As we approach the 43rd Anniversary of the historic Chicano Moratorium March Against the Viet Nam War on August 29, 1970, I am reminded of the many Chicana & Chicano heroes who sacrificed their blood, sweat, and tears so future generations would not have to suffer the full onslaught of blatant Euroamerican racism: the “No Mexicans, Women or Dogs Allowed” signs that permeated American society.
I reminded of a time, long since gone, when Chicanas and Chicanos, despite strategic differences in achieving self-determination, came together under the banner of Chicanismo to struggle against racism and injustice.
I am forever indebted to the Chicano Movement Generation.
It is through the history and legacy of Chicana/o resistance that I write in order to defend Chicana/o Studies and the Chicano community against social injustice. I am one of many voices rumbling through Aztlán.
I am also reminded of Ruben Salazar. I am reminded of his legacy. Ruben Salazar is both a Chicana/o icon and a construct of myth.
I revisit Ruben Salazar to further expand the discussion of Chicanismo. As the unwitting martyr of the Chicano Movement, Salazar has escaped “critique” of his political ideology and position within the Chicano Movement.
Ruben Salazar was a Mexican American journalist who began his career in the mid-1950s at the El Paso Herald-Post, later moving on to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, then the San Francisco News, before finishing his career with both the Los Angeles Times and KMEX-TV.
“A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself” wrote Ruben Salazar in his weekly column in the February 6, 1970 edition of the Los Angeles Times.
Within the pages of the L.A. Times, Ruben Salazar unwittingly assumed the difficult task of mediating between the growing militant Chicano Movement and the largely racist, hostile, and antagonistic Euroamerican Establishment, which negatively perceived the Chicana/o community in pejorative terms, such as “dirty,” “backward,” “wetback,” “illegal,” and “unpatriotic.”
Salazar’s article entitled “Who Is A Chicano? And What Is It the Chicanos Want?” was primarily intended for the Euroamerican and Mexican American middle-class readership of the L.A. Times.
A closer examination of the article, however, reveals the primary intention was to bridge the gap between the elite who were calling for an all-out political and legal assault on the Chicano “militants” and those few sympathetic readers who might have enough influence to sway the city’s political and civic leaders to commit to some form of decisive action and engage the Movement’s demands within the framework of the American polity.
The mythical bridge building, of course, was an idealistic “work-within-the-system” strategy that was mostly symbolic, yet part and parcel of the Establishment’s notion of “reform” – all talk and very little action.
By pacifying the radicalness of Chicana/o identity and the Chicano Movement within the eyes of the Euroamerican Establishment, Salazar, through his writings attempted to placate the city’s elite by creating the image that “Chicanos are merely fighting to become Americans,” an idea that could not be further from the truth.
Chicanismo was, and still is, a revolutionary nationalist challenge to American institutions, racist and sexist ideologies, extremist political leaders, exploitative economic systems and unequal social structures. The Chicano Movement was a radical departure from the previous generation.
Moreover, Chicanismo was a rejection of the liberal political agenda of the assimilationist and integrationist politics of the Mexican American Generation of an earlier period, such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the American G.I. Forum.
It is clear that Salazar’s highly acclaimed article on Chicana/o identity, however, revealed a deeper narrative that went beyond the scope of merely trying to “inform” the Euroamerican and Mexican American middle-class readership about who the Chicano was in American society.
More importantly, the article reflected Salazar’s own questioning and coming to terms with his own identity. Salazar’s identity had been shaped within the politics of the Mexican American Generation of the 1940s and 1950s, which promoted the tenets of American assimilation and integration at the expense of the Mexican culture.
In the aftermath of the East Los Angeles Blowouts, the growth of the Chicano Movement, and both a history of racism and complete failure of the L.A. Times to adequately cover the Chicana/o community within the pages of the newspaper, Salazar was reluctantly assigned to cover the Chicano Movement.
In the same way that César Chávez viewed himself as a labor leader who happened to be a Chicano, Ruben Salazar saw himself as a journalist who happened to be a Chicano.
In retrospect, Salazar’s ambivalence in identifying as a Chicano has generally been avoided by Chicana/o scholars due in part to his well-deserved recognition as a legendary Chicano newsman and his status as the undeniable martyr of the Chicano Movement resulting from his assassination during the August 29, 1970 Chicano Moratorium at the hands of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
On a side note, it should be noted that two others were killed at the Chicano Moratorium: fifteen year-old Brown Beret Lyn Ward, and Angel Gilberto Díaz. They are not forgotten.
Ironically, the Chicano Movement transformed Ruben Salazar not only into a martyr but into a Chicano as well.
L.A. Times city editor, Bill Thomas contends that “Ruben was a moderate” and would “have laughed at being martyrized.” KMEX-TV station manager Danny Villanueva notes that Salazar would have responded to the Movement’s efforts to make him a Chicano leader with one of his favorite sayings: “This is ridiculous!”
Likewise, Sally Salazar, Ruben’s wife, asserts that she is confused by the public creation of Ruben Salazar through murals and memorials as someone she does not fully recognize.
Sally adds that Ruben “was someone he himself may have just been in the process of discovering.” This is a point I will return to later.
So why the need to create this image of Ruben Salazar as a Chicano leader, advocate and martyr of the community when it is evident that he didn’t articulate the politics of Chicano Power let alone identify as a Chicano?
To be sure, there were other Chicanas/os who had been killed by federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies and who actually advocated for Chicana/o self-determination, yet they have been largely forgotten by history.
Did the Chicano Movement suffer a political co-optation by the Establishment through the enshrinement of Ruben Salazar as the Movement’s leader and martyr?
Does Salazar’s middle-class reformist politics suppress the legacy of Chicano Power of the 1960s and 1970s?
In other words, was the purpose of constructing the imagery of a clean-cut Mexican American, such as Ruben Salazar meant to pacify the revolutionary nationalism behind Chicano power and its identification with self-determination?
In a June 16, 1969 articled entitled, “Brown Berets Hail ‘La Raza’ and Scorn the Establishment” Salazar writes that David Sánchez, Prime Minister of the Brown Berets, who was indicted as part of the East Los Angeles Blowouts, looks like a clean-cut Mexican American boy.
Through a closer reading of Salazar’s writings, was this the imagery of assimilation he attempted to convey as a journalist for the L.A. Times? After all, Salazar wrote “Chicanos are merely fighting to become Americans.”
Most recently, in 2008, the United States Postal Service designated a stamp dedicated to Ruben Salazar.
To the untrained eye and uninitiated Chicana/o, the whitewashing of history is clearly evident as the stamp is permanently ingrained with the unfinished quote “during Chicano protest rally in East Los Angeles.”
There is something wrong. But what can it be? The sentence doesn’t seem to make sense.
Why the failure to include the following phrase “assassinated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department during Chicano protest rally in East Los Angeles” to complete the sentence?
Was it to whitewash the history of the Chicano Movement even further for the younger generation who has been distanced from its culture?
In returning to Sally Salazar’s idea that Ruben “was someone he himself may have just been in the process of discovering,” I recall a recent conversation I had with Chicano indie author and publisher Santino J. Rivera, I argued that the politics of the Chicano Movement and the racism it exposed was a transformative experience in Salazar’s own search for identity.
Santino maintains that “We’re right back where we were pre-1970s revolution with the Mexican-Americans vs. Chicanos. Ruben Salazar vs. Oscar Zeta Acosta. We finally have the numbers, the money and the political clout…and all we want to do is assimilate and bury the past. Funny thing is, Salazar and Acosta both ended up dead.”
Salazar was not insulated from the injustices he reported and I argue that the politics and the circumstances of the Chicano Movement greatly impacted Salazar’s ideological position, especially in the final months of his life.
Yet, Salazar continuously retreated to the “system works” mentality that encompassed the Mexican American Generation.
In his articles, Salazar attempted to discredit the Chicano Movement “militants” by associating them, through his misinformed analysis, to the “anarchistic zoot suiter, as we learned just before World War II, can be easily driven to violence.”
Look at this phrase again –> An “anarchistic zoot suiter driven to violence.” Seriously?
Furthermore, Salazar observed through his assimilationist eyes that the “bato loco, though impossible to convert into an Eagle Scout, can be dealt with on a political basis.”
Salazar adds, “stripped of his potential political power – and that, after all is what barrio and ghetto social innovations produce – the bato loco has no way to go but to the dangerous shell of an anarchistic zoot suiter.”
These examples shed light on a complicated persona filled with many of the same identity issues affecting today’s Chicana and Chicano youth.
Furthermore, it reveals a far more complex Ruben Salazar than we previously imagined and who appears to conclude that the Chicano Power Movement he was witnessing was anti-American, unpatriotic, violence prone, and not to be trusted.
In an April 17, 1970 article entitled, “Maligned Word: Mexican” Salazar concludes that the racism and stereotypical images have “contributed to the psychological crippling of the Mexican-American when it comes to the word Mexican. He is unconsciously ashamed of it.”
Salazar was a by-product of a racist American society and as Dr. Ignacio M. García asserts, “Mexican Americans of the pre-Movement period continued to believe in the fundamental goodness and fairness of American society.”
Despite continuously reaching out to mainstream America by forming patriotic organizations, the Mexican American Generation remained outside the American polity as a result of racial segregation.
On the eve of the Chicano Moratorium, Salazar was in the middle of writing an exposé on police brutality in the Chicano community, entitled “What Progress in Thirty Years of Police Community Relations?”
At this point, it appears that Salazar was slowly becoming an “advocate” for the Chicano Movement and his interview with Bob Navarro on KNXT-TV on May 13, 1970 marked a turning point in his language use to articulate the Chicano position vis-à-vis American society.
More importantly, Salazar’s own identity arrived at the crossroads between Chicano self-determination and integration.
His assassination at the Chicano Moratorium on August 29, 1970, however, put to rest what might be consider a political shift to the left on his part. Likewise, it also ended hopes of answering the question Salazar had posed regarding the progress of police-community relations.
In helping to produce a Chicano martyr, the 1970s, as Dr. Rudy Acuña astutely observed in Occupied America, restored to the middle class its hegemony over the movement.
At the crux of this article, then, is the question: was the movement co-opted by using one of our own, Ruben Salazar, to pacify the revolutionary nationalist nature of the Chicano Movement?
There are many questions that remain unasked and unresolved. The legacy of Ruben Salazar is one of hope and encouragement. It’s that old Horatio Alger “pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” narrative.
We all need heroes. Ruben Salazar has become a hero for many of us.
Many of us are still demanding that L.A. County Sheriff’s Department be held accountable for the assassination of Ruben Salazar and the deaths of Lyn Ward, Angel Gilberto Diaz, and Gustav Montag (who died on January 31, 1971 at the last Chicano Moratorium)
On February 22, 2011 the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review released a report on Ruben Salazar’s death. According to the Los Angeles Times, which received a copy, reported that “Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputies committed a series of tactical blunders” that led to the death of Salazar, but the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department argued there was “no evidence deputies intentionally targeted the newsman or had him under surveillance.”
Yet, many in our community today, like Ruben Salazar 43 years ago, continue to believe that the system works despite evidence to the contrary.
There is no question that Ruben Salazar opened the doors for future Chicana/o journalists in the nation’s major newspapers.
Yet, as in most professional industries in the United States today, those numbers are small and, for the most part, those few Chicana/o journalists don’t even appear remotely concerned with the need to push for social change.
By problematizing the legacy of Ruben Salazar’s identity and his position within the Chicano Movement, it is hoped that a larger discussion on the meaning of Chicano self-determination and identity be undertaken to advance our political trajectory and analysis.
– part of an ongoing series of essays on the Chicano Movement, the Brown Berets, and Chicano Studies as part of my thesis/dissertation.