U.S. Postal Service Honors Pioneering L.A. Journalist Ruben Salazar

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The Postal Service unveils a stamp today in the nation's capital and Los Angeles to honor Ruben Salazar. He was a pioneering journalist, killed on the job almost 40 years ago. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has the story.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Thirty-eight years ago, Los Angeles television station KNXT broadcast the first in a series of programs to explain why Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles were taking to the streets in mass protests.

["The Siesta Is Over, a series designed to further understanding between the Anglo and Mexican-American community. Today's program: an interview with Ruben Salazar."]

Guzman-Lopez: The program's host said Salazar was the obvious first guest. Salazar grew up bilingual and bicultural in El Paso, Texas. He had 18 years of reporting under his belt, 10 of them with the Los Angeles Times reporting from Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico City. Salazar had returned to L.A. in 1969 to cover the region's growing Mexican-American civil rights movement. He wrote about militant student organizations, demands for more Mexican-American actors on TV, and the cultural affirmation underlying these issues.

Ruben Salazar: The Chicano is finally realizing, that there's nothing exceptionally great about being white, or certainly nothing wrong about being white. That this illusion in this country that white is best, must go.

Guzman-Lopez: What was the biggest problem facing Mexican-Americans in 1970? Education, Salazar said.

Salazar: This country is the richest country in the world, and we can do all kinds of things, but there's no money to educate our young, which is the most terrible indictment of this society, I think. Because if they want us to stop rocking the boat, all they have to do is educate us, and by God, that's cheaper than going through this revolution.

Guzman-Lopez: Salazar left the Times a few months before this interview to become the news director at fledgling Spanish-language television station KMEX. He explained that he wasn't abandoning objectivity to become an advocate.

Salazar: At the Times I was doing I think, a job that had to be done, and that is communicating with the establishment about our problems. But I wanted to try my hand at communicating with the Mexican-American community directly, and in their language.

Guzman-Lopez: To him, Chicanos' anger about poor education, few job prospects, and bad police relations looked like a powder keg. A disproportionate number of Chicano soldiers killed in Vietnam became the fuse.

Three months after Ruben Salazar sat down for the interview, Chicano activists organized a mass rally in East L.A. to protest the Vietnam War. L.A. County Sheriff's deputies overreacted to a disturbance after the march, and a riot ensued. Salazar had reported there all day with a television camera crew. While he took a break in a bar, a sheriff's deputy fired a tear gas projectile. It hit Salazar in the head and killed him.

Richard Alarcon: I was there that day.

Guzman-Lopez: Richard Alarcon is an L.A. City Councilman now. He and the rest of the city council designated today Ruben Salazar Day in Los Angeles.

Alarcon: Ruben Salazar was a hero. He represented all that the future would bring to Los Angeles in the way of empowerment for the Latino community.

Guzman-Lopez: L.A. Times publisher David Hiller, along with Ruben Salazar's two grown children, thanked the city council for the recognition.

David Hiller: On behalf of all my colleagues at Los Angeles Times, we want to thank the city of Los Angeles for honoring our colleague Ruben Salazar who gave everything, ultimately his heart, ultimately his life, into telling the story of Latinos in this great city.

Guzman-Lopez: In the decades since Salazar's death the L.A. Times and other news organizations pushed to hire more Latinos. Cal State Northridge journalism professor Jose Luis Benavides says coverage of Latinos is still off the mark, especially at Salazar's old newspaper.

Jose Luis Benavides: Not because somebody's name is Salazar or Gonzalez or Garcia, it doesn't mean that automatically the work of that person will translate into a better coverage of those communities.

Guzman-Lopez: Benavides says most of his college students don't know about Ruben Salazar's achievements in journalism. Starting today, they'll have a lesson they can stick on every piece of mail they send.