Four decades later, the death of 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez still resonates
Forty years ago, a 12-year-old boy named Santos Rodriguez was killed by a police officer in Dallas. The event sparked the closest thing to a race riot in the city’s history.
At around 2 a.m. on July 24, 1973, Santos Rodriguez and his 13-year-old brother David were handcuffed in a police car in Dallas. Two policemen had just picked up the boys from their home and suspected them of having robbed a vending machine at a nearby gas station.
When the two denied being involved, Constable Darrell L. Cain pulled out his .357 Magnum and put it on the back of Santos’ head. He decided to play Russian roulette.
The first time he pulled the trigger, nothing happened. The second time, it exploded. Santos died in that patrol car, his blood soaking his brother’s feet.
“The murder of Santos Rodriguez galvanized our community,” says Albert Valtierra, president of the Mexican American Historic League of Dallas. Today he is in Dallas Latino Cultural Center, looking at a large photo of Santos smiling, with his thick, wavy hair and big front teeth.
Mexican-American community responds
In the mid-1970s, there were approximately 80,000 Latinos in Dallas. Valtierra calls the community a sleeping giant who, after decades of segregation and discrimination, heard a wake-up call when Santos was killed.
“In the 1970s we were settling down, buying houses, getting good jobs, but there was still resistance from the powers that be, so we had to go out and claim power for ourselves,” explains Valtierra.
College students created Mexican Americans for Civic Action, professionals and activists formed the ‘Dirty dozen, ‘Luis Sepulveda created the West Dallas Coalition for Environmental Justice, and Trini Garza helped create The Voz of the Anciano – a non-profit organization that helps older people in the Spanish-speaking community access community resources and education.
Four days after Santos’ death, these distinct groups gathered in the city center in a march for justice. The police officer who killed Santos, Darrell Cain, was arrested and charged with murder, but was released on five thousand dollar bail. Investigators found that the fingerprints at the scene of the theft did not match those of Santos or David.
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Thousands of Mexicans and African Americans have taken to the streets, demanding justice, shouting “justice para the raza. “
The march turned violent, five policemen were injured and more than thirty people were arrested.
“The police chief never wanted to admit it was a riot,” says Valtierra. “If you look at these photos, it was a riot.”
He says the tragedy has spawned positive changes in Dallas. The city introduced racial sensitivity classes, bilingual education, and the police began recruiting Mexican-Americans.
Dallas Police Department responds
Cynthia Villarreal was the first Latina to don the Dallas police uniform in 1975, two years after Santos’ death.
“It was a time when they were trying to hire as many women as they could, as many Hispanics, blacks, you name it,” recalls Villarreal, who is now acting deputy chief of police.
Villareal, from Del Rio, was looking for work, but said no one wanted to hire him. The Dallas Police Department was desperately trying to diversify – by relaxing the height and weight requirements that had excluded people like Villareal – who is 5’2 ” tall. The recruiters attacked Villarreal, but it was his family at the border that had to be convinced.
“When they found out I was applying to Dallas, they said oh no, they don’t like Hispanics over there, they just killed a little boy there,” Villarreal says. “My grandfather thought there were all kinds of problems here in Dallas.”
Sergeant Raul Duarte was also hired in the early 1970s, and remembers the tension.
“Sometimes you walked into a place and you got a look of disgust or anger, but nothing was ever said or done,” he says.
Villarreal and Duarte say it took years to improve relations between the Mexican-American community and the police. And they’re still working on it.
Today, Hispanics make up about 42% of Dallas’ population. In 1973, it was only eight percent. Still, Albert Valtierra says it hasn’t made the struggle for representation and acceptance easier.
“It’s as tough a battle today as it was 40 years ago,” he says. “It’s a tough battle and you just have to persevere. We just have to keep going. “
Valtierra hopes that the memory of Santos Rodriguez will inspire and unite the Mexican-American community today, as it did forty years ago.
Events in Dallas:
Grave Side Ritual, Oakland Cemetery (Wednesday, July 24, 10 a.m.): Commemoration of the life of Santos Rodriguez at the site of his burial, 3900 Malcom X Blvd.
Latino Cultural Center Roundtable (Wednesday July 24, 6:00 p.m.): There will be a panel discussion on the impact of Santos Rodriguez’s death at the Latino Cultural Center, located at 2600 Live Oak Street, Dallas. Telephone: (214) 671-0045.
Community Gathering, Pike Park (Saturday, July 27, 6:30 p.m.): Sharing the memory of Santos Rodriguez at 2851 Harry Hines.