Ruben Salazar in Vietnam USA SALAZAR JOHNSON a racy populism. In the spirit of the McCarthyist 1950s, though, it’s a populism infused with crude, racist depictions of El Paso’s overwhelmingly Mexican-American lower classes. “25 Hours in Jail-1 Lived in a Chamber of Horrors,”‘ one Salazar-bylined piece is called. The chamber being a tank in the county jail, where the author was booked after feigning public drunkenness \(he did it so well that writer Arturo Islas’ father, a police detective, saw Salazar in the tank Garcia bills the Chamber of Horrors article as a muckraking expos of horrific jail conditions. But Salazar’s obsessive talk about “hopheads,” “dope” and “dope parties” among the prisoners gives the piece an air of safari travelogue, in which, thanks to his bilingualism, it’s clear that most of these beasts are Mexican Americans \(they act “loco,” he writes, and while cadging an illegal tranquilizer, one says “Pasame Ditto for “La Nacha Sells Dirty Dope at $5 a Paper” in which Salazar watches a young Mexican-American addict buy heroin from a petty pusher in Juarez \(“He’s Got to Have It; Wild Eyes Gleam,” reads one Today, the only mass media with this kind of writing are detective magazines chockablock with ads for Saturday-night specials and male libido pills. But Salazar did his stint as cub reporter during a time when poverty was defined by the language of J. Edgar Hoover, and when only a year had passed since the Justice Department finished “Operation Wetback,” a huge paramilitary operation that rounded up and expelled hundreds of thousands of border immigrants. Within this zeitgeist, Salazar was only doing his job. That’s understandable: after all, he was an immigrant himself, only twenty six years old, energetic and ambitious. He wanted to be a good journalist, and he was. Harper’s contributing editor Earl Shorris, who started his career at the El Paso Herald-Post, remembers Salazar as the most respected reporter in the city, precisely because he went places and talked to people his colleagues never approached. Like other El Paso journalists, Salazar aspired to bigger things in California, and in the late 1950s he moved there and worked at papers like the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Express. In 1959 the Times hired him, for reasons that would hone his journalism, but which would also propel him toward chicanismo. Ironically, these same reasons would finally distance him from the English-language media and the Times. Garcia is polite on why Salazar first got the job: he writes about the L.A. Times dynasty and about how inheritor Norman Chandler decided in the late 1950s that the enterprise should abandon its cronyish, provincial conservatism and transform itself into a regional newspaper of record. Garcia further notes how Norman deeded the paper to his son, Otis, in 1960, and how Otis Chandler tailored the Times to suit a college-educated, suburban, readership. To do this, he eschewed traditional, day-today news and instead hired bright young reporters to cover important emerging “issues.” One was the Latinoization of Los Angeles and Southern /Californiawhose Mexican American population doubled between 1950 and 1960 to more than a million. Ergo Salazar’s prestigious new job. City of Quartz is more cynical about the Times’ transformation \(I can’t get away from this book because, although it never mentions Salazar, it’s required reading if you want to understand anything about Los paper’s transformation was a postwar response to conflicts between traditional WASP financial elites from Downtown L.A.of whom Otis Chandler was a congenital memberand newcomer, mostly Jewish real estate developers who were rapidly displacing capital from Downtown to the West Side and suburbs. To attract an upscale suburbanite readership, the Times needed reporters like Salazar, whose job was to translate exotic places like Mexicanized East L.A. to the citoyens of Long Beach, Beverly Hills and Riverside. Yet reflex allegiance to the suburbs also meant that the Times would never truly represent Mexicansor blacks, or Central Americans, or blue-collar Asians to themselves. As Davis points out, the history of the Times during the past generation is the history of its growing irrelevancy to those dark-skinned people the paper would just as soon ignore, if not expel from the central city. In the breach, the minority community gets a lot of its news from ethnic media, especially TV. Back in 1959, all this had yet to become apparent to Salazar. In fact, he wasn’t think ing about ethnicity at all, except to feel irri tated at being assigned the Mexican beat, and worried that he would be typecast as a “Mexican” reporter. But trooper that he was, he hunkered down to work. E DID THE JOB for the suburban ites by faithfully towing a Kennedy-era cold war line when it came to all things Latin American. Writing about a move to incorporate heavily Mexican East Los Angeles into the city, Salazar quoted a pro-incorporation community leader’s veiled warning to opponents: “In a time when Fidelismo [Castroism] is making strides among Latin Americans, I see the reverse trend in East Los Angeles…incorporation…would make the residents better Americans.” Likewise, in a series touting the Mexican government’s proposed National Border Programwhich spiffed up cities like Juarez and Tijuana for gringo tourists and, not coincidentally, for gringo maquiladora developers who would soon followSalazar quoted a Mexican businessman advising that without the border program, Mexico would be “headed for communism or anarchy.” Later, as a foreign correspondent in the Dominican Republicwhen Lyndon Johnson sent in troops to quash the leftist defense of Juan Bosch’s presidencySalazar echoed the administration’s admonitions about communism. In Vietnam in 1965 and 1966, he favored U.S. intervention. And after the Mexico City student massacres of October, 1968, he uncritically reported the Mexican government’s absurdly low death count. All the while, he maintained residence in the Southern California suburbs: in overwhelmingly Anglo Orange County, with his blonde, Anglo wife, and his children Lisa, Stephanie and Johnny. Commuting to work, THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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