Honoring our past to inspire our future: Rubén Salazar

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EL PASO — UTEP’s Centennial is an important time to look back at the past, reflect how we got to where we are today, and honor those who carried the torch but could not be here to celebrate with us. 

PBS' documentary Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle will be previewed at UTEP on April 9 at the Union Cinema at 6pm.

PBS’ documentary Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle will be previewed at UTEP on April 9 at the Union Cinema at 6pm.

If he were still alive, Rubén Salazar would be one of the alumni for whom the Miners would roll out the red carpet.  The man after whom the Rubén Salazar Spanish-Language Media Program in UTEP’s Department of Communication is named and the only UTEP alumnus to be featured on a US postal stamp, Salazar was a pioneering journalist whose shocking and mysterious death at an anti-Vietnam War march in August 1970 drew attention to the civil rights struggles of people of Mexican heritage in the US.

On April 29th, PBS will air filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez’s new documentary “Ruben Salazar:  Man in the Middle,” but the UTEP, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez communities will have an opportunity to see the film even earlier, at an April 9 screening at the UTEP Union Cinema.  Rodriguez will join El Paso icon Rosa Ramírez Guerrero, Texas State Senator Jose Rodríguez, KHOU 11 News Border Bureau Chief Angela Kocherga, and Borderzine’s Zita Arocha for a discussion after the 6 pm screening, which will be moderated by Bob Moore, editor at The El Paso Times.

The film uses never-before-seen footage, interviews, and excerpts from Salazar’s private writings to tell the story of how a socially-aware journalist went from bylines to headlines.

Many students will find echoes of their own lives in Salazar’s story. He was born in Mexico but he grew up in El Paso, and it was here that he developed his sense of justice and honed his skills as a reporter before moving to Los Angeles to join the reporting staff of the LA Times.

Even as a student, Salazar was ahead of his time. At UTEP we are proud that we were the first university in the state to desegregate in 1955 and that our basketball team won the NCAA Basketball Championship in 1966, when the Miners’ historic five black starters defeated the all-white Kentucky team.

But none of that had happened yet in 1947, when the then 19-year-old Salazar penned an editorial in The Prospector calling out the university (then the Texas College of Mines) for refusing to allow the co-captain of the visiting Arizona Tempe football team to suit up and take the field with his team because he was Black.

“Senate investigating committees who are unable to define ‘un-American’ should come tonight to see the Miners-Tempe game and find out what it means,” he wrote.

After graduating, Salazar was one of the first Mexican-American journalists to work for the El Paso Herald-Post. He quickly developed a reputation for his reporting skills. On one memorable occasion, Salazar pretended to be drunk in order to be arrested. His subsequent report about the “chamber of horrors” in which he was placed drew public attention to the deplorable conditions in the city jails.  Another time, he posed as a drug addict to report on the illegal drug market in El Paso.

As the documentary makes clear, Salazar did not set out to become the story. Like any good reporter, his interest was telling stories from an angle that the mainstream media failed to capture. In the year before his untimely death, Salazar left the LA Times—though he continued to write a weekly column for the paper—to become the news director at a Spanish-language television station in Los Angeles.   Salazar’s KMEX position allowed him to provide news about Latinos for Latinos. Meanwhile, Salazar’s column at the Times gave him the opportunity to address the paper’s largely white readership with a freedom that had long eluded him. In both roles, Salazar acted as a bridge between the old ideology of assimilation and the new Chicanismo.

In an era when the Los Angeles Police Department routinely used chokeholds and shot unarmed citizens, Salazar pulled no punches when chronicling their actions. Just as he had once made things uncomfortable for the El Paso authorities, Salazar’s insistence on reporting the truth attracted the ire of the LA Police Department, who warned him to back off. He refused.

On August 29, 1970, as LA County Sheriff’s deputies were breaking up the “Chicano Moratorium” march in what would later become Salazar Park, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy fired a tear gas projectile into a bar where Salazar and a KMEX reporter colleague who had been covering the march were meeting. Salazar was hit in the head and killed instantly. Subsequent investigations determined that the events were a horrible accident. However, Chicana/o activists have long disputed that account.

What no one disputes is that the world lost a great reporter. The Chicano movement lost an important voice that commanded a rare degree of respect across diverse communities.  And UTEP lost an important alumnus, one whose work has paved the way for thousands of graduates who came after him.

Want to learn more? Come join us for the screening of “Rubén Salazar:  Man in the Middle” on April 9 at UTEP’s Union Cinema at 6pm. For more information contact Laura Rodriguez at Lrodriguez@rabengroup.com

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Editor’s note: Stacey Sowards is the Department Chair for the Department of Communication at UTEP.

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