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Four Decades Later, Death Of 12-Year-Old Santos Rodriguez Still Reverberates

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 2:00 a.m. in the morning of July 24, 1973, Santos Rodriguez and his brother David, 13, sat handcuffed in a police car in Dallas. Two police officers had just picked the boys up at their home and suspected them of having robbed a vending machine at a nearby gas station.

When both denied being involved, Officer Darrell L. Cain pulled out his .357 Magnum and put it to the back of Santos’ head.  He decided to play a game of Russian roulette.

The first time he pulled the trigger nothing happened. The second time, it went off. Santos died in that squad car, his blood soaking his brother’s feet.

“The killing of Santos Rodriguez galvanized our community,” says  Albert Valtierra, President of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League. Today he’s at the Dallas Latino Cultural Center, staring up at a large photo of Santos smiling, with his thick wavy hair and big front teeth.

The Mexican-American Community Responds

In the mid-70s, there were about 80,000 Latinos in Dallas. Valtierra refers to the community as a sleeping giant, which after decades of segregation and discrimination heard a wakeup call when Santos was killed.  

“In the 70s, we were establishing ourselves, buying houses, getting good jobs but there was still resistance from the powers that be so we had to go out and claim the power for ourselves,” Valtierra says.

College students established the 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 LaVoz del Anciano – a non-profit that helps the elder Spanish speaking community access community resources and education.

Four days after Santos died, these separate groups united, downtown at a march for justice. The police officer who killed Santos, Darrell Cain, was arrested and charged with murder, but he was released on five thousand dollar bond. Investigators found that the prints at the scene of the robbery didn’t match those of Santos or David.

Watch an excerpt of KERA's 'Pride And Anger' documentary:

Thousands of Mexican and African Americans filled the streets, demanding justice, shouting “justicia para la raza.”

The march turned violent, five officers were injured, and more than thirty people were arrested.

“The police chief never wanted to acknowledge this was a riot,” Valtierra says. “If you look at these photos, this was a riot.”

He says the tragedy did spawn some 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 put on the Dallas Police uniform in 1975, two years after Santos was killed.  

“It was a time when they were trying to hire as many women as they could, as many Hispanics, blacks, you name it," Villarreal, who is now Interim Assistant Chief of Police, reflects.

Villareal, from Del Rio, had been searching for work, but says no one wanted to hire her. The Dallas police department was desperately trying to diversify –easing height and weight requirements that had shut out people like Villareal –who is 5’2’’. Recruiters went after Villarreal, but it was her family on the border, they had to convince.

“When they found out I was applying to Dallas they said oh no, they don’t like Hispanics there, they just killed a little boy over there,” Villarreal says. “My grandfather thought there were all kinds of problems up here in Dallas.”

Sergeant Raul Duarte was also hired in the early 70s, and remembers the tension.

“Sometimes you’d walk into a place and you’d get a stare of disgust or anger but nothing was ever said or done,” he says.

Villarreal and Duarte say it took years to improve the relationship between the Mexican-American community and police. And they’re still working on it.

Today, Hispanics make up about 42 percent of Dallas’s population. In 1973 it was only eight percent. Still, Albert Valtierra says that hasn’t made the fight for representation and acceptance any easier.

“It’s as difficult a battle today as it was 40 years ago,” he says. “It’s a difficult battle and you just have to persevere. You just have to keep on going.”

Valtierra hopes the memory of Santos Rodriguez will inspire and unite the Mexican-American community today, like it did forty years ago.

Events In Dallas: 

Grave Side Ritual, Oakland Cemetery (Wednesday, July 24, 10:00 a.m.): Commemorating the life of Santos Rodriguez at the site of his burial, 3900 Malcom X Blvd. 

Panel Discussion Latino Cultural Center (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. Phone: (214) 671-0045.

Community Rally, Pike Park (Saturday, July 27, 6:30 p.m.): Sharing the memory of Santos Rodriguez at 2851 Harry Hines. 

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.