By Roberto José Andrade Franco
Ruben Salazar was born in Juárez and raised in El Paso. He graduated from El Paso High School and UTEP back when it was known as Texas Western College. During a time when El Paso had two newspapers, Salazar became the first Latino reporter to work for the El Paso Herald-Post.
Salazar then headed west to California, where he ultimately worked for the Los Angeles Timesas the first Latino foreign correspondent in Vietnam, Dominican Republic, and then Mexico. When he returned to Los Angeles, as the first Latino columnist, he often wrote about the various problems Mexican-Americans faced – among them, poor housing conditions in limited areas, high unemployment, and police harassment.
On the day before he died, Salazar’s last column focused on the inferior education offered to that same community. “The Mexican-American has the lowest educational level, below either (B)lack or Anglo;” he wrote on Aug. 28, 1970, “the highest dropout rate; the highest illiteracy rate.”
The next day, while sitting inside an east Los Angeles bar, enjoying a beer after covering the Chicano Moratorium protesting the disproportionate amount of Mexican-Americans dying in the Vietnam War, Salazar died tragically. “Deputies found him sprawled on the floor of the Silver Dollar Café … with a bullet wound to the head.” the Los Angeles Times reported of their columnist’s death. He was just 42 years old.
That Salazar claimed law enforcement had followed him, with the sheriff even threatening him, added to the mysterious death. That a trial held no one accountable added frustration for the many who felt police violence had forever silenced an important voice.
“We Chicanos suffered a terrible loss – an irreparable loss,” Salazar’s friend and colleague Enrique Hank Lopez wrote. “He was our only establishment newspaper columnist, the most experienced and articulate Chicano writer in this whole country. Such a loss, no community can afford.”
Soon after the death, despite considering himself a reporter with moderate views, Salazar became a martyr for the Chicano movement. An almost folk hero whose death symbolized the same police brutality the movement rallied against. Easy to perceive him as a familiar victim of the unfair condition minorities often face within white establishments.
Ruben Salazar died – killed by a bullet-like gas canister shot by a sheriff’s deputy – and every year, on the day law enforcement killed him, people still visit the place he got shot down. They leave signs and their prayers.
Since his passing, there have been corridos and plays retelling that tragic day. The Smithsonian American Art Museum even displayed an oil painting named “Death of Ruben Salazar.” An art center was named after Ruben Salazar, as were scholarships, parks, and even a cultural program – Festival Salazar-King – where the influential writer shared billing with Martin Luther King Jr. In 2008, the United States Postal Service celebrated Salazar’s life with a stamp.
There have even been schools named after him. And yet, for as influential and relevant as Salazar and his words remain, his hometown of El Paso offers few reminders of his influence – a mural in Lincoln Park on a column connecting El Paso to Juárez, that may not even survive the highway’s expansion, a medal for journalism named after him, displayed Café Mayapan, housing projects by Bowie High School bearing his name, many of which have doors and windows covered in plywood. That’s why the El Paso Independent School District should rename the Northeast elementary school after Salazar.
As part of the current reckoning with monuments to white supremacy, the EPISD school board voted June 16 to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School. Even in this corner of the country, where the edge of Texas and the United States, merges with Chihuahua and Mexico, there are monuments to a white supremacy that can, as we know all too well, manifest itself in disastrous ends.
El Paso must eventually deal with its remaining monuments to white supremacy – including other schools named after Confederates and, most glaringly, the statue of Juan de Oñate that greets travelers into the city. Those changes must come.
For now, Lee’s name will get scrubbed off a school that’s part of a district whose student population is almost 84 percent Latino. Students not too dissimilar to a young Ruben Salazar who, raised between two cultures and speaking two languages, represents many aspects of the typical fronterizo life.
Aug. 29 marks the 50th anniversary of Salazar’s tragic death. What better way to remember one of the El Paso-Juárez borderland’s most influential sons than to rename a school, formerly named after a military general who fought to preserve slavery, after him?
Ruben Salazar Elementary School. Sounds perfect for El Paso.
Roberto José Andrade Franco is a freelance writer for hire. He’s from El Paso, living in Arlington, Texas. Among other places, his work has been published by ESPN, Texas Monthly, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, WashingtonPost.com, Bleacher Report, and Deadspin. He is one of 12 nominees for the 2020 Dan Jenkins Medal for Excellence in Sportswriting. You can follow him: @R_AndradeFranco
Cover photo: Journalist Ruben Salazar was honored on a U.S. postage stamp in 2008.