Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Remembering Santos Rodriguez

Santos Rodriguez

Dallas Just a month before Santos Rodriguez died, he and his brother, David, 13, left, had their photo taken, leaning against a relative’s car.
Published: 22 July 2013

Around 2 a.m. on July 24, 1973 — 40 years ago — Dallas police saw three boys running from a darkened Fina gas station in the area now called Victory Park. When they investigated, they found that a vending machine had been robbed. Officer Roy Arnold thought he recognized two of the boys, brothers David and Santos Rodriguez.

So Arnold and another officer, Darrell Cain, drove to the home of the boys’ foster grandfather, Carlos Miñez, where the boys were staying. They roused the family, handcuffed 13-year-old David and 12-year-old Santos, took them to a parking lot behind the gas station and began questioning them in Arnold’s squad car — David in the back seat and Santos in front. When the boys denied any involvement, Cain began playing Russian roulette with Santos to force a confession. He put the gun to Santos’ head. Click. He repeated the action. The gun fired, instantly killing Santos and setting off a series of events that would unify a growing but disorganized Hispanic community.

Cain was arrested on murder charges but released on $5,000 bond. He was eventually found guilty by an all-white jury in Austin and sentenced to five years, of which he served half. Anger escalated when investigators found that fingerprints at the crime scene did not match the brothers’ prints. Hundreds of Hispanics, joined by black citizens fresh off the civil rights campaign, came out for a “March for Justice” that was supposed to be peaceful but turned into a riot. Five police officers were injured, 38 marchers arrested.
The events catapulted Pancho Medrano from a union activist to a Dallas powerhouse, the patriarch of a family that has held positions in the judiciary and on the Dallas City Council and school board. It helped inspire political heavyweights such as Domingo Garcia and his wife, Elba, into activism and politics.

Today, that promise of expansive Hispanic leadership and power is as unfulfilled as the dreams of a murdered 12-year-old.

On this, the 40th anniversary of the death of Santos Rodriguez and the birth of El Sueño Hispano, only two members of the 14-seat Dallas City Council are Hispanic. That’s just 14 percent in a city where Hispanics comprise 42 percent of the population. Despite 72 percent Hispanic enrollment in the Dallas Independent School District, the board of trustees does not have a Hispanic representative. There is a paucity of strong Latino leaders, and frighteningly few young ones in the wings.

There will be several events Wednesday recalling Santos’ life and death. Many words will be spoken. Veterans of those times will be recognized. We hope that, as the community reflects on victories, it also addresses the hard truths of the unrealized Hispanic dream and uses this day to recommit to building a new generation of Hispanic leaders: developing leadership and mentoring programs, promoting education, building citywide alliances.

After all, outrage without leadership is useless. Santos Rodriguez deserves better.
Santos Rodriguez events

10 a.m.: Multicultural memorial service at Santos’ grave at Oakland Cemetery, 3900 Malcolm X Blvd., Dallas

6 p.m.: The Mexican American Historical League will hold a panel discussion on “The Struggle for Mexican-American Civil Rights in Dallas” at the Latino Cultural Center, 2600 Live Oak St., Dallas

Multicultural rally at 6:30 p.m. at Pike Park, 2851 Harry Hines Blvd., Dallas
Continuing through Aug. 31

”Justicia: The Struggle for Mexican-American Civil Rights in Dallas, Texas, 1920-2012.” At the Latino Cultural Center, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Roberto Corona of the SMU Human Rights Program cleans the grave of Santos Rodriguez, a 12-year-old whose death by a Dallas police officer in 1973 stunned the community.

Nearly 40 years ago, a 12-year-old named Santos Rodriguez was killed with a bullet to the brain fired by a Dallas police officer. The boy died in the police car’s front seat during an interrogation in the old Little Mexico neighborhood of Dallas.

Santos’ death left a moral wound in the Mexican-American community and with others, too. Now, memorial events are planned to remember his short life and assess how much has changed in the past four decades in politics, police relations and civil rights.

At Santos’ grey granite headstone in the old Oakland Cemetery a few weeks back, Roberto Corona stood in the deep thought of his prayers. Corona, a community organizer with SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program, never knew Santos, but he said he felt connected. “I was thinking he was like a little brother.”

Corona returned to the sprawling cemetery turf with others a few weeks later.

“How could someone do that do another human being?” said Rais Bhuiyan, who himself was nearly killed by a white supremist at a Dallas gas station a few days after the 9-11 attacks. Bhuiyan is now a frequent speaker against violence.

“He was just a normal kid born in a bad situation,” said Olinka Green, as she touched the gravestone.

Corona and the others have started a Facebook page in Santos’ memory and to provide details about memorial events.

Through the years, Santos inspired other homages in Baptist, Methodist and Catholic churches. This time, the story of Santos brings together communities of Mexican-Americans, Mexican immigrants, African-Americans, Pakistan and Bangladesh immigrants and whites.

The Dallas Mexican American Historical League plans a panel discussion on July 24st at the Latino Cultural Center to look at the past and what’s changed since. Folks brought together by SMU’s Human Rights Program plan a memorial event or two, either at the cemetery, the site where Santos died, or his old playground of Pike’s Park.

Theater director Cora Cardona and her husband Jeff Hurst may restage a play based on Santos’ life that first debuted some 20 years ago. Santos’ death still haunts many, Cardona said.

“When you touch a child, that is when the community bursts,” Cardona said. “It becomes their son, too.”

Indeed, it did. Four days after Santos took a bullet near his left ear, a small riot broke out in downtown Dallas after hundreds marched down to police headquarters to protest police brutality against Mexican-Americans and African-Americans. Five police officers were injured and 38 persons were arrested, according to news clips of that time.

In one of his last photos, Santos peers out with toothy grin under thick wavy hair and large dark eyes. He was a suspect in a burglary of less than $10 from a soda machine at a Fina gas station at 2301 Cedar Springs Road.

At the time of the shooting, his young mother, Bessie Garcia Rodriguez, was in prison for the murder of a man some said had abused her. She was released on a three-day pass to attend the funeral. She had five children, including her son David who was one year older than Santos. David sat in the police car when his brother died in what he described as a game of Russian roulette.

At the time of the shooting, the owner of the Fina gas station told a Dallas Morning News reporter he doubted Santos had committed the burglary. An official investigation found fingerprints didn’t even match those of the dead boy.
Police officer Darrell L. Cain testified Santos denied burglarizing the soda machine, according to the murder trial transcripts. Santos’ last words, Cain said, were: “I am telling the truth.”

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