‘Man in the Middle’ Doc Investigates Decades Old Case of Chicano Journalist Ruben Salazar’s Death

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A few years back, I was compelled to look up the word hagiography. It was one of those big words that popped up from time to time and seemed like it would look good in an academic term paper. Turns out it refers to biographies documenting the lives of saints and martyrs of the early Christian church.

While perhaps a bit obscure, I’ve found the word quite useful over the years. Even in our secular, hyper-connected 21st century society, we still have saints: individuals whose flaws, insecurities and shortcomings are conveniently glossed over in favor of an image of holy perfection. Founding fathers, revolutionary guerrilleros and community leaders are time and again reduced to symbols of political righteousness and invoked to advance diverse and often competing agendas.

The various Latino struggles in the United States have been no exception, and in the new PBS documentary Ruben Salazar: The Man in the Middle, director Phillip Rodriguez takes on one of the most tenacious symbols of political sacrifice in the Chicano movement, gently removing his halo and offering up a more nuanced portrait of a man struggling with his identity as a Mexican-American.

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For those unfamiliar, Ruben Salazar was a highly-esteemed journalist who wrote for the Los Angeles Times throughout the 1960s, serving first as a beat reporter then heading the Mexico City bureau of the rapidly expanding newspaper. Upon returning to Los Angeles in the late 60s, he became involved in the nascent Chicano movement and focused his reporting on the struggles of the Mexican-American communities previously ignored or disparaged by mainstream media. Harassed by local authorities and frequently scolded by his more mainstream Mexican-American readership, Salazar eventually left the Times to focus his energies on the newly created KMEX Spanish-language TV station.

On August 29, 1970, the day of the infamous National Chicano Moratorium March in East L.A., Ruben Salazar was struck dead by a tear gas canister fired blindly into an unassuming cantina where Salazar had sought refuge from the chaos unfolding in the street. An official inquest ensued at the behest of the Los Angeles Times but the investigation’s findings were sketchy and unsatisfactory for many who were following the case. Suspicions persisted that Salazar was intentionally targeted by the LAPD — fueled by the L.A. Sheriff’s Department’s refusal to release their records concerning his death — and Salazar was quickly converted into a martyr for the Chicano cause.

In a sort of reverse-hagiography, Ruben Salazar: The Man in the Middle delves deeper into the life of the activist-martyr and shows us a complex man who wrote about barrio struggles from his office in Los Angeles then commuted back to his suburban home in Orange County even though he was raised by his mother to consider himself a white American and whose Anglo-American wife preferred to raise their children as such.

Employing interviews with close friends and associates, historical record as well as Salazar’s own writings, Ruben Salazar: The Man in the Middle takes us from Salazar’s upbringing and early career in El Paso, Texas to his final years in Los Angeles showing us a man firmly embedded within mainstream American society who became increasingly politicized and conscious of his own Chicano identity as the radical community movements of the late 60s began to take hold. Quotes from Salazar’s autobiographical reflections reveal a man tormented by his confused identity, feeling himself neither fully American nor fully Mexican.

The film’s second half focuses primarily on the sequence of events that led to Salazar’s death, the ensuing coroner’s inquest and the declassification of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department’s files in 2011. It seeks to answer the question: was the Chicano movement’s greatest martyr killed in an act of careless police work or as the result of a deliberate conspiracy?

While no doubt some bubbles will be burst by this documentary, in bringing Ruben Salazar down from a saint to an everyman director Phillip Rodriguez gives Latinos an even more powerful figure — a man who struggled with his sense of in-between-ness and his desire to assimilate into a society that wouldn’t fully accept him but who ultimately found empowerment in his Chicano identity.

Salazar’s story is in many ways a parable of the Latino experience in the United States and that he found meaning in the struggle can still serve as an example to all who continue to live a hyphenated existence, ni aquí, ni allá.

Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle will air nationally on PBS on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 9PM.