Dallas Park Board member Jesse Moreno believes the way for the city to achieve a better tomorrow is by facing up bravely to some very bad yesterdays. In particular, he wants the city to remember and understand July 24, 1973, the day 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez was murdered by Dallas police Officer Darrell L. Cain.
In the accompanying video, Moreno says, “I think this is the right time, especially with the climate of everything that’s going on.
“There is so much hate going on in this world. I think that this is an opportunity to bring people together. It’s an opportunity for love, to unite people. I can’t think of a better time to do it than now.”
That may be a tough sell for some people. I wouldn’t blame somebody for wondering how you promote love and healing by bringing up the murder of a kid by a cop. But that killing is a fact, a part of our history.
We can face it and figure out what it means. Or we can keep doing what we’ve done for 45 years — turn our faces away, never figure out what this death meant then or means today, and go on making the same terrible mistakes that led to it in the first place.
Park Board District 2, which Moreno represents, is kind of a horseshoe around downtown, including some of East Dallas and some of Northwest Dallas. In the western part, almost lost now among a thicket of glitzy new high-rises, is the old Little Mexico where many of the city’s leading Hispanic citizens grew up.
Moreno wants to use $75,000 set aside from discretionary funds by City Council member Adam Medrano to create a monument to Santos at Pike Park on Harry Hines Boulevard near KERA. The specific nature of it is still a moving target — work of art, mural, something — but the purpose is to tell the story of the boy remembered by most simply as Santos.
Cain, the police officer who shot him, thought Santos and his brother were in on a petty burglary. He ordered them into a patrol car, where he put a .357 Magnum revolver to Santos’ head.
The cylinder of the gun had some empty chambers and at least one loaded chamber. The game was Russian roulette. Santos continued to insist he was innocent. The second trigger pull was on a live round. The bullet blew out the boy’s brains.
Cain always insisted it was a mistake. He said he thought the gun was unloaded. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to five years, of which he served two and a half.
Moreno told me, “The feedback I’m getting is, ‘Let’s soften it up, tone it down and not use words like murder,' which is what happened. We have to face the reality of Dallas.”
Moreno, founder of a popular East Dallas restaurant and a father now, was born 14 years after the Santos killing. He’s quick to say that much has changed for the better since then.
But when I met him at Pike Park Recreation Center, I was shocked, frankly, by how little has changed. The rec center building is in a physical condition I would associate with Russian prisons. Filthy, falling apart, with electrical wiring dangling from holes in the walls, ceilings caving in and garbage strewn across the kitchen floor, it’s a place no white, middle-class person would leave a child for any reason less than a court order and maybe not then.
No problem, however, because virtually all of the children I saw taking part in programs were black and Hispanic. I was thinking that the average Plano mother who even peeked inside the door would run back to her car with her kid in her arms and put the pedal to the metal. But as it turned out, I was wrong, sort of.
Half of the land at Pike Park is taken up by a beautiful, corporately endowed baseball diamond with shaded stands and impeccably groomed grounds. Expensive-looking black wrought-iron fences and gates ensure that none of the kids who come to Pike Park for programs during the week — the black and brown children — will ever gain entry to the beautiful baseball diamond behind the wrought iron.
Instead, Moreno explained to me, the inscrutably arcane rules of the Dallas Park Department ensure that the baseball diamond will be populated on weekends almost exclusively by tow-headed white children from suburban Frisco and Plano. I was wrong. The Plano mothers will allow their children to come to Pike Park, as long as the children from the Pike Park neighborhood are fenced out.
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So, no, Moreno isn’t talking about a good yesterday, and he’s not even talking about that great a today. He is talking about putting up something at Pike Park that those kids from the neighborhood can look at and feel that their lives are taken seriously. By taking Santos seriously, we take them seriously.
It won’t mean things are great. They aren’t. It won’t mean everything’s fixed. It isn’t. It will mean that we take the death of Santos seriously, and so do we take the lives of the kids today who look like him.
Meanwhile, we had better hope we can fix the hell out of that community center before some United Nations commission hears about it.