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Ruben Salazar Project celebrates the journalist’s humanity

The late journalist Ruben Salazar was memorialized in a 2008 postage stamp.

Prior to the 1970s, Mexican-American journalist Ruben Salazar was a prominent newspaper columnist for the Los Angeles Times and news director for television station KMEX.

However, after being killed by a tear gas canister fired by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy, Salazar’s reputation has morphed into being much more than that of a popular columnist. His death transformed his standing into becoming as much martyr as man, as much symbol as son and as much postage stamp and mural painted on a civic center wall as regular guy.

The Ruben Salazar Project, which was recently completely by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and USC Libraries, set out to help restore Salazar’s humanity and to help him be remembered as more than just a slain journalist.

“For the last 42 years, we read the same paragraphs over and over: ‘Newsman Salazar, 42, killed Aug. 29th at Chicano Moratorium,’ ” said Lisa Johnson Salazar, Ruben Salazar’s oldest daughter. “Now there is a site you can go to and learn the personal side to Ruben Salazar.”

The project was created during the spring semester by nine undergraduate and graduate students at USC Annenberg: Elaine Baran, Melissa Caskey, Juan Espinoza, Regina Graham, Gustavo Gutierrez, Grace Jang, Elena Kadvany, Bianca Ojeda and Frances Vega.

Directed by USC Annenberg Professors Félix Gutiérrez and Robert Hernandez, the project spotlights documents, images, objects and ephemera culled by the students from the USC Libraries’ Ruben Salazar papers. The items were then digitized, coded and placed in an image-rich online timeline that also includes a collection of articles by each student.

The students employed their own editorial judgment while selecting which items of the Salazar collection were to be placed online.

“We didn’t tell them, ‘We need a piece on this, somebody needs to talk about that,’ Gutiérrez said. “We want students to use this site. This is not for ’60s people to relive their Chicano Movement days or their glory days at the L.A. Times. This is, ‘What would young people want?’ ”

Salazar’s daughter pondered similar questions.

“As I was putting together the material, I grappled over several pieces that I wasn’t sure what to do with,” she said. “Would the library really care about this or does this add to the collection?”

One of those last-minute additions was a menu from Lucy’s El Adobe Cafe.

“It even had a stain on it, and I thought about just throwing it away,” Johnson Salazar said. “But in the story, ‘Mapping Salazar’s Life,’ the student [Melissa Caskey] was able to use that to compare prices of enchiladas verde back then and what it would cost today. And, of course, Lucy’s El Adobe was where my dad frequently dined.”

Items selected by other students for the website ranged from Salazar’s correspondence regarding a credit card dispute to “the missing years” that the journalist spent working in Northern California.

USC acquired the Ruben Salazar Papers in 2011 thanks to the generosity of the Salazar family (including his youngest daughter, Stephanie Salazar Cook, and his son, John Salazar), as well as the recruiting and organizing efforts of Gutiérrez and Barbara Robinson.

Robinson is the librarian for Spanish and Portuguese, Latin American and Chicano/Latino studies at the USC Libraries Boeckmann Center for Iberian & Latin American Studies. She pointed out that one of the stated goals of the USC Libraries is to “become more thoroughly and systematically integrated” into coursework and learning.

The website may have been the result of Guiterrez’s semester-long directed research course, but the larger USC Annenberg connection was decades in the making.

“The Ruben Salazar Project is a continuation — and perhaps culmination — of about a 30-year interest in Ruben Salazar here in the School of Journalism,” Gutiérrez said.

That interest includes an undergraduate’s long-ago filing of Freedom of Information Act requests related to Salazar; a forthcoming Salazar documentary made for PBS by USC Annenberg visiting fellow Philip Rodriguez; and the school’s longtime hosting of the California Chicano News Media Association, a group that Gutiérrez formerly oversaw as executive director.

Gutiérrez’s personal interest in Salazar predates his professorship.

“[Salazar was] a role model for me when I was an undergraduate student at Cal State L.A. in the early ’60s,” Gutiérrez said. “When, really, he’d been the only Latino journalist covering Latino issues that I could identify at the time. He had the career I would have liked to have had.”

With the Ruben Salazar Project now online, those careers now overlap just a bit more. So, too, do the experiences and understanding of a new generation of Salazar scholars.

“My dream when I gave Felix the time to do this was that it would end up not only making the materials in this archive available more widely, but really touch some individuals’ lives,” said Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism. “And I think these students will always remember this.”

So, too, it seems, will Salazar’s family.

“I never had any doubts about donating my father’s papers to the USC Libraries,” said Salazar Johnson, after clicking through the project. “And today I have never been so proud that I did.”

Ruben Salazar Project celebrates the journalist’s humanity

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