Produced and directed by award winning filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez, Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle examines the life and mysterious death of pioneering journalist Ruben Salazar. At the heart of the story is Salazar’s transformation from a mainstream, establishment reporter to primary chronicler and supporter of the radical Chicano movement of the late 1960s. Killed under mysterious circumstances by a law enforcement officer in 1970, Salazar became an instant martyr to Latinos — many of whom had criticized his reporting during his lifetime. Adding to the Salazar mystique is that the details of his death have been obscured in the ensuing four decades. Featuring material from recently released files obtained by the filmmaker, Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle removes Salazar from the glare of myth and martyrdom and offers a clear-eyed look at the man and his times. LPB caught up with award winning filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez to talk about the making of his captivating film. Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle premieres Tuesday, April 29 at 9 PM ET as a VOCES Special Presentation on PBS (please check all local listings).
What inspired you to tell Ruben Salazar’s story?
I was well-aware of the mythology that shrouded the Salazar story and I never felt very satisfied with it. Like many Civil Rights era stories, Salazar’s had been embalmed by the politics of victimhood: he was a capable, urbane, courageous Silent Generation guy that became a stand-in for the ambitions, resentments and frustration of the Baby Boom generation. As the son of silent generation Mexican-Americans, who like Salazar were educated and pretty interesting people, I sensed that Salazar’s identity had been shortchanged. I believed him to be much more useful and more politically contemporary than the Chicano generation had allowed. We set him free.
How do you think Ruben Salazar has paved the way for young and emerging Latino journalists? What do you hope young and aspiring journalists will gain from watching Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle?
His death marked a turning point in the history of Spanish-language television and influenced the ideological trajectory of one of America’s most powerful newspapers. The articles below offer a more thorough analysis of Salazar’s impact on Latino-American Journalism: “Perspective on Latinos: Salazar: a Pioneer, Not a Martyr,” by Frank del Olmo, L.A. Times, “The Trailblazer: Rubén Salazar Was a Man of Many Firsts Who Paved the Way for Other Latino Journalists,” by Michael Quintanilla, L.A. Times and “Frank Sotomayor Speech About Rubén Salazar,” by Frank Sotomayor, National Press Club.
While Ruben Salazar lived a very Anglo life, he internally struggled with his identity as Mexican-American. What role do you feel his ability to assimilate and at the same time his internal struggle play in his success as a journalist?
Salazar was the archetypal “man in the middle” —a pivotal figure who embodied many of the shifts that occurred during the 20th century. As a journalist, he respected the old objectivity and then, with equal dedication, embraced the new subjectivity. As an American of a historical moment, he cautiously exchanged Greatest Generation-era stoicism and conservatism for Boomer entitlement and idealism, though he never bought into any of these values wholesale. As a Mexican-American, he played by the Anglos’ rules and then proceeded to help loosen their grip on the culture. Salazar’s newspaper and television reporting, the testimony of close friends and associates, and his personal diary and home movie footage – to which the filmmakers were granted exclusive access – tells the story of Salazar’s evolution and its emotional toll.
Ruben Salazar’s legacy is typically taught in Chicano Studies or Ethnic Studies classes, however the general American public has not even heard of him. Why do you think this is the case? How do non-Latino Americans connect to this story?
Fact of the matter is that most Americans have never heard of Ruben Salazar, and aren’t inclined to care. My great goal was to enter this story out of the realm of the ethnic and regional and into the national imagination. It’s a beautiful story and it’s about a lot of things. It’s about how one becomes an American, it’s about surveillance, it’s about the power of the press, it’s about courage under fire, and it’s about how martyrs get made.
Ruben Salazar became a symbol and martyr for the Chicano Movement. How necessary do you think this was during this time? How did it impact the movement?
When Salazar died he provided an opportunity to become a martyr for the movement, which he really effectively wasn’t a member. I mean, he had some sympathies it appears in later part of life, but he really wasn’t one of them. He was from a different generation. He had served in Korea and was more ambivalent about identity politics than they were. So it’s a strange kind of irony. He got appropriated by that generation to be a symbol of their cause, their suffering, their disappointment.
The film features a lot of great archival footage and interviews. Did you come across anything that surprised you?
The Los Angeles County Sheriff Department files gave us access to new information that in turn helped us identify and locate witnesses that the press had not reached in over 40 years. Tapes from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department files allowed us to hear and share the moment-by-moment drama of August 29, 1970 from the department’s dispatchers and field officers point of view. The files also provided a wealth of images, many of which we used in the film. Among other things, these images were used to visually recreate the trajectory of the tear gas projectile and other events that occurred at the Silver Dollar Bar.
Ultimately, it was concluded that Ruben Salazar’s death was an accident and that there was no evidence supporting that the sheriffs had intentionally targeted him. What is your take on this verdict?
I 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. And though I don’t want to spoil the results of the investigation for an audience, I felt it was my obligation to provide a veridical account of an event that had remained an open wound for many Latinos and Angelenos.