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Professor Zita Arocha

Professor Zita Arocha

April 24, 2014
Ruben Salazar questioned his own ethnic identity and the role of journalism in American society
By Professor Zita Arocha, Borderzine, UTEP

EL PASO — During a television interview shortly before newsman Ruben Salazar was killed by cops during a 1970 Chicano Anti War march in Los Angeles, the now legendary Mexican-American journalist asks: “Why do I always have to apologize to Americans for Mexicans and to Mexicans for Americans?”

His question sounds almost innocent against the turbulent anti-establishment tone of the times. Yet it still resonates for most U.S. journalists with hyphenated identities, myself included.

As I watched the PBS documentary, “Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle,” a few weeks ago at a packed auditorium on the University of Texas El Paso campus, it felt like I was looking into a mirror and witnessing my own ambiguity about my Cuban and U.S. identities. It seems to me that ambiguity about identity frames the existential experience of most immigrants to this country. Where do we belong? Back there or over here? There is no simple answer to this core dilemma. It seems to have been Salazar’s crucible during his brief life.

The nuanced film portrayal of Salazar reveals an erudite, contemplative man with a deeply divided soul, reflected by the physical bridge that divides downtown El Paso, where he was raised, from neighboring Ciudad Juarez, where he was born.

Outwardly he was successful, working first at his hometown paper the El Paso Herald Post and then achieving recognition as a national and international reporter in the all-white, predominately male newsroom of the Los Angeles Times. Not an easy thing for a brown man during a conservative news era.

He managed to travel the world, covering the Vietnam War, student protests in Mexico, revolutions in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. He interviewed rich and powerful men —Robert Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Frank Sinatra. Yet a picture from that time shows him with a group of white Times reporters who sit chummily on a sofa. Salazar hangs back, standing stiffly behind this inner circle, his arms folded across his chest. He wears a tight wry smile, which to me looks like the expression of a man who knows he is on the precarious edge of an exclusive club. A speaker in the film calls Salazar “a survivor in a hostile environment.”

The film also explores Salazar’s private side. How he tried to shield his wife and children from the realities of the barrio and the radical topics he tackled in his incisive columns. Apparently, he rarely spoke about his work at home and enjoyed a fairly comfortable and routine middle-class life at home in an Anglo Orange County suburb. Read the rest of Professor Arocha's blog post at Borderzine...

Bio: Cuban-born Zita Arocha is a bilingual print journalist and senior lecturer in the UTEP Department of Communication. She was most recently at the Freedom Forum as coordinator of training for the Chips Quinn Scholars Program for young journalists of color. For over 20 years she worked as a reporter for The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The Miami News and The Tampa Times. A freelance contributor to various national publications, she earned a master’s degree in English and comparative literature from the University of South Florida, and is currently pursuing an MFA in bilingual creative writing at UTEP. She his working on a memoir: Made in Tampa: A Cuban-American Childhood. She is project director for Borderzine.com