Jay Meehan: Remembering a columnist who left a legacy in Los Angeles
For some reason, for a short while anyway, I returned to attending Sunday Mass once I came home from my three-year stint in the military. My grasp on Christianity had always been tenuous at best but something about the ritual held comfort.
But it would be after the service would draw to a close each week that a ritual of my own began to take shape. There was this restaurant just down the street, you see, and it had one of those huge, round King Arthur tables deep within its backroom darkness. As if knowing its place within the prescribed order of things, it shunned all others.
To go back a little bit, the LA Times had become my print drug of choice well before I enlisted. And, to be sure, I fed my habit continually upon my return, most especially the 4-inch thick Sunday edition.
So, there I’d sit digesting the culture-rich calendar section while perusing the menu and then the news sections while cupping-up and awaiting my order. Sportswriter Jim Murray’s column I would usually savor with the eggs Benedict.
It would be during just such a Southern California Sunday culinary benediction that I would come upon the magnificent Ruben Salazar. Ruben’s often-breathtaking columns addressed mainly Chicano culture and its place within an evolving America. I ate him up! “How about another order of Salazar and chorizo, por favor.”
Some mornings I would even find myself turning to Ruben Salazar’s column before Jim Murray’s. To make my point further, no one graced the page with more stylized dignity and humor than Murray. It’s just that, with Salazar, it was often a toss-up.
Ever since our family had made the Steinbeck-like move from the panhandle of Idaho to the quaint seaside village of Los Angeles and learned that “taco” wasn’t pronounced with a “long-a,” I had become more-and-more enraptured with the Mexican community’s richness of color, food, and song-and-dance – not to mention feminine pulchritude.
Which may or may not be connected in the logical progression that led me along the road to Ruben. I had been following the edgy street journalism of East LA and I wasn’t necessarily salivating for anything similar in the mainstream rags.
But when Ruben, already the General Manager of the highly successful local Spanish language TV station, began showing up in his highly-articulate fashion within the Opinion Section of the LA Times, I was all-in.
Memories of Ruben and the profound artfulness of his prose return to me each year about this time. The date in question was about five-years later from when I first came upon him at the restaurant table. August 29, 1970 is a day that, for the Latino community of LA and others in the movement, is recalled with both anger and sadness.
The event taking place along Whittier Boulevard that postcard blue-sky day in East LA was the Chicano Moratorium – a triumphant anti-Vietnam War civil rights march that turned to tragedy.
The march, if memory serves, involved about 7 miles of chanting and singing with fists in the air as smiles and hope snaked their way down to Laguna Park where Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta, and other luminaries of the movement waited to speak.
Delores, a labor leader and co-founder of the United Farmworkers Union along with Chavez, would later have a Sundance documentary premiere in her honor at the 2017 Film Festival. She would also be one of the featured speakers at the Park City Women’s March held during that same timeframe.
What actually transpired upon that sloping green grass hillside back in late August of 1970, however, was what an LA County Grand Jury would later refer to as a “police riot.” Although most of us would run and scatter from the baton-wielders and their tear gas projectiles, many activists stood their ground, which led to mass arrests.
Meanwhile, down along Whittier Boulevard in the “Silver Dollar,” a watering hole that fate would visit, Ruben had taken his KMEX-TV film crew for a brew and a breather.
Legend has it that about the same time the barmaid was sliding a beer his way, a tear gas canister fired by an LA County Sheriff’s Deputy both entered the bar and the side of Ruben’s head. The community’s loss was incalculable. The wife and I emerged unscathed and, within the week, had moved to Park City.
If you think about it, hoist one in Ruben’s honor this Thursday.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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I must admit that, although I have felt much love wherever I hung my hat during this life, I never felt more at home in a new cultural environment than on my first trip down that coastline.