"Strange Rumblings in Aztlan"

Page added 1998
Last updated: May 2003

"Strange Rumblings in Aztlan" is a long article about many things. HST touches every front he possibly can while reporting the death of Ruben Salazar, a nationally known Mexican American reporter for the LA Times. "Aztlan", in style, is similar to HST's South American reporting, however it teeters at gonzo in some parts. The story was important enough to be included in The Rolling Stone Reader (1974) and the Modern Library version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Other American Stories. In fact, it was this article that touched off Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Jackson cover

HST told P.J. O'Rourke in RS 748,

"Right after Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, he wrote a very small book, not much noticed. And I remember reading that he said, "I wrote that just to cool out after The Sun Also Rises." I was working on Salazar, an ugly murder story. You know how you get. You get that, "F--k, damn, where shall we go now? Whose throat can I eat?" And when I got stuck out in that Holiday Inn near the Santa Anita racetrack, outside Pasadena, I was there to work on this murder story. That was work, boy, that was blood. And, boy, that role got very, very tough. That's why I went to Las Vegas. And when I came back from Las Vegas, I was still writing that story (p72)"

Indeed. It was not an easy story to write. "Aztlan" is part obituary, part social commentary, and part gonzo when HST's involvement becomes personal. It was the first story of HST's to mention Oscar Acosta directly. In this case, HST was the "right" person to tell the story, to write words of outrage over a senseless death and a city bursting with racial tension.

In some ways, "Aztlan" is like a novella, or a very short story. It is very tightly written, and HST begins by placing the scene:

"Morning comes hard to the Hotel Ashmun; this is not a place where the guests spring eagerly out of bed to greet the new day. But on this particular morning, everybody in the place is awake at the crack of dawn: There is a terrible pounding and shrieking in the hallway, near room No. 267. Some junkie has ripped the doorknob off the communal bathroom, and now the others can't get in - so they are trying to kick the door down."

The ensuing exchange between HST and a clerk about the new lock on HST's room (which had been ripped off 12 hours previously) becomes a metaphor for the entire story - access is either denied or granted (more on this later).

Ruben Salazar was not only a journalist, he was also News Director for KMEX, a bilingual TV station. He also became very important to HST; he became involved in the story not just because of Oscar, or that Salazar was Mexican American - the story had "all the proper hooks for outrage". HST's motivation was the

"ominous aspect of Oscar's story was his charge that the police had deliberately gone out on the streets and killed a reporter who'd been giving them trouble. If this was true, it meant the ante was being upped drastically. When cops declare open season on journalists, when they feel free to declare any scene of "unlawful protest" a free fire zone, that will be a very ugly day - and not just for journalists."

This was serious work. It is not like "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" or "The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy". It is likely to be overlooked because people don't want to believe that HST could be so serious. The gonzo method kicks in when the situation needs humor to lighten the story, but it does not distract from the story, only reveals the strangeness that HST feels as "the hillbilly":

"The night before I left town I stopped by Acosta's place with Guillermo Restrepo. I had been there earlier, but the air was extremely heavy. As always, on stories like this, some of the troops were getting nervous about The Stranger Hanging Around. I was standing in the kitchen watching Frank put some tacos together and wondering when he was going to start waving the butcher knife in my face and yelling about the time I Maced him on my porch in Colorado (that had been six months earlier, at the end of a very long night during which we had all consumed a large quantity of cactus products; and when he started waving a hatchet around I'd figured Mace was the only answer...which turned him to jelly for 45 minutes, and when he finally came around he said, "If I ever see you in East Los Angeles, man, you're gonna wish you never heard the word 'Mace', because I'm gonna carve it all over your f--ckin body."
So I was not entirely at ease watching Frank chop hamburger on a meat block in the middle of East L.A. He hadn't mentioned the Mace, not yet, but I knew we would get to it sooner or later...and I'm sure we would have, except that suddenly out in the living room some geek was screaming: "What the hell is this goddamn gabacho pig writer doing here? Are we f--kin crazy to be letting him hear all this s--t? Jesus, he's heard enough to put every one of us away for five years!"
Longer than that, I thought. And at that point I stopped worrying about Frank. A firestorm was brewing in the main room - between me and the door - so I decided it was about time to drift around the corner and meet Restrepo at the Carioca. Frank gave me a big smile as I left.

HST opens more doors than he cares too - squashed into the Salazar story is also Oscar's "Biltmore Six" case, and the murders of the Sanchez Brothers. They were killed when LA police knocked on the "wrong door". The outrage came when public funds were going to be used to defend the police officers. HST writes:

"It sounded like a replay of the Salazar bulls--t: same style, same excuse, same result - but this time with different names, and blood on a different floor."

Coming back to the Salazar murder, HST is surprisingly objective, although he is more than sympathetic to the Chicano cause. He had to find the truth out for himself - was Oscar right, or was there something larger and more sinister at work?

"(It) was difficult, even for me, to believe that the cops had killed him deliberately. I knew they were capable of it, but I was not quite ready to believe they had actually done it...because once I believed that, I also had to accept the idea that they are prepared to kill anybody who seemed to be annoying them. Even me."

There is racism and bigotry, of course, that is clear. But what did become clear was that Salazar was not murdered because of a high-level conspiracy against him. However, while the the death could be dismissed as "accidental", HST notes:

"(H)e was killed murdered by angry cops for no reason at all - and the L.A. sheriff's department was and still is prepared to defend that murder on grounds that it was entirely justified. Salazar was killed, they say, because he happened to be in a bar where police thought there was also a "man with a gun." They gave him a chance, they say, by means of a bullhorn warning...and when he didn't come out with his hands up they had no choice but to fire a tear-gas bazooka into the bar...and his head got in the way. Tough luck. But what was he doing in that place anyway? Lounging around a noisy Chicano bar in the middle of a communist riot?"

The "crude and illogical" explanation by the police began to rapidly fall apart when several witnesses and photographs of the scene appeared, including one man who was told to "get back inside the bar" if he didn't want to get hurt.

HST is later assured by a policeman that the area is "quiet and peaceful" and that it was always a "high crime area". Upon finding out that HST is thinking of writing a story, the officer offers him a ride in a squad car, so he can see how tame the area actually is. The problem is that HST was actually in the area, not pretending to phone from San Francisco.

"Oh, then you've decided to do the story? When will you be in town?"
"I've been here for two weeks," I said. "My plane leaves in ten minutes."
"But I thought you said you were calling from San Francisco," he said.
"I did," I said. "But I was lying." (click)

HST's wiliness magically unlocked the police door - an admission that the area was "stable" when he had witnessed violence left, right and center. After being awakened at his hotel window by one of Oscar's bodyguards, HST decides to have a shower before meeting them at a bar called the Sweetheart, only to find the

"room had no shower. And somebody, that night, had managed to string a naked copper wire across the bathtub and plug it into a socket underneath the basin outside the bathroom door. For what reason? Demon Rum, I had no idea. Here I was in the best room in the house, looking for the shower and finding only an electrified bathtub."

Perhaps one of the guests turned into a nervous wreck about the high-paying hillbilly?

The irony HST feels in dealing with official police sources is revealed at the end, when he calls the sheriff's office after "5:15 on Thursday afternoon the Los Angeles City Hall was rocked by a dynamite blast." The sheriff's office said they couldn't talk about it, it was "out of their jurisdiction". But when he asked "if it was true that the bomb had been the work of the Chicano Liberation Front", they said that it was true, but they couldn't tell HST anything about the CLF, slam! because it was "confidential". Another door locked to any possible truth HST is seeking.

"Aztlan" is a good piece of new journalism; muckraking even. It's easier to pretend that certain people don't exist in your neighbourhood when they are left out of the mainstream media. Twenty four hours after Salazar's death, the news department at KMEX was torn apart and shaken up, so that, in Oscar's words, it would become a "safe Tio Taco station". The "Anglo" owners of the station decided that they didn't want anymore of Salazar's type of coverage. Restrepo now had to ask permission to cover to cover Chicano rallies - "no other TV station in L.A. was interested in any kind of Chicano news except riots." So it is not surprising that there was so much violence - cut off a source of information, censor and sanitize it - what does one expect from people who have nothing to be sure of but their own pride and that they will be pulled over for no apparent reason other than the colour of their skin?

Many have said that HST's writing has a prophetic quality, and that some of his writing fails to become dated. Like the last few chapters of Hell's Angels where he predicted a rise in youth violence, and that the Angels were the least of America's problems, he demands accountibility from those in power. He presents an area of one of the largest US cities and hints at what can be done to fix the problems there before they get out of control.

How many people unlocked "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan" from their memories when Rodney King was pulled over and beaten by the LAPD - twenty years later, fortunately, major news sources couldn't refuse the story that HST could only print in Rolling Stone.

This issue is RS 81, April 18, 1971.