Nearly 44 years ago, Stephanie Salazar’s father left for work on a smoggy Southern California day. “He went off to work, and never came home,” she said.
“We were living in Orange County, and I was eight years old,” she remembered. “My dad was going to cover a parade, he said. In fact, he almost took my little brother, who was five, but at the last minute he didn’t.”
The day was August 29, 1970, and Stephanie’s father was Ruben Salazar, a pioneering Hispanic journalist.
Stephanie Salazar Cook, 52, is featured in a new documentary, Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle, which premieres Tuesday, April 29 on PBS. The documentary aims to examine the life and legacy of Salazar, "who was killed by law enforcement under mysterious circumstances," according to the film.
Salazar has long been regarded as a martyr of the Mexican-American civil rights movement. "Man in the Middle" director Phillip Rodriguez said it was this “mythology” that drew him to Salazar’s story.
“I had a feeling that there was more to him. We still think of the civil rights period in hazy, hagiographic terms, and that does not necessarily do us any good," said Rodriguez. "When we create a noble, saintly portrait of somebody, ultimately it takes the life out of them.”
“This is a story about a lot of things that are still germane today,” he said. “What does it mean to be an American? Surveillance by the state, freedom of the press, police brutality; all of these issues are part of Ruben’s story.”
Rodriguez was even able to persuade the former deputy who killed Salazar to appear in his film. "I was astonished and grateful that he agreed to appear and give us his story," he said.
Salazar was the most prominent Latino journalist of his day. Born in Mexico and raised in El Paso, he got his career break when he joined The Los Angeles Times in 1959. Salazar interviewed everyone from Cesar Chavez to Robert F. Kennedy to President Eisenhower. As a columnist, he explored the issues ruling Los Angeles' Mexican-American community, including police brutality, discrimination, and race relations.
Salazar's muckraking worried Los Angeles law enforcement officials, who tried (unsuccessfully) to get him fired. He was warned by police that his columns could be putting "dangerous" information into the minds of "barrio people."
Salazar’s life was cut short at the National Chicano Moratorium, a march to protest the disproportionate number of Mexican-American soldiers dying in Vietnam. Salazar covered the event and went afterwards to the Silver Dollar Bar to relax. He was there when a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy fired a tear gas canister into the bar, striking Salazar in the head and killing him. He was 42.
Although a coroner’s inquest was held after Salazar’s death, no charges were filed. A 2011 report by the Los Angeles Office of Independent Review concluded that there was no evidence that Salazar was targeted by law enforcement.
The report said that a "hashed up operation in a sea of chaos ... resulted in the tragic death of Mr. Salazar rather than a deftly designed assassination." The report noted, however, that its findings were limited because sheriff’s homicide detectives failed to ask key questions about whether Salazar had been under surveillance or killed intentionally.
At a screening of "Man in the Middle" in Washington D.C., the audience seemed skeptical that Salazar's killing was an accident, according to Charlie Ericksen, editor of the Hispanic Link News Service, who attended the event. He said in a subsequent phone interview that only about three people had raised their hands when the audience was asked the question.
Ericksen, a former U.S. Civil Rights Commission staff member in Los Angeles, recalled that Salazar had called him shortly before his death, saying that the police were following him. “He was worried about retaliation,” Ericksen said in a phone interview. “So I’ll never believe that this was an accident. I believe he (Salazar) was assassinated.”
“No matter how you look at it, Salazar’s death was a homicide,” said Raul Ruiz, Professor of Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge. He was near the scene of the shooting that day. "I think that Ruben was singled out. C’mon, there were 30,000 people marching and protesting and the person who is killed is the most renowned Mexican-American reporter in L.A?”
Julie Ruhlin, Deputy Chief Attorney of the Office of Independent Review, said, “I don’t think there will ever be enough evidence to prove or disprove the conspiracy theories, certainly not to the satisfaction of those that believe them to be true.” She acknowledged that the original investigation into the Salazar case was filled with “tactical blunders” – while pointing out that such a case would be handled “very differently” today.
Director Rodriguez is not surprised that his film is stirring up controversy. "Salazar was appropriated by many Chicanos, they claimed him as a symbol even though he was not really one of them." Salazar, he said, was "an independent-minded man, very critical, and devoted to the ideal of truth."
"I have tried to infuse this work with the spirit of Ruben, which was to focus on the facts, the truth," Rodriguez said. "I am trying to re-claim Salazar's authentic identity for himself."