50 years later: Dallas pays tribute to 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez, recalls his murder

City leaders and residents remember when Santos Rodriguez was killed by a Dallas police officer. Events, including a city proclamation, are marking the 50th anniversary.

By Stella M. Chavez, KERA NewsJuly 24, 2023 9:15 am, , ,

From KERA News:

Frances Rizo had a newborn and a young son when 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez was shot and killed by a Dallas police officer. What happened on July 24, 1973 struck fear in her.

“It was actual shock. It was as if I had been in the room or witnessed it,” Rizo said. “It was just such a graphic thing.”

Officer Darrell Cain and his partner had taken Santos and his brother, David, from their home that morning after responding to a call about a burglary at a local gas station.

The brothers were still in their pajamas when they were handcuffed and placed in a police car. According to testimony from David, Cain had taken his revolver and spun the cylinder. He questioned Santos about the burglary and aimed the gun at his head. Santos denied any involvement and Cain fired. Santos was killed as his brother sat in the backseat.

The tragedy hit too close to home for Rizo.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “My oldest son was 10 1/2 at the time that this happened and I immediately imagined that this could have happened to me and my kids.”

On the 50th anniversary, Dallas residents are remembering Santos Rodriguez and reflecting on police-community relations today. Events were held over the weekend. People turned out for a march on Sunday and other events are planned this week.

Rizo was on Dallas’ Community Relations Commission at the time. She said she often helped translate for Spanish-speaking residents who attended meetings. She remembers what had happened to Santos.

“I couldn’t hold it in and I started crying,” she said. “Even right now, I’m getting goosebumps and emotional because that has never gone away.”

Santos’ murder sparked protests and meetings between the Mexican American community and city leaders and the police chief.

Sol Villasana, a Dallas civil attorney, was a college student at SMU then. He participated in some of those events and was moved by the push for justice.

Sol Villasana before a press conference regarding events planned for the 50th anniversary of the death of Santos Rodriguez on Tuesday, July 18, 2023, at the African American Museum of Dallas. Villasana was a college student when Santos was killed by a Dallas police officer.
Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

“It was a shift in the earth’s plates,” Villasana said. “There was a legacy of police violence against Latinos,” he said. “This was so tragic and egregious that it was like the community was not going to take it anymore.”

Villasana said he’d never seen the Latino community rise up against police violence before.

Cain stood trial and was convicted of murder with malice. He was sentenced to five years in prison but ended up serving only two and a half years before being released.

Hadi Jawad, a community leader who’s been organizing events marking the 50th anniversary, said there’s still an open wound in the city, especially for the family. Santos’ murder took a toll on his brother and mother Bessie Rodriguez.

“She got no help, no financial help. The mental emotional help,” Jawad said. The brother David is traumatized. He still suffers. He got no help.”

The tragic events did, however, mark a turning point, not only protests but also new leadership, Jawad said.

“We got more Latino police officers on the police force,” he said. “Latinos became politicians. Things began to change. But we look at 50 years later, we still have a long way to go.”

Jawad has been working closely with Rick Halperin, director of SMU’s Human Rights Program. Halperin was a grad student at SMU in 1973. The killing and its aftermath also deeply affected him.

When he returned to SMU in 1985 to teach human rights, Halperin decided to ask his students what he felt was an important question.

“I ask my classes all the time, ‘How many of you are from Dallas? How many of you have heard of this terrible crime?’ Almost nobody,” Halperin said. “It’s mind boggling how students can come through DISD (Dallas Independent School District), private school, public schools, all parts of the city…and nobody’s heard of this.”

Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

Rick Halperin, SMU Human Rights program director, speaks at a press conference regarding the 50th anniversary of the death of Santos Rodriguez on Tuesday, July 18, 2023, at the African American Museum of Dallas.

He and Jawad would ultimately team up to help push for an apology from the city for Santos’ mom. The apology eventually happened 40 years later from then Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. And two year, Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia apologized for Santos death.

Then last year, a sculpture of Santos Rodriguez was unveiled at Pike Park in which used to be known as Little Mexico. Dallas City Council member Jesse Moreno spent years advocating for it. But getting that done wasn’t without its own challenges.

“We had a lot of pushback from city leaders who did not want to see the word murder inscribed. And that’s truly what happened,” Moreno said. “And so if we were going to tell our story of Dallas…we had to be real. We had to be straightforward and accurate with this.”

Ultimately, the word murder was inscribed. That was an important win for Moreno, but he said another moment also stands out.

Dallas City Councilman Jesse Moreno records a video message ahead of the 50th anniversary of the death of Santos Rodriguez.
Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

“What really felt the best, though, with seeing Bessie firsthand, looking at the statue, looking up, and I vividly remember her telling me I finally have a place where I can remember Santos,” Moreno said.

Moreno and others say the statue and events marking the 50th anniversary are meant to help the city move forward but not forget.

Dallas native and filmmaker Byron Hunter has played a part in that effort too. His documentary “Santos Vive” premiered in 2018 but has since been updated to reflect recent events. It’s being shows in Dallas at several different locations and PBS stations, including KERA TV in Dallas, are airing it.

KERA will air it on the anniversary, July 24 at 9 p.m. as will PBS Austin and PBS Panhandle in Amarillo. The other PBS stations in Texas plan to air the film in September during Hispanic Heritage Month.

Hunter said he wants viewers to not only learn about what happened to Santos and the events that followed but also the larger historical context of that day.

“I want them to look and see when a train is rolling through the train tracks in Little Mexico, which was actually called La Colonia in 1883. That’s where we start,” Hunter said. “I want them to know about Luna Tortilla Factory. I want them to know when they say, ‘Oh, Little Mexico was founded in 1919,’ no it was not, because El Fenix was founded in 1918 and it was already part of Little Mexico.”

Hunter’s dad was a civil rights leader when Santos was killed and saw how his dad and other Black community leaders spoke up about what happened.

“I think there’s a larger story in the fact that the African American community fought vigorously side by side with the Mexican Latino community to make sure the march, the rally and all the other things around Santos’ death took place.”

Hunter and others said the film and others anniversary events should inspire a younger generation not only to speak out against racial injustices but also seek leadership positions.

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