Living in the Shadow of Ruben Salazar

I HAD BEEN IN LOS ANGELES ONLY a couple of days in 1978 when the unique pressures on Chicano journalists in this city first began weighing heavily on me, fittingly perhaps, in a bar at the Ambassador Hotel, where I was living at the time, not far from the kitchen pantry where Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

Tony Castro in the forefront with Frank del Olmo behind him and Ruben Salazar in the background.

Frank Del Olmo, then the veteran Los Angeles Times reporter I had known since the early 1970s, was welcoming me to his town over drinks and conversation that inevitably turned to the man by whose standard both of us would ultimately be judged.

Los Angeles still had two daily newspapers, though barely. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner had recently settled a labor strike whose impact would kill it a decade later.

But in 1978, the Herald was attempting a comeback with big-shot editors, a New York tabloid-style approach to its stories and a stable of young, outspoken, controversial columnists — of which I was one.

“I took the job because I thought they wanted me to be me,” I told Del Olmo over a bottle of Chivas. “But when I got here, they told me, without pulling any punches, that they wanted me to be Ruben Salazar.”

Del Olmo smiled somewhat uncomfortably into his beer. “Too bad. But I guess there’s a lot of people who expect us to be Ruben Salazar. What did you say?”

“I told them, `I don’t want to be Ruben Salazar — Ruben Salazar got his ass shot off!”

In a bar across town eight years earlier, Salazar had been killed — assassinated, some activists believe — at the height of his fame and notoriety as the most controversial Chicano journalist of all time. Salazar, in fact, became the martyr that the then-floundering Chicano movement needed to extend its life.

In Del Olmo, of course, I was preaching to the choir. Our entire careers, it seemed at times, had been lived in the shadow of Ruben Salazar. Frank would live a lifetime with the expectations of being another Salazar, and ultimately he would make peace with both the expectations and the ghost that had thrust itself upon him, taking it all to his grave in 2004.

The day after having drinks with Del Olmo, my editor at the Herald and I met with a group of the so-called movers and shakers of East Los Angeles. I would meet for the first time most of the city’s Mexican-American political and economic power brokers.

I hadn’t wanted to attend the meeting, but I was, after all, part of the revived Herald’s showpieces. I was the author of a highly acclaimed and controversial book about the Chicano movement. I had been graced with the validation of a much prized journalism fellowship at Harvard. And I was credited with having exposed Richard Nixon’s campaign dirty tricks against Hispanics, which had been a footnote in the sordid Watergate scandal.

After the meeting, a couple of the Eastside movers and shakers took me aside and began detailing the agenda they had in store for me. When I asked them what they were talking about, one of them looked me eye to eye.

“You,” he said, “have to carry on the work that Ruben Salazar began.”

I cringed and began looking for ways to get out of L.A.

Several months later, now checked in at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, I was approached by a young screenwriter who was developing a screenplay for actor Henry Darrow.

It didn’t take long, however, to figure out that the screenwriter was writing a fictitious account of the Ruben Salazar story and apparently wasn’t getting much assistance from Salazar’s family in “fleshing out” the main character.

“I need your help,” she said, “because Frank Casado says you’re the closest thing I’ll find to what Ruben Salazar was like.

“He says you are Ruben Salazar whether you want to accept it or not.”

That night I confronted Casado, a Hollywood restaurateur who had been a personal friend of Ruben Salazar’s.

“Don’t be mad at me, kid,” said Casado. “Ruben didn’t want to be Ruben Salazar either. But he didn’t have any choice.”

In the following years, hardly a week went by when Salazar wasn’t thrown up to me, sometimes as a compliment but more often as a knock, the way some wayward son might have the reputation of a dead father rubbed in his face.

I hadn’t set out to become a Chicano columnist, a term that I never applied to myself but which both Chicanos and non-Chicanos seemed determined to place on me.

I hadn’t ever thought of myself as being very Chicano. And I wasn’t too comfortable with the title columnist either. I saw myself as a reporter who had fallen into the role of a columnist and, to some degree I suppose, into the role of a Chicano as well.

From time to time, I found myself having long conversations with people who had known Salazar, especially Casado, whose Lucy’s El Adobe Cafe in Hollywood had been only a short walk for Ruben from KMEX-TV where he worked the last year of his life.

I dared not tell anyone I had, in fact, spoken with Ruben in 1970, just weeks before his death. I was a young reporter at the Dallas Times Herald. There, an assistant city editor who had covered Vietnam with Salazar thought I should meet him and put us together on the telephone.

“You need to be in L.A.,” Ruben said to me. “Come to L.A. I’ll get you on at the Times, and you can help me kick butt here.”

I was flattered, but I was barely out of Baylor University, and I had goals of going to the East Coast, not the West Coast. Within weeks, though, Ruben was dead, and fate would take me to Los Angeles.

Once, after unloading my soul to Casado about the frustrations of being a columnist who happened to be Mexican-American — but being that in Ruben Salazar’s old stomping ground — Casado began crying.

“Kid,” he said, “it’s deja vu. Ruben used to sit in the same chair you’re sitting in now, and he used to say the same things you’re telling me now.

“He felt like a man trapped in the middle. The Chicanos were pulling on him from one side, and the Anglo editors he worked for were pulling on him from the other side. He used to say he felt like he was being ripped apart.”

Then one day, out of the clear blue, I received an unexpected call from Sally Salazar, Ruben’s widow, to whom I had written a long letter several weeks earlier.

“There were times,” she said, “when I wanted Ruben to simply walk away — to simply walk away from everything that was pressing in on him.

“I used to tell him, `Ruben, walk away from it before it kills you.’

“And if he had lived, I think he would have.”

Not long after talking to Sally Salazar, I took the advice she had given her husband.

I walked away, thanking Ruben Salazar for each step I took.

Tony Castro, author of Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican America (E.P. Dutton, 1974), was a columnist at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner from 1978 to 1985. He was the country’s second “Chicano columnist,” succeeding Ruben Salazar.