Rubén Salazar was no radical but he was a pioneer, says Gustavo Arellano

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KCRW has spent the past week remembering the Chicano Moratorium protest of August 29, 1970, when tens of thousands of people in East LA protested the disproportionate number of Latinos killed in the Vietnam War.

One of the reporters covering the march was LA Times journalist Rubén Salazar. But an LA County Sheriff’s Deputy fired a tear gas canister that hit Salazar in the head while he was sitting inside the Silver Dollar Café.

KCRW remembers Salazar as one of the first mainstream media reporters to cover Southern California’s burgeoning Mexican American community. And he did so with national and historical context.

LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano knows a lot about Salazar’s work. Born after Salazar’s death, Arellano read and reread Salazar for his recent LA Times essay.

“People make Salazar to be this martyr of the Chicano movement, but in the process, they make him out to be this radical,” says Arellano. “The reality is Salazar lived in a nice part of Santa Ana, married a white woman. … He was a bon vivant, he loved his French food, his French wines. He loved holding cocktail parties. So this is a man who can't be limited by what he covered.”

Arellano says Salazar’s earlier articles differ greatly from the columns he was writing shortly before his death.

“His older stuff is very mainstream, very middle of the road, even in some cases a little bit conservative and skeptical of the Chicano movement, skeptical of people who are saying that the American way has not treated Mexican Americans properly,” says Arellano, pointing to an anthology called “Border Correspondent,” edited by UC Santa Barbara Chicano Studies professor Mario T. Garcia. 

He became a columnist in the last year of his life, when some of his most memorable works were published.

According to Arellano, what makes Salazar stand out in history is not necessarily his writing or reporting style, but his invention of a beat that didn’t exist before.

“As a reporter, he was no less than a John the Baptist — doing a Mexican American, Latino beat by himself, with no roadmap,” says Arellano. “In many ways, what [Salazar] did wasn’t very remarkable, but the fact that he was the first who did it, and did it years before anyone else even bothered to, shows what a visionary he was.”