Not forgotten: Rubén Salazar
Seething. August 29, 1970, was a day seething with every passion under the sun, most of it anger at the injustice of so many Chicanos/mejicanos serving in the Vietnam War. The National Chicano Moratorium March had been organized in East Los Angeles to zero in on the disproportionate number of Latinos fighting on the front lines in the jungles of Vietnam.
Years later, the Vietnam Memorial Wall would show the truth of what the protestors were claiming that day. Every panel of the black granite chevron in Washington, D.C., is etched with soldier’s names, and interspersed over and over again in the long list of 58,000 names are Spanish surnames – Pacheco, Soto, Gonzales, Garcia. The numbers are shocking and still not indicative of all Latinos who served, as some used a non-Spanish surname acquired through marriage or adoption. As I stood at the wall time and time again in researching for my novel, Let Their Spirits Dance, I never got over the sense that we had suffered our own holocaust in Vietnam.
August 29, 1970, was also the day the Chicano community lost a beloved leader. Los Angeles Times reporter Rubén Salazar was killed by a sheriff’s deputy, Tom Wilson, at the Silver Dollar Café. The attack on peaceful protestors by sheriff deputies, who trailed the marchers in buses that would later be used to transport victims to jail, was unwarranted and brutal. Rubén Salazar knew this, and had explicitly reported on the brutality of the police in dealing with la raza. He had named names and drawn attention to the discrimination and great numbers of raza serving in jails, and not being offered due process or representation by an attorney.
My protagonist, Teresa Ramirez, describes the protestors’ approach to Laguna Park, where the brutal attack would begin in the following manner:
We were in great spirits as we approached Laguna Park, shouting loud once we saw our destination was near. The crush of so many brown bodies gave me a feeling that I was safe, totally protected. So many of us, thousands… there was nothing they could do to us. We were Aztlán. The power of the ancient world had returned to us, weaving a spell that made us think we were indestructible. (Let Their Spirits Dance, 2002)
The sense of accomplishing a peaceful demonstration was to end in tragedy for the protestors gathered at Laguna Park, men, women and children, unarmed, chanting and bearing signs, CHICANO POWER, RAZA SÍ – GUERRA NO, led by the enigmatic figure of Tonantzin, la Virgen de Guadalupe, emblazoned on a colorful, silk banner. A ruckus began and people’s voices rose like an ocean rushing as moratorium leader Rosalio Muñoz began an impassioned plea for police officers to hold their line. Not heeding the warning, police moved steadily toward the people, clubs in hands, and suddenly tear gas was flung into the crowd. Reportedly, the police were looking for a thief who had burglarized the Green Mill Liquor Store. As sheriff deputies launched their attack, Rubén Salazar, over a mile away from Laguna Park, was shot by a tear gas projectile aimed at his head.
People closest to Rubén Salazar related that he knew his life was in danger. Salazar’s co-workers said that he had cleaned out his desk the morning of the moratorium march, as if he was never coming back.
Rubén Salazar, the Chicano community’s voice to the nation, was never heard again, and many years later, Laguna Park was renamed Rubén Salazar Park, in an attempt to balance the scales of justice and end death’s bitter memory.
Stella Pope Duarte was born and raised in South Phoenix. She began her writing career in 1995 after she had a dream in which her deceased father told her that her destiny was to become a writer. Her work has won awards and honors nationwide.