Frank Sotomayor speech about Ruben Salazar

April 22, 2008

National Press Club

Washington , DC

I am Frank Sotomayor of USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism and I am honored to be here today to speak about Ruben Salazar.

Today we honor Ruben Salazar as a journalism trailblazer and as an important voice in American history.

His legacy still burns strongly among countless journalists, educators and public servants who were inspired by his words.

Salazar will always be known as “the first” in many respects. Born in Mexico, he grew up in the West Texas town of El Paso, where he began his journalism career. After working in Northern California, he joined the Los Angeles Times in 1959, later becoming its first Mexican American foreign correspondent, reporting from the Dominican Republic, the Vietnam war and Mexico.

When Salazar returned from Mexico to L.A, he found a vastly changed political scene. During those turbulent 1960s, the Chicano movement had erupted, and activists were challenging a system they considered unjust.

Salazar had always considered himself a reporter and observer, not an advocate. But as he reported on the evolution of Mexican Americans, he began evolving himself.

He started writing a column that gave him leeway to publish his opinions -- and he continued to write the Times column when he moved to KMEX, a Spanish-language TV station, as news director.

In this 21st century, as we know, Mexican Americans and other Latinos hold important political and corporate positions and Latinos are the nation’s largest population of color. Things were different in the 1960s. Mexican Americans in L.A. were politically powerless – without a single City Council member or a single county supervisor. Some Mexican Americans were victims of housing covenants that restricted where they could live or of school counselors who discouraged them from going to college.

Examining these conditions, Salazar delivered one hard-hitting commentary after another.

In early 1970, he stated, “Mexican Americans, though indigenous to the Southwest, are on the lowest rung scholastically, economically, socially and politically. Chicanos feel cheated. They want to effect change. Now.”

Salazar was tough on L.A.’s law enforcement officers when he found they were out of line. He rebuked a judge for using racist language. He skewered people who looked down on Spanish while touting the value of foreign languages. And he did not shy away from coming down on Chicano activists either.

Slowly, the city’s leaders began to pay notice as Salazar spoke truth to power.

His columns caught my attention in faraway Japan while I was in the Army. Like other Mexican Americans, I felt Salazar spoke for us, that he reflected what was in our hearts—even if we did not necessarily agree with each of his positions.

I applied to the Times and hoped to meet Salazar. I was excited as I left the Army on August 29th, 1970. Unbeknown to me, Salazar was killed on that same day in East Los Angeles while he was on assignment, covering a giant Chicano antiwar protest that turned ugly.

For reasons that are still impossible to comprehend, a Sheriff’s Deputy fired a tear-gas projectile into a small bar where Salazar had stopped with a colleague. The projectile struck Salazar in the head, killing him.

In a eulogy to Salazar, then-Times publisher, Otis Chandler, said:

" He had a keen sense of perspective and introspection in explaining…the hopes, the dignity and the bitter frustration of the minority population, particularly the very large and neglected Mexican American community – a community the Times had largely overlooked until Ruben made us aware of this fact."

As I began work at the Times a month later, I realized that there were very few Latino journalism role models. Salazar became an inspiration to me, to my colleague Frank del Olmo and to a generation of other Latinos.

Wanting to create something meaningful after his death, we formed the California Chicano News Media Association. Our goal was to encourage young Latinos to enter the media and to improve news coverage. CCNMA presents the Salazar journalism awards each year. And the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, working to increase newsroom diversity, awards Salazar scholarships annually to college students.

While Salazar will always be remembered as an advocate for Mexican Americans, I see his work in a broader context, as advocating for the best values of American democracy: fairness, justice, equality.

Today has been proclaimed Ruben Salazar Day in Los Angeles and the L.A. Times will host a celebration in honor of the Salazar stamp. Guests of honor will be Salazar’s two daughters, one son and seven grandchildren.

Also to be acknowledged there is Olga Briseño, director of the Media, Democracy & Policy Initiative at the University of Arizona. We are thankful to Olga for gathering letters and petitions from 13 hundred individuals and groups -- to bring Salazar’s legacy to the attention of the Postal Service.

Finally, I want to thank the U.S. Postal Service for issuing these stamps. Originally, they were to be 41-cent stamps. But, in line with the upcoming postal rate hike, the stamps will be 42 centers.

This is one rate increase I totally support.

You see, Salazar was 42 years old when he was killed. And as his daughter, Lisa Salazar Johnson, told me: the 42 on the stamp will always remind her of his love and accomplishments during 42 years of life.

Today, we honor Ruben Salazar, a great American journalist.