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PBS chronicles enigmatic journalist

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SAN DIEGO – I remember the day my brother-in-law asked me if I had a gun in the house.

It was 10 years ago, and I was a columnist and editorial writer in Dallas. The nation’s ninth-largest city can display the idiosyncrasies of a small town and in my job I was doing something that one shouldn’t do in a small town: needling the powerful.

After top public officials abused their power to the detriment of Mexican immigrants, I went after the police chief and district attorney.

They took it personally. Later, I learned that the district attorney had opened an investigation of me. At the time, I worried that some of the folks I was writing about might respond with something more “personal” than a strongly worded letter to the editor.

This memory rushed back to me as I sat mesmerized watching an advance copy of “Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle,” the latest offering from gifted Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez. It airs on April 29 on PBS stations around the country.

Rodriguez, a Mexican-American storyteller who has already created documentaries dissecting the Latino vote and the Hispanic market, now turns his attention to the meaningful life and mysterious death of one of the most beloved and respected Mexican-American journalists of the 20th century.

But not before his death.

Salazar was respected, but not necessarily beloved – not in the Mexican-American community. That’s because he wasn’t a mouthpiece for the Chicano movement, whose leaders would have liked to have pre-approved Salazar’s columns before they went into the newspaper to make sure he was adhering to the script.

That wasn’t going to happen.

For the filmmaker, the irony is inescapable.

“The guy who is not wholly invested, the outsider is the one who dies and winds up the symbol of the Chicano movement,” Rodriguez told me.

“He was urbane, educated, a veteran, suburban – all the things that Latinos were then, and still are. But he didn’t fit the needs of the white liberals and their junior partners in the Chicano movement.”

Salazar was “in the middle” quite a bit. Professionally, he was caught between the powers that ran Los Angeles – i.e., its media, business and government institutions – and a dispossessed Mexican-American community that was coming of age just as Salazar’s career was taking off.

Personally, he was a Texan from El Paso who had grown up seeing Mexican-Americans in powerful positions and who, upon arriving in Los Angeles in the 1960s, must have felt that he had taken a step back in time.

He lived a comfortable life in affluent Orange County, far away from East Los Angeles where he found his stories. Even his friends – several of whom are featured in the film – considered him confused about who he was and where he fit in.

After a decade at the Los Angeles Times as both a domestic and foreign correspondent – he had gone to Vietnam, interviewed Robert Kennedy, covered the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City – Salazar resigned to become news director of KMEX, the largest Spanish-language news station in Los Angeles. He also wrote a weekly column for the Times, where he fearlessly chronicled the Mexican-American experience.

The newsman developed a problem with the Los Angeles Police Department after a series of hard-hitting articles about police brutality. The department brass warned him to stop “riling up the Mexicans,” insisting that the city’s Mexican-American community wasn’t ready for his type of reporting.

Salazar died on Aug 29, 1970, while covering a demonstration in East Los Angeles. He and a friend thought they were being followed and ducked into a bar. The journalist was hit by a teargas projectile fired into the establishment by a sheriff’s deputy. The killing was ruled an accident.

Salazar was before my time. But I’ve spent the last quarter-century writing for newspapers, ruffling feathers, getting threats and being shunned by elements of my community. My tocayo (namesake) was a man after my own heart.

Above all, he understood the nature of this work. You have to go around picking fights with people who can hurt you because only cowards pick on the weak and defenseless.

Journalists understand this. It’s why we didn’t become politicians.

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