When researching a public figure, it’s always a challenge to sort out what’s history and what’s hagiography. It’s especially tough when someone becomes a martyr for a cause, especially a controversial political cause. The quickest way to lose someone’s humanity is bury him inside a legend.
On Tuesday, April 29 (check local listings), PBS premieres “Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle — A Voces Special Presentation,” produced and directed by Phillip Rodriguez. It’s a portrait of the pioneering Los Angeles Times journalist who transformed from a mainstream reporter living in Santa Ana, Calif., to a chronicler and then passionate supporter of the radical Chicano movement of the late 1960s.
When a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy killed him under mysterious circumstances on Aug. 29, 1970, Salazar — a U.S. Army veteran born to Mexican parents who moved to El Paso, Texas, when he was a year old — became a martyr and hero to many Latinos, even those who criticized his work during his lifetime.
Friend and colleague Bill Drummond is quoted as saying about the shooting: “I keep telling myself that it was an accident. The victim could’ve been any other guy who came off the street for a beer, yet I know that anybody who tries to stand too long between hostile camps is going to get hurt.”
The film uses Salazar’s personal writings and interviews with his friends, colleagues and family to try to find the man inside the myth.
Says Rodriguez: “The Salazar story had long been considered to be an ethnic story, a regional story. But it is much bigger than that. This is a story about a regular guy who, motivated by principle, challenges an abusive authority at great risk to himself — it’s a classic American story.”