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Nearly 50 Years After a DPD Officer Killed Santos Rodriguez, Activists Raise Money for His Mother

David Rodriguez, 13, and his brother Santos in 1973, only months before Santos was murdered by a Dallas police officer.
David Rodriguez, 13, and his brother Santos in 1973, only months before Santos was murdered by a Dallas police officer.
courtesy Santos Vive

When Angela Andrade was growing up, the story of Santos Rodriguez was a cautionary tale. Her family members would detail how 12-year-old Rodriguez and his 14-year-old brother were dragged from their home in Dallas' old Little Mexico neighborhood and thrown into a Dallas Police Department vehicle.

The details still haunt and motivate the 34-year-old Andrade, an organizer with the immigrant rights advocacy group North Texas Dream Team. She can recite the scene as if she has replayed the event in her mind over and over again.

“The officers barge into their home, toss them in a car, play Russian roulette and try to convince them to admit to stealing $8 from a vending machine,” she says. “Just $8.”

When the Rodriguez boys denied any involvement in the burglary, DPD patrolman Darrell Cain pointed his revolver at Santos’ head. He demanded “the truth,” and the boy maintained his innocence. The revolver clicked and didn't fire, but Cain warned Santos the gun contained a live round. He spun the cylinder, pointed the weapon at Santos’ head and pulled the trigger. The child was instantly killed.

That murder, which happened in 1973, has influenced generations of activists and organizers. It remains a searing reminder of the daily injustices people of color experience in Dallas, partly because of what didn’t happen after Santos died. Neither of the boys’ fingerprints matched those found on the vending machine. Cain was convicted of murder with malice but spent only two and a half years in prison. Four decades passed before a city official apologized for the murder, which then-Mayor Mike Rawlings did in 2013.

“I never thought I was going to hear that,” Santos’ mother, Bessie Rodriguez, told WFAA at the time. Since then, a recreation center has been named in Santos’ honor, and a long-awaited statue is in the works. But activists like Andrade have noticed that these efforts have done little to help Bessie.

“People say things when the anniversary comes around, but then they’re silent the rest of the year,” Andrade says.

Andrade’s friend Eva Arreguin is also troubled by the lack of help for Rodriguez’s family.

“We have to do more,” Arreguin says. “There should be something that goes annually to them.”

So, Arreguin launched a GoFundMe for the family in late July, shortly after the 47th anniversary of Santos’ murder. It has raised more than $1,000 to cover “basic needs” for the Rodriguez family. Arreguin, who co-leads Oak Cliff’s De Colores Collective, is quick to downplay her role in the campaign.

“It’s not like I’m doing some grand gesture,” she says. “In my opinion, it’s logic. We shouldn’t have Santos Rodriguezes. We shouldn’t have Botham Jeans. We Shouldn’t have Sandra Blands. But we do. So what are we going to do for them?”

Arreguin met Bessie at this year’s July 25 caravan for Santos. Activists and community members gathered for a drive from Pike Park, where Santos played as a boy, to his gravesite in Oakland Cemetery.

“I got there toward the end, and I was watching all of these chants and TV cameras,” Arreguin says. “And in the middle of all of that, there’s Bessie. I thought about how she has to relive this every year, but in reality, it’s more like every day.”

Arreguin, 26, struck up a conversation with the mother.

“Yes, there’s pain and sadness in her eyes, but beyond the sadness, you see her humor, her light,” she says. “She’s such a strong, beautiful woman. As soon as we wrapped up at Santos’ gravesite, she said, ‘Hey, let’s take some of these flowers to my other son.’”

Andrade has known Bessie for years. The organizer is a key part of the Santos Vive project, which led a 2018 fundraiser and helped produce a documentary about the murder. Bessie attended a 2018 screening of the documentary at Oak Cliff’s Texas Theatre, and according to Andrade, the mother was in shock.

“I can’t believe it,” Bessie told Andrade. “I really thought people were going to forget about my son.”

Andrade and Bessie remain in close contact, and the organizer continues to work with colleagues at The Dallas Peace & Justice Center to bring Bessie food and other essential items. Andrade is protective of Santos’ mother, story and legacy, and when Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall came to the 48th-anniversary caravan, Andrade refused to let her speak.

“We don’t give our platform to our oppressors,” Andrade said. “Her even being there was a problem, because seeing a police officer can bring back all of these traumatic experiences for people of color.”

Andrade has firsthand experience with police brutality. When she was 12, a DPD police officer stopped her and a friend in an alleyway as they walked home from school. The officer said he had a report of two Mexican children stealing food, but Andrade and her friend said it wasn’t them. After all, they were just in school. But the interrogation continued, and when Andrade’s friend uttered “a smart alec remark,” the officer started hitting them both with a flashlight.

“I remember thinking, ‘If he only beats me, that’s fine, as long as I go home,’” Andrade says. “Because my mother always said, ‘Just come home safe. Come home alive.’”

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She did, but it would be years before she told anyone about the incident.

“It was just life,” she says. “It happened to a lot of my friends and cousins. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t OK until I got to college.”

Now the story fuels her. Andrade is continuing her work with the Santos Vive project, and there is talk of a possible Santos Rodriguez mural in the works. She wants any and all future work to tell the full Santos story, including all of the haunting details she learned as a child.

“Policing and police brutality haven’t changed,” she says. “So we need to tell this story so history stops repeating itself. Just imagine all of the stories we don’t even know about.”

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