Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle

FOOTAGE: REPORTER TOM BROKAW: He was the news director for Spanish language television station KMEX here in Los Angeles and a columnist, killed by a teargas projectile August 29th. The hearing is about to get underway on time.

BILL DRUMMOND – FORMER REPORTER, L.A. TIMES: I keep telling myself that the teargas shell could’ve struck anybody in that bar. It was an accident that it struck Ruben, yet I know that anybody who tries to stand too long between hostile camps is going to get hurt.

PHIL MONTEZ – FRIEND/U.S. COMMISSION ON CIVIL RIGHTS: Ruben said, “I have a problem with the LAPD.” I said, “What are they gonna do to you? Put some dope in your car and have you arrested, you know?” He says, “Well I have a feeling they’re more serious than that.”

NARRATOR: Ruben Salazar was one of the most renowned Mexican-American journalists of the 20th century. As a writer for the Los Angeles Times, and a news director of a Spanish-language television station, he was the bridge that connecting disparate segments of a city in a time of change.

FOOTAGE: RUBEN SALAZAR INTERVIEW 1970: The Mexican-American in this country has been sold a bill of goods for so long that it has weakened him to the point of impotence. From the beginning he was sold the idea that he was white, in other words, one of the boys. Well hell, he’s not one of the boys. In my estimation, he’s not even white.

MONTEZ: He interviewed Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and I know he was very close to Bobby Kennedy.

DRUMMOND: The role of Mexicans in Los Angeles at that time was underappreciated, culturally and demographically. And there was this explosion that was just happening right under our feet, and he was the guy that called the shot.

FOOTAGE: RUBEN SALAZAR INTERVIEW 1970: It’s easy for the establishment to say, “Aren’t we all the same? Aren’t we all Americans?” Well obviously we’re not, otherwise we wouldn’t be in the revolutionary process that we are in now.

NARRATOR: His is a story of personal struggle, cultural conflict, and an untimely death.

RICARDO LOPEZ – COMMUNITY HISTORIAN: I think a lot of people, lot of Mexicans, a lot of Chicanos are waiting for that leader, waiting for somebody. And the closest thing we got to it was Ruben.

NARRATOR: Salazar’s death at the hand of a sheriff’s deputy transformed the skeptical, tough newsman into a doe-eyed martyr.

RAUL RUIZ – FORMER EDITOR AND PHOTOGRAPHER, LA RAZA NEWSPAPER: We were in such a hurry to create a martyr that we forgot about the man.

NARRATOR: This is the story of the life and mysterious death of Ruben Salazar.

TITLE: Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle

CARD: The Border 1928-1956

EARL SHORRIS – FRIEND/JOURNALIST: Ruben was an old friend. His family came from Mexico. He came here when he was an infant and we grew up in El Paso together.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO (Based on his writings, read by Michael Manuel): The international bridge that connected Juarez and El Paso symbolized the division of my life. No matter which way I crossed this bridge, I could not leave either side behind.

SHORRIS: Mexican-Americans and Mexicans were really the great majority in the town. It’s very difficult for the minority, even in the United States to oppress such a huge majority, although they gave it a hell of a try.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: Every society must have its ruling class. The US ruling class is the white Protestant. Though counted as white by the Census, Mexican-Americans were never really thought of as such. Because I wasn’t too dark, I was treated better than the darker Mexicans.

MONTEZ: Ruben’s family background was conservative. I would classify them as right-wing. And coming from a background like that and trying to deal with the social situation of Mexicans as a writer, you’d be sort of confused.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: Mother had good taste in material things and ruthless dogmatism in personal relations. Brought up in the caste system of Mexico, she assigned a fanatical importance to being white. ‘You are American, my son, not a nasty Mexican-Indian’. Father was weak, kindly and understanding. He loves his wife very much but make the mistake to think his love will be reciprocated. He agrees to leave his beloved Mexico to come to the U.S. This has been the dilemma of my life, confusion of what I am. This has made me lonely, unadjustable, and in a way, lost.

SHORRIS: The war changed everything in the state of Texas and in the country.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: Mexicans had seen New York, Paris and Tokyo as conquering Americans, and they were not coming home with their tails between their legs. And so after the war, El Paso had to be remade.

SHORRIS: After school and the military, Ruben worked at the El Paso Herald Post. What he did as his first major story was to get himself arrested, tossed into the El Paso City Jail and when he came out after a couple of days he wrote a story about the terrible conditions in the jail, etcetera.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: On an assignment for the Herald Post, I had myself arrested on a drunk charge last Thursday.

ONSCREEN TYPING: FBI – El Paso Division 1955. A reporter named Ruben Salazar, pretending he was drunk, was successful in getting himself arrested and thrown into the El Paso City Jail….headlines blazed as to conditions.

CARD: California 1956-1965

SHORRIS: Then Ruben, like the other bright, young reporters went to California. He did well in California.

BILL THOMAS – FORMER EDITOR, L.A. TIMES: We were just looking for journeymen reporters and that’s what Ruben wanted to be, with a full scope of assignments. He did not want be confined to Mexican affairs, and he fought for that. And I thought he was probably right to do that.

DRUMMOND: Ruben was like a role model for that. Here’s a guy, well-respected, he’s gonna live the American dream.

RUIZ: Ruben had significant social capital, which very few Mexicans at that time, very few people had at that time.

SHORRIS: They went to Los Angeles because it was the dream, etcetera. But there was a battle that was beginning in California. It was absolutely stunning to someone to encounter the prejudice in California. It just, they didn’t expect it.

BOB NAVARRO – TV JOURNALIST: The difference in Los Angles I think that people born here and raised here really think they’re one of the boys. Later on, as you go through life in Los Angeles, you find out you’re not one of the boys. Their identity was blurred. Hardly any of them spoke Spanish. They were neither Mexican nor American. It was just blurred.

DRUMMOND: I should say that Los Angeles at that time was a very different place. The people that ran Los Angeles – and I’m not disparaging them because they were good people, but they were people who were living in the mindset of 1939. LA Times was not about that.

NAVARRO: Newsrooms at that time were run by Jews and Irish. That’s basically it. And most of them from state colleges and universities. So they had great empathy for working men and women, for civil rights, for a lot of good things. But then there was a racist element as well.

DRUMMOND: Ruben was a survivor within a relatively hostile environment. Nobody had created the term ‘diversity’; it didn’t exist.

NAVARRO: It was lonely to be someone of Mexican descent in a newsroom of 100-120 people and you’re the only one.

DRUMMOND: You have to work within the system that is there and Ruben could do that.

SHORRIS: It was a time when people who had Mexican background, Mexican ancestry were becoming Americans.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: Mexican-Americans have tried to assimilate into Anglo society as quietly as possible. Some have succeeded.

STEPHANIE SALAZAR COOK, DAUGHTER: I don’t know how much he was identified with being a Mexican. My father led a completely Anglo life. He was a professional. He was part of the establishment.

DANNY VILLANUEVA – FORMER PRESIDENT AND GENERAL MANAGER, KMEX: He lived in Orange County and would drive in, do his work, and then get out. His family was a mystery to everybody.

SHORRIS: He married a non-Mexican.

CHARLIE ERICKSEN – FRIEND/JOURNALIST: He did lead a very separate life at home as he did as a journalist. His wife, Sally, never adapted to any Hispanic culture.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: Sally pointed out to me as we lay in bed in the dark the other night that our two-month old daughter will not have it easy in life. “She’s gonna miss a lot of things because of her name. There are snobs you know?” I didn’t say anything. I pulled the covers tighter around me and hoped that both of us would fall asleep. Why do I always have to apologize to Americans for Mexicans and to Mexicans for Americans?

MONTEZ: They debated—you know, that the kids weren’t going to be raised Mexican. That was very difficult for Ruben. If you possess to be Mexican, you were sort of on the outs and I think Ruben was ambivalent, but he was a Mexican.

CARD: Foreign Correspondent 1965-1968

BOB GIBSON – FORMER FOREIGN EDITOR, L.A. TIMES: I came into the LA Times in ’63 and the aim was to establish a foreign service. It’s not so easy to find those people who can handle themselves in difficult situations.

THOMAS: It takes a lot of knowing how to do things, how to get things, how to not get in people’s way.

GIBSON: I got a sense of Ruben’s reporting with a lot of energy, so I sent Ruben to Vietnam. Ruben did a terrific job. He grew in that period. I think he grew a lot.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: I have very little to complain about and much to be thankful for. I almost shutter at the thought of ambition pushing me into a bigger job and all that it stands for.

GIBSON: Scotty Weston of the New York Times, a great journalist once said, “Americans will do everything they can for Latin America except read about it.” I thought Mexico was a far more important story than we were developing, and I thought that Ruben would be a very good person to send down there.

STEVE WEINGARTEN – JOURNALIST/ACTIVIST: He covered the stories that are still the ones on the American-Mexican agenda: immigration, border development, drug trafficking. And you actually see the growth of a reporter, the development; you see him sharpening his skills, doing very well.

SALAZAR COOK: It was late ‘60s, the Olympics was going on. I think it was a very social time for them. And I think my mother was happy, and I think my father was happy.

WEINGARTEN: Well this was 1968. The Cold War was at its peak, and the city was filling up with tourists, journalists and spies.

WEINGARTEN: The government’s taking note of him. Dozens of papers released trying to confirm that his trips to Cuba were authorized. Dozens of papers trying to confirm that he was the registered owner of a car that was seen in front of the Cuban Embassy.

SHORRIS: He went there to write about Mexican politics and then this absolutely horrible thing happened.

FOOTAGE: NEWS REPORTER WALTER CRONKITE: In Mexico City today, Army commanders ordered an evacuation and search of a low-rent housing complex which last night was the scene of the bloodiest fighting in the two-month old student rebellion against the government. At least 27 persons are known dead, more than 100 wounded and several hundred arrested.

SHORRIS: He missed the story. He just missed the story.

FOOTAGE: REPORTER: How many people died may never be known. The government
will do its best to keep the reported figures low.

THOMAS: No government person would talk to him, candidly. They wanted it that way. In fact, they probably still do.

SHORRIS: Only a Mexican could really understand then what happened, and Ruben was not a Mexican.

GIBSON: “Because of all the new Mexican-American uproar here at home and muchly heightened interest in these stories, which now are mainly urban, it has been decided that you can contribute more importantly in this area than from Mexico City. I suspect this is going to be a wrench for you, but naturally, the needs of the paper must remain paramount.” No, he was not happy. Well, I can’t blame him. No foreign correspondent wants to come home.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: The abrupt change now, practically without warning, is professionally defeating and distressing personally. I can’t help but ask how long is it going to take for me to prove myself to the Times.

THOMAS: He would think it was a demotion, and so would any other foreign reporter if they’re told to come back and you’ve got to work in the general newsroom.

CARD: City Desk 1968

DRUMMOND: Los Angeles became a very, very agitated place. There was a pattern of deaths that had happened as a result of police abuses.

THOMAS: The world around us was being transformed by all these things, Black and Brown – everything. She was changing, and so you got to figure out how you explain this and explain it without getting yourself lynched at the same time.

DRUMMOND: The LA Times made the big determination that they were gonna become a real newspaper and then along with that, they looked around and said you know, we gotta do something about this all whiteness and that was how Ruben wound up there.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: It was felt like Mexican-Americans would melt into the Caucasian pot, then came the Black revolution.

ERNESTO VIGIL – CHICANO ACTIVIST/AUTHOR: The rising Black Power movement set the stage for much of what we did. The Black Revolution brought to mind a lot of things that I had experienced in my youth, how Mexicans are treated different, how we go to these ghetto schools, how we live in ghetto neighborhoods.

FOOTAGE: RALLY SPEAKER: With our hearts in our hands and our hands in the soil, we declare the independence of our Mestizo nation. We are a proud people…

DRUMMOND: If this were Arabic I’d say it’s an intifada; it’s a shaking off of this longstanding servitude.

FOOTAGE: Rally speaker: Chicano.
Rally: Power.
Rally speaker: Chicano.
Rally: Power…

DRUMMOND: It’s like a volcano and all of this cultural pressure that had been building up in Los Angeles over those years finally burst through the surface.

FOOTAGE: REPORTER FRANK MCGEE: “Chicano” is a word rapidly working its way into our vocabulary. It’s a corruption of Mexicano and was, and to some still is, a derisive term like the word “Black” was among Negros.

VIGIL: We never felt that we got objective coverage. The media core was overwhelmingly male and white and middle-aged. We always felt that the reporting was biased.

RUIZ: People have a notion that media should present an objective viewpoint, but it never is the case. Objectivity for them was when there was an issue, let’s say, between a policeman and a community person was to interview the policeman and get from him the truth of what happened.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: Objectivity has been under vigorous attack by new journalists. There is a growing feeling that newsroom objectivity may result in untruth.

VIGIL: I have clear recollections of Salazar and it seemed like he was somewhat puzzled about the deep feelings and emotion and the fervor of the young people and what they were saying.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: The boys wear brown berets, Zapata mustaches and long hair. The girls sport miniskirts and Mexican serapes. To belong to this group, one must speak Spanish. The guru of this Chicano youth conference is Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, a former prizefighter.

VIGIL: Cause it was a very radical crowd, a very radical time, and people were speaking very fervently, with a lot of emotion, a lot of times with a lot of anger.

MONTEZ: Ruben and I used to talk about the leadership – what the hell are these guys up to? A lot of the Chicano leaders were into making some money. These guys are phonies.

VILLANUEVA: He totally had disdain for some of these guys that were looking after themselves with the cloak of community, and he said, you know, they’re false prophets.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: There are too many people, including the Mexican-Americans who have only one thing in mind when conducting their crusades – their own personal advantage.

MONTEZ: Chicano leadership, they came after Ruben. And they didn’t want Ruben to write without checking with them.

DRUMMOND: They wanted to exploit you. I mean, that was their assumption that you were there to carry their water. I used to go at it all the time with the Black Panthers. These guys who were kind of outside the system, essentially they are desperados, so that conditions their whole discourse. And that was not Ruben.

FOOTAGE: NAVARRO 1970: A well-trained reporter can be a combination poet, advocate and thorn in the side of the establishment. Our first guest is all of these things and much more.

NAVARRO: Ruben changed. He felt something deep inside. Something woke him up.

MONTEZ: Ruben said to me, “The trouble with Mexicans is they’re struggling to become white,” and he said, “Why? Gringos don’t have anything on Mexicans.”

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: The successful Mexican-American wallows in a vacuum. He resigns his Mexicaness to becoming a half-assed American. But then what can you do? There’s no such thing as a real Mexican-American, the hyphen strips both words of meaning.

SHORRIS: Certainly, Ruben’s journalism became somewhat more personal.

THOMAS: Ruben was starting to take more and more of an interest himself in assigning himself to Latino affairs.

MONTEZ: He was more and more involved in what the Mexican community was all about.

NAVARRO: His eyes fully opened to the injustices that were around him. He became more of an activist.

FOOTAGE: REGIS PHILBIN 1970: With veteran news reporter Ruben Salazar we discuss the problems of Mexican-Americans.

FOOTAGE: RUBEN SALAZAR INTERVIEW 1970: What we need is a Chicano voting rights act. We don’t really have that. You see, for instance, in Southern California—I’ll explain to you why we really need it.

DRUMMOND: When he stepped out of this kind of confining persona of representing the institution and he began to talk about what he really felt about things, people were shocked.

FOOTAGE: RUBEN SALAZAR INTERVIEW 1970: And so it’s foolish to think that eventually we will melt into that mythical melting pot, which is a myth. We never will.

DRUMMOND: They could not believe that he was harboring these kinds of almost class-conscious thoughts.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: We were here first, and we’re just not going to melt.

DRUMMOND: Once you began to tell the white man what you really think, it shocks him.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: I sometimes get irritated with my colleagues in the news media. Having ignored Mexican-Americans for so long, they seem impatient about the complexities of the story.

MONTEZ: He had an opportunity to write about Mexicans and he did. And I would suspect that the Los Angeles Times wanted him to do that in a toned-down way. Write about mariachis and, you know, tamales and all that bullshit, and not get involved in what he did.

NAVARRO: It was a difficult time, when you realize that assimilation should not be your goal. Your goal should be to do what you are capable of doing to do at your fullest extent. That should be your goal.

VILLANUEVA: We were a brand new business. News was a luxury that we took care of last. We used to paste La OpiniГіn, which was three days late, and read it on the air.

NAVARRO: Tiny station with no money, no resources, with management that really didn’t care about the community. KMEX was doing nothing, that’s what they were doing.

VILLANUEVA: Bringing in Ruben Salazar, an established journalist, would take us to the next level.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: On my last day at the Times some of the guys in the city room gave me looks of those who know a friend is making a terrible mistake. “KM-who,”? asked one.

THOMAS: I mean it was money, probably some degree of fame, but it was about principally he could use more money. Everybody working for a newspaper could use more money. We ran his column at the same time that he was doing the KMEX stuff. And it was good for both of us.

NAVARRO: I did have a difficult time understanding and I brought it up. I asked him, “What possess you to leave a job at one of the top newspapers in the world and go to work at a small television station – Spanish-language, at that?”

FOOTAGE: RUBEN SALAZAR INTERVIEW 1970: The most important thing about my move to me was that I was frustrated. I wanted to really communicate with the people about whom I had been writing for for so long.

VILLANUEVA: The feeling among us was that we had to give coverage to this burgeoning new movement. Ruben had now become the person who chronicled that movement.

DRUMMOND: Television is a big deal, even on a Mexican-American station. It engages people’s emotions in a way that print page does not. Television escalated the magnitude of his message.

FOOTAGE: RUBEN SALAZAR INTERVIEW 1970: I’m only advocating the Mexican-American community just like the general media is advocating really our economy, our country, our way of life.

VILLANUEVA: He seemed to delight in controversy. He would pin hate letters above his desk. He said, “They’re thinking. I got them thinking.”

LETTERS BEING READ VO: I certainly do not appreciate being singled out as Brown.

LETTERS BEING READ VO: I don’t care what you call yourself, but I don’t like the word “Chicano”.

LETTERS BEING READ VO: Are you a Chicano? If you are, my sincere and deepest sympathies to you.

LETTERS BEING READ VO: I for one know exactly what I am.

LETTERS BEING READ VO: I am an American of Mexican descent.

LETTERS BEING READ VO: Who, Mr. Salazar, are the Chicanos?

LETTERS BEING READ VO: You, my dear sir, are an idiot.

VILLANUEVA: The conservative, older Hispanics didn’t want us to use the word “Chicano” on the air, they didn’t want us to give them as much air time as we were giving them and Ruben accelerated it.

MONTEZ: When he wrote about the Sanchez brothers that were killed, that was the beginning of his problems.

FOOTAGE: REPORTER TOM BROKAW: In downtown Los Angeles last week, seven policemen were looking for a murder suspect in a skid-row hotel. Sixteen shots were fired into the room. When it was over, two Mexican nationals were dead, three other people were wounded.

MONTEZ: The guy was laying on the ground with a broken leg, and out the window they popped him.

WEINGARTEN: Salazar did interviews with survivors of that shootout.

MONTEZ: He did a good enough job that the police got indicted.

WEINGARTEN: The police visited Salazar afterwards and then he wrote about it in the LA Times column.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: Two policemen visited me to express their concern. They warned me about the impact the interviews would have on the police department’s image. Besides, they said, this kind of information could be dangerous in the minds of barrio people.

WEINGARTEN: That was a double slap to the LAPD.

MONTEZ: I said, “You oughtta watch yourself, Ruben.” He said, “No, you gotta stop that kinda crap.”

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: Anyone who had worked a police beat knows that policemen tend to have a very different attitude toward enforcing the law. Depending on the social, financial, and racial makeup of the people they deal with.

SHORRIS: Ruben didn’t like cops. He really didn’t like cops. Any guy who had been a police reporter has the distrust of cops because you see what they do. My old friend Nelson Albrin wrote that a cop said, “If you ain’t guilty, how come you’re bleeding?”

GUILLERMO RESTREPO – TV JOURNALIST: They look at you like you’re nothing. You’re just Mexican. And they stopped you in the middle of the street for nothing and they enjoy doing that.

JULIE RUHLIN – L.A. COUNTY ATTORNEY, OFFICE OF INDEPENDENT REVIEW: We have a picture of policing in that era that was much more brutal than it is today, and much less accountable. I might get in trouble with people in the department for saying it, but to say that there was brutality at the time I think is kind of undisputed.

DRUMMOND: The LAPD, as you know, is very image-conscious; it’s been that way forever. And anybody that kind of disparaged that was in for a lot of trouble.

RUHLIN: That was a difficult transition, you know, where suddenly this relationship we had changes and now you’re going to challenge the authority of this office. I’m sure that fed into a lot of the tension that Mr. Salazar felt and got push-back from Chief Davis and from Sheriff Pitchess.

RESTREPO: He was called to Chief Davis’ office. Davis was telling Ruben, he wasn’t supposed to say those things. And Ruben answered back, “I’m telling the truth.”

MONTEZ: Ruben believed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. You and I know that freedom of speech is limited. You can say anything you want, as long as you don’t step on some big shot’s toes.

RUHLIN: Ruben Salazar had real concerns about being followed that he expressed very clearly to the people around him.

SHORRIS: He did tell me something that I will never forget. He said the police had phoned him and said, “You better stop stirring up the Mexicans.”

MONTEZ: Ruben said, “I have a problem with the LAPD.” I said, “What’s the problem?” He says, “Well, they came to see me and they said that Mexicans aren’t ready for my kind of reporting and they want me to stop.”

DRUMMOND: He had a right to be alarmed and that’s part of the price you pay. You know, when you stick your head out of the foxhole, there’s somebody that’s gonna take a shot at you, verbally certainly, maybe they might even do it for real.

MONTEZ: The last things I said to Ruben, “Well, Mexicans need a martyr. Let them pop you.” And he said, “No, they ought to pop you. I’m better looking than you are.” And we laughed.

WEINGARTEN: This was a march against the high rate of Latino deaths in the Vietnam War. Earlier generation Latinos had been very proud of high percentage of involvement in World War II and Korea. So, the system sent young Chicanos to the front lines to the most dangerous positions where their highest attrition rates.

VIGIL: It was people of color whose sons were dying in numbers were out of proportion in the overall population. We knew more people were dying and coming home in boxes. We had more at stake.

WEINGARTEN: It was a crowd shaping up to be the largest march in LA history. They were taking a stand, they were opposing the war, they were opposing discrimination. I thought these kids in the march were heroes in the making.

NAVARRO: It was a Saturday, a very, very hot day in August. And I got there early, as did Ruben, and we spoke, compared notes a little bit, and then we marched together for a good part of the demonstration, which was huge and very peaceful.

WEINGARTEN: Numbers were big, day was beautiful, families were there, a wedding party leaving St. Alphonsus Church had joined the crowd. It was that kind of happy day.

BORIS YARO – FORMER PHOTOGRAPHER, L.A.TIMES: My boss said, “Tomorrow we want you to be over there and cover this parade.” ‘Parade’ in my mind equaled ‘demonstration.’ ‘Demonstration’ equaled ‘destruction.’ In the social revolution, everybody has rights, and everybody has rocks, and everybody has riots. There was huge amounts of people showing up; some of them thinking it’s a party, and by the time they get there some of them are drunk, some of them are not.

NAVARRO: I remember Ruben said to me, “There are some kids out there throwing bottles and rocks and the sheriffs are looking to move in.”

POLICE RADIO VO: ah…does anyone speak Spanish around here?

YARO: There were people saying, “Hey, now’s my chance to lob a bottle.”

RESTREPO: They started throwing stones against windows and started looting and then the police started to move.

YARO: And as each group of police arrived, they were greeted by rocks and bottles.

VIGIL: They didn’t like the politics of what we were doing and they didn’t like the people who were doing it. And they came to show us that they would limit our ability to conduct ourselves in a peaceful manner according to the riots we allegedly had.

RUIZ: It was an incredible assault. They attacked with batons, they attacked with teargas, and that caused a panic.

VIGIL: They drove up within that entire area, just jumping out of the car, run up and started hitting people with their clubs.

RUIZ: It was not a Chicano riot, it was a sheriff’s riot.

WEINGARTEN: As an earnest, young Maoist, we used to live with a lot of dictums. US imperialism can’t declare war on Vietnam unless it also fights the American people. And what I saw at the moratorium that day, the police response was in fact the system declaring war on its own people.

RUHLIN: The official Sheriff’s Department line on that was that it was set out to be a peaceful demonstration, and that there were instigators and people coming in and handing out bottles, distributing this inflammatory material and trying to incite this kind of violence. You know, in the end I think they were just really under-prepared for what happened that day. And they had to end up to calling in resources and Tom Wilson was among those.

TOM WILSON VO – FORMER L.A. COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPUTY (ON TAPE): This is Sargent Tom Wilson. On August the 29th, 1970, I was assigned to respond to East Los Angeles Station for a major disturbance.

WILSON: When I first went to East LA, I wasn’t aware of all of this aversive behavior. I thought it was outsider agitation more than anything else.

RUHLIN: Were there intelligence officers in the crowd? I’m sure there were, and I’m sure that there were under cover Sheriff’s Department and LAPD officers, probably federal officials in the crowd there to gather intelligence, there to see who’s who in this movement.

RESTREPO: It was getting very dangerous. Ruben and I start walking down Whittier Boulevard. We start on the left-hand side of the street, going down, and he suddenly says, “Let’s go back to the other side.” He did it twice. He says more than once, “Somebody is following us.”

RUHLIN: Ruben Salazar may very well have been followed that day, and there may have been agents tailing him. I just don’t know.

RESTREPO: One of the reasons to get into The Silver Dollar was to get rid of somebody that was following us. He thought it was safe to have a beer.

JIMMY FLORES – WITNESS, SILVER DOLLAR CAFE: It was kind of confusing what was going on. When I looked to the West, I couldn’t see nothing, it was all smoke. And then I looked east and I could see some little guy with a vest on. He was pointing in our direction.

RUHLIN: The man in the red vest, he’s a mysterious figure in this, in this whole story.

RUHLIN: He reported, “Man with a gun has gone into The Silver Dollar Cafe.”

MAN IN THE RED VEST: I was trying to direct traffic. I was doing a good deed as a citizen.

WILSON: I was around the side of the crowd control and the deputy come running back there and told me that we had men that ran into the bar with guns.

That’s ludicrous. There was no weapon. There was a calm afternoon inside that bar. This guy in the red vest, he’s a busy-body.

SHERIFF’S AUDIO CARS VO: 10 Lincoln, Are you close enough so that you can roll to that location?

RUIZ: I was right there at the corner of LaVerne and Whittier right in front of the entrance to the Silver Dollar. I just thought, “Why are all these deputies gathering around here?” So I took pictures of the deputies inching their way towards The Silver Dollar across the street.

FLORES: We’re right in the front door of The Silver Dollar, when a deputy comes around the corner and he had a shotgun, and he says, “Get inside, get inside.”

WILSON: I had this deal where I sized up things. I always felt like, you know, you got a problem, if you come up with a solution, you no longer have a problem.

RUHLIN: Deputy Wilson got the projectile loaded in his teargas gun. There are these two different kinds of projectiles: there’s the Flite Rite and Speed-Heat. And the Flite Rite says explicitly ‘not to be fired in a crowd’. They say, and this is an issue of dispute, but deputies shouted warnings.

FLORES: If they had told anybody to come out with your hands in the air, we would’ve done that.

WILSON VO (ON TAPE): I crouched down and looked underneath the curtain that was covering the doorway.

RESTREPO: We sat and we asked for the beer.

WILSON VO (ON TAPE): I heard what sounded to me like a barstool falling over.

FLORES: We didn’t have a clue as to what was going on outside.

WILSON VO (ON TAPE): I then elected to fire teargas inside the bar.

FLORES: And all of the sudden this blast comes through.

RESTREPO: The room was full of gas.

FLORES: I thought, “We’re gonna get killed in here.” We ran out the back door.

RESTREPO: The lady came out first, she was closest to the door. And I came out after her, and Ruben didn’t come out.

DRUMMOND: The two directions of Ruben’s life were portrayed after his death. His body lay in state in the heart of East LA.

SALAZAR COOK: We drove up to Boyle Heights and there was this huge line wrapped around the block inching forward. Everyone was Mexican.

DRUMMOND: They buried Salazar not in East LA but in Newport Beach, about 65 miles south of Los Angeles in Orange County.

SALAZAR COOK: Everyone was middle class, Anglo, suburbia.

RUBEN SALAZAR VO: The bridge and the river were a significant part of my life. Without them, life would’ve been quite different, perhaps more of one piece.

THOMAS: I really wanted to know more about who did the shooting and why was this—you know, the usual stuff. Why did this happen?

NAVARRO: The LA Times wanted answers and they wanted to pin it on somebody. The Sheriff’s Department and law enforcement resisted that.

THOMAS: We never got anything that I can recall out of the sheriff, so we demanded an inquest.

RUIZ: It’s a coroner’s inquest, the coroner’s concern with the death of this individual. What happened to this person that was killed?

FOOTAGE: REPORTER TOM BROKAW: As you probably saw just behind me, the coroner’s inquest jury has just filed into the hearing room here and into the inquest of Ruben Salazar.

RUIZ: Now, the inquest I think was for the purpose of diffusing a lot of the criticism that was going on, and I think it was something that the Sheriff’s Department was gonna use to validate the actions that they took.

FOOTAGE: INQUEST REPORTER JOE RAMIREZ: Most of the opening day’s testimony dealt with sheriff’s deputies’ accounts of how the riots started, but there was virtually no mention of circumstances surrounding the death of Ruben Salazar.

RUIZ: During the inquest, it was mostly indicting the community.

FOOTAGE: INQUEST MODERATOR: Now, there’s a sign over there that says “Viva Che”. Do you see that sign?

RUIZ: They tried to derail me. They made the claim that I was a communist.

FOOTAGE: MAN OFF-SCREEN: Prime Minister Castro’s man? (not sure what exactly he says here)

RESTREPO: The inquest was just a circus.

FOOTAGE: INQUEST MODERATOR: If you have something to say, please give your name, otherwise I’ll have to ask you to leave. Now anyone who wishes to be a witness will give his name to Mr. Bailey, we’ll be glad to call him.

WILSON: I testified in the morning. A man jumped up and started screaming

FOOTAGE: MAN AT INQUEST: This room is polluted with perjury, and you know it.

WILSON: And he had pointed directly at me like that. It looked like a .45. I had the teargas gun and I loaded the weapon because I figured if he was gonna shoot me, I was gonna get him at least once, you know? Somebody hit him and turned him sideways and I could tell that he had a magazine rolled up instead of a gun. That’s how quick I usually react to things.

FOOTAGE: INQUEST REPORTER JOE RAMIREZ: He testified he had been trained in the use of teargas, but the first time he ever fired a certain teargas gun was on August 29th, the day of the East Los Angeles riot.

MONTEZ: I was gonna testify, and they said, “We’ll call you and schedule you an appointment.” I never got called. And I kept calling – “Oh yeah, they’re gonna schedule you an appointment,” and nobody called.

FOOTAGE: INQUEST REPORTER JOE RAMIREZ: The inquest was recessed earlier than usual because it ran out of witnesses. But what this hearing really…

VILLANUEVA: The inquest was a Band-Aid to cover what should’ve been a full-blown investigation.

FOOTAGE: RUIZ: I wish you would pay attention.

FOOTAGE: INQUEST MODERATOR: The jury makes the decisions.

FOOTAGE: RUIZ: Well, it seems to me that you would have to try to follow the line of—

FOOTAGE: MODERATOR: Go right ahead. I’m listening.

THOMAS: The inquest didn’t answer many questions. Rather simply what we already knew, that he was killed by another person.

RUHLIN: The DA takes a look at the case and says, “We’re not filing criminal charges. We don’t find that there was any criminal intent here.” And that was the end of the story as far as the sheriff was concerned.

VILLANUEVA: After the coroner’s inquest we were trying to get answers and we kept hearing these little vague reports. Who was it with the red vest? Why did it take hours to get him out of the Silver Dollar? Those are all of the things that have fed this story and the suspicions and the conspiratorial theories.

NARRATOR: In the haze of uncertainty following his death, Ruben became a martyr figure in the Chicano community. For many Chicanos that the government had deliberately killed Salazar became an article of faith.

NARRATOR: Some Chicanos harbored conspiracy theories based on events both real and imagined.

MORATORIUM COMMITTEE MEMBER: Two hours prior to the shooting, this guy, about 6ft 1”, 210-215, bald-headed, dark skinned, black suit, black tie, white shirt walked up to Salazar and said, “You’re gonna get yours today.” I’ll never forget it. It’s burned in my mind.

MONTEZ: He’d have probably said to me, “See, I told you they were full of crap. They don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m not a—what the hell’s a martyr, man?”

DRUMMOND: Nobody wants to deliberately become a martyr that I know of. Maybe some saints, and he was no saint.

NARRATOR: Over the next 40 years, law enforcement repeatedly refused to relinquish completed and unredacted records of the Salazar case and the story of Ruben’s death remained a mystery.

VILLANUEVA: They opened Watergate, so why wouldn’t they open this?

NARRATOR: The producers of this film, in partnership with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational fund finally succeeded in forcing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to release its files on the death of Ruben Salazar.

MICHAEL GENACO – L.A. COUNTY CHIEF ATTORNEY, OFFICE OF INDEPENDENT REVIEW: The Sheriff’s department conducted a homicide investigation into the death of Mr. Salazar. Eight boxes of material became the source material for our review. The evidence found in the homicide reports does not support the theory that Mr. Salazar was targeted, followed and intentionally killed that day.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, an additional piece of the Salazar story emerged. It turns out that within months of Ruben’s death the US Department of Justice conducted a secret grand jury investigation into the case.

NARRATOR: Like the county investigation, this one concluded that Salazar’s death was just a tragic accident.

SALAZAR COOK: Are you kidding me? After all of this, it was just ineptness or accident or overzealousness. That’s sad. That’s so sad.

MAN IN THE RED VEST: To tell you the truth, yes, I regret it because that’s like sticking your nose into somebody else’s business.

SALAZAR COOK: When someone’s life is taken like that, you wanna believe that it’s more romantic maybe than it really was.

WILSON: It’s like being in a place where some action has to be taken and you can’t do anything and you can’t take it back.
It’s done. You’ve got to go on.

MONTEZ: I sit back and think about him all the time, and to be very honest, it’s very hurtful for me, emotionally.

NAVARRO: I always thought it was a tremendous loss and that was more important to me than how or why.

VIGIL: He confronted things that were complex and he went through the layers of the complexity to get at what the story was.

DRUMMOND: In the end, Ruben was true to himself. He was neither a pimp for the revolution nor a shill for the establishment.