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Nearly 50 Years Later, Dallas Police Chief Apologizes For Death Of Santos Rodriguez

Bessie Rodriguez, middle, poses for a photo with the police chief and the rest of the Dallas Police Department, during Santos Rodriguez’ remembrance, at Oakland Cemetery, on July 24, 2021.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
Bessie Rodriguez poses for a photo with the police chief and the rest of the Dallas Police Department, during Santos Rodriguez’ remembrance, at Oakland Cemetery, in South Dallas, on July 24, 2021.

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia apologized to Santos Rodriguez’s mother for the young Mexican American boy’s death 48 years ago. Saturday, an annual caravan drove through the city honoring Santos’ life and making sure his death is not forgotten.

Warning: This story includes details about a violent act against a child.

A line of cars was greeted with traditional memorial mariachi songs as they arrived Saturday morning at Oakland Cemetery, where a ceremony honoring the life of Santos Rodriguez was taking place.

Bouquets of flowers on the gravestone of Santos Rodriguez, at Oakland Cemetery, in South Dallas, on July 24, 2021.
Keren Carriòn / KERA News
Bouquets of flowers on the gravestone of Santos Rodriguez, at Oakland Cemetery, in South Dallas, on July 24, 2021.

Bessie Rodriguez, Santos’ mother, was joined at the cemetery by community organizers and city leaders. She sat in the front row and listened to speakers talk about her son.

At the event, Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia addressed Bessie Rodriguez, first in Spanish then English.

"We must apologize as a police department — a department made up of mothers, fathers daughters and sons. On behalf of the Dallas Police Department, I am sorry,” he said.

Garcia emphasized there's more work to be done by the department.

"With more accountability, more transparency, more diversity in our academies, we were always going to continue to work,” he said. There is no end in sight. There is no finish line."

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia addresses the crowd during the remembrance of Santos Rodriguez, to apologize for the wrongful actions of the Dallas Police Department, 48  years ago, on July 24, 2021.
Keren Carrión / KERA News
Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia Garcia said was surprised the police department had never apologized for Santos Rodriguez’s death.

Garcia added hehopes this apology is a step toward building trust between Latino residents and Dallas police.

Organizers shared how Mexican American residents of Dallas are still healing from the tragic death.

"If any of you doubt that this is new, or they did only happen with Santos... No, it was not an isolated tragedy," Frances Rizo, a Mexican-American community activist said to the crowd. "What was different is that he was 12 years old, handcuffed in a squad car and Darrell Cain dared to play Russian Roulette with him."

A Glimpse Back At What Happened To The Young Brown Boy

Crowd of demonstrators surrounding destroyed motorcycle on Dallas street.
Dallas Mexican American Heritage League
Four days after Santos died, activists came together for a protest march to Dallas' old city hall. What began as a peaceful march turned violent. People threw bottles, squashed a squad car and set a police motorcycle on fire. Five officers were injured, and more than 30 people arrested.

On July 24, 1973, Santos Rodriguez and his 13-year-old brother David were pulled from their home, handcuffed and put inside a police car.

Two officers accused the Rodriguez brothers of stealing $8 from a cigarette vending machine at a nearby gas station. They denied the robbery.

Later, Officer Darrell L. Cain decided to play a game of Russian-roulette to force the boys to confess to the crime. He aimed the gun at the back of Santos’ head. He pulled the trigger the first time and nothing happened. The second time the gun fired and a bullet sped through Santos' temple. He died in that squad car and reports say his blood soaked his brother's feet.

Cain was convicted of murder and sentenced to five years but was released after two and a half years.

A framed photograph of Santos Rodriguez as a baby sat on a mantel near his gravesite, during a memorial service 48 years after his death, on July 24, 2021.
Keren Carrión / KERA News
An organizer who spoke at Saturday’s event said Santos’ face is vivid reminder of how his killing sparked activism and rebellion

How Santos' Death United Dallas' Latino Community

Santos’ killing sparked protests and riots in the city.

Shortly after his death, thousands of people of Mexican descent marched and protested at city hall. They shouted “justicia” or in Spanish, "justice for the people."

Activists recall this moment as the first time in the city Mexican activists came together to fight for a cause. It created a significant shift in Dallas’ history. Latinos spoke out more publicly and activism turned into Latinos running for elected offices.

Warning: This clip contains the sound of a gunshot.

For some activists, not much has changed between brown and Black communities and law enforcement.

"Police brutality continues to exist. The key is that we continue to organize. In memory of him, we must reimagine public safety," said former Dallas City Council member Diane Ragsdale, who served from 1984 to 1991.

Ragsdale, an activist who worked with the Latino community to start the annual eventsaid one way Santos' memory lives on is by Black and brown communities in Dallas working together and uniting to address police brutality.

Bessie Rodriguez listens to Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia, during the remembrance for Santos Rodriguez, who was killed by a white Dallas police officer 48 years ago, on July 24.
Keren Carrión / KERA News
Saturday’s caravan started at Pike Park. Organizers say the gathering place is significant because it was once a centerpiece of Dallas' Little Mexico and as a child Santos enjoyed playing at the park

Got a tip? Alejandra Martinez is a Report For America corps member and writes about the impact of COVID-19 on underserved communities for KERA News. Email Alejandra at amartinez@kera.org. You can follow Alejandra on Twitter @alereports.

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