On Aug. 29, 1970, 42-year-old Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar was struck in the head with a tear gas canister and killed instantly. He'd stepped into the Silver Dollar Cafe to escape the chaos and confusion of the Chicano Moratorium march, an anti-Vietnam protest that had turned violent. The type of projectile used wasn't meant to be fired into crowds, and the exact details of his death have been a matter of dispute ever since.
Salazar has often been thought of “more as myth than history.”
A controversial figure in life — he'd been one of the first mainstream journalists to cover the Chicano community, not all of whom were happy with his reportage — Salazar instantly became a martyr in death. In Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle, which airs on PBS at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, April 29, director Phillip Rodriguez (Race 2012: A Conversation About Race and Politics in America, Latinos '08) explores the unique combination of internal and external forces that made Salazar the man he was.
Early in the film, an interviewee says, “We were in such a hurry to create a martyr that we forgot about the man.” Asked about the process of closing that gap, Rodriguez notes that Salazar has often been thought of “more as myth than history. Though aspects of that myth were compelling, it always managed to privilege conjecture and innuendo about his death over details and facts about his death and his life. We set out to bring historical fact and context to the story by insisting on primary sources.”
Salazar's early assignments for the Times included stints in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic; it wasn't until his return to L.A. in the late 1960s that his focus turned to the Chicano community. The fact that he was, as one interviewee puts it, “neither a pimp for the revolution nor a shill for the establishment” lent him a certain in-between status that was never fully reconciled in his lifetime.
While Rodriguez and his team researched the film, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) assisted them in suing the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department “for access to the complete and unredacted homicide files that the department had refused to cough up in the years since his death,” he says. (The L.A. Times also successfully petitioned to get some of the documents related to the case, and has made them available at documents.latimes.com/ruben-salazar.)
The filmmakers also were able to persuade Salazar's family that once-private details of his life were safe in their hands, a process that ultimately led to them being entrusted with letters, home movies and even Salazar's personal diary.
The homicide files led to a treasure trove of details, including the former sheriff's deputy who fired the canister that killed Salazar, and the informant who reportedly led the cops to the bar where Salazar was seated. That (in)famous informant has long been known only as the Red Vest Man, and he appears in Man in the Middle with his face obscured and his voice distorted. Rodriguez describes that interview session as “a little sad,” which is easy to believe: The still-anonymous man appears remorseful about telling the police that he'd seen a man walk into the Silver Dollar with a gun. He was either lying or confused, since Salazar didn't have one.
Man in the Middle addresses a number of theories about Salazar's death, some more conspiratorial than others — that he had been surveilled by authorities, for instance, and that the deputy who fired the fatal shot had intentionally loaded the wrong canister. Separating fact from fiction required persuading those in the know (including the Red Vest Man and the deputy in question) to finally be forthcoming with previously withheld information, which led to an official explanation from the police that some may find unsatisfying.
Rodriguez says that he doesn't want to spoil the film's conclusion for the audience. But he will say that, while he was “taken aback by law enforcement's reticence about an incident that occurred so long ago, it was satisfying to get more clarity on an issue that many folks clamored about for so long with little in the way of actual information.”
“Latinos are much greater in numbers and influence in today's Los Angeles,” Rodriguez adds. “The 'Brown Is Beautiful' slogan that the Chicanos proclaimed is much truer now than it was then. I think Ruben would be pleased about that.”