Ruben Salazar: Man In The Middle (2014)
Phillip Rodriguez, director
Ruben Salazar: Man In the Middle, is a documentary scheduled to be aired on PBS this month in April. I went to an advanced screening at a film festival here in Denver. It tells the story of Ruben Salazar, one of the first martyrs of the Chicano Movement.
Ruben Salazar was a journalist in print and television, who used his position to publicize the demands of the Chicano people. Man In The Middle not only gives a biographical sketch of Salazar but explores his evolving sense of identity as a Mexican-American. His advocacy for Mexican-American issues brought him in conflict with the Anglo-dominated structures of power in Los Angeles, as well as the attention of many law enforcement agencies who wanted to neutralize potential Chicano leaders. His death during the Chicano Moratorium on August 29th, 1970 was surrounded in mystery, as many activists have not accepted the official accounts around his death especially since he was such a prominent figure. This particular film was the result of a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department to release their files pertaining to Salazar and his death at the hands of one of their deputies. Much new information about his death is included in the film.
The subtitle of this documentary reflects on the dual positions Salazar occupied in his life, between his professional position in Anglo society and the burgeoning Chicano Movement. Salazar was born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to a wealthy family, whom harbored bourgeois and white chauvinist values. They later moved to El Paso, Texas, with the bridge that crossed the border becoming symbolic for Salazar of the bridge between the two nations and cultures. Like many Mexican-Americans of his time, Salazar served in the armed forces, and with the GI Bill went to college. He used that education to become a journalist, a member of the intelligentsia. He would later become a successful mainstream journalist, and use that position to bring attention to the issues of Chicanos.
Salazar became a successful journalist and entered middle class life in the United States. Yet his professional and class status did not make him blind to his identity as a Mexican in America. He rose through many positions up to becoming a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. While there he became a foreign correspondent, covering the Vietnam War and the Tlateloco Massacre in Mexico in 1968, among other events. In the last years of his tenure in the Times he was sent back to Los Angeles to cover local stories. From this point we can see that Salazar succeeded in the so-called American dream, but from this position he still was conscious of the racism and white supremacy inherent in this dream. The film presents excerpts from his writing, both published and personal, that traces his evolving identity with being Mexican in White America. This was around the time the Chicano Movement was becoming more active.
The Chicano Movement brought a shift in the politics of Mexican-Americans. Before, the emphasis was on assimilation into American society, and for those of Mexican descent to be accepted as white. But as many Mexican-Americans became aware, white society would not accept Mexicans or other non-whites for who they were, so thus they became more conscious of themselves as Chicanos. The new strategies were of a more nationalist basis, and they used more militant tactics to exert their human rights. Salazar, while not a militant himself, was a product of this growing self-awareness. His growing sense of his position as a Mexican in American society translated into his journalism, and he used his position to articulate the demands of the demands of the Chicano Movement to a broader mainstream audience. He was one of the only mainstream journalists to do so.
Salazar’s journalism often went against the powers that be. The documentary shows released FBI files that documented Salazar’s travels as a foreign correspondent, with some attempting to link him to support of Cuba. Along with being part of the LA Times he later took a position with KMEX, a Los Angeles television station, where he did more investigative journalism. His exposure of police brutality by the Los Angeles Police Department, some of which led to disciplinary actions against officers involved, invoked the anger of this powerful department. It was this same police department that would be the instigator of violence at the Chicano Moratorium that included his untimely death.
The Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War, which happened on August 29th, 1970, was known for two things. One, it was not only the largest Chicano demonstration against the Vietnam War, but one of the largest anti-war demonstrations against the Vietnam War overall in the United States. It brought attention to the fact that while Chicanos made up only 6 percent of the U.S. population they made up more than 20 percent of the casualties of the war. Chicanos were being used as cannon fodder for an imperialist war. This march showed the anti-imperialist nature of the Chicano Movement. (1). Some of the slogans emphasized that the real war for Chicanos was being fought at home for their own liberation. The Moratorium is also known for ending police instigated violence. Several people at this event were violently attacked by the Los Angeles police, and at least 3 people were killed by police due to their actions this day. One of them was Ruben Salazar.
To escape the conflict happening at this time, Salazar and a companion sought refuge at the Silver Dollar bar. He was killed when Los Angeles Sheriffs Deputy Tom Wilson fired a projectile tear gas canister inside the bar. The projectile, shaped as a bullet, hit Salazar in the head and killed him instantly.
Two others, Lynn Ward and Angel Diaz, members of the Brown Berets, were also killed that day. Another, Gustav Montag, was killed in a later Moratorium march the next year. Salazar’s death is the one most remembered because of the prominent positions he held for a Chicano. As a middle class professional who got accepted into mainstream American society, he was killed at the height of his career and as he began to do more journalism on behalf of Chicanos. Inquiries were done into his death, all of which exonerated the officer and the police, even though it was ruled a homicide. In another documentary, scholar and activist Elizabeth Martinez states that “if it was an accident, it happened because the lives of Mexicans were considered useless,” for they fired a tear gas canister inside a bar and did not worry about it. (2). The documentary even interviews deputy Wilson in present day, and shows footage of him talking about contemplating shooting another tear gas canister at a heckler at the inquiry itself, showing his mindset. The film gives more details about what the police did that day, along with uncovering potential reasons the police would not want to go into his death, if they deliberately targeted him. Either way, the death of Salazar was a major blow to the Chicano people.
In a panel this day after the film the director and a former activist spoke. According to documents released, many intelligence agencies were monitoring and acting against the Chicano Movement in general, and the Chicano Moratorium protest specifically, with evidence they were observing many top leaders from around the country who attended this march. Subsequently many top leaders were arrested at the Moratorium march, which shows they were being specifically targeted. While the director emphasized they have found no direct evidence linking direct involvement by security forces in Salazar’s death, it was emphasized that many documents still have not been released. For any student of counterintelligence knows, any direct link between these agencies and Salazar’s death is beside the point. They do not have to have a direct link, but they used their resources to actively disrupt people and movements that were a threat to the established order, and the climate they created around it was enough.
Ruben Salazar after his death became a martyr figure. His portrait has been used in demonstrations and murals up to today. Laguna Park, the site of the Chicano Moratorium, was renamed Ruben Salazar Park. A postage stamp of him was issued by the Post Office. Like many martyrs he has been uplifted to a mythical status. Man In The Middle goes beyond this and looks at Salazar as a regular person, and looks at the real events that made up Salazar’s life.
Overall Salazar should be remembered in the history of the Chicano people. In his position he became an unlikely voice for the struggle of Chicanos. He was not an activist himself, or likely very militant. Yet through the struggles that Chicano people were waging, and his own personal struggles, he was able to put out those issues when very few mainstream news sources would. His death showed the extent of the repression of the Chicano Movement, and how national oppression would affect even someone as successful and middle class as Salazar. This film gives an important historical document to understand this part of history. Ruben Salazar, presente.
2. Quest for a Homeland, Chicano: History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, at 50.00 minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHQ4XS-DrqM