Flashback : Dallas

A Miscellany: History, Ads, Pop Culture

Category: Little Mexico

Santos Rodriguez, 1960-1973

david-and-santos-rodriguez_austin-american-statesmanDavid and Santos Rodriguez (via Austin American-Statesman)

by Paula Bosse

Today is the 45th anniversary of the tragic shooting of Santos Rodriguez, the 12-year-old boy who was shot in the head by a policeman as he and his 13-year-old brother David sat handcuffed in a police car. It shocked the city of Dallas in 1973, and it is still shocking today.

Santos and David had been awakened and rousted out of bed by Officers Darrell L. Cain and his partner Roy R. Arnold who were investigating a late-night burglary at a nearby gas station where money had been stolen from a cigarette machine — the boys matched a witness’ vague description. The boys said they had nothing to do with the burglary but were taken from their home as their foster-grandfather (an elderly man who spoke no English) watched, helpless, as they were handcuffed and placed in a squad car.

The boys were driven back to the scene of the burglary — a Fina station at Cedar Springs and Bookhout. Santos was in the front passenger seat, and Cain sat behind him in the backseat, next to David. Cain insisted the two boys were guilty and, in an attempt to coerce a confession, held his .357 magnum revolver to Santos’ head. He clicked the gun, as if playing Russian Roulette, telling Santos that the next time he might not be so lucky. The boys continued to insist they were innocent. And then, suddenly, Cain’s gun went off. Santos died instantly. Stunned, Cain said that it had been an accident. He and Arnold got out of the car, leaving 13-year-old David, still handcuffed, in the backseat of the police car — for anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour — alone with his brother’s bloody body. (It was determined through fingerprint evidence that Santos and David did not break into the gas station that night.)

More in-depth articles about this horrible case can be found elsewhere, but, briefly, Cain (who had previously been involved in the fatal shooting of a teenaged African American young man named Michael Morehead) was charged with committing “murder with malice” and was found guilty. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison but ended up serving only two and a half years in Huntsville.

The killing of Santos Rodriguez sparked outrage from all corners of the city, but particularly in the Mexican American community. All sorts of people — from ordinary citizens to militant Brown Berets — organized and protested, persistently demanding civil rights, social justice, and police reform. If anything positive resulted from this tragic event, perhaps it was a newly energized Hispanic community.


I am ashamed to say that I was not aware of what had happened to Santos Rodriguez until I began to write about Dallas history a few years ago. This was an important turning-point in the history of Dallas — for many reasons (namely the Chicano movement, race relations, the fight for social justice, and an examination of Dallas Police Department procedure). Over the past week I’ve read a lot of the local coverage of the events of this case, and I’ve watched a lot of interviews of people who were involved, but perhaps the most immediate way I’ve experienced the events and emotions swirling about this case has been to watch television news footage shot as the story was unfolding. Thanks to the incredibly rich collection of TV news footage in the possession of the G. William Jones Film & Video Collection at SMU, I’ve been able to do that.

Below is footage shot by KDFW Channel 4, which has, most likely, not been seen for 45 years. Some of it appeared in news reports and some is just background B-roll footage shot to be edited into news pieces which would eventually air on the nightly news. The finished stories that aired do not (as far as I know) survive, but we have this footage. It’s choppy and chaotic and darts from one thing to the next, which is how a red-hot news story develops. Of particular interest is the short interview with 13-year-old David at 9:16 and the violent aftermath of what began as a peaceful march through downtown at 19:54.

A more comprehensive collection of the events — from just hours after the shooting, to the conviction of Darrell Cain — can be found in this lengthy compilation of WFAA Channel 8 news footage. Heads up to anyone considering a 50th anniversary documentary on Santos Rodriguez — this and the Channel 4 footage are essential sources.


santos-rodriguez-cropped_smuSantos Rodriguez (Nov. 7, 1960 – July 24, 1973)


Sources & Notes

Top photo is a family photo, from the Austin American-Statesman article “Is It Time For Dallas To Honor Santos Rodriguez?” by Gissela Santacruz, here.

My sincerest thanks to Jeremy Spracklen at SMU for alerting me to these two collections of important historical news footage from KDFW-TV/Ch. 4 and WFAA-TV/Ch. 8, both of which are held by the G. William Jones Film & Video Collection, Hamon Library, Southern Methodist University. (All screenshots from these two videos.)

An excerpt from the 1982 KERA-produced documentary “Pride and Anger: A Mexican American Perspective of Dallas and Fort Worth” (the Santos Rodriguez case is discussed) is on YouTube here.

“Civil Rights in Black & Brown” is a fantastic oral history project by TCU. I watched several of the interviews focusing on Santos Rodriguez, but I was particularly taken with the oral history of Frances Rizo — her 2015 interview is in two parts, here and here.

More on the events surrounding the killing of Santos Rodriguez can be found at the Handbook of Texas History site, here.

My continuation of this story can be found at the Flashback Dallas post “Santos Rodriguez: The March of Justice” — 1973,” here.


Copyright © 2018 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

Little Mexico: Turney & Payne — 1940

little-mexico_ca_1940_WPA-GD_DHSLooking southeast, toward Pegasus… (click for much larger image)

by Paula Bosse

Above, a photo taken in 1940 at the intersection of the unpaved Turney Avenue and Payne Street, in Little Mexico — El Barrio — just north of downtown. St. Ann’s school can be seen at the end of the street, and the Villasana Food Store (prop. Rodolfo Villasana, est. 1932) is at the left; in the distance, Pegasus atop the Magnolia Oil Building. (A similar view from 1941 during ongoing street-widening — taken a bit farther back and from a slightly higher elevation — can be seen here.)

In 1941, Turney Avenue was widened and paved and then … lost its name; it became part of the brand new Harry Hines Boulevard.

Hines Boulevard begins at Five Point, where the $100,000 Tom Field Circle will be built and stretches eight miles into Dallas over Turney Street to Cedar Springs, joining Akard at Harwood. (Dallas Morning News, July 23, 1941)

Another view of the area during this period of road work can be seen in the photo below. Ramon Alonzo’s store seen at the lower right was at 2209 Caroline. (The once-familiar “smokestacks” seen in the background belonged to the Dallas Power & Light Company, which sat on land now occupied by the American Airlines Center.)


Adios, Turney. Big changes are ahead. You’ll never believe how much your old neighborhood is going to change.


Here are the residents and businesses along both Turney and Payne as listed in the 1939 Dallas directory, one year before the upheaval began (click to see larger images):

1939 Dallas directory

1939 Dallas directory

To get an idea of where Turney was, here’s a detail from a 1919 map.


Today? It’s part of Victory Park. If you took a right on Payne at the sign advertising “milk” (in front of the Villasana gas station), you’d be about two blocks from what is now the American Airlines Center. Yep. A current Google Street View is here.


Sources & Notes

Top photo from the WPA Guide and History (which has been fully scanned and may be accessed at UNT’s Portal to Texas History site, here); photo from the collection of the Dallas Historical Society.

More great photos of Little Mexico from this time can be found in the article “Little Mexico and the Barrios of Dallas” by Gwendolyn Rice (Legacies, Fall, 1991), which can be found here. (The photo of Alonzo’s store is from this article.)

Several images of Turney under construction in 1940/1941 can be see in the Department of Public Works collection at the Dallas Historical Society site, here. (The linked image in the first paragraph is from this collection.)

The top photo also appears in Dallas’s Little Mexico by Sol Villasana (his family owned the store and the gas station at the Turney-Payne intersection); see it — and a northward view of the gas station, here.

For those who enjoy articles about road construction, here are a couple of Harry Hines-related News articles which might be of interest:

  • “Dedication Rites Planned For Boulevard; New Highway Named For Harry Hines Opens About Aug. 1,” DMN, July 3, 1941. (Officials were a little optimistic with that August opening — it didn’t officially open until October, 1941.)
  • It’s weird to think of Harry Hines being an actual person, but see a photo of him at the ribbon-cutting, along with another name more familiar to us today as a freeway than as a flesh-and-blood human being, Woodall Rodgers, then mayor: “Ribbon Road Barrier Snipped,” DMN, Oct. 15, 1941.

All pictures and clippings larger when clicked.


Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.


Ads for Businesses Serving the North Dallas High School Area — Early 1960s

friendly-chevrolet_ndhs_1963-yrbk-photoFriendly Chevrolet, 1963 (click for larger image)

by Paula Bosse

One of the things I like best about looking through old high school and college yearbooks is seeing the ads in the back — especially the ads that feature students. Here are a whole bunch of ads from the 1960, 1962, and 1963 North Dallas High School annuals, with most of the ads placed by businesses in the Oak Lawn, McKinney Avenue, and Little Mexico areas surrounding the school. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we? (Ads and photos are larger when clicked.)

Above, Friendly Chevrolet at Lemmon and Inwood. I bet the owner was grimacing as he saw those girls perched — gingerly or not — on that brand new Corvette convertible!


The Cole and Haskell Drug Store, at 3121 N. Haskell — right across the street from the NDHS campus — was no doubt thrilled to be so close to its major source of income, the teenager.





Lots of gas and service stations were nearby. Like Dick Prather Fina Service, at 3106 Blackburn, with the school peeking over the roof.


And L. V. Butcher’s Cosden Service Station, at 3519 McKinney. (I love the slouch of the mechanic.)



And the Ragan Service Station, at 4201 McKinney.




Plant and flower enthusiasts were invited to stop by Lena’s Flowers and Aquariums, at 3112 Cole. …For flowers. And aquariums.


What Tropical Gardens at Cole and Haskell lacked in the way of aquariums, it all but made up for in tropicalness. (Might as well grab a coke at the drug store since you’re right there.)



Those who needed their hair extra poufy for the spring formal might have found themselves at the Capitan Beauty Shop, 1808 N. Henderson (now that’s a photo!).


Seekers of Asian foods and/or “party favors for all occasions” could head over to Jung’s Oriental Foods & Gifts at 2519 N. Fitzhugh. (This is the most unexpected ad I came across.)


Maybe you just needed a hammer. Where else would you go but Elliott’s Hardware, at its original location at 5308 Maple.


Phillips’ Variety Store at 4442 Maple was probably a good place to get scented talcum powder, a bouncy ball, a bag of peppermints, or a new charm for the charm bracelet.



What do high school kids love more than bowling and going to the movies? Apparently there was a movie theater on McKinney Avenue that I’m only just learning about — The Plaza, at 3806 McKinney.


The 24-hour Expressway Bowl was at 5910 N. Central Expressway. (I’m not sure those girls have on the proper footwear.)


But the place you really wanted to go was the Cotton Bowling Palace on Inwood at Lemmon. When it opened in 1959 (complete with a heavily promoted personal appearance by Dallas gal Jayne Mansfield), it was breathlessly described as “a mixture of the Copacabana, the Taj Mahal and the  MGM Grand.” Imagine bowling in the Taj Mahal! Heck, you could even get a haircut between frames.



The biggest bang for the buck, nostalgia-wise, is almost always going to be places related to food. Here are a few restaurants and burger places which were probably frequent destinations for North Dallas students and their families. Like Spanish Village at 3839 Cedar Springs.



The fondly remembered China Clipper, at 3930 McKinney.


K’s — where you could get “sandwiches of all kinds” — at 3317 Oak Lawn.


Hay-Way Bar-B-Q & Groceries, at 5418 Denton Drive.



A burger and malt joint with the wonderful name of Frezo, at 4531 Maple. (I WOULD GO TO SOMEPLACE CALLED “FREZO.”)


The famed elephant-on-top Jumbo Drive-In, owned by Clarence and Leonard Printer. The location in this ad was at 6412 Lemmon. See what the Haskell location looked like, here.


The legendary Prince of Hamburgers at 5200 Lemmon.


The not-quite-as-legendary Luke’s Fine Foods at 2410 Shorecrest, owned by L. L. Blasingame.



Yee’s Restaurant at 5404 Lemmon, owned by B. L. Yee.


And, of course, Pancho’s — this location at 1609 McKinney. Almost all of the buildings that housed the businesses listed above are long gone, but this building is still hanging in there. It’s next to the downtown El Fenix and is now the home of Meso Maya. I have to admit, I got a happy little jolt to see this building today, still looking pretty much the same as it did in this 1963 ad.




All ads from the 1960, 1962, and 1963 editions of the North Dallas High School yearbook, The Viking.

See photos of students and high school activities from these same yearbooks in the post “North Dallas High School, The Pre-Beatles Era,” here.

Most images are larger when clicked.


Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.


North Dallas High School, The Pre-Beatles Era

1962_before-school_ndhs_1962-yrbkBefore school, 1962 (click for larger image)

by Paula Bosse

Today, a few random photos from the 1960, 1962, and 1963 yearbooks of North Dallas High School.

The top photo (from 1962) is my favorite, because, had I not known what part of town this photo was taken in, I would never have guessed. I’m still not 100% sure, but I think this shows Cole Avenue running alongside NDHS. The Cole and Haskell Drug Store (Coke sign) was on the corner of … Cole and Haskell, but things have been so Uptown-ified that this area is now almost completely unrecognizable from even 20 years ago. At least the school and Cole Park remain (mostly) unchanged.

So, a few moments in the life of NDHS students in the days just before The Beatles and Vietnam. (All photos are larger when clicked.)

From 1960, majorettes practicing, with batons and headscarves — two things one doesn’t encounter often these days.



From 1962, cheerleader Gene Martinez with the school’s bulldog mascot, Duchess.



The rest of the photos are from 1963, when most of the girls had the Laura Petrie flip hairstyle. (Seen here are Suzy DeGaw and Olga Delgado.)


As far as the boys, an alarming number of them sported haircuts like the ones below (although these two seem to be a bit on the extreme side — most were shorter) — it’s a sort of early-’60s version of the ’80s’ Flock of Seagulls hair-do where you look back on it and shake your head in wonderment. I’m not exactly sure what “butch wax” is for, but I’m thinking it’s for this. (Pictured here are Jody Chenoweth and Robert Paul Reid.)


Girls “gabbed.”


Boys loitered.


Girls had beauty pageants (and wore a lot of plaid).


And boys practiced shooting.


North Dallas had their very own rock and roll band — “The Misters,” headed by the enormously popular Jesse Lopez (younger brother of Trini Lopez, who went to Crozier Tech). (Morning sock hops?!)


In fact, The Misters won the high school combo contest at the State Fair several times. And speaking of High School Day at the fair….


And back on campus, I don’t know who you are, Rufus Jara, but I nominate you as Coolest-Looking NDHS Student of 1963. (Caption from the yearbook: “Rufus Jara appears to be bothered by the light in the lunch room.”)


These last two photos leave a lot to be desired in quality (I did my best with yellowed paper and a broken book spine), but I think it’s interesting to see what the street looked like in front of the school, and on McKinney Avenue, to the left. Again, not recognizable today.



ndhs_map_1962Detail from a 1962 city map


All photos from The Viking, the North Dallas High School yearbooks from 1960, 1962, and 1963.

More from these yearbooks: see a LOT of ads in the post “Ads For Businesses Serving the  North Dallas High School Area — Early 1960s,” here. Several feature NDHS students.

All pictures larger when clicked!


Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

Teatro Panamericano / Cine Festival — 1943-1981

teatro_villasana_1950sEl Panamericano (click for larger image) (Villasana)

by Paula Bosse

In 1937, Joaquin José (J. J.) Rodriguez opened the first theater in Dallas to show Spanish-language movies. It was the Azteca, at 1501 McKinney Avenue, one block away from the still-there El Fenix. He soon changed the name to the Colonia and later to El Patio.

colonia_1938-directory1938 city directory

Even though a journalist later described this theater as being “dingy” and “unprepossessing” (DMN, July 31, 1944), the theater was quite successful, little surprise as the Hispanic community of the day was sorely underserved in almost every way. This endeavor was so successful that in the fall of 1943, the 36-year old entrepreneur made a big, BIG move: he bought the stunning and palatial Maple Avenue building that once housed the famed Dallas Little Theatre, an amateur theatrical group that had burst on the scene in 1927, but which had fallen on hard times in recent years.


Rodriguez raised the necessary $35,000 (equivalent to almost half a million dollars in today’s money), bought the beautiful building at 3104 Maple, and renamed it Teatro Panamericano. The angle of the article that appeared in The Dallas Morning News on Sept. 22, 1943 announcing the new theater had the new moviehouse as being a boon to students and Anglo members of the community who might need to brush up on their Spanish rather than as a welcomed entertainment venue for the “Mexican colony” living and working in the adjacent Little Mexico neighborhood.

El Panamericano was an immediate success and soon became not only a place to see movies, but also a place for Dallas’ Spanish-speaking community to meet and mingle, with PLENTY of room for all sorts of events. (It was so big that Rodriguez and his family lived in back. He also had TWO offices and more storage space than he had things to store in it. No skimping on the parking lot either — one ad touted an acre of parking space.)

The theater’s importance to the Hispanic community of Dallas was both cultural and social:

For Mexican-Americans growing up in Dallas during the ’50s and ’60s, the films at El Panamericano, were a link with their historical and cultural heritage. For some, it would be their only exposure to cultural ties; for those whose families were stressing their Americanization by using only English in the home, it was a chance to practice their Spanish. (“Festival Fades, but Mexican Movies Thrive,” DMN, Aug. 9, 1981)

After more than 20 years of running a successful theater that catered to his core niche audience, Rodriguez was persuaded to change the theater’s focus. Mexican families had slowly moved out of the neighborhood, many to Oak Cliff where the Stevens Theater on Fort Worth Avenue had begun showing Spanish-language movies in the early ’60s and had siphoned off a large portion of Rodriguez’s audience. In 1965 the Panamericano became an arthouse cinema which showed mostly subtitled European films (and, later, underground and cult movies) — these were movie bills which were clearly aimed at college students and an upper-class Anglo audience. The Panamericano became the splashy Festival Theatre.

festival_box-office-mag_112265BoxOffice magazine, Nov. 22, 1965

An indoor-outdoor restaurant — the Festival Terrace — was added, and it boasted of being “the only theater in the history of Texas with a wine and beer license.”

festival_box-office-mag_112265-restaurantBoxOffice magazine, Nov. 22, 1965

teatro_villasana_1960s1960s (Villasana)

As impressive as the Festival and its array of films were, the theater struggled, and Rodriguez later called this period a “big mistake.”

“As soon as I could, I changed it back to the way it was before. In fact, I lost money on that deal.” (DMN, Aug. 9, 1981)

Another unusual misstep for Rodriguez at this time was his decision to open a drive-in that showed only Spanish-language films. What sounded like a great idea was another surprising failure for Rodriguez. Despite its non-stop advertising in the first half of 1965, the wonderfully-named Auto-Vista (located in Grand Prairie) lasted less than a year.

auto-vista_dmn_032565“Cine en su coche”! (March, 1965)

Rodriguez’s new-old Spanish-language theater — now the Cine Festival — was still popular, but it never regained its former glory. Rodriguez retired in 1981 and sold the property. Despite efforts by preservationists to save the beautiful Henry Coke Knight-designed building, it was demolished a few months later — in early January, 1982 — in the dead of night under cover of darkness (… that happens a lot in Dallas…). A nondescript office building was later built in its place.

J. J. Rodriguez died in 1993 at the age of 86, almost exactly 50 years after opening one of the most important entertainment venues for Dallas’ Hispanic population. He was a respected leader in the community and was for many years president of the Federation of Mexican Organizations, an organization he helped found in the 1930s. His theater was both culturally important and beloved by its patrons.


pampa-news_AP-073044J. J. with daughter and wife (Pampa News, July 30, 1944) AP photo

rodriguez_villasana_downtown_1940sWith his wife, Maria, downtown 1940s (Villasana)

rodriguez_villasana_1950sIn the projection booth, 1950s (Villasana)


The matchbook cover image below gives an indication of how large the theater was. The building at 3401 Maple — at the corner of Carlisle, across Maple from the Maple Terrace — was gigantic.


festival-theatre_cook-collection_degolyer_smu_matchbook-insideMatchbook via George W. Cook Collection, SMU

In a Dallas Phorum discussion (here), the space was described thusly:

It was an interesting building with an outdoor terrace restaurant, a full proscenium stage, rehearsal space downstairs below the stage, dressing rooms, shop/storage areas, and even a puppet theatre built into a wall in the balcony lobby area.

To see what the corner of Maple and Carlisle looks like now, click here (have a hanky ready). Can you imagine how wonderful it would be to still have that elegant building and still see it in use as a theater and restaurant?


In what may well be research overkill, I thought it was odd that there was an Azteca Theatre at 1501 McKinney a year before Rodriguez owned it. I wondered if, in fact, Rodriguez had owned the first Spanish-language movie theater in Dallas, or whether that distinction belonged to Ramiro Cortez (whose name is often misspelled as Ramiro Cortes). It seems that Cortez’s theater might have featured live performances rather than motion pictures. Like Rodriguez, Cortez had ties to Dallas entertainment — read about him here.

azteca_1937-directory1937 city directory


Sources & Notes

Photos with “Villasana” under them are from the book Dallas’s Little Mexico by Sol Villasana (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011); all are from the personal collection of Mariangel Rodriguez. More photos of J. J. Rodriguez can be seen here (click “Next” on top yellow bar).

The full article from the Nov. 22, 1965 issue of the industry journal, BoxOffice, includes additional photos and information and can be seen here and here.

All other images and clippings as noted.

Articles on J. J. Rodriguez and his theaters which appeared in The Dallas Morning News:

  • “Pan-American Theater to Aid Spanish Study” (DMN, Sept. 22, 1943)
  • “Teatro Panamericano” by John Rosenfield (DMN, Oct. 12, 1943)– coverage of opening night festivities
  • “Maple Location Regains Swank” by John Rosenfield (DMN, Sept. 18, 1965) — about the change from El Panamericano to the arthouse Festival Theater
  • “Festival Fades, but Mexican Movies Thrive: Theater Owner Says Adios to Film Business” by Mercedes Olivera (DMN, Aug. 9, 1981) — about the closing of the Festival Theater
  • “Encore No More” (DMN, Jan. 4, 1982) — photo of the partially demolished theater
  • “Rites Set for Hispanic Leader J. J. Rodriguez — He Co-Founded Federation of Mexican Organizations” by Veronica Puente (DMN, Sept. 26, 1993) — Rodriguez’s obituary

“Dallas Theater Owner Is One-Man Pan-American Agency” — a syndicated Associated Press article by William C. Barnard — can be read here.

Read about Teatro Panamericano at Cinema Treasures, here.

Read about the competing Stevens Theater in Oak Cliff on Fort Worth Avenue, here.


Copyright © 2015 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

Teenagers, Hot-Rods — 1960s

little-mexico_hot-rod_villasana A cool cat and his kittens… (photo, Dallas Mexican American Historical League)

by Paula Bosse

Teenagers and hot-rods, man. These kids are cool. Possibly taken at Reverchon Park or Turtle Creek?


Photo from the book Dallas’s Little Mexico by Sol Villasana (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011); photo is credited to Dallas Mexican American Historical League. Caption reads: “These Little Mexico teenagers show off their hot-rod in this 1960s picture. Shown are, from left to right, ? Santos, Rudy Trevino, and Maria Rodriguez.”

Click for larger image.


Copyright © 2015 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

Pike Park, Fiesta Central — 1926

little-mexico_1926_dmahl-facebook-pagePike Park (click for MUCH larger image)

by Paula Bosse

Fantastic photo of a 4th of July celebration in Little Mexico’s Pike Park in 1926, with the caption reading “Concilio Pro Mexicano y La Colonia de Dallas.”

Today is Cinco de Mayo, which, before it was co-opted by the gringo, was primarily a big party in communities populated by Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants. In Dallas, that meant a fiesta of music and food at Pike Park. I remember going to a few of these when I was a child, and my unmistakably Anglo family stood out in the crowd, but we were always welcomed and we had a great time. I loved it. Not to be a killjoy, but I’m not a fan of what Cinco de Mayo has become — just another excuse to drink to excess (St. Patrick’s Day with margaritas). But, if you’ve pulled out that novelty sombrero from the back of your closet and you’re celebrating today, well … olé. But pace yourself, amigos.


Photo from the Dallas Mexican American Historical League; it accompanied a great Dallas Morning News blog post by Dianne Solís regarding Pike Park, here.

A CNN interview with the always-entertaining Gustavo Arellano — the man behind the very funny “Ask a Mexican” column — on why he believes the Cinco de Mayo holiday is “pointless” is here.

And Arellano’s article “Gringo de Mayo”  is here.

That photo is gigantic. Click for larger image.


Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

Trini Lopez: Little Mexico’s Greatest Export


by Paula Bosse

Trini Lopez has sold millions of records. MILLIONS. He was born in Dallas in 1937 and grew up in the Little Mexico area of town. He started his career when he was a teenager at Crozier Tech High School, singing and playing guitar in a popular combo. He played at dozens of school dances and parties, and, with a steady and faithful following, he was much in demand at countless venues around town, including a regular 2:30-6:30 p.m. Sunday matinee spot at Club Vegas (Oak Lawn & Lemmon), one of the many clubs in the city run by Jack Ruby.

Jack Ruby — the personable Latin from Manhattan, reports surprising success with his Sunday night Fiestas at Club Vegas….

“There is a wide demand for Latin music in Dallas,” said the Oak Lawn impresario…. He is opening at 2:30 p.m. Sundays for matinee dances featuring Trini Lopez and his orchestra. The versatile Lopez combo offers an occasional Yanqui tune in addition to the likes of the “Jack Ruby Mambo.” (Tony Zoppi’s column in The Dallas Morning News, Dec. 19, 1956)

(I really want to hear that “Jack Ruby Mambo”!)

Speaking of the “Latin from Manhattan” (?!):

trini-rubyHa! (From Gary James’ really great interview w/ Trini — see link at end.)

He also appeared on local TV, including Channel 8 shows hosted by a pre-Peppermint Jerry Haynes: “Jukebox” and “Top Ten Dancing Party.”

trini-lopez_19581958 publicity photo

Trini’s first single was “The Right to Rock” — the first song he ever wrote — recorded in 1958 on a small Dallas label called Volk (did anyone else ever record for this label?).

trini_volk_billboard_062358Billboard, June 23, 1958

It’s a great little rockabilly number, but it didn’t really make any waves outside of Dallas (although it’s since found new life in the cult-y world of vintage rockabilly reissues).


Trini then recorded a few singles for King, but those went nowhere as well, and Trini and his combo continued to play small clubs in and around DFW, wondering when the big break was going to come.

trini-lopez_jimmys-club_dmn_011159Jan., 1959

After a gig in Wichita Falls, Trini met fellow-Texan Buddy Holly who had been impressed by the young singer’s performance and encouraged him to contact his producer, Norman Petty, about recording some tracks at Petty’s studio in New Mexico. Trini jumped at the chance, but, unfortunately, the time in the studio at Clovis turned out to be a career low-point (see below for a link to the Gary James interview in which Trini gives a bitter and scathing account of that whole experience). Trini returned to Dallas and immediately fired his band and started a new one, determined that he would succeed, despite the prevailing (spoken and unspoken) racism he was continuing to run up against in the music business.

A few months after Buddy Holly’s death, the Crickets contacted Trini and asked him to travel to Los Angeles to discuss the possibility of becoming their new lead singer. Trini, seeing this as the big break he’d been waiting for, disbanded the combo and set out to the West Coast alone. The “audition” never really materialized, and Trini was stuck in California with no money and no prospects. He played a few small clubs and then settled into PJ’s for an extended and very successful engagement. It was there, in 1963, that the “big break” finally happened: he was discovered by producer Don Costa, who recommended that Frank Sinatra sign him to Reprise Records. Next thing you know, Trini had recorded his debut album, “Trini Lopez at PJ’s,” and the first single, “If I Had a Hammer,” was a huge smash hit, selling millions of copies and reaching #1 in 38 countries. Trini Lopez became an international star.


At the beginning of 1964, he was booked for a series of shows in Paris where he shared the bill with The Beatles, just as they were about to hit big in the US (their Ed Sullivan appearance was less than a month away). Beatlemania was in full force in Europe, but Trini was also getting his share of attention. 


And, the rest, as they say, is history.


A couple of interesting things, Dallas-wise. My Trini Lopez knowledge is fairly scant, but having read a lot about him over the past couple of days, the one thing that keeps coming back when he talks about the Little Mexico section of town (invariably referred to by him as a “ghetto”) is how violent a place it was. He also recounts the deep and dehumanizing racial prejudice he and other Mexican-Americans experienced living in Dallas. When he left for Los Angeles in 1959/1960, he left for good. He came back regularly to visit his family (I remember having him pointed out to me by my parents in a restaurant once), but I’m not sure he would have ever wanted to live here again.

trini-lopez_wilonsky_052906From an interview by Robert Wilonsky (Dallas Observer, May 29, 2006)


Below are a few random interviews and tidbits.

Trini developed his own beat, a Tex-Mex style of rock and roll now popularly known as “the Trini beat” and which Trini describes as “American music with a Mexican feeing.” (DMN, July 12, 1964)

And from the same article:

“People in Dallas told me I had the talent but suggested I change my name. I said ‘No.’ I told them Italians had made it as Italians, Jews as Jews, and Negroes as Negroes. I wanted to make it as a Mexican. No one of Mexican-American heritage had made it before in the entertainment world. I wanted to be the first.” (DMN, July 12, 1964)

(According to Trini, the person who suggested he change he name was John F. Sheffield who owned Volk Records. Sheffield was okay with “Trini,” but he insisted the “Lopez” had to go. He suggested “Roper.” Trini refused and threatened to walk. Sheffield relented.)

trini-lopez_earl-wilson_july-1965a(Click for larger image – continues below.)

trini-lopez_earl-wilson_july_1965bEarl Wilson’s syndicated column (July 1965)

In 1969, Trini Lopez became a restaurateur and opened “Trini’s” at 5412 East Mockingbird, across from the old Dr Pepper plant (click for larger image):

March, 1969

UPDATE: Sadly, Trini Lopez died on April 11, 2020 from complications of COVID-19. He was 83. Read his obituary in Variety here


Sources & Notes

Full Dallas Observer interview by Robert Wilonsky is here.

There are a lot of garbled accounts of Trini Lopez’s career scattered across the internet. One that seems mostly right is here.

The essential  interview with Trini by Gary James I’ve mentioned a couple of times above, is here. I think the interview is from 2002. His memories of growing up in Dallas are interesting, unvarnished, and well worth reading. He also talks about the racial prejudice he met with when attempting to record with Norman Petty and the resulting mutiny of his band in Clovis which led to their being fired by Trini immediately upon their return to Dallas.

Read Trini’s tribute to his parents — an essay he wrote in the early 1980s — here

Trini Lopez is still performing! His official website is here.

Discovering Trini and his music has been surprisingly fun! Thanks, Trini! Check out this great, infectiously joyful performance of “La Bamba” with Jose Feliciano at a music festival in San Antonio in 1974. (Trini was performing “La Bamba” when he was still in Dallas, before Ritchie Valens had a hit with it — when Valens’ version hit the airwaves, Trini was crushed that someone had beaten him to recording it. He may not have recorded it first, but he had the bigger hit with it a few years later.)


Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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