by Jane McClure
Rick Cardenas is remembered as a compassionate, fearless and larger-than-life leader of Minnesota’s disability community. Cardenas, 79, died March 13 after sustaining a stroke.
For years Cardenas was out front at every march, rally and demonstration. Friends described him as a “superman” and “hero” who worked for all disadvantaged people, delving into the Americans with Disabilities Act, Minnesota Olmstead Plan, the Minnesota Human Rights Act and countless pieces of legislation.
“Sometimes, one voice can be heard,” one newspaper article said of Cardenas. “Sometimes, one voice cuts through the roar of business and talk and everyone stops and listens and, most importantly hears.”
“If being persistent, insistent, undaunted, and on the right side of history is a maverick, then Rick Cardenas is the definition of a maverick. Rick showed up and never gave up,” a tribute from Minnesota Council on Disability stated.
Cardenas was also someone who all too well understood the intersectionality of race and disability, and the double-edged sword of discrimination on two levels.
An outdoor memorial service is 1-5 p.m. June 13 at Harriet Island Regional Park, St. Paul.
Richard “Rick” Cardenas was born February 9, 1942, in St. Paul to Manuel and Helen Cardenas, one of four children in a close-knit family, with siblings Charles, Manuel II and JoAnn. His mother worked at Viking Drill and Tool; his father was a machinist.
The family was forced to move in the mid-1950s during freeway construction and urban renewal. JoAnn Cardenas Enos recalled that difficult time in the documentary A Life of Mixed Feelings.
“I loved growing up with JoAnn,” Rick Cardenas recalled after his sister’s 2016 death. They played outside, clambering around old house foundations and climbing trees. “We had a little hill in the yard, so it was easy to roll the snow into a big ball for our snowmen.”
Dayton’s Bluff Recreation Center was a favorite place. “We spent almost every Friday night at (teen) dances and the rest of the summer, fall and winter participating in other afterschool activities and playing on the playground … JoAnn tried to teach me how to dance, including all the latest teen dance steps. She helped me learn to slow dance, which came in handy as a young male,” he said.
The Cardenas family faced racial discrimination, with Rick and JoAnn recalling that they weren’t able to visit the homes of young friends if the friends’ parents were prejudiced.
Cardenas made a name as a star three-sport and all-City Conference athlete at St. Paul Harding High School, joining Knights’ Hall of Fame in 2002.
He played baseball, quarterbacked the football team, and was a described as a “colorful defenseman” when compwting in the 1958 state hockey tournament. “Cardenas isn’t the best player in the tournament,” the Harding coach told the Minneapolis Star. “But he sure can hurt you if he’s playing.”
In 1960 at age 18, he took a trip to Duluth prior to reporting for Army service. In a car accident when headed home, Cardenas’ back was broken and he became a C4-C5 quadriplegic. He lost use of his legs and only had minimal use of his arms.
Tough years at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Center followed. Cardenas recalled that there were no state services available. “Dad, Mom and brother acted as personal care attendants for me in the early years.” Then brother Manuel II “Manny” was drafted, and was killed in Vietnam in 1967, another sad loss. “He had been a big part of my support system.”
“For a while, I mostly anticipated dying,” Cardenas told an interviewer. “Was that good or bad? I don’t think I thought about it in those terms. I just thought it was fact. I had broken my neck; I was going to die.”
A life of service
Instead. he became deeply involved in his community. He taught at Guadalupe Area Project on St. Paul’s West Side, working with high school dropouts. He worked with migrant workers, and joined workers’ rights movements led by Cesar Chavez.
“Some of my fondest memories of JoAnn were when we were out doing leafleting and picketing for Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers. She would bring my nieces to the picket line. Lori, Candi and Chris would help me pass out leaflets for UFW boycotts,” he said.
He helped found Chicanos Latinos Unido En Servicio (CLUES) in 1981, which is now Minnesota’s largest Latino-led nonprofit organization. CLUES works to advance social and economic equity and well-being for Latinos.
Cardenas initially thought he’d attend college to play hockey, admitting to not being a strong student and joking that he read The Outcasts and used it for every junior and senior high school book reports. He graduated from Hamline University in St. Paul. In one interview, he recalled the difficulty of accessing campus buildings where he couldn’t open doors or find an elevator. But attending college changed his life in many ways, including opening his eyes to an array of issues centered on civil rights.
He and JoAnn spent decades volunteering for political candidates at all levels. He was an alternate to the 1996 Democratic National Convention. The siblings often found themselves fighting for political gatherings to be accessible, once stopping a convention until accommodations for people with disabilities could be made. They got to know national candidates including Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson.
Most recently, he worked on activist Nikki Villavicencio and her successful 2020 quest for a Maplewood City Council seat. She said Cardenas taught her to be a fighter in politics and to not be ashamed of her disability.
He also worked as a constituent outreach advocate for U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.
It was in the disability community, in Minnesota and beyond, where Cardenas truly made his mark. He was at the forefront of countless issues, as an activist, as an access consultant and as the longtime co-leader of Advocating Change Together (ACT).
He won many awards, including civil rights honors from Gov. Mark Dayton. Gov. Tim Walz remembered Cardenas as “a kind and decent man who advocated fiercely for disability rights” and got things done that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.”
He was the second winner of the Access Press Charlie Smith Award for outstanding service to Minnesota’s disability community. “Rick Cardenas was a very good friend for many years. His strength and perseverance could not be matched,” said Tim Benjamin, retired Access Press executive director. ”He loved life and made life better for everyone around him. Without a moment of hesitation he would speak his mind whether it was politically correct or not. Rick would correct a wrong whether it affected him or not. His advocating abilities were unmatched. He won the friendship of everyone that met him. He will be missed. I will miss him.”
He was mentor to countless people. ”He had a profound impact on me,” said Galen Smith. When I was a young, eager disabled activist who thought I had it all figured out, he tolerated me. … The self-advocacy movement in Minnesota wouldn’t be the same without him.”
“Rick was a super human being and an indefatigable advocate,” said longtime disability advocate Christopher Bell. “He touched a lot of lives and made a real difference for people with disabilities in the Twin Cities and beyond.”
“Rick will be remembered as a giant of a man with such an open heart and sharp mind who influenced more than one generation of disability rights warriors. He was indeed a warrior for disability rights who has many victories to inspire all of us as we continue the effort,” said Anne Henry, longtime attorney and advocate for people with disabilities.
Cardenas was deeply involved in the independent living movement and the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living (MCIL), Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD) and other groups. He served on numerous local and state advisory committees centered on disability rights issues.
In 1987 he talked four St. Paul City Council members into using wheelchairs to travel around downtown, so that they could experience what he and others dealt with daily. He raised issues with problems at Galtier Plaza and World Trade Center, leading to statewide attention to facilities’ access. He also championed downtown skyway issues, accommodations at the Minnesota State Fair and state capitol complex improvements.
One ongoing focus was transit, making sure that buses and trains were indeed accessible. “I’m in a wheelchair and have for many years felt the restrictions of ‘no way to get there.’ Where is ‘there’? That’s any place – shopping, a play or movie, or to a regularly scheduled destination such as school or a job,” he once said.
Cárdenas’ work with the National Center for Handicapped Transportation provided accessible public transportation statewide. The need for proper companion seating, easy access to vehicles, sidewalk improvements and better sight lines at transit stations were causes he was involved in. He appeared in a video, The First Last Mile, showing obstacles to Green Line light rail use.
In 2014 he was front and center as city and regional officials gathered for the ribbon cutting of the “Cardenas Connection,” an elevator/stair tower by Green Line light rail in downtown St. Paul. A longtime downtown resident, Cardenas pointed out that about 9,050 people with disabilities were his neighbors and needed access from skyways to street-level transit.
He was co-director of ACT for many years until his 2015 retirement, helping toward its mission of inclusion for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. His ACT work took him around the country and to Europe.
One of ACT’s biggest wins after more than a decade was on behalf of people who lived and died under brutal conditions at state institutions. State officials in 2010 finally made a formal apology for taking disabled Minnesotans away from their families and home communities, and subjecting them to cruel treatment. Remembering With Dignity’s biggest accomplishment was the process of replacing 13,000 numbered grave markers with headstones bearing names at now-closed Minnesota state institutions.
Cardenas wasn’t afraid to jump into divisive causes. In 1996, when Courage Center gave actor and quadriplegic Christopher Reeve the National Courage Award, Cardenas led the protests. His message? Money for research Reeve championed should not be more important than support for programs to provide care for people with disabilities.
Recently his focus was on the care crisis and the personal care attendant (PCA) program. Although Cardenas had loyal PCAs and a family who loved and supported him, he knew that wasn’t the case for everyone.
Cardenas outlived his siblinfs and parents, something he never expected. A happy surprise in late 2020 was finding his son, whom he met after a decades-long search. Paul Schneider was born three days after the 1960 accident that left Cardenas paralyzed. Schneider was born at a St. Paul home for unwed mothers, and placed for adoption. That family connection gave Cardenas daughter-in-law Diane, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Cardenas’s brother-in-law Lloyd Enos also survive him, as do nieces and their families, close friend Larry Dunham and many other caregivers and friends.
More memories of Rick Cardenas will be shared in the June issue of Access Press.