Topic 2: Ruben Salazar's Legacy: Myths, Martyrs, and Artistic Influence
“Ruben Salazar couldn't possibly have been the victim of a conscious, high-level cop conspiracy to get rid of him by staging an ‘accidental death.’ The incredible half-mad stupidity and dangerous incompetence on every level of the law enforcement establishment was perhaps the most valuable thing to come out of the inquest. Nobody who heard the testimony could believe that the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department is capable of pulling off a delicate job like killing a newsman on purpose.” – Hunter S. Thompson, “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan”
“If it was an accident, it happened because the lives of Mexican people were considered worthless, so that you could fire a huge teargas projectile into a bar, a public place, and not worry about it. It happened that it took off Ruben Salazar’s head.” – Elizabeth “Betita” Martínez, Chicana Activist
“They needed a martyr – maybe because they weren't serious enough, those so-called revolutionaries, to die for the struggle and Ruben was convenient, a stand-in for what they themselves were not doing.” - Phil Montez, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle brings to the forefront theories about his death – that Salazar’s death was accidental or that it was part of law enforcement’s ongoing agenda to silence the journalist who critiqued their ranks. What gave rise to these conspiracy theories? Betita Martínez’s summary of Salazar’s death above gives some insight into the problems underlying conspiracy theories involving law enforcement institutions. Another clue might relate to the secrecy with which materials and details related to the Salazar case were handled and subsequently withheld from the public. It wasn't until 2012, 42 years after Salazar’s death, and a lawsuit filed by MALDEF on behalf of Phillip Rodriguez, the director of Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle, that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were made to release documents related to Salazar’s death. This long legacy of a lack of institutional transparency helped to keep in place the idea that Salazar’s death was intentional and also often gives rise to public concerns over the functioning of law enforcement institutions. These are concerns that Salazar himself investigated in his journalism.
At the same time, there are some cultural critics and community members who place at least some of the blame for these conspiracy theories on the Mexican American community itself, identifying within it an emphasis on victimhood and loss that might blind its members to community deficiencies. Mexican scholar and politician Jorge Castañeda, in his book Mañana Forever? (2011), explores a variety of cultural traits often associated with the Mexican “national character,” including the effects of an emphasis on victimhood within national politics and history, while also pointing out the limits of such broad generalizations to accurately represent the Mexican present and future. He explains “Mexico as a country of victims, and politics as a sport where the pole position, so to speak, is the status of the victim, is perhaps the best-known and most stereotypical trait associated with the Mexican soul, and with Mexican politics. It is not entirely false.” Some argue that this cultural emphasis on victimhood carries over from Mexican culture and was at play among those in the Chicano Movement in particular who wished to make Ruben Salazar a “martyr.”
Why do movements seek martyr and mythologize their leaders? What purpose do myths and martyrs serve? Several of Ruben Salazar’s colleagues, friends, and family members have asserted that the journalist would not want to be considered a martyr or symbol. Phil Montez in the quote above suggests that Salazar’s death provided a convenient martyr figure to distract from deficiencies in the leadership of the Chicano Movement at the time. Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle depicts the differences of opinion as to why conspiracy theories regarding Salazar’s death have persisted, and more importantly, whether such theories are useful to the community. Some link conspiracy theories to what they consider to be grievance culture and that prevents progress within the community, while others believe that a full understanding of the circumstances leading to Salazar’s death is impossible without examining the institutional circumstances that then led to his death.
Regardless of how we choose to view representations of Salazar as a martyr, he has been an important inspiration to many people in the Mexican American community. His work has influenced professionals within his chosen field of journalism (the CCNMA was created in the wake of his death, for example) and parks and schools have been named after him, and his legacy even lent his image to a US postage stamp.
Salazar’s legacy is especially notable in its influence on Mexican Americans artists and writers, who chose to depict Salazar in their work.
*The great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros’s lithograph titled “Heroic Voice” used the muralist’s signature style to present Salazar as a leader and rallying force.
*The popular Chicano artist Frank Romero, whose work generated mass appeal, has a 1986 oil painting, “Death of Rubén Salazar,” which is currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of the exhibit “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art,” and also has an ArtBabble audio podcast.
*The late Lalo Guerrero, considered one of the most important Chicano musicians, wrote a corrido (a popular Mexican ballad) in tribute to the journalist titled “Homenaje a Ruben Salazar,” keeping his history alive.
*Oscar Zeta Acosta, a Chicano lawyer and writer who participated in several high profile legal cases involving members of the Chicano Movement, and even ran for sheriff of Los Angeles, was deeply affected by the death of Ruben Salazar. In his semi-autobiographical work, The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973), he portrays the death of the main character Roland Zanzibar (a thinly veiled fictional version of Salazar) as an assassination.
*Finally Hunter S. Thompson, the infamous gonzo journalist wrote a piece for Rolling Stone titled “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan.” This article is about the Chicano Moratorium and Salazar’s death, but also became a springboard for his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
*Do representations of figures like Salazar as martyrs hurt or help social movements? How so?
*Does the focus on the death of Ruben Salazar diminish our understanding of his accomplishments in life?
*Why do you think the death of Ruben Salazar reverberate so strongly within the Chicano community, especially among artists and fellow writers?