40 Years Ago, a Dallas Cop Shot a Handcuffed 12-Year-Old in the Head. Hispanic Leaders Haven't Forgotten.

The 1973 death of Santos Rodriguez was almost unspeakably barbaric. The 12-year-old and his brother David were picked up from their grandparents' house in what was then Little Mexico (now Uptown) in the early hours of July 24 and taken to a Fina station on Cedar Springs Road, where someone had just stolen a few bucks from a soda machine. Officer Darrell Cain and his partner knew the boys' history of shoplifting and burglary and figured they might be involved. A trip would be just the thing to jog their memories.

David Rodriguez, now 53, recounted Cain's interrogation techniques in a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News.

They were trying to force us to say that we burglarized a Coke machine out of $8. We had nothing to do with that that night. He was mostly questioning my brother. When he wasn't getting the answers he wanted, that is when he pulled out his gun. He opened the cylinder with me right next to him. I couldn't really tell if he was emptying it or filling it. He put the gun up to his [Santos'] head. He said, "Now you are going to tell him the truth."

The first time he pulled the trigger of the .357-magnum revolver, there was the click of an empty chamber. The next shot entered his head just below his left ear, killing the boy. Cain said the shooting was an accident. Later that year, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to a whopping five years in prison.

For the record, the Rodriguez brothers were telling the truth. The fingerprints lifted from the soda machine belonged to someone else. But even had they matched, petty theft is a poor excuse for a back-seat execution, accidental or otherwise, and the black and Hispanic communities saw it as a symptom of a justice system loaded against them.

The most immediate reaction was outrage. Rene Martinez, now president of the District 3 chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, was a 25-year-old activist at the time living three blocks from the Fina station. His mom and Santos Rodriguez's mom were friends. He helped organize a community meeting at Pike's Park.

"It was very tense," he says. "There was a lot of anger. A lot of anger at the police department, [a lot of people] wanting to have answers."

It was at the meeting that organizers began planning a weekend march on City Hall. Five thousand people, mostly Hispanic but with some whites and blacks, showed up and made their way from Kennedy Memorial to 1500 Marilla St.

That part of the demonstration was peaceful. But then a second group of marchers showed up, maybe 1,000 strong. They were younger, angrier and drunker than the first, and the protest unraveled into a riot, complete with widespread looting and vandalism. Martinez was standing 50 feet away when one of them unscrewed the gas cap on a police motorcycle and tossed in a match. The burned-out chassis was plastered on the front page of The Dallas Morning News the next morning. But the image that has stuck with Martinez is that of a little Mexican-American woman, maybe 80 years old, walking up to a squad car which rioters had just crushed and angrily wailing on it with a rolled-up newspaper.

Martinez credits then-police-Chief Frank Dyson with showing restraint. He also credits the chief with being open-minded to the reforms being demanded by the community. There were changes to recruitment and officer training. He spurred the creation of an internal affairs department. He invited Martinez and a half dozen others to give race relations training to all patrol units.

It was around this time that The Dallas Morning News proclaimed in an unironic headline that "New Brown Leaders Emerge." Martinez was one. Others who were active in the organizing the community response to the Rodriguez murder and who are still around are then-City Councilman Pedro Aguirre; Richard Medrano, then a leader of the Dallas Brown Berets; and Florentino Ramirez, a lawyer and member of the City Plan Commission.

But to say that Rodriguez's death was a watershed moment in the political identity of the Hispanic community in Dallas is an oversimplification. Young leaders had already been cutting their teeth on school desegregation, which was just beginning in earnest in Dallas in the early 1970s, and in the fight for single-member council districts.

"I like to say that Dallas has missed the '60s," Martinez says. "It didn't go through the civil rights period" that other Southern cities did. "The '70s is really when Dallas began to face civil rights. Arrests, shootings, segregation, apportionment -- all those things."

Community activists and SMU's Embrey Human Rights program are organizing a handful of events to mark the 40th anniversary of Rodriguez's murder. On Wednesday, the anniversary itself, there will be a 10 a.m. memorial at Oakland Cemetery and a 6 p.m. panel discussion at the Latino Cultural Center. At 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, there will be a memorial at Pike Park on Harry Hines Boulevard. You can find more details here.

So, Rodriguez's memory lives on. It's a bit less visceral for the emerging generation of Dallas' Hispanic leaders, but Martinez sees the same spirit motivating the young people who helped organize the school walkout and Mega March in 2006 as the one that spurred him and his fellow leaders four decades ago.

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TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

I think it bears pointing out that while we may have a "Justice Dept.", we do NOT have a Justice system in this city, state or country.

In fact, justice is often a casualty in the legal process when we use our legal system to adjudicate criminal offenses.


Unfortunately the recruitment demands led to lowered physical standards so that Hispanics, Asians and women could meet them which in turn led more cops needing to rely on their weapons when an altercation with a suspect occurs.   


" and the black and Hispanic communities saw it as a symptom of a justice system loaded against them"......

Boy have times changed

holmantx topcommenter

Reminds me of the Heladio Cruz character in the movie, "Lone Star".


I remember when this happened, I was still in school. It was just a few years after the National Guard opened fire on protesters at Kent State, killing four students. Also within a year either way as I recall, a young white man was shot by police in Plano for speeding, or a I suppose for failing to stop. He tried to hide in a cul-de-sac and was gunned down when he tried to evade. No doubt the murder of Santos Rodriguez was racially motivated, but this was an era when those in authority were shooting a lot of people for little or no reason.


That is one helluva moustache for a 12 year old.


Why is this a race thing?  Hispanics are white now.  Didn't you hear?


@russp I submit to you that people of smaller stature who become police officers, aren't accustomed to bullying people in situations and are actually LESS likely to use a weapons as they have much more practice at resolving conflicts with quick and fair thinking, rather than brute force. Since most people aren't born with a gun in their hands....

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@James080 I'm a little bit older than this kid was.  I remember seeing Kent State on the news, the Detroit riots, the Democrat Convention in Chicago, the LA Watts riots, and of course the Vietnam War at 6 and 10, among others.  The cops were different back then.  We were raised that if a cop stopped you, you did not resist, you did not run away and you definitely did not argue with them.  Even if the cop was totally out of line, you did not argue with him.  That was for the judge to decide.


@James080 Interesting... It also triggered for me memories of an incident from my youth.  A white juvenile was caught by a cop messing around inside a house under construction.  When the cop told him to stop, the kid decided to make a run for it and was shot dead in the back.

It was a different era...


@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul @James080  The child was handcuffed in the back of a police car with his brother, and they were completely innocent of the accusation for which a death penalty and torture was applied, and did not run - so how does your comment relate?



I remember that too WylieH.  Growing up middle class and Hispanic in the suburbs, my parents had a different take on it, or maybe not. They said the immature officers probably did this countless times with all kinds of people, and finally got caught. With everything going on around the country, they did not feel it was directed at Hispanics or Mexican-Americans, in particular. They were just horrified that he was so young - I believe all people were.  My parents used the tragedy to remind us kids not to lie or steal and to remain on the right side of the law, otherwise no one will ever believe you, even when you tell the truth. I don't think my parents attitude was any different than the other millions of Hispanics living in the Dallas area, at that time and perhaps, why only 1,000 showed up.

The article states that Hispanic leaders haven't forgotten. Dallas doesn't need Hispanic leaders, Dallas needs natural leaders, who have the ability to analyze challenges and make decisions, for all people. Business people and thoughtful citizens, who happen to be of Hispanic origin will continue to stay away from politics and good work, if it means having to be defined as Hispanic or we are somehow meeting a quota. It is insulting because, while we are proud of our ancestry, as Americans, we are not defined by our ethnicity. We are defined by our families, values, education, work and our country.   

It is that loss of intellectual capital, at the table, that has been an equally crippling tragedy, for Dallas. 

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