EL PASO – Before taking a Chicano Studies class this semester, my knowledge of Ruben Salazar was pretty weak. I think most residents of El Paso are also uninformed about the success of the legendary Mexican-American journalist who was killed inside a bar in East Los Angeles during a Chicano anti-war demonstration in 1970.
Should the city of El Paso be blamed for this lack of historical information about the prominent journalist, who was born in Ciudad Juárez and raised in El Paso?
Why haven’t our city fathers taken time to recognize this ground-breaking native son who became a national and international correspondent for one of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers? Why aren’t any parks, public schools or other public spaces named after Salazar or other prominent El Pasoans?
Here are a few others:
Marcelino Serna, immigrated to El Paso illegally in 1916 at age 20, became a decorated solider during the first World War.
Another nationally recognized figure, Sandra Day O’Connor, was born in El Paso and graduated from Austin High School. She became the first woman Justice to serve on the Supreme Court in the year 1981 during the Reagan administration.
Obviously public institutions in the El Paso area are not interested in educating students about the contributions of these great figures in our history. Although I was born here and attended public school here, I didn’t learn about O’Connor’s El Paso connection until I attended UTEP.
During a trip to attend a service learning conference in Washington, D.C. I felt proud and clapped loudly when speaker, O’Connor, mentioned she had attended Austin High School.
My enthusiasm shrank when I returned home and spoke about Ms. O’Connor with fellow students and saw their blank expressions because they did not know who she was or that she has a strong personal connection to our city.
On the other hand, local residents seem to know more about Juan De Oñate because there is 34-foot tall statue at the airport entrance of the bloodthirsy Spanish explorer who murdered more than 800 indigenous people including 300 children and women.
The statue, funded by 40 percent of the funds coming from the public, in the form of $713,000 granted by the El Paso City Council from airport revenue funds. Another $1.25 million in private money was donated, including $400,000 from the McKee Foundation of El Paso.
During the making of the statue many school systems even purchased coloring books to teach children the history of Oñate. Why don’t school teachers teach about the lives of Ruben Salazar or Sandra Day O’Connor who are more positive role models?
Salazar is a pioneer of bilingual journalism. The journalist worked in both English and Spanish news media outlets.
A native of the borderland, he was the first Mexican-American journalist to cross over into mainstream English-language journalism. After graduating from Texas Western College (now UTEP) in 1954, he reported for the El Paso Herald Post and later the Los Angeles Times. He also reported for Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles toward the end of his life.
His passion for investigative journalism was so great even at the beginning of his career that he got himself arrested by the El Paso Police in order to investigate the mistreatment of prisoners in the El Paso jail.
As a bilingual reporter, Salazar helped change the nature of journalism in El Paso.
He matured as a journalist at the Los Angeles Times for 11 years, where he tackled prestigious national and foreign reporting assignments.
During his time at the LA Times, Ruben wrote personal columns about the Chicano movement and other issues of concern to the Mexican-American community of East Los Angeles.
He played a crucial role in reporting the growing frustration in the early 1960s of Mexican American leaders.
At the same time, he didn’t consider himself an activist or movement leader. He simply reported what was happening in his community.
In a posthumous book, Border Correspondent Selected Writtings 1955-1970, which contained his columns, the fearless reporter writes about some of the issues confronting El Paso, including high school walkouts, drug sales and abuse, and militants fighting to retain their Spanish language.
In a column tittled “Puzzled by Youth,” he quotes a psychologist, who said: “Children growing up in a bicultural environment are more prone than others to neurosis and mental disorders.”
Articles like this one and many more give us a sense of El Paso’s history. The articles also make us realize how far El Paso has come. Imagine the city with that same mentality today.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to build an art museum, create a journalism center or a cultural space and name it after Salazar?
Without celebrating and remembering our history about significant people like Salazar who have contributed a great deal to our community our youth will remain in the dark about our community.
We should celebrate Salazar, O’Connor and Serna as worthy role models. Our schools, including UTEP, can help play a part by creating more opportunities to learn about them.
Our city should celebrate and highlight the personal success stories that are an important part of our binational history.