TONY CASTRO, Columnist
Frank Del Olmo, the Los Angeles Times editor and columnist who died Feb. 19, lived his professional career in the shadow of tragedy and death.
As a young intern at the Times in 1970, Del Olmo’s fate was molded by the shooting death of the legendary Ruben Salazar at the hands of sheriff’s deputies during violence that spilled over from a civil rights demonstration in East Los Angeles.
Del Olmo hardly knew Salazar, a veteran reporter whose controversial columns in the Times exposing inequities and injustices against Latinos had exalted him to hero status in the city’s Mexican-American communities. But Del Olmo would be traumatized as if Salazar had been his next of kin.
In a journalistic sense, he was. Soon Del Olmo was made a full-time reporter on a newspaper that had virtually no Latino presence on its staff. A cub journalist, he was thrown into a situation reluctantly following in Salazar’s footsteps, without either the experience or the swashbuckling style that had marked Salazar’s tenure at the Times and at KMEX-TV, where he had also doubled as a news director.
I became a journalistic contemporary of Del Olmo not long after Salazar’s death. I was a reporter in Dallas covering civil rights, becoming acquainted with Frank through long phone conversations and in one long El Paso weekend binge of tequila and regret. The regret that we both had was having been thrown into the coverage of Latino issues by virtue not of any special skills other than being the only Spanish-speaking reporters on our respective staffs.
“I don’t think of myself as a token -- and I don’t think I am a token,” I recall him lamenting. “But why do I feel that that’s how I’m looked at by many of my fellow reporters and editors?”
I sensed a tortured soul residing within Del Olmo, far more consumed with race, ethnicity and inferiority than anything I had felt and I had often brooded on all of that too much for my own good. When he learned that my wife was blonde and blue-eyed, he asked if I felt guilty not having married a Latina. I would have felt insulted except that he quickly informed me that he too was married to an Anglo woman and sometimes was guilt-ridden and uncertain if the marriage would last.
A part of Frank made me feel shallow. A part made me feel sorry. A part made me curious as to what ghosts of American ethnic uncertainty haunted him. Several years passed before I spent any more significant time with Frank. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to go to work as a columnist for the afternoon rival of the Times, Frank was not only among the first to welcome me but also tried to help me understand the ethnic-cultural landmines confronting any Latino journalist in the city. Several years later, we spent several weeks together in El Salvador reporting on that country’s civil war and again commiserating on the personal war within each of us.
I soon came to realize that Del Olmo had a love-hate relationship with the Times. At various times, he and the growing legion of Latino reporters he had helped recruit to the paper were on the outs with the editors. Once he and another Latino reporter came to me almost in tears upset that a city editor had become so infuriated with their surprise confrontation of an executive editor at the paper, that he had called Frank on his phone extension and demanded that he “round up your Mexicans and get in here!”
It may have been Del Olmo's ultimate payback that he was able to successfully lobby for a special reporting and editing team for a comprehensive series on Latinos that in 1984 won a prestigious Pulitzer Prize gold medal for meritorious public service for the Times. When I congratulated him, I joked that, “Man, Frank, you sure rounded up your Mexicans, didn’t you?”
From time to time, we would put differences aside and tilt margarita glasses at Lucy’s El Adobe, the Hollywood Mexican restaurant on Melrose. Once we sat at a booth with Edward James Olmos alternately pleading and berating us over our reporting. Frank, being much more serious and conscientious about such matters, patiently heard out Eddie. I got up and left.
I couldn’t take the life that we had both chosen as seriously as Del Olmo did. At Lucy’s one day, I pointed at a poster of what I presumed to be Manolete, the famous Spanish matador known for his gaunt, severe demeanor.
“Frank,” I said. “That guy was a great matador, but he didn’t look like he was having very much fun living.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll take Manolete.” Frank said it like it was a curse.
I was having an early dinner with Lucy Casado, the owner of Lucy’s El Adobe Thursday afternoon when a friend called her restaurant to tell her that Del Olmo had collapsed at his office at the Times and died of an apparent heart attack.
We were both shocked and didn’t know what to say for a moment. Finally I blurted out.
“I promised Frank that I would dance on his grave if he died before I did,” I said.
“What did he say?” Lucy asked.
“Don’t do me any favors.”
Tony Castro, the author of "Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican America (Dutton, 1974) and "Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son" (Brassey's, 2002) can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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