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45 Years After Santos Rodriguez's Death, Dallas Filmmaker Is Making a Documentary About Him

Santos Rodriguez stands on the right.
Santos Rodriguez stands on the right. courtesy Santos Vive
Forty-five years ago, Dallas police officer Darrell L. Cain murdered 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez.

After investigating the burglary of a vending machine, police officers took Rodriguez and his brother David from their home and brought them to the scene of the crime. When they wouldn't confess to stealing the $8 from the vending machine, Cain handcuffed the two boys in the police car. Cain pointed a gun at Santos and shot him. Cain was sentenced to five years in prison and served half of that time.

DNA evidence later cleared Rodriguez of the burglary.

Dallas filmmaker Byron Hunter is working on a documentary about Santos Rodriguez; his mother, Bessie; and the history of Dallas' Little Mexico neighborhood. It's titled Santos Vive, which translates to Santos Lives.

Hunter was doing research for a basketball documentary in March when the director of Southern Methodist University's human rights program and someone with the Dallas Peace and Justice Center asked him to create a documentary about Santos Rodriguez to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the boy's death.

Hunter paused his work on the basketball documentary and began working on the Rodriguez film. He had about four to five months until the anniversary.

The documentary isn't finished, but last week Hunter showed the film to audiences at the Angelika Film Center and Texas Theatre. The film's first half explores the history of Little Mexico, and the second half dives into Rodriguez's murder, along with its effects on today. During last week's private screening, Rodriguez's mother, Bessie, sat in the audience.

"I knew the idea of killing Santos was going to draw a huge audience of people ...," Hunter says. "But what a great time to make a teachable moment out of this. And not just use Santos but allow Santos to be able to tell me a story of a community that he grew up in and died in that has been existing for 80 years before he was born, and that's the kind of idea we had for why we included the history of Little Mexico as well."

Hunter says he can remember being 9 years old and living in Oak Cliff when Cain killed Rodriguez. He remembers the outrage, hurt, tension and controversy it caused in Dallas.

"The feeling around the city was something I had never felt and probably something I haven't felt since." – Byron Hunter

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"The feeling around the city was something I had never felt and probably something I haven't felt since," he says.

Toward the end of the film, Greenhill High School student Areeba Amer speaks about her column in The Dallas Morning News about the need for Dallas to honor Rodriguez. She says she and her classmates weren't aware of Rodriguez until their teacher assigned them to research him.

Hunter says while field researching for the film, 80 percent of the people he asked did not who Rodriguez was or where Little Mexico was.

"We know what the Holocaust is, and a lot of more time has passed since that," Hunter explains. "I think because it involves the police department in a Southern town ... I think they wish they could go away.

"The only time Santos is mentioned is on the fifth or 10th anniversary. For five years in between, nobody seems to talk about him."

Hunter will continue to work on the film, adding interviews with other important characters involved with Little Mexico's history and Rodriguez's death. He also plans to create a Spanish-language version of the film.
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Paige Skinner has written for the Dallas Observer since 2014.
Contact: Paige Skinner