This blog post was written by Jonathan Angulo and with the support of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League(DMAHL). He is currently a PhD Candidate at SMU’s History Department. His research focuses on undocumented economies in the Imperial-Mexicali Valley California Borderlands during the mid-twentieth century.
On July 25, 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, car caravans met at Pike Park—a park located in Dallas’ Little Mexico—early in the morning. They drove to the city’s Oakland Cemetery to commemorate the forty-seventh anniversary of Santos Rodriguez’ tragic passing. Darrell Cain, a Dallas police officer, murdered the twelve-year-old ethnic Mexican by playing a game of Russian Roulette; this was not the first time that the law enforcement official killed a teenager. He took the life of a Black adolescent, Michael Morehead, in 1970. Officer Cain took Santos and his brother, David, from their home on suspicion of vandalizing a vending machine. The enforcer placed his firearm to Santos’ temple and pulled the trigger in hopes of acquiring a confession from him. The gun did not go off. Cain tried it a second time and killed Santos. Black and Brown communities participated in protests that year to demand justice for the teenager. The police officer walked off with a five-year sentence and only served a little over two years in custody. The two tragic murders demonstrated, as they do now, that a number of police officers act with impunity. The Voices of SMU Oral History Project has helped demonstrate how SMU’s alumni experienced the event, what they did, and how they have memorialized this instance of police brutality.
Protestors in 1973 pictured holding a flag for the March of Justice for Santos Rodriguez. Image courtesy of DeGolyer Library, SMU.
Sol Villasana (Class of 1975) was a student at SMU in the 1970s, a pivotal period for the Civil Rights and Chicana/o Movement. The young scholar helped start SMU’s Los Chicanos organization at the university, which aimed to bring more economic and educational opportunities for ethnic Mexican students both at SMU and in Dallas. Moreover, the organization wanted the university to recruit students from the ethnic Mexican Dallas community. The school traditionally directed few resources at finding pupils within the city’s lower-income populations and sought individuals who came from wealthy or upper middle-class neighborhoods. Thus, Villasana and his peers fought to make the institution aware of this bias and to focus on recruiting ethnic Mexicans in Dallas.
Villasana was conflicted about the campus culture during the 1970s and became involved with his community. The alum described how the university culture revolved around fraternity and sorority life. He decided not to participate in such activities despite some of his peers having positive experiences with Greek life. Instead, the young scholar became involved in his neighborhood and city politics. Villasana remembered how the city’s Chicana, Chicano, and African American communities came together to protest the murder of Santos Rodriguez. It was one of the largest demonstrations that he had experienced during his early adulthood. Numerous communities, including faith organizations, gathered in the old city hall in downtown Dallas. The groups voiced their outrage against the decades of police abuse committed against the Black and Latino neighborhoods in the city. The March of Justice for Santos Rodriguez—that Villasana participated in—motivated him to continue participating in Los Chicanos and continue advocating for social causes.
Another SMU alumnus, René Martinez (Class of 1969), was also shaped by the events that transpired in 1973. Soon after graduating, the scholar became an activist by helping found a Dallas chapter for the Mexican American Youth Organization. The group organized ethnic Mexicans in south Texas metropolises like San Antonio and Crystal City, with the objective of funding more educational opportunities for Chicanas and Chicanos. Similarly, Martinez helped with campaigns for La Raza Unida Party—a third party centered on electing Chicanas and Chicanos throughout Texas because of the failure of Democrats and Republicans in addressing the issues of ethnic Mexicans. By participating in these different organizations, the young graduate utilized his experiences to channel the energy from the protests after The March of Justice for Santos Rodriguez into an organization. Martinez and his friend, Hector Flores, ultimately decided to form a League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) council. He described how the LULAC organization became one of the avenues for the community to be involved in to address issues of education, policing, and injustice.
Since the events that transpired in 1973, the Dallas community has continued to utilize the mass sentiment after Santos’ tragic passing to educate the city about the history of Latinas and Latinos. Rosemary Hinojosa (Class of 1973) was an active participant in Los Chicanos at SMU and learned much throughout her experience. She specifically remembered how the group met at La Casa—a house they shared with African American students on campus that served as a safe space. Moreover, Hinojosa learned a lot about activism by socializing with Los Chicanos and the Chicano Coalition of College Students. She continued to engage with her community after graduating from SMU. Today, she is one of the board members of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League (DMAHL)—an organization which seeks to elevate the history and place of ethnic Mexicans in the city. Specifically, DMAHL conducted group interviews of civil rights groups that participated in The March of Justice for Santos Rodriguez. The resulting oral histories helped preserve what the event meant for the community, and captured how the interviewees have memorialized the event. Hinojosa and DMAHL continue to address these historical moments along with others to demonstrate, especially during the present, how police brutality continues to affect communities of color.
Historian Dr. Ruben Arellano (Class of 2010 & 2017), described how significant 1973 was for the ethnic Mexican community in Dallas. He discussed how the Chicano Movement really began in Dallas in 1969 when ethnic Mexicans met in Waxahachie, a town about thirty minutes south of the city. Chicanos in the southern establishment discussed the issues that ethnic Mexicans were fighting for in south Texas and how Dallas needed to participate in the same endeavors. As a result, the activists began to involve themselves in city council meetings where the former would voice their concerns over issues like police violence. They specifically talked about how ethnic Mexicans were being killed by law enforcement. At the time, a significant number of Mexicans did not want to challenge the status quo and wanted to live their normal lives. However, the murder of Santos Rodriguez mobilized the community against the police and other systems of oppression. Ultimately, 1973 proved to be a pivotal year for the population as more Mexicans began to participate in demonstrations. The police department did adopt some of the reforms called for by the communities. For example, Arellano described how the law enforcement department had restrictive codes as to who could join the force. The mandate called for individuals to be of a certain height or weight and other criteria, which officials used to automatically disqualify Mexicans from joining the police. As a result, the police department amended some of these requirements so more Mexicans could join the law enforcement agency. This change ultimately occurred because of the 1973 protests and the movements that followed after the demonstrations in the city hall.
Hinojosa and Arellano demonstrated how they used the events of 1973 to narrate the history of ethnic Mexicans in Dallas, and SMU has attempted to support the cause since then. The university has created the Santos Rodriguez Memorial Endowed Scholarship to help finance the education of students who want to study Human Rights at the institution. The funds aim to make the degree more accessible to scholars who demonstrate financial hardships and who want to study this major. The scholarship was created in collaboration with SMU’s Latino Center for Leadership Development and has the endorsement of Bessie Rodriguez, the mother of Santos. Administrators set a fundraising goal of at least $200,000 for the scholarship, and the Latino Center for Leadership Development funded half of the costs with the rest from individual contributions. Students who are awarded the scholarship will be provided $10,000 each year for education costs. In the spirit of the Los Chicanos organization, the ethnic Mexican community was able to move the university in a positive direction.
Despite these advancements, the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, demonstrated that cases of police brutality continue to impact communities of color throughout the United States and institutions like SMU need to reckon with this history. Collaboration between Black and Brown populations is crucial to bring about structural changes in this country. Black SMU students point to the African American sit in of 1969 when individuals sat in the president’s office demanding more opportunities for their community. As described above, Los Chicanos also fought for similar opportunities in the early 1970s on campus. Race relations, however, have not been completely amended at SMU. In 2015, Black students made similar demands of the university when racist flyers were distributed throughout campus and derogatory statements were made on social media. Students spoke to their experience using the #BlackAtSMU hashtag. After May 25, 2020, the hashtag gained a following on twitter when students discussed their experiences at the school. I have also encountered similar episodes. I remember walking through campus in 2018 by the sorority houses and seeing papers placed on car windshields. The documents argued that white women should only have relationships with Anglo men instead of communities of color. The statement truly shocked me as I had never experienced anything like that before. The intersectionality between the murders of Santos Rodriguez, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, Andres Guardado, and numerous others demonstrate that Black and Brown communities face similar problems. We need to be united in such instances, demand racial equity from our governments, and also from our scholarly institutions.