EL PASO — Writing in his personal journal shortly before newsman Ruben Salazar was killed by cops during a 1970 Chicano Anti War march in Los Angeles, the now legendary Mexican-American journalists asks: “Why do I always have to apologize to Americans for Mexicans and to Mexicans for Americans?”
His question sounds almost innocent against the turbulent anti-establishment tone of the times. Yet it still resonates for most U.S. journalists with hyphenated identities, myself included.
As I watched the PBS documentary, “Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle,” a few weeks ago at a packed auditorium on the University of Texas El Paso campus, it felt like I was looking into a mirror and witnessing my own ambiguity about my Cuban and U.S. identities. It seems to me that ambiguity about identity frames the existential experience of most immigrants to this country. Where do we belong? Back there or over here? There is no simple answer to this core dilemma. It seems to have been Salazar’s crucible during his brief life.
The nuanced film portrayal of Salazar reveals an erudite, contemplative man with a deeply divided soul, reflected by the physical bridge that divides downtown El Paso, where he was raised, from neighboring Ciudad Juarez, where he was born.
Outwardly he was successful, working first at his hometown paper the El Paso Herald Post and then achieving recognition as a national and international reporter in the all-white, predominately male newsroom of the Los Angeles Times. Not an easy thing for a brown man during a conservative news era.
He managed to travel the world, covering the Vietnam War, student protests in Mexico, revolutions in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. He interviewed rich and powerful men —Robert Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Frank Sinatra. Yet a picture from that time shows him with a group of white Times reporters who sit chummily on a sofa. Salazar hangs back, standing stiffly behind this inner circle, his arms folded across his chest. He wears a tight wry smile, which to me looks like the expression of a man who knows he is on the precarious edge of an exclusive club. A speaker in the film calls Salazar “a survivor in a hostile environment.”
The film also explores Salazar’s private side. How he tried to shield his wife and children from the realities of the barrio and the radical topics he tackled in his incisive columns. Apparently, he rarely spoke about his work at home and enjoyed a fairly comfortable and routine middle-class life at home in an Anglo Orange County suburb.
According to the film, something happened that transformed the reserved, fair-minded journalist into what some would call a crusader. Perhaps it was anger at being called home by his Los Angeles Times bosses from his prestigious foreign assignment in Mexico City. Perhaps it was the violent protests against the Vietnam War and other political turmoil of the time. Perhaps it was the radicalization of Mexican-Americans across the country.
Quitting his prestigious job at the LA Times, he decided to work instead for a Spanish-language television station, KMEX, where he could speak directly to the people in their language, which was also his language. While he continued to write columns for The Times, the ideas they developed were edgier, more biting. He rocked the boat in many establishment arenas —calling out the school board for failing to properly educate Latino children and the LAPD for beating up brown people. He began writing about identity, describing the tension between those who considered themselves Mexican-American and those calling themselves Chicano.
“A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself,” he wrote in a column published several months before he died. Chicanos, he wrote, “resent Anglo pronouncements that Chicanos are ‘culturally deprived’ or that the fact they speak Spanish is a ‘problem.’”
A Mexican-American, he continued, “will tell you that Chicano is an insulting term and may even quote the Spanish Academy to prove that Chicano derives from chicanery.”
He concludes the column thus: “Chicanos, then, are merely fighting to become ‘Americans.’ Yes, but with a Chicano outlook.”
Another time, he said: “The problem with Mexicans is that they are struggling to become white.” Of the term Mexican-American, he said, “the hyphen strips both words of their meaning.”
In the end, “Man in the Middle,” directed by Phillip Rodriguez, reminds us that Salazar deserves to be remembered not as a victim of murder or a tragic accident but by his words and deeds. He inspires as the first Hispanic-American mainstream journalist who found his authentic voice, told the truth as he saw it, finally mending his divided heart.
As he once wryly noted: “Newsroom objectivity may result in an absence of truth.”
Editor’s note: “Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle,” airs nationally on PBS on Tuesday, April 29 at 9 p.m. ET.