Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle (City Projects/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” for the evening was Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle, a fascinating vest-pocket (53-minute) documentary on the life and death of one of the most enigmatic figures in Mexican-American history, whose bizarre and tragic exit (he was struck and killed by a tear-gas projectile in a seedy bar called the Silver Dollar Café where he’d ducked into during the police riot at the Chicano Moratorium anti-war demonstration in Los Angeles August 29, 1970) turned him into an instant martyr for the Chicano liberation movement — of which Salazar had often been fiercely critical during his lifetime. Salazar was a “man in the middle” both literally and figuratively; he was born in the town of Ciudad Juárez on the U.S.-Mexico border, just across la linea from El Paso, to which his family moved while he was still a child. He recalled the feeling he had every time he crossed the bridge that linked the two cities that he was at home in neither country. Salazar began his career as a journalist for an El Paso paper in the mid-1950’s, and his first big story was an exposé for which he got himself arrested for public drunkenness, was in jail for two days, and described the “circle of hell” he found in the local jail, especially among guards and staff who regarded him as just another drunken Mexican. That story got him noticed by the Los Angeles Times, which hired him in 1959; it also got him noticed by the FBI, which started a file on him. For the next several years he worked at the Times as a general-assignment reporter, interviewing Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon and writing all kinds of stories rather than being specifically assigned to cover the Latino community in L.A. In 1965 he was made a foreign correspondent and sent first to the Dominican Republic to cover the U.S. invasion, then to Viet Nam, and in 1968 he was assigned to Mexico City to cover the Olympics and the international fallout from them — though he missed the biggest story that happened in Mexico City when he was there, the police massacre of rioting students at the Zócalo plaza in front of the Mexican government buildings. Salazar was called back to L.A. and assigned to cover the rising Chicano movement — an assignment he regarded as a demotion — and amazingly, a man who had been a virtual model of assimilation (he married a white woman and lived with her and their family in Orange County) and who had regarded (with some justification) the original Chicano leaders as hucksters more in it for money and power than to serve the people came to share a lot of the ideals of the movement and in particular its determination to expose the way the police were used to repress Chicanos and minority communities in general.

Salazar was warned several times, especially after he quit his gig as a Los Angeles Times reporter to take a job as newscaster at a small Spanish-language TV station in L.A. called KMEX —though he continued with the Times as a columnist, which gave him the freedom to write opinion pieces unhindered by the constraints of “objectivity” within which he’d had to work as a print reporter. At one point Salazar bitterly commented that in any clash between L.A. police and Mexican residents, the mainstream media’s view of “objectivity” was you interviewed the police and that was what “really” happened. His current bosses at KMEX and his former ones at the Times both told him they’d got calls from the police department and the L.A. county sheriff’s department telling him he was overstepping the bounds of responsible reporting and there would be consequences for such actions, and at one point Salazar himself was summoned to the headquarters of the LAPD and given such warnings in person. Like any good journalist, he responded by writing an account of the meeting and publishing it in his column. Without access to Salazar’s actual articles (it seems likely that someone has published a book compiling his columns — and if that hasn’t been done, it should), it’s hard to trace his apparent evolution from “objective” reporter to print activist or have much of an idea of what his politics were when he died. Director Phillip Rodriguez was able to land interviews with former sheriff’s deputy Tom Wilson — who fired the fatal tear-gas projectile that struck Salazar and killed him — as well as the “man in red” who supposedly told sheriff’s deputies during the Chicano Moratorium demonstration that men with guns had gone into the Silver Dollar, were hiding there and needed to be flushed out, and he seems to have concluded that Salazar’s killing was what the coroner’s inquest at the time and a secret investigation by the federal Department of Justice said it was: a horrible accident during which the police were guilty of misconduct but not murder.

Of course, in the highly charged politics of 1970 — when radicals had disrupted the police inquest and one of Salazar’s closest friends, who’d been with him on the day, was told he’d be called to testify and wasn’t — it’s not surprising the underground paper L.A. Free Press ran with a headline, “Was Salazar Murdered?” and Salazar became a martyr to the Chicano movement that hadn’t before had one. Of course, it’s also not surprising that Salazar’s image after death took some bizarre twists and turns that made the real man’s life almost incomprehensible. One of the most interesting points Rodriguez makes in his film is that the issues Salazar wrote about are still dominating the politics of U.S.-Mexican relations and the way Mexican-Americans are treated by the U.S. government: immigration, drugs, gangs. Some awfully unlikely people have claimed Salazar’s mantle since (including Mexican-American Right-wingers), which is just an indication of what happens to your reputation when you’re dead and therefore no longer around to protect it. One curious fact I hadn’t known before was that the Silver Dollar’s awning on the day Salazar was killed had a sign hanging from it saying the bar sold wigs — or at least that’s what it looked like it said — which suggests that it might have been a Gay bar, or at least a drag bar, and though there’s no indication that Salazar knew about the bar before that day, or went in there for anything more than a beer and a chance to get away from out-of-control police, it does hint that it may have been a place already under more intense-than-usual police scrutiny and therefore a lousy place for a man who’d already pissed off the cops to hide.