Forty-five years ago Tuesday, a Dallas police officer shot and killed a 12-year-old Mexican-American boy, Santos Rodriguez, while he sat handcuffed inside a patrol car.
Today if you drive or walk by Pike Park — once the heart of Dallas’ Little Mexico — you wouldn’t know it was also near the site of that tragedy.
Dallas Parks board member Jesse Moreno wasn’t born yet when Santos Rodriguez was shot. But growing up, the 33-year-old heard the story many times.
“When I see images of Santos, I see myself,” Moreno said. “I see every Latino young boy who is growing up through Dallas. He’s basically looking in the mirror of a young adolescent here in Dallas.”
Now, a public art project and new documentary are remembering Santos and the impact of his death.
It was 2 a.m. on July 24, 1973, when Santos and his 13-year-old brother, David, were picked up at their home by two Dallas cops. Police suspected them of robbing a vending machine at a nearby gas station.
Police handcuffed the boys and put them in their squad car. The boys denied being involved.
Then, Officer Darrell L. Cain decided to play Russian-roulette, aiming the gun at the back of Santos’ head. He pulled the trigger and nothing. The second time, a bullet struck Santos’ head.
Moreno is now spearheading an effort to create a public art project in Pike Park in Santos’ honor.
“This is what it’s about for me: to pass that history on. That we don’t forget what happened, that we learn from what happened.”
Moreno’s looking for community input to determine what form the project will take. He says he wants to unite people with whatever it is — a mural, a sculpture or something else.
Also, marking the 45th anniversary of Santos’ death is a new documentary about what happened that morning, the aftermath and the impact on the Mexican-American community. “Santos Vive” premieres at Texas Theatre on Tuesday. (Watch the trailer.)
The filmmaker, Byron Hunter, was a child living in Dallas when Santos was killed. His dad was a civil rights activist.
“He — realizing that he had a son that was 9 years old, just a little bit younger than Santos — felt it important to come and tell me what had happened and help me understand the challenges of being a young person of color in Dallas,” Hunter said.
His father also helped him understand that while “it shouldn’t be that way and we shouldn’t have to do certain things, we have to be aware of certain things.”
Hunter hopes the documentary accomplishes many things, including telling the story of Santos mother, Bessie Rodriguez, after her son’s death.
What Hunter didn’t want the film to be about was police brutality. Instead, he wants his film to offer healing and hope.
And, raise money to help Santos’ mother and brother.
“I want people to learn about Little Mexico. I want the people to learn about the success of the Mexican community. I want people to learn a lot of things, but I want people to also realize that, like, this woman is still alive and she’s still struggling,” he said.
“We have to be real.”
Jesse Moreno thinks the Pike Park art project would also help bring closure to the family, especially Santos’ mom.
“I think this could mean a lot to her to see this happen,” he said. “The funding is there. It’s gonna happen. It’s more of a timeline now.”
Moreno says $75,000 has already been set aside for the project from his parks districts funds.
Whatever the public art project ends up being, he says, it has to be honest.
“I’ve had people who were trying to tone this down and say ‘Santos died.’ Santos didn’t die. He was murdered,” Moreno said. “We have to be real. We have to be transparent and we have to accept what happened in order to move forward.”
Ultimately, Moreno and Byron say they hope their projects will do just that: help people move forward.
• Visit the Santos Vive Project
• Watch “Little Mexico: El Barrio,” a 1997 KERA Special
This story originally appeared on KERA News. View more images.