By Lisa Y. Garibay
UTEP News Service
On Wednesday, April 9, UTEP hosted a sneak peek of one of the year’s most anticipated documentaries, Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle, drawing close to 300 members of the University and El Paso communities.
The documentary will air on PBS at 9 p.m. ET April 29, but Salazar’s hometown had the opportunity to view it before its television debut.
Parents accompanied students, who sat alongside UTEP faculty and older El Pasoans who knew Salazar in his youth and during his undergraduate studies at UTEP. The event was part of UTEP’s Centennial Celebration and was sponsored by the departments of Communication, English and History as well as the Chicano Studies Program.
After the film, State Sen. José Rodríguez presented a resolution from the Texas Senate declaring April 9, 2014 “Ruben Salazar Day” in recognition of Salazar’s contribution to journalism, first as a reporter with the El Paso Herald-Post and later as foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times at a time when the staff was nearly all Caucasian.
After working at The Los Angeles Times, Salazar moved on to Los Angeles TV station KMEX, where he transformed from a mainstream, establishment reporter to primary chronicler and supporter of the Chicano movement of the late 1960s. He was killed by a law enforcement officer under mysterious circumstances in 1970. The documentary works to illuminate what occurred and why Salazar is a critical role model today.
A panel discussion followed the screening, giving audience members the chance to hear various leaders discussing the impact of Salazar’s life and his historical resonance.
Panelists included Rodriguez; KHOU 11 News Border Bureau Chief Angela Kocherga; El Paso-based artist, educator and humanitarian Rosa Guerrero; Zita Arocha, Borderzine director in UTEP’s Department of Communication; and Philip Rodriguez, who directed and produced the documentary. Bob Moore, editor of The El Paso Times, moderated the panel.
Guerrero began by recounting her youth alongside Salazar when they were “teenyboppers,” calling him a role model to the Latino community even then as he strove to succeed in a climate of discrimination that held Mexican-Americans back from positions of higher education and leadership.
Arocha spoke to her role as a pioneering journalist herself — one of the first Latinas and only Spanish-speaker in the newsroom of the Washington Post — and how the work that she and Borderzine are doing to empower forthcoming waves of reporters is necessary for a true reflection of American society, especially given that less than 3 percent of people working in news media are Latinos.
“For young people coming up today in journalism, somebody like Ruben, who broke every single barrier, I think the movie was so right on that he was the man in the middle,” Arocha said. “He was the bridge between these two cultures. As Latino journalists today, we’re still fighting that same battle. I want all my students to know his story and emulate his story.”
Inspired by the work Salazar had done, Kocherga chose to come to the border when she began her journalism career.
“It’s no accident that Ruben came from here and that this borderland gave birth to such a pioneering journalist,” she said, stressing that Salazar’s story matters as much as the bicultural stories she and other professionals are reporting today. “He really blazed a trail for all of us out there covering these stories.”
Rodríguez also commented on the issues he faces in representing a predominantly Latino community — “the very same kinds of things we just saw in this film,” he said, listing disadvantages in economics, education and voting as struggles that Mexican-Americans in particular deal with to this day throughout Texas.
On a high note, Rodríguez also announced that the Texas State Board of Education has approved Mexican-American studies courses as a part of the social studies curriculum for schools throughout the state, which received loud applause from the audience.
Guerrero echoed the focus on schooling as a means toward equality for Mexican-Americans.
“Only through education can you change yourself and others,” she said.
UTEP students who are currently studying journalism received a fresh blast of inspiration from the documentary. A sizeable group had been encouraged by their professors to attend and brought along friends representing other areas of study, marking a new generation of future professionals who now know about Salazar, his struggles and his achievements.
Senior advertising and graphic design major Luis Martinez was introduced to Salazar by his father, who gave his son a basic overview of who the journalist was, which in turn made Rodriguez excited to see the film.
“It’s impressive to learn about the whole Chicano culture,” he said, referring to both the documentary and the panel. “I’ll definitely tell my friends to see the film.”
Jessica Salcedo, who is majoring in multimedia journalism and Spanish, had no clue who Salazar was but is grateful to have been given the opportunity to learn about him through a compelling film.
“Now, I’ve seen someone who’s like me — Chicano, struggling to find their own identity and from El Paso. I can relate a lot to him,” she said.
Junior Guadalupe Rodriguez, who is also majoring in multimedia journalism, was passionate after the screening, given her identification with Salazar.
“What I didn’t know is that he struggled with being who he was; he couldn’t find himself and I can definitely relate to that,” she said, describing her upbringing in Chihuahua and eventual transition to American life.
“I’m Latino and I should be proud of who I am,” Rodriguez said. “It’s good to know I’m not the only one who’s struggling with that.”
Rodriguez was particularly impressed by Salazar coming to terms with his Mexican roots despite pressure to assimilate, then finding a home for his voice with the reporting he did on the Chicano civil rights movement.
After receiving her degree from UTEP, Rodriguez wants to follow in Salazar’s footsteps.
“I want to be a journalist and I want to say the truth like he did,” she said.