Rubén Salazar, the voice of a generation

Lorain Watters, Assistant News Editor

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Rubén Salazar is hunched over his desk, the typewriter’s keys shaking as he taps away the words of his latest piece for his column, This Shot World.

Despite the clock sounding at 5 p.m., Salazar remains planted in his chair, black letters staining the paper with the words “equality” and “Gringo Ignoramus.”

Born in Ciudad Juárez on March 3, 1928, Salazar grew up like many UTEP students today—commuting from their home in Juárez to attend school in El Paso and back and forth on a daily basis.

He eventually moved to El Paso with his family and went to Texas Western College (now UTEP) from 1946-47, but he left and served in the U.S. Army for two years. He later re-enrolled at TWC. Majoring in journalism and working at the student newspaper, The Prospector, Salazar entered into a line of work that would take him across the world and, ultimately, on the road to his death.

Graduating from TWC in 1954, he began working as an investigative journalist for the El Paso Herald Post where, at one point, he voluntarily got himself arrested to showcase the maltreatment of prisoners in El Paso jails.

Salazar left El Paso and began working as a news reporter and continued his opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Times in 1959. He was also a foreign correspondent covering the war in Vietnam, the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City.

By 1968, Salazar found his beat in journalism when he began focusing on the Mexican-American community in East Los Angeles.

“We didn’t have that many role models growing up (in the 1950s) and we had a lot of discrimination,” said Rosa Guerrero,  a 1957 UTEP alumna, artist and educator in El Paso. “Your identity as a Mexican was not there and everyone was segregated,
in a way.”

Unrest peaked during the 1970s, as a disproportional number of Chicanos were serving and being killed during the Vietnam War. Residents of Los Angeles formed a rally, the National Chicano Moratorium March, to protest
the war.

The rally soon turned into a riot and the sheriff’s department used tear gas to disperse the protestors.

Salazar was first on the scene to cover this event, but was told by police to wait inside a neighboring bar until the chaos had been subdued. Whilst waiting, a tear gas canister was shot through the bar’s front door and hit Salazar in the head, killing him. There was no investigation into his death and the Los Angeles Police Department ruled it an accident. Speculation and conspiracies have arisen since that incident, questioning if Salazar’s death was truly an accident or if someone wanted to put an end to his voice for Chicano rights.

During a special screening at UTEP of “Rubén Salazar: Man in the Middle”—a documentary directed by Los Angeles native Phillip Rodriguez—Zita Arocha, communication professor and director of Borderzine, commented on Chicanos in the journalism field.

“Most newsrooms in the country are primarily white and only 3 percent of those working in the media are Latino or Hispanic. For young people coming up today in journalism, like Rubén, who broke every single barrier, we’re still fighting that same battle of being in the middle between cultures,” she said. “We still have so much further to go.”

Guadalupe Rodriguez, senior multimedia journalism major, watched the documentary about Salazar and said she was glad to learn about a famous journalist who started out exactly where she is now.

“I didn’t know that he struggled with being who he really was,” Rodriguez said. “We have to keep in mind that he graduated from UTEP, and for me, this is a place that we can be who we are and be proud of where we come from.”

Elida Perez, former editor-in-chief of The Prospector and investigative reporter for Newspaper Tree, began her career in journalism as a way to impact her community and explore different topics.

“I had the help of positive influences like Zita (Arocha). I think journalism is a civil service, a way to make a difference and that’s something I wanted to see, where it would go, to find what stories that I could tell,” Perez said.

For Perez, few Latino journalists receive the chance to be a part of big media news outlets.

“He pursued stories that impacted that community and it wasn’t being done much at that point in time. Being from UTEP and being able to do those things is inspirational. What inspires me when I think about his story is he didn’t hesitate to cover topics that affected the Latino community—moving forward, getting close to that level of dedication and impact,” Perez said.

Dino Chiecchi worked at The Prospector as the news editor and graduate from UTEP in 1983 with a bachelor’s in journalism. He is now the news administrative editor for the San Antonio Express News and said that Rubén Salazar was the sole reason he became interested in journalism.

“My mother (Bertha Velarde) and him were close friends. I heard wonderful stories about things he did as a journalist,” Chiecchi said. “I wanted to be like him, he was my hero.”

Chiecchi saw Salazar start out as a journalist, but become an activist toward the end of his career to improve the conditions for Latinos. 

“I remember the day we got the call, it was a Sunday morning. We were having breakfast and the phone rang. It was one of my mother’s best friends and she informed my mother of the news that Rubén had been killed,” Chiecchi said. “I was about 7 years old, so I didn’t understand what was happening. My mom said he was receiving death threats the whole time, but he didn’t care. He knew his life was in danger, but he was fearless—he wanted to get the story out at all costs.”

Years later, Chiecchi found letters that Salazar and his mother had exchanged with each other.

“They knew each other very well. Had things gone differently, I might have had a different last name,” he said. “He was influential in my life long before he was popular, especially in my household. He was a father figure to me and I aspired to be like him. He gave his life to report a
news story.”

To read some of Salazar’s earlier work, visit theprospector.newspaperarchives.com.

Lorain Watters may be reached at [email protected]

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