks to the efforts of a collective of local Latino cinephiles Colectivo Cinema Errante, takes an important step in the right direction.
Salazar was a prominent journalist who had been reporting on rampant and unfettered police brutality against Latinos in Los Angeles when he was killed by a pointed, 10-inch tear gas canister—capable of piercing 7-inch plywood from a distance of 100 yards—that was fired at his head by an L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy.
It was Aug. 29, 1970, the day of the National Chicano Moratorium march, the largest demonstration in L.A.’s history, during which tens of thousands of Mexican Americans turned out to protest the disproportionately high rates of Vietnam War casualties in their communities.
Born in Juárez in 1928 and raised in El Paso, Salazar became the only Mexican-American reporter in the Los Angeles Times’ 100-plus-strong newsroom. By the late 1960s, he had his own column at the paper, served as news director for Spanish-language KMEX-TV, and had become an important chronicler of the burgeoning Chicano movement.
L.A. cops had warned him several times in the weeks preceding his untimely death to “stop stirring up the Mexicans” with his coverage of police violence, frame-ups and extra-judicial killings of Latinos. On that fateful day, Salazar had been covering the Moratorium and was walking down Whittier Blvd. with KMEX reporter Guillermo Restrepo when he noticed they were being followed. They ducked into the Silver Dollar Bar, ordered a beer, and the next thing you know, sheriff’s deputies had blocked the entrance, refused to allow anyone in or out, and then fired teargas into the establishment. Salazar never made it out alive.
Documentary producer and director Phillip Rodriguez used stock film footage, old photographs and interviews with Salazar colleagues, family, friends and other key personalities to reconstruct the story of Rubén Salazar.
With the help of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Rodriguez sued the L.A. Sheriff’s Department and the U.S. Department of Justice, and was able to obtain copies, for the first time, of documentary evidence from the L.A. Sheriff’s internal investigation into Salazar’s death, much of which appears in the film alongside photos from independent movimiento journalists from La Raza newspaper.
But Rodriguez’ film is not only about Salazar’s journalistic legacy and his suspicious death. It is also the story of one Mexican American man’s evolution from assimilationist to Chicano that parallels the coming-of-age of a new identity forged from the specific historical experience of a people who have straddled the border between Mexican and American and become something more.
Rubén Salazar: Man in the Middle has been picked up by PBS, but San Francisco audiences will have the opportunity to see it first, on the big screen, on Saturday, April 26 at 7 p.m., at the Roxie Theatre, 3117 16th Street, San Francisco. A panel discussion will follow the screening. More info: https://www.facebook.com/events/1391268124482903/ (415) 863-1087. $10.